Three weeks ago, I had the worst shrimp scampi of my life.
Two weeks ago, I wrote about it when I reviewed Grand Lux Cafe. The shrimp scampi there was so bad that even though I ate only a few bites before pushing it away, the horror of it (and the stink) stayed with me for days. All it took was the barest flutter of a thought, and all of a sudden I could taste it all over again — this terrible, over-jacked, greasy-creamy mess of lemon and garlic and mealy battered shrimp slicking my tongue like the memory of vomit long after the sickness has passed.
A week ago, I decided that the only solution — the only way to shake that nasty-scampi nickel loose in my head and make it drop — was to find another scampi whose memory might overlay the first. And not just any scampi would do. I needed to find a great one. And I needed to find it, like, now.
I have a theory to explain the evils of places like Grand Lux. I call it the Olive Garden Conjecture, and it goes something like this:
The reason that restaurants like Grand Lux and Olive Garden are so evil is the very real possibility that people who don't know any better (civilians, casual diners, my parents) might walk away from them thinking that this is what a plate of shrimp scampi/fettuccine Alfredo/spaghetti Bolognese is supposed to taste like. After having eaten their fill of starchy pasta, bagged sauce, limp vegetables and proteins that have as much flavor as chewing on a hunk of rubber, customers' brains begin making a connection: the words "shrimp scampi" equaling this terrible, unforgivable Frankenstein thing. Go back to the trough often enough and that link will become permanent. And then, when these civilians go to a real restaurant and order a plate of real shrimp scampi, they will be disappointed because it doesn't taste like the Olive Garden version — which is now all that they know. I fear for the children who are brought to such chain restaurants by their parents, who are reared on gooey noodles and sauces full of chemicals, shelf-stabilizers and flavor-enhancers, sauces that use lemon analogs and concentrated garlic flavoring rather than an actual lemon, an actual clove of garlic. I fear for adults who, through carelessness or stupidity, have allowed themselves to fall into this trap.
But there is a corollary to the Olive Garden Conjecture, which holds that all the malevolent wickedness of these culinary clip joints can be thwarted by just one plate, just one bite of a corresponding dish done extraordinarily well somewhere else. The trick of the chain restaurants is to keep you coming back, keep you convinced that there's nothing better for you out there. Low prices, huge portions, food that is harmless and consistently comforting (if never actually good): That's how they do it. But like an instant lobotomy worked through the mouth, one bite of the real thing can completely burn out those Pavlovian circuits.
I found my redemptive scampi at Gemelli's Italian Restaurant in northwest Denver, the quarter from which comes all good sausage, all good red sauce, all good memories of Italian food done right. I wasn't going in blind (though I certainly could have, since I could walk blindfolded through that neighborhood and still be reasonably sure of finding myself a fine plate of spaghetti and meatballs), but rather depending on a known quantity: Gemelli's, which partners Jeff Young and Ken Griffin (a former owner of Poggio's and current owner of Sushi Hai) opened in a small house on Tennyson Street in January. The restaurant is named for Griffin's twin grandchildren; its menu is designed around classic, East Coast immigrant preparations that the owners picked up while researching in New York and New Jersey; and it's staffed with chefs and cooks of perfect pedigree: white-jackets who came to Denver from Italy by way of Chicago and New Jersey.
I'd been to Gemelli's before, and had decent (though not spectacular) margherita pizza and interesting (though, again, not spectacular) pizza cipollata with three kinds of cheese, two colors of onions and enough garlic to guarantee my safety against bites from vampires and kisses from my wife. I'd been there for a takeout order of fantastic gnocchi Bolognese in an addictive meat gravy, mounted with heavy cream and spiked with a splash of cheap wine, and then for another to-go of the same dish that didn't nearly measure up to the first but gave me an excuse to have the kitchen make a simple, off-menu order of penne in a three-cheese sauce garnished with nothing more than a sprig of parsley that was so good I would've gladly chewed the Styrofoam if Gemelli's hadn't included half a loaf of good, squishy bread with which to capture every drop of the sauce.
So I knew what I was walking into. After my awful experience at Grand Lux, I wasn't about to entrust the coddling of my brain and tastebuds to just anyone. I wasn't about to take a chance on a place that might — against all odds — actually come up with something worse than the worst scampi ever. And Gemelli's came through for me.
I sat, eyes closed, back to the wall in one of the big booths in the dining room, packed wall-to-wall with loud, large parties and families strong-hearted enough to resist that black-hole pull of the Olive Garden, and felt the back-brain sizzle of bad memories dying.
Good Italian food must straddle the line between pastoral rusticity and fiercely controlled, upmarket flair. It does so by hewing close to tradition — by bending to the central conceit that the best plates in any canon are the ones done the way they have been for generations, absent modernization, absent fusion, absent influence from anything that wasn't around when the dish was invented. But Italian food also must glorify its ingredients. Since it is one of the most basic canons, and one in which the best preparations involve the fewest ingredients, those ingredients must be as close to perfect as possible.
At its most elemental, a great shrimp scampi consists of shrimp, garlic, lemon and white wine. It is shrimp in an Italian beurre blanc — the garlic (and shallots) used to start a sauté pan, seasoned with good olive oil, deglazed with white wine, spritzed with lemon juice and mounted, at the last minute, with a knob of high-fat sauté butter. When cooked at the right heat (read: high) and done at the proper speed (read: fast), this composed sauce will be an unbreakable monster, slick and smooth and silky with a flavor like being hit in the mouth with a garlic-and-lemon brick. The shrimp? They're tossed in almost as an afterthought. In Italian cooking, everything beyond the sauce is simply a transport vessel for the sauce. Sauce rules.
And at Gemelli's, the cooks understand this. Their sauces — all of them — are done in the pan, hugely flavorful and strong as iron. They do not break. They do not separate. If you want to sit at one of the tables, polishing off a second bottle of Chianti and chatting with your significant other while you mop at the bottom of a bowl with chunks torn rudely from the basket of excellent house bread, the sauce will hold out as long as you do. Longer, probably.
The shrimp scampi was only a beginning, an eraser applied to the chalkboard of my brain before I moved on to the rest of my meal. I had it as an appetizer, alongside an antipasti plate (forgettable but for the perfectly wispy prosciutto, some surprisingly good mozzarella and a cappicola that damn near lit my tongue on fire) and a bowl of the house minestrone made from long-simmered scraps, leftovers, beans and tomatoes — with perfect authenticity, in other words. I was there with Laura, who looked away while I gorged myself on shrimp, on table bread, on sauce that slicked my chin and stained my cuffs. Our waitress (new, I think, because she walked the floor with a certain baby-bird trepidation and went slowly in and out of the swinging door to the kitchen) bungled the progression of courses but was very friendly about it — bringing plates as they came up, shuffling empties, beer bottles and water glasses to make more room for rollatini di pollo (the Italian version of a French roulade, the rolled chicken breast stuffed with prosciutto, fontina and sage, dressed in a white sauce and served over fettuccine), racioli in a rough farmhouse red with chunks of soft tomato spooned over three-cheese ravioli, and beef Madeira in a brown sauce of veal stock, demi, garlic, rosemary, Madeira wine and a last-minute shot of marinara for muscle, sided with one of the best, softest, most perfectly comforting mounds of risotto I've tasted outside of Denver's top-flight Italian kitchens. It was so good that I accidentally stabbed Laura in the hand with my fork while reaching across the table for a bite.
At least I told her it was an accident.
Everything we had that night was excellent — satisfying in a way that no sundry collection of focus-grouped chain food is ever going to be. Gemelli's itself was lovely, comfortable, full of good feelings, raised voices and the smell of garlic in the pan that drifted out from the kitchen. But really, what I'll remember most is the shrimp scampi — that first, eye-opening bite, that lemony, garlic-shot slug in the mouth. I'll remember the way that sauce clung to the bread, how the shrimp tasted like shrimp — like bit players making the most of their tertiary roles in a scene that was all about the sauce — and how the whole plate, with its chunks of this and swirls of that, came off like a midnight snack thrown together on a whim, but it was really a rustic masterpiece.
It was almost enough to make me forget I'd ever had that bad scampi.
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