Matt checked the steel-bodied German dive watch clipped through the top buttonhole of his chef's jacket. "Eleven minutes," he said.
"Total?" I asked, turning to make a bare-handed grab out of the salamander, the count "one-one-thousand-two" in my head as I set a searing hot platter on the stovetop rail. I shook my hand out of habit, not pain, knowing I could hold the thing through "three-one-thousand" before the calluses -- thick as bomber-jacket leather on the pads of my fingers -- started to sizzle and char. "Total?" I repeated. "Or since the last time we checked?"
"Total," Matt said.
"Give it a couple more minutes," I advised.
While our experiment -- a simple pot of risotto -- bubbled under cover on a back burner, we spun finished plates down the pass rail, trying to catch up with the tommy-gun chatter of the ticket printer and the orders coming in: strip au poivre, steak frites twice, poulet moutarde, croûte forestière, penne arrabiatta with pepper vodka, tagliatelle with potato cream.
Matt and I, French-trained both, had never made risotto before. We knew it was something special, but we didn't know why. Like truffles, glacé de viande and the powerful Black Sea salt we'd been taught to covet so fiercely by our absentee exec, we knew that risotto was deserving of respect, so we'd come to it worshipfully and not without a little fear -- crawling as though the dish were the altar of some blood-soaked ancient religion full of plagues and lightning bolts for the unworthy.
"How long now?" My head was in the oven as I shoved frozen chips of beurre d'Isigny under the skin of half-cooked chickens.
"Clear the rail."
Ours was a sense-heavy kitchen, so when Matt pulled off the cover, we both bent over the pot, poking and sniffing. We had no spike thermometers, nothing to measure ingredients. Matt's watch was the only timer allowed on the line. But we were pretty finely tuned instruments ourselves, and we knew that things were done when they looked done, were right when they smelled right, were seasoned properly when they met the internal specifications of our own palates.
Inside the pot, the Arborio rice -- already toasted in our best olive oil -- had cooked down and was almost dry. It was creamy and pale gold -- beautiful, I thought. But when we tasted it, we knew instantly that it wasn't right. Not yet.
"Stock," I said, and Matt added more chicken stock, a saucier's ladle at a time. We watched, transfixed, as the grains plumped, greedily drinking up the hot liquid almost as fast as we poured it in. I stirred, lifting the stuff at the bottom of the pot and gently folding it into the top with a wooden spoon. The ticket machine clattered; we ignored it. This was magic, and we weren't gonna miss it for anything.
That was my first experience with risotto, and I've never lost my simple, wide-eyed wonder at the stuff. I see it on a menu; it still excites me. I've eaten it a thousand times -- had it done both well and poorly -- and will never lose my taste for it. Risotto was mythic to me then, and when prepared with the care and love it deserves, it's still magic to me now.
At Parisi, I bow over a plain white bowl of risotto Milanese, the smell of it tripping all the sense triggers I used to live by when my days and nights were run by the sound of the ticket printer and the ticking of a steel dive watch. Even though this is my first meal at Parisi's new space, tucked into an enclave of the city's old-guard Italian, I know the risotto is right without having to taste it, without even needing to open my eyes. I know in my bones and blood that Simone Parisi has imbued his kitchen with the same sense of awe for Carnaroli rice and chicken stock that Bird, my long-gone exec, did for Matt and me. I know that his cooks have come to the stove with at least a small measure of that same wonder.
When I finally taste it, the risotto is tender, creamy and solidly filling, the soft grains bathed in and carrying the best essence of a perfectly made stock. Saffron is the only ancillary ingredient to the Milanese, the threads bleeding red-orange into the bowl. If warm gold had a flavor, this would be it.
I try risotto Chianti with sausage, wilted radicchio and a bittersweet touch of Chianti wine, then risotto Gamberetti with asparagus tips, perfectly cooked shrimp and crumbled flakes of strong, pink salmon. They're both wonderful but somehow distracted. Risotto alone is enough, and to add anything beyond a twist of saffron, a pinch of parmesan, maybe a few rock shrimp seasoned with salt seems immoderate.
Still, that doesn't stop me from cleaning three plates and leaving wanting more -- the best compliment I can ever offer.
When I stop by Parisi on a Friday night, the line runs out the door. It stretches from the register where you order and wait to be seated, down along the wall, around a corner and out into the parking lot. The dining room is full, and there are enough customers waiting to do an entire turn of the tables and fill the place all over again. Ropes are set up to keep things neat and orderly, but I get the feeling that if I were to jump out waving a mortadella at these people, they'd riot -- driven mad by the smells of hot red sauce and browning garlic.
When Christine and Simone Parisi decided to move to this new, larger location, all they wanted was room enough to handle the overflow crowds they'd been getting since opening at their original address six years before, and a couple more hours in their day for creating the kind of quick, casual joint that Simone had known in his native Florence. They wanted a menu so deep and broad that it could include the best of everything he remembered from Italy and a kitchen where he could re-create it. Caprese salads with lovely, fat tomatoes, fresh basil and mozzarella made in his own place; veal done five ways; homemade tagliatelle and tagliolini pasta; risotto; gnocchi; panini on baguette; focaccia baked in-house; grill-pressed crostone sandwiches. This was the way things were done back home, he figured, so why not do the same in Denver?
But the Parisis never figured on this -- three months after they reopened, the lines still out the door, the constant turning of every table in the house, the kitchen going full bore and non-stop from open to close.
From my spot in line, I see the two of them working the floor, seating customers, carrying trays and laboring right alongside what seems to be a never-ending flow of staff coming and going through the kitchen doors. The volume this kitchen does every night is staggering. Two hundred tables? Maybe three? And on top of that, they're baking; they're making cheese; they're filling the other half of the building that's given over to a deli and mini-grocery packed with fresh cheeses, frozen stocks and sauces, handmade pastas, potatoes whipped with mascarpone cheese, octopus salad, a gelato bar, an olive bar, frozen Muscovy ducks, Italian candies, fresh pastries and artisan olive oils. I would move in here if they had room for me, but the one thing at Parisi that sells at an absolute premium? Space.
When my turn finally comes, I order a whole pizza -- prosciutto crudo and mascarpone on a thin crust with sweet tomato sauce and mozzarella, seasoned simply with salt, pepper and olive oil -- for myself. Parisi offers dozens of pies, and you take them the way the kitchen makes them, no changes, no substitutions, no nothing. Here, there's no getting up to the counter and asking for a green-pepper-and-half-pineapple 'za, no double cheese, no light on the sauce. You just call out the name of your pie, trust that Simone and his crew know what they're doing, and eat what you get.
But that's not as limiting as it sounds, because the combinations Parisi comes up with are almost endless. From the Margherita (sliced tomato and basil with red sauce and mozz) to the caper-and-anchovy Napoli; the simple four-cheese pie with mozz, Fontina, provolone and crumbled Gorgonzola; the Rustica, with speck and earthy, strong scamorza; the Tonno that's like a pizza that someone dropped a tuna-salad sandwich on -- there's something for every imaginable taste. Not only that, but this solidly Florentine, slightly schizophrenic pizzeria-cum-bistro-slash-deli-and-sandwich-shop makes pies that flat-out embarrass the competition -- proving that while there now have been generations of American pie men, most of them have done little more with their time than take something as infinitely versatile, simple and delicious as a wood-oven, stone-cooked, thin-crust pie and turn it into so much American junk food. New York pies aside, Parisi's pizzas are some of the best I've had anywhere. Ever.
Moving beyond pizzas, forgetting sandwiches, forsaking salads altogether, I run through Parisi's primi and secondi menus like Augustus Gloop at the candy factory, stuffing my face like the spastic, hyperactive little fat kid I really am. There's penne bolognese with meat sauce made not the way I expect it but exactly the way Simone wants it -- almost a stew of soft tomatoes, garlic and onions cooked down to a paste, thick and sweet and used to balance out the kick of a spicy meat base that's the sauce's true backbone. I eat good, firm gnocchi salsiccia with sausage, then more bolognese spooned over more gnocchi. Only this time, the potato-flour dumplings are just nasty -- terribly undercooked, damp and gooey. I feel like I'm eating a spoonful of paste.
There's a rough puttanesca, its flavor overpoweringly sharp and pointed with bitter olives, capers and oregano, followed by a plate of pollo agli asparagi with whole stalks of grilled asparagus and mozzarella capping big, tender chicken breasts, all swimming in a thin broth of chicken stock, garlic and wine. I order a penne alla vodka, and the broken sauce is like cherry tomatoes in curdled mint cream, but somehow I get the feeling this last disappointment is my fault, so rather than leave in a huff, I'm inspired to go back through the line, order fifty bucks' worth of takeout and eat most of it in my car in the parking lot.
And then, after I've stuck my face in the chocolate river and gotten my fat ass sucked up into the pipe, I come back one last time. As on my first, this final visit finds me sitting at my short-time table with a hungry crowd swelling the ropes, head bowed into the steam of another bowl of risotto Milanese. It isn't that I need to try it again -- this, like the first bowl, is flawless and pure -- but that I want to. Sometimes in my rush to judge this dish against that -- against tradition, against principle, against my own memories and tastes and prejudices -- I forget to simply eat. This time, though, I'm just hungry and can't think of anything that I want more than risotto.
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