In mourning over a meal at Mark & Isabella

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I was out eating when I heard that my father had died. Drinking, actually. But the place where I was — standing on a patio in a warm rain at ten o'clock at night, surrounded by new friends, a stiff whiskey in my hand — served food, too, and nothing important that has happened to me since I was fifteen years old has happened in the calm and quiet that important moments probably deserve. Food and booze and restaurants and bars and kitchens have been at the center of everything for as long as I can remember — the hot, wet, steaming, vital core of my every experience. Eating. Drinking. Cooking. Standing on the dock with a cigarette in my hand and my boys arrayed around me.

I was on a plane within hours, and don't remember the flight at all. I spent the next ten days in Rochester, folded back into a life and a lifestyle that was like stepping back into a shed skin — familiar, if a bit small and tattered. The first thing my mom did was try to feed me. People had been bringing food all morning and the fridge was already full, as were the counters and the coffee table. She'd begun using the oven as overflow storage — packing it with pastries and loaves of handmade banana bread and rolls and trays of cookies. The first thing my brother did was press a drink into my hand: Jameson whiskey that, forever after, will taste like grief to me.

We never stopped eating. We never stopped drinking. I would have a glass of whiskey in front of me by 11 a.m., and the sandwiches weren't far behind. One friend made sausage and peppers, the best I've ever tasted; another delivered chicken French and beans and greens; a third pulled pork and mashed potatoes. And we also went to restaurants — more than I can count. Cheeseburgers with hot sauce from a stand that I love; salami and prosciutto at an Italian deli down the street. We went out for rustic aged-dough pizzas done by a friend of my brother's who runs a restaurant downtown; drank my dad's favorite beer. On our way to pick up suits for the service, my brother and I discussed food and restaurants, planned for pho and roast duck and more cheeseburgers. Food was what we talked about when we couldn't talk about Dad. On our way out again, passing like barely recovered trauma patients through the thin crowds of weekday shoppers, I said to him, "I can't believe we just bought the ties we'll be wearing to our father's funeral," and then neither of us said anything for a little while.

I came back to Denver, shattered. My mom and brother and I had planned to get back together soon, two, maybe three weeks later, after we'd all settled back into work and a life, minus. They would come out to Colorado to visit, to get away from Rochester, to take a break. I picked them up at the airport, and they weren't on the ground an hour before we were back at a restaurant — pho and Vietnamese coffee to take the edge off of traveling — and then on to Marczyk's for survival rations. The next day, we had breakfast at the West End Tavern in Boulder, on our way up to Rocky Mountain National Park because my father had always loved the mountains — so now someone had to appreciate them in his absence. We ate and we drank, because that's what people do when something awful and incomprehensible has happened, feeding the body and hoping that the more esoteric parts of ourselves will somehow recover from their terrible wounds in the meantime. We eat, sometimes, just to keep the body going while the heart convalesces.

Dinner was my choice — to my eternal regret. We'd run through some options, but everything seemed too fancy or too relaxed or too dodgy. So we settled on Italian, because Italian is where we tend to settle when not everyone wants sushi or soul food or pie. And we settled on Mark & Isabella because it seemed to fit the bill: neither too formal nor too casual. And more to the point, it's run by Mark Tarbell, and across a dozen or more meals, I'd never been disappointed by his first Colorado restaurant, the Oven. Mark & Isabella, which opened this past January in the space once occupied by Chama, just a block from the Oven in Belmar, is Tarbell's Italian-American restaurant: family food and comfort food and everything "passionately prepared by hand," according to the website. "Should be good," I told my brother. "This guy, he's a good guy."

From the outside, with the sun just set and a winter chill in the air, Mark & Isabella was beautiful, with a patio fire going and light spilling out onto the sidewalk. Amid the scattering of two- and four-tops inside, tables were rearranged for our odd number (five of us, along one of the curving banquettes) and menus were distributed.

Mark & Isabella's menu features classics from the Italian-American canon. Spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna and hand-cut pappardelle with a solid ragu. There are a few slight departures — french fries dusted with parmesan cheese grated soft as snow, panko-breaded mozzarella sticks, gazpacho and burgers — but the overwhelming thrust is East Coast Italian, street-corner Italian, neighborhood Italian, with an emphasis on big portions and lots of apps. Some of the entrees have names: "Izzy's Meatballs" and "Marco's Baked Ziti." That caused some concern. I've long theorized that a restaurant that names its plates or in some way identifies them as more than simply "meatballs" or "ziti" is trying to pull something. Unless Izzy and Marco are in the back, I'm not interested. And even then, I'm not all that interested: What I wanted were Mark Tarbell's meatballs and ziti.

We ordered big. Rounds of drinks, far too many apps, entrees for each person and then extras just in case. The wine list at Mark & Isabella is good-sized, and there are also custom cocktails. Maybe my first dirty cherry soda off that list was poured too strong (or perhaps I was distracted by the company and the still-fresh ache that seeing them represented), but it took a while for me to notice the problems that, in retrospect, were apparent as soon as the first plates hit the table.

Prosciutto and melon is impossible to fuck up, a ten-second lay-up for even the most brain-damaged of kitchen crews. Or so I thought. At Mark & Isabella, ours came in a block, the delicate meat lying like a brick — not beautifully fanned, not in a jumbled pile of wisp-thin slices — because it'd been peeled straight from the wax paper and dropped onto the plate in a perfectly portion-controlled wad, without so much as a splash of oil, a grind of black pepper, anything. The melon (cantaloupe) was underripe and ugly. On the side came four hand-formed balls of goat cheese, fingerprinted and tasting dusty, which matched the (supposedly) sweet melon and salty prosciutto about as well as chicken would a rock.

The fresh mozzarella with basil, tomato and balsamic vinegar was made with day-old cheese at best, with thick-cut slabs of tomato as dimly tomato-flavored as anything I'd get at the King Soopers across the street from my house, and with cheap balsamic endowed with all the subtlety of a vinegar-flavored sour ball. A plate of grana padano, splashed with honey, came with nicely grilled and oil-soaked crostini — but what, exactly, are you to do with spears of bread and a hard cheese save eat one, then the other, lick the honey off your fingers and wonder at the strange vicissitudes of menu design?

The fries, at least, were decent — nicely golden-brown shoestring frites speckled with parmesan — but the mozzarella sticks tasted like pale Silly Putty dipped in tomato paste. I've had better at bowling alleys. And I haven't been bowling in a dozen years.

Still, while I made conversation and saw to the equitable disbursement of mozzarella, tomatoes and bread, I noticed none of this. I ate because eating was all I could think to do, was what we had come here for, was all any of us had done recently that'd been remotely pleasant or comforting. Wine glasses were refilled. Plates were cleared. A part of me recognized that something was elusively wrong with just about everything that'd been set before us, but, critical faculties momentarily stunned, I couldn't say exactly what it had been.

Now I can. The purpose of appetizers is to take the edge off a hunger, to tamp down the worst cravings beneath tiny bites of the best the house has to offer but to leave the main appetite untouched. As the empty plates were walked away from our table, I knew only that I felt hungrier than I had before eating.

Shortly, I would discover that those few blown apps really were the best the house had to offer.

Against all better judgment, I'd ordered Izzy's Meatballs with crispy polenta and marinara sauce. If Izzy is a real person, I want to punch him (or her) right in his (or her) head. To name an entree and then to blow it so completely was a double insult; bad enough that the plate was poorly executed, worse still to think this might've been deliberate on the part of an actual person with an actual name. "Awful" is too gentle a word to describe what was set in front of me, too kind to capture how it made me recoil after just one taste, breaking through the hundred other things I had on my mind just then and finally setting off the alarm in my head. The meatballs — Izzy's meatballs — were sour, tasted of a charred pan in which old garlic had been left to rot, fell into wet, miserable pieces at the merest approach of my fork, and looked like they'd been put together by a chimp with serious motor-control issues. The sauce was broken and bleeding grease into a slick at the top of my plate. The polenta beneath the meatballs tasted like paste when I was able to find a bite that hadn't been soaked by the terrible sauce, like eating the skin on top of paste, doused in oily tomato slurry, when I wasn't so fortunate. The single redeeming feature of the plate was that it had been served hot. And the sharp piece of plastic I found in it (like the corner clipped off a plastic bag full of awful) was one of the less offensive things about it.

That was just one main. Just mine. If anything, the spaghetti and meatballs were worse, because the kitchen had been given the opportunity not just to ruin the meatballs and sauce again, but also to drown a pasta with that sauce. When Laura stabbed a fork into her bowl of pappardelle with meat ragu, the entire pile of handmade noodles came out of the bowl in a single clump. My mother's chicken parmesan was burnt beyond the point of edibility, its edges black beneath the veil of sauce with which the kitchen had so skillfully tried to hide its shame. And virtually everything on the table except our glasses of water was over-salted so badly that even I — a man who lives for salt — had to say, "Wow, yeah...that's just too much."

Of all the entrees, only one was even vaguely edible: a piece of swordfish, nicely cooked, napped with a chive crème fraîche, then mounted on a ratatouille that was like mush and bled oil like it'd been knifed on its way out of the kitchen. But still, somewhere in the back of the house at Mark & Isabella, there was a poisonarde who did right by this fish. Who could hold his head high. The rest of Tarbell's crew ought to be ashamed of what they tried to pass off as food. They ought to feel pity for the animals whose lives they spent so carelessly, who were killed only to end up at the bottom of a trash can. This wasn't just a bad meal; it was an embarrassment.

There's a reason I write these reviews the way I do — why, for the past seven years, I have taken them so personally and written (almost) as much about myself as I have about the food. It's because every time I walk through the doors of a restaurant, I try to imagine myself in the situation I actually found myself in last week: as a customer who, for whatever reason, doesn't just want dinner, but needs it. First dates. Last dates. Marriage proposals. Grief. Restaurants are, in so many cases, stages for all of mankind's small dramas. I try to imagine myself as a man of little means, having saved for a month or two just to be able to afford one nice meal with my wife; as a father taking his family out to celebrate; as a son mourning with what remains of his family. Every week, I try to think like a normal person — not a critic, not a writer — and imagine how I would feel had I been given...this.

Walking out the door, I was ashamed at what I'd subjected my family to. They were only disappointed.

I was furious.

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