And as far back as I can remember, I always wanted to find the perfect Italian restaurant: the kind of place where goodfellas would go for linguini and clams, some sausage and peppers, maybe a cheap bottle of warm Lambrusco after a long day of whackin' snitches and planting bodies. Scorsese's scene where all the guys are making Sunday dinner in jail? Beautiful. I can't tell you how many times that scene has been mentioned by potential bosses concerned that maybe some twitchy, long-haired Irish kid shouldn't be allowed near their precious aglio e olio, and I can't tell you how many jobs I've gotten by answering back in my best imitation of a faded Brooklyn tough guy's accent, "Aw, come on...! And when Paulie starts slicing the garlic with a razor blade so it'll melt into the sauce? That's beautiful, man. That's perfect. That's the only way to make a right sauce."
When casting about for the proper metaphors to describe our lives, kitchen people have an obvious fondness for mob movies and war movies. The notions of duty, family and loyalty, as well as scenes of extreme mercenary sensibility and bloody goddamn mayhem, pepper these flicks and, in turn, flavor our communal lexicon. Most lifers can quote with equal facility from Full Metal Jacket, Godfather I and II and Larousse Gastronomique when standing on the hotline, desperately trying to throw together sixty quarts of a béchamel mother thirty minutes before the start of service because some stone-crazy alcoholic prep cook got arrested for showing his sausage and peppers to a bartender the night before and hasn't yet made bail. Personally, I'm a big fan of Robert De Niro's baseball speech in The Untouchables -- the one he gives right before taking a Louisville Slugger upside the head of a traitorous lieutenant -- when firing a guy who let down the team. A lot of chefs like Michael Corleone's kiss-off in Godfather II -- "You broke my heart, Fredo..." -- but that's just a matter of taste. They both work well and are further proof that without the Mafia (and for more reasons than most people are comfortable admitting), there'd be a lot fewer good Italian restaurants in this country. And a lot fewer good movies.
Needless to say, I've yet to find that perfect ristorante. The hard truth of the curve on which I grade Italian restaurants, the real bitch that consigns most of them to that vast pool of nothing special, is that the closer they come to my fantasy ideal, the more the little things start to matter. What at first seems like a contender -- a place putting out authentic cucina rustica in a great space with a good crowd and Sinatra on the Muzak -- can be tripped up by the stupidest things. Bad pictures on the walls, too much parsley in the sassolino -- anything. Some people might suspect that this is because I never want to find that perfect little joint, and those people would be right. Because what the hell would I do after I found it?
That said, my search recently took me to The Bent Noodle, a bright, casual, seven-year-old eatery in an Aurora strip mall that's small enough to feel comfy and personable, but large enough to handle the suburban crowds that flock here for big plates of pasta. And while my meals weren't perfect, this place does do some things well -- even very well. With the gamberi fritti, for example, the kitchen lightly floured rock shrimp (those little buggers most infamously used to top salads at cheapskate corporate Christmas parties), then tossed 'em in the fryer -- but only briefly. Knowing it wouldn't take much to turn these diminutive critters into vaguely shrimpy rubber bands, the kitchen wisely undercooked them and pulled the gamberi from the fritti early so that they were finished simply by the heat retained in the fryer oil. And while the shrimp were still hot and damp, the kitchen did something else right: It tossed them with garlic, parsley, a little oregano, some crushed red-pepper flakes and a squeeze of lemon. Do this before the shrimp go in the oil, and all that good stuff is wasted, either falling off into the bubbling heat of the fryer -- making a godawful mess that some poor, pissed-off fry cook has to scrape off the vanes every night -- or simply disappearing as all the life and flavor is cooked out of the shrimp until it winds up tasting like something off the assembly line at Red Lobster. Finally, the kitchen finished off the plate with a workhorse marinara kicked up with some more crushed red pepper and lemon, and that was it. Easy, straightforward and addictive as hell. Because of my rapidly expanding girth (I've added three inches to my pants size in six months), I generally leave about half of whatever I'm eating on my plate. But at the Bent Noodle -- and for the first time in a long time -- I asked for seconds. The gamberi fritti was that good.