Italian restaurants are congenial to everything from flirting to a rambling philosophical discussion…
Photograph by Zbyszek Zolkiewski
The hard-drinking crowd of painters and poets I hung out with at Cedar Bar, White Horse, and San Remo had little interest in fine cooking. With me, the more I drank, the hungrier I became. Also, I preferred wine to whiskey or gin. In those days hardly anyone else did. I remember badgering people, even offering to pay for their meal, so we could go out and eat. Women were more impressed if you took them to a French restaurant uptown. Nevertheless, we usually ended up in my favorite Italian place where I would tell them how the great Marcel Duchamp, in his early, impoverished years in New York, would eat for lunch every day a bowl of plain spaghetti with butter and cheese accompanied by a glass of red wine, which also happened to be all I could afford for the two of us on that particular night.
Italian restaurants produce not only epicures but also aspiring cooks. I bought cold cuts, cheeses, and olives for years in Italian groceries on Bleecker Street until one day I started cooking pasta, grilling sausages, and inviting friends over to my place on East 13th Street. In the 1950s and 1960s almost no one in literary circles knew how to cook, so these modest efforts of mine received extravagant praise. From then on, each time I tasted something in a restaurant, I’d wonder how it was made, what spices were used, and recollected other occasions when the same dish had come out differently. Now that I live in a village in New Hampshire, cooking Italian is a way of carrying on that comparative study. This may be a tautology, but a meal that does not cause an outpouring of memories is not a memorable meal. I don’t know how other poets imagine their muses, but mine is an Italian cookbook.
It is their unhurried air that makes most Italian restaurants congenial to everything from flirting to a rambling philosophical discussion. You linger over a glass of red wine and a plate of cheese at the meal’s end, alone or in the company of friends, while the place empties. Outside, there may be the lights of Manhattan or the tugboats in Portsmouth harbor. The waiter or the owner may bring a grappa eventually to remind you of the lateness of the hour, but he does not rush you. When you finally get up and leave, it’s out of consideration for him, but also out of genuine panic that you might be crazy enough to ask for another bowl of pasta or some of that grilled squid on a bed of white beans you enjoyed so much.