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The portobello mushrooms meld with the parmesan and mozzarella cheeses in a warm, aromatic mix. The umami, earthy flavor of the mushrooms pairs perfectly with the sharp, creamy flavor of the cheeses. On another counter pasta dough, yellow with egg yolk, extrudes from a pasta roller becoming thinner and thinner until it is less than an eighth of an inch thick. The mushroom mix fills the little cavities of ravioli before taking a dunk in perfectly salted, boiling water. In a copper-bottomed sauce pan butter pops and sizzles as it heats. The water boils off leaving the butter fat to cook into a rich, caramelized brown swirling in bright, yellow oil before toasted walnuts and fresh oregano slivers are added. The ravioli meets the browned butter sauce in a perfect coupling topped by thin slivers of freshly grated parmesan in wide triangles. The quiet sound of Italian music in the background swells to heavenly peals of delight as the wide, flat bowl descends onto the table.
The first time I cut into one of DePalma’s portobello mushroom raviolis, the browned butter sauce ran into the little cavity and I thought I might melt into the table. My tongue went to heaven. The waiter gave me the oddest look when he came back to find me with my head down on the table, my eyes closed, and look of rapture on my face. Being on the same level as the dish allows for a level of appreciation in both sight and smell that most diners miss in restaurant dining for fear of looking like a fool.
“Miss, is everything okay with your meal?” asked Mr. Overly Starched-Shirt.
“Yes, yes everything is perfect,” said my befuddled date. “She’s just having a moment.”
When I went to school at the Alabama School of Math and Science in Mobile, Alabama, I gained lifelong friends, an exceptional education, and scholarship opportunities that would have otherwise been unavailable to me. However, I traded my mother’s home cooked meals for public school quality, cafeteria food three meals a day every day.
Gone were the crispy chicken skins containing the moistest chicken known to man. Gone were the flaky biscuits perfectly browned on top and light as air inside. Gone was the sweet tea that made summers in a trailer without air conditioning bearable. All gone in the name of education.
Before ASMS I was called a picky eater by my entire family. I’d turn my nose up at the mention of vegetables or a new ingredient. After three long years of living off Lucky Charms, granola bars, and mini-sausage biscuits, I lost that annoying habit. Nowadays, I’ll try anything at least once.
My love for the ravioli seemed to grow as I worked my way through that first bowl until I was devastated when all that remained was a pool of leftover butter and an oily film on my lips. At $14 a plate, DePalma’s is more than my minimum wage job can cover for frequent casual dining. As with so many things, scarcity increases the desire. Every anniversary and birthday for the last three years has found me staring at vintage wine bottles and watching a middle-aged man slowly drink himself red in the face at the bar while waiting for more than an hour for a table since they do not believe in reservations.
I made the prideful decision to learn how to make the coveted meal myself. Surely, I who baked every Sunday and cooked delicious meals five nights a week could make a simple pasta dish. I watch cooking shows on television regularly, my Pinterest boards all revolve around food, and I had a deep and lasting love for Lucille, my KitchenAid Artisan Mixer. If anyone could make this culinary masterpiece at home, I thought, it would be me.
The browned butter was as easy as watching a few lessons on YouTube from Alton Brown. My kitchen smelled like a bake shop. Learning butter turned out to be the most useful skill I took away from this experience. You have not lived until you’ve tried browned butter chocolate chip cookies. The filling for the pasta was simple and scrumptious. The dough, however, proved to be a much more difficult beast to wrangle. I do not own a pasta roller, nor a ravioli shaper. The filling tasted perfect, but I was about to learn it's all about the pasta.
You see those ancient yet eternally youthful Italian grandmothers on the Create channel rolling out their pasta dough by hand until they have perfect pasta, better than anything you see on the pre-made supermarket shelf. I, despite numerous warnings from my online guidebook on making pasta, decided if the old ladies could roll perfect pasta by hand so could I.
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Two hours, one bag of flour, a bruised toe, and a strained shoulder muscle later I had a lumpy, uneven blob of sticky yellow and white streaked pasta to show for my efforts. As I sat on my flour-coated kitchen floor covered in egg yolk and sweating like a pig, I started to cry out of frustration. The marble rolling pin I had dropped on my pinky toe earlier didn’t help matters.
Three ingredients is all there is to good pasta: eggs, flour, and water. Only three ingredients stood between me and the best meal I’ve ever eaten. As I sat there on the floor I remembered the last time a three ingredient recipe had made me cry. A saltine cracker smeared with Peter Pan Creamy Peanut Butter and topped with a hearty slice of Kraft Sharp Cheddar makes the best lunch you can find this side of the Mississippi. It’s a Wilson Bowen, known as Big Daddy to his children and Bidad to me since I couldn’t pronounce Big Daddy, specialty. I ate the gourmet crackers every day during the summers when learning to ride my bike and catch tadpoles with my cousins were sincere life goals.
I would eat my lunch before clammoring into the cab of the gold pickup that smelled like motor oil from the shop where Bidad worked and the chewing tobacco he kept in a brown bag in his front shirt pocket. We’d ride down to Bargainers so I could pick out my candy while he talked to the attendant and put air in my bike tires. He was a quiet man, and didn’t have hardly any teeth left, but he would hum along with the radio on the ride back to the house. We did the same routine every day of every summer until I was 12. Then there wasn’t anyone to ride to with anymore.
I didn’t eat the Bidad special again for almost five years. When I did I made it slow, at noon when he always came home for lunch, and I made sure I used the Peter Pan brand of creamy peanut butter, because that was the best. I sat on the floor of my mother’s kitchen and cried while I ate the best lunch there ever was or ever will be.
In a mirror image four years later, in another kitchen, miles away from home, I cleaned up my mess and took down the peanut butter. Who needs fancy ravioli when the best meal in the world can be made with a butter knife and served with a cold glass of milk?
"I sat on the floor of my mother’s kitchen and cried while I ate the best lunch there ever was or ever will be."