I took a short sabbatical from my Scuttlebutt column and was ready for a change when I returned. My editor astounded me by suggesting a column called Island Flavor. Food critic? I asked. Moi?
I am not a natural choice for this assignment. I read food labels obsessively. I eat the same thing for breakfast every day. I rarely dine out.
Don’t get me wrong. I love food.
Food just doesn’t love me.
To put it politely, I have delicate intestines. More plainly, one bite of a buttermilk biscuit and I have enough gas to heat the city of Fairbanks.
The same could be said of fettuccini Alfredo, citrus marinated shrimp cocktail, pad thai, baked brie, double chocolate torte and a smorgasbord of other things.
Asking me to be the food critic is like hiring St. Francis to cover Keeping up with the Kardashians.
Which is why I gave the idea two full seconds of thought before accepting. When I asked my husband (later) if it was a good idea, he said, “Well, duh!”
I had the chance to ply my new craft the next day when I joined my friends for a quasi-regular ladies’ evening out at Angelo’s Trattoria, located at 2625 Mill Bay Road. We met at 7 pm and assembled our harried, hungry selves around a booth in the corner.
We exchanged pleasantries and were scanning our menus — which, by the way, are the size of shower curtains — when I told my friends I would henceforth be covering the eat beat.
They peeked out from behind their curtains. Realizing I was serious, they laughed to the point of tears.
Millicent (not her real name) was the first to pull herself together. “Oh,” she whispered conspiratorially, “you’ll need a disguise.”
Millicent told us about Ruth Reichl, food critic for the New York Times. Reichl uses elaborate costumes so that restaurant owners and wait staff won’t recognize her. This is how she avoids having the ashes of former food critics sprinkled on her fricassee.
The friend I’ll call Prudence whispered, “You could use a pen name.” I liked the idea. I’ve always had a powerful urge to write under the name Delilah Bean.
Much mirth accompanied the discussion of what Delilah’s disguise might be, before one of my friends — I’ll call her Hattie Rose — said soberly: “Of course, we’d have to do something with that hair.” The others looked at me and nodded gravely. All hope of anonymity was gone.
For me. But that doesn’t stop me from camouflaging my friends.
Now, getting back to Angelo’s. My friends and I have each had or heard about at least one bad experience at the restaurant, which is owned by Greeks but features Italian entrees, salads and pizza. I hear rumors of shouting matches in the kitchen and public humiliation of customers who ask for substitutions.
But I honestly believe that Shout! is one of the seasonings they use in Mediterranean kitchens. They shout at you. You shout back. They shout at you again. Then you embrace and enjoy food made finer by the commotion. Opa!
So I was mildly disappointed that Joe, our server, didn’t shout at any one of us. Not once. He was attentive. He was polite. He didn’t blink an eye when we asked for separate checks. He happily rearranged tables to accommodate a party of about 200 hungry construction workers, and he gave each member of that party the same adept attention he gave us.
The service would have been perfect but for one tiny thing.
I ordered the pear walnut salad, which sounded just this side of divine. Joe took our orders to the kitchen but quickly returned to the table.
“There are no pears on the island,” he said somberly. “Would it be all right if we use strawberries?”
I wanted to shout, “No substitutions!!” But Delilah Bean doesn’t holler and neither do I. Besides, strawberry walnut sounded good, so I embraced the swap.
I’m glad I did, because the salad was fantastic. The greens were fresh, the berries sweet, the bleu cheese sharp, and the entire combination of flavors delightful. And if their moaning and rolling of eyes were any indication, my friends’ meals were, likewise, fantastic.
As we savored the last few morsels of our time together, one of my friends—I’ll call her Rick — said over a sharply raised eyebrow, “No pears on the island? Hmmm …”
Rick and I paid for our meals and scuttled across the parking lot to the supermarket. And guess what? The place had so many pears that the sign saying SAFEWAY was being replaced with another one saying BARTLETT’S.
No pears on the island, Joe? Tsk.