All I really need to know I learned from Juan López.
Juan washes dishes, offers relationship advice, and bolsters morale in the restaurant where I work. He is far better at his job than I am at mine. And he displays an uncanny ability to sort the entire human race into just two categories — flaco and gordo.
Skinny and fat. Good and bad. Yes and no. Juan López sees the world in binary, and I sometimes wish I did, too.
Searching for greener grass, I’ve glued these fifty states together as a flyover country — more likely to explore Paris than Portland; Bangkok than Boise; Jutland than Cleveland. For this, there is no good excuse. Despite this, I recently visited Chicago in order to revisit Sicily, by way of a restaurant called Next.
When I got back people asked me what I thought. Propriety had me clutching for qualifiers. Blunt honesty is clearer: it was no bueno.
But what do I know?
I know I learned to speak Italian because I once had a plate of pasta that I thought was pretty tasty. I once moved clear across the country to chase a Sicilian girl I thought was pretty gorgeous. And I know arancine ends with an “i” only in Palermo.
I close my eyes and they sound like sandpaper scratching past my front teeth. I break into one and expect the rice grains to hang together just long enough, like a piece of nigiri sushi. A rice ball is to be eaten standing up, in slight haste, for waiting for it to cool is an exercise too cruel for any man, and allowing it to cool would disrespect said rice ball.
This was our first snack at Next: Sicily, seated at an unremarkable table in an unremarkable room, so very far from the sights and sounds and smells of an island I find wholly remarkable. But while the arancine and the flotilla of other antipasti weren’t enough to assuage my eventual disappointment with the overall meal, they were at least enough to delay it.
“The fennel is fried,” said the runner when he set down the gemelli. I mumbled a half-assed acknowledgement. Still he stood there, waiting. Did he want a nod of approval instead? A handshake? A lollipop? I don’t know.
I do know that a cursory glance at the bowl showed me pasta with bad posture. Just looking, I could see it was overcooked. You’re telling me nobody picked up a twisty little noodle and ate it before they reached for their goddamn tweezers to garnish? I’m sorry but that’s disrespectful.
The bucatini beforehand was also blasted, by the way — and that… well, that takes a special breed of negligence, something I didn’t expect to encounter in this restaurant, the sibling of one with such stature. Both pasta sauces were fine, I should mention. But me? I was not.
“The garnish is completely edible,” said the waiter as he ceremoniously crowned a fillet of swordfish with a handful of incinerated mint. I’m the idiot who took his word for it.
It was as edible as a half-spent cigarette and tasted, I imagine, much the same. Painfully acrid, drawn out like a bad divorce. The fish beneath it had the texture of a stress ball. That’s called well done.
I gave up, attacking only the side dish with any vigor. Chickpeas: some fried, some fresh, all tasty. A few spots here in New York serve something similar as a bar snack for five or six dollars. Dinner at Next costs over a hundred.
Braised pork shoulder was the last savory course. It was tender, redolent of oregano, and so salty that it hurt. We sat and stared at it. We had run out of constructive criticism, run out of hope. The smiling gentleman that swiped the plate away, three-quarters full, commented on what a large portion it was. “Don’t feel bad,” he told us. “Nobody is finishing this tonight.”
Desserts didn’t suck, nor did they shine. Nobody seemed to care anyway. Our relationship with the service staff was Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell — they weren’t asking if we liked anything, and we weren’t telling them that we hated just about everything. The fault, then, is shared.
I couldn’t help but chuckle as I read over the printed menu after the
suffering meal was over. Misspellings and grammatical corrigenda aside, my eyes were fixed on just one word: cassata.
Change one letter and it explains, in a single breath of Italian, what I thought of dinner: cazzata.
The quasi-homonym shows itself to anyone with an ability to understand Italian, not merely research it. And cuisine, to my mind, is not information; it is culture. Will any iteration of this perennially-changing theme restaurant ever be more than a superficial academic exercise? I don’t know.
Maybe next time.