Last night, while on a brief stay in Tacoma, I had a chance to revisit one my favorite restaurants in the world from my college days, Marzano Italian Restaurant, situated on a corner a few steps from the campus edge of Pacific Lutheran University. Like across the street. My husband and I haven’t had a magical date night in a long time. We have date nights, sure, but they’re usually to a movie or a quick dinner at a local restaurant in the rustic hometown, right in the middle of reality.
But stepping into Marzano’s last night was the perfect choice. I was transported. Ever notice how it takes one moment when there is a symphony of sound, light, color, smells, to remind you of everything you were once? Full of hope, life ahead of you? Few scars?
My cousin and I worked at PLU together for a brief period after I graduated, and we had some special and specific rituals. We always exercised during lunch. We always went to the coffee stand to get a 16 oz. mocha on Friday mornings. And we always celebrated our birthdays by treating the other to lunch. So I started eating lunch at Marzano’s during those early years where it started in the nearby stip mall building, about two doors down from its current location, in a tiny galley-style restaurant with a curtain covering the doorway into the kitchen. This is back when I was just becoming interested in cooking because I had started to realize that I didn’t have to rely on ordering great meals out in order to have great food. I knew the owner was from Italy, and I was naïve-enough to ask her (via her daughter, serving, I believe, but maybe not) if she could tell me how to make my favorite dish on her menu, Fettuccine Alfredo. The server returned from the kitchen with this, “she said you take a little bitta butter, a little bitta cream and a little bitta of parmesan.” I was confused, so I asked for some clarification and went on my way to try it at home with friends the following weekend.
The result at a dinner party that Saturday was not as expected. The Alfredo didn’t thicken into the satin sauce that coated the noodles at Marzano, and the parmesan was in chunks. I remember one of my friends at the time stirring it, then occasionally raising the spoon, saying, “um, Shelley, is it supposed to look like this?” Another necessary “failure” because it prompted me to return to Marzano for lunch again the next week, both to have another plate of Alfredo just-because, and to ask for more information on the sauce. This time for specifics: How much is a little bitta butter? Milk? And Parmesan? The response was slightly more specific. About a sticka butta, and a cuppa milk, and a little bitta Parm. Ah, but what exactly is a little bitta parm? When the server returned from the kitchen, she held out her hand in a cupped-shape, as if she was gently cradling a bird. This is a little bitta Parm. Another try, a slightly better version, and another trip to Marzano for one last bit of clarification (and this is getting a bit costly here when you’re only making $1000/mo). “What is the order? … How long do I melt the butter? … How long do I simmer after adding the cream? … After adding the Parmesan?” And the reward: learning how to slow-cook Alfredo sauce, because regardless of what anyone says–and I mean ANYONE–Alfredo, REALLY great Alfredo does not come quickly.
The final result? A Fettuccine Alfredo that has lasted the years, a gift received and earned, that has helped me raise my son, entertain friends, feel the warm, tiny arms of my nieces wrap around my legs when they knew I was at their house to make the magic.
And so this has been more about the memory than it has been about the magic of the night, but oh, was it magic. Fettuccine Alfredo no longer is on the menu, but I was enraptured by the Spezie, “Saffron pappardelle, morrocan spices, toasted pine nuts, morrocan olives, bulgarian feta, mint.” And my husband found a version of Carbonara on the menu that I not only liked, it blew my mind. “Bacon-forward,” the server said. We traded bites with the giddy excitement and anticipation of school-kids. We talked about the food. We laughed in the way we did in our early dating days.The earthy walls, velour drapes swagging doorways, chandeliers, and yellow-lighted sconces enveloped us in a bubble for just a moment. And I shared so many memories. They came flooding back in ways that I wouldn’t have imagined, as I realized when I drizzled olive oil into the bowl and remembered with a shock that so many years ago it had been the inspiration for the Rosemary-infused Olive Oil that has become a staple in my kitchen and in my gift-giving.
I found at the end of the meal that I not only was filled, I was fulfilled in so many ways. Immensely. Richly. Perfectly. Fulfilled.