Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Al Vento - Pancetta Tastes Like Comfort

To say Aisha knows me well is to say fish are keen on water. We met in Mr. Patruzzi's fourth grade reading class. She scared the hell out me. She was all dolled up, with extremely braided hair that pulled up on her eyebrows. She looked sugar and spice from the outside, but burning in her eyes was the blatant disregard for the establishment's rules. She was either going to kick my ass (and since I sported a short hair cut, making rhyming my name so much funnier, I had a feeling this was the way she was leaning) or we would become best friends. Thankfully, I'd chased down her twin brother on the playground in an attempt to kick him in the nuts earlier in the week. I guess the way she saw it was that anyone who didn't like her brother was a friend of hers.
We've been more or less inseparable since. Sure we've grown, changed and occasionally drifted, but we always come back around. We've grown up together like sisters from other mothers. (I'm through with rhyming.) When I told her about Julie's sickness, she insisted that we go out to dinner. I wouldn't be able to get up to Duluth until the next day, so she figured we needed to do something that would ease my mind. Of course, nothing eases my mind more than a candlelit dinner with wine and excellent food.
I'd been meaning to get over to Al Vento for a while, but I'd heard that it was nearly impossible to get into. Then again, that was probably a couple of years ago. I easily made our Thursday night reservations and we were seated right away. The entire room is softly lit, with lots of wavering warm candle glow.
Trying to watch the bottom line, I ordered their house red wine and tried not to grimace. $5 a glass. I braced myself. It arrived and I swirled in my glass, taking a tentative sniff. She'd opened a fresh bottle at our table, so I was happy that I wasn't getting week old wine. The nose didn't indicate much, but the flavor was surprisingly good. I could drink this! It was pleasant and soothing. I allowed myself to sink into my chair a bit.
Aisha arrived, resplendent in a full length black coat, looking every bit the professional woman that she is. It was freezing outside and she brought a gust of cold in with her. The waitress took her coat and she greeted me, "Hey there, lady!"
I encouraged her to try the wine and she agreed with my assertion that it was an amazingly tasty glass for only $5 ($22 for a bottle. We should have gone that route.)
We decided on starting with the artichoke and walnut bruschetta as an appetizer. She ordered the fettuccine with black, tiger shrimp, while I eventually decided to try the bucatini with pancetta and red pepper flake spiced mother sauce. The service was calm and easy. The room is so cozy that it was easy for her to keep an eye on us.
Our appetizer arrived with three little crostini's topped with a creamy, faintly green dollop. The artichokes and walnuts had been pureed with olive oil and garlic and sat upon the little toasts. The texture was down comforter soft, little bits of crunch and texture from the artichoke leaves, but mostly fluffy and smooth. The garlic had a decent bite to it, but since we were both widows for the evening (hers in a band, me pimpin him out to the bar) garlic stank breath wouldn't affect the rest of our nights. Even after we finished those, I couldn't keep my hand out of the bread basket. We were served salt topped foccaccia with olive oil to dip it in. Moments ago I'd said I wasn't hungry. I now realized that I'd been lying.
As our food was laid down, I became a little bit giddy. Everything looked wonderful. Aisha's fettuccine looked handmade, buttery ribbons of pasta, flecked with tarragon and boulders of shrimp. My bucatini was a gorgeous mountain of pasta coated in a downy layer of Parmesan cheese brightened by flecks of Italian parsley. I dug in greedily and slurped up a mouthful of bright tomatoes, earthy, salty, fall apart meat and spritely parsley. I miss my herb garden. It's been months since I had a fresh herb. The parsley, usually just a garnish, was actually a welcome accompaniment. The red pepper flakes cooked into the tomato sauce gave it a nice back layer of heat. The pasta (not unlike spaghetti, but hollow) was expertly cooked al dente, toothy. This is exactly the type of comfort food I long for on these endless winter nights.
Aisha's dish was just as divine and more dressed up for a cocktail party, than my fuzzy slippers style pasta. Every flavor was clean, simple and elegant. The shrimp were cooked perfectly, not fishy or chewy or anything that I always worry about when ordering a shrimp pasta dish. A couple of stinkies and the entire dish is ruined and tastes like liking the bottom of one of Aisha's salt water fish tanks (or at least I'm guessing. I've never actually tried such a thing.) To the contrary, the pasta was perfectly blanched and swept into this delightful, buttery sauce. One taste of her dish and I knew that were it mine, I'd inhale the whole thing without a second thought.
We sat, savored and talked. There was some reminiscing, concern about Julie and a little light planning of her wedding (upcoming this June.) It was salve on my worried soul. I couldn't do anything to help my mom or sister, but at least I had a really good friend who swept in and helped me.
For desert we pondered the list, but settled on martinis instead. I had a run of the mill dirty martini. They use actual good olives, not just those jarred things, but really nice olives. I was impressed. Aisha got the Esrpessotini and it was sinfully delicious. Frothy espresso mixed with Kahlua and vodka, floating in the middle of the glass were three tiny espresso beans. Now that is my kind of dessert.
Rather than parting ways, we decided to go back to my place, sip another martooni and talk into the night. I can't believe it, but I stayed up until 1 in the morning. Just as always, the conversation never lagged and never felt so comfortable, safe and warm.


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