I am always dreaming of dinner with friends like ones I see in the movies. There’s a bevy of smiling faces gathered around an old oak table that spans ten feet from end to end, so much food that even a regular Saturday night looks like Thanksgiving, good conversation and flowing wine, music and merriment that carries on late into the night. It’s the scene from Sliding Doors with Gwyneth Paltrow; every time I watch the movie it stands out as a party I want to be at. The same one shows up in Notting Hill with Julia Roberts; it’s just a different cast of characters seated around a different table. I have dinner with friends on occasion, but never have I found myself sitting at a table quite like one of those. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that I live in New York City and no one I typically socialize with has a residence large enough to accommodate much more than the 30-inch breakfast table; that’s if they can even fit a table in their kitchen!
But there was a time years ago when every few weeks I had an invitation (or invited myself!) to my friend’s place in Brooklyn for the best Italian food I’d come across in all of the five boroughs—even better than what I’d found over the years at some of the most authentic trattorias. Thanks to my friend’s Italian-born husband and his craft at preparing delectable Italian cuisine, even in their Park Slope apartment, dinner felt like the perfect end to a day spent among the cypress trees under the Tuscan sun. It didn’t matter that rather than a dozen of us, there were only three, and instead of a grand dining room and fine china, we sat at a tiny table on rickety chairs. On a few occasions we climbed up a narrow ladder to sit atop the crooked rooftop under the dark sky, admiring the city lights. This was dinner with friends, New York City-style.
The story was always the same. “Be here around 8”, my friend Sam would say. It was a good hour for me, leaving enough time to get out of work, pick up a bottle of wine and make the half-hour trek across the river. I’d arrive with a growling stomach, salivating at the thought of homemade gnocchi with fresh basil-marinara and a pan of homemade tiramisu. And without fail, on every occasion, I’d arrive promptly at eight and sit (luckily with a bottle of wine) waiting another hour-and-a-half as Fabio perfected his work, busy at the cutting board slicing and dicing, potatoes, tomatoes, basil, onions, garlic. Despite the growing hunger pangs, I sat patiently, knowing in the end the prize would be worth the wait. Sam would tell me stories of Fabio as a little boy sitting on piles of fabric as his seamstress mother worked out of their house. Meanwhile, as if to an aria by The Three Tenors, Fabio would be dancing around us from stove to counter and back again with a flaming frying pan and aromas of fresh herbs wafting through the air. I imagined he had probably also learned the art of cooking from his mother, spending days as a little boy at home in la cucina. Clearly he was no novice. “I sorry,” he would tell us in his charming, broken English. “I almost-a finished.” Finally our piping hot plates were placed in front of us, colors of the Italian flag so fittingly decorating the mismatched Ikea dinnerware. And we were silenced, savoring each and every glorious bite until our tummies were full and our conversation had come to an unintentional lull, the three of us comatose, the clock’s hands at midnight.
Sadly my friends moved away and our Park Slope Italian dinner dates are no more. Perhaps we will share them some day again, but for now I will remember these dinners, not for the endless table I sat at or the many faces and intertwining conversations that spun around me, but for Sam and Fabio and the heart and soul and simplicity that made their dinners perfect in their own way.