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February 18, 2012

what's for dinner.


For my Travel Writing class, the assignment was to write about the best meal we ever had.


Where, When, and What’s for Dinner?

My best friends Anna and Kevin married each other last year on April 30. The weather cooperated; the whole weekend provided us with perfectly warm spring temperatures, ample sun, no rain. Their rehearsal dinner was at one of my favorite places in Chicago, one of my favorite places in the whole world, a tiny family-owned Italian restaurant nestled on a side street in little Italy. While an undergrad at UIC, I bypassed the student cafeteria and spent many afternoons after class savoring lemon chicken with roasted potatoes, the kind of lemon chicken that will forever remind me of the smells of my grandmother’s kitchen. It’s the kind of lemon chicken I wish I had the recipe for, but they don’t share it; I asked.
Tufano’s is cash-only and they don’t take reservations. Framed photos of celebrities cover the walls, many of them in Bulls and Blackhawks jerseys, as it’s a popular spot before games at the nearby United Center. Next to the famous actors are photos, signs, and flags of the Chicago Police and Fire departments. Walking into the dining room, you see families from the neighborhood, grandparents and teenagers at tables next to on-duty police officers and couples on first dates.
The menu is written on chalkboards on the walls of the screened-in patio and the room where we ate. I love this little detail; looking at that menu made me feel like I was back in Florence, living on a street full of restaurants as beautiful as the Santa Maria Novella around the block from my apartment.
Anna and Kevin sat in the middle of a long, wooden L-shaped table. I sat to the right of Anna and to the right of me were her parents, my second set. I have never seen so much food on a table, not even at Thanksgiving. All of the following were slowly brought out to us: bruschetta, fried calamari, house salads, French bread with parmesan cheese and olive oil, chicken picante w/ pine nuts, mostaccioli, meatballs in gravy, sausage and peppers, fettuccini alfredo with chicken, spaghetti with oil and garlic, shells with broccoli and shrimp, angel hair with marina sauce, Riesling, Chianti, tiramisu, miniature cannolis, and chocolate and vanilla gelato. The second a platter was empty, our waitress, God bless her, was in and out of the kitchen with a refilled tray. No one ever waited for seconds, or fourths.
I sampled nearly all of it, especially the meatballs. I sat and stared at my plate before I began eating. I looked around me, at Kevin’s three brothers, his parents, Anna’s brother in town from serving in the Peace Corps in Africa, relatives from out of state, Anna’s aunts and uncles and her and Kevin’s two year-old nephew. I looked at the White Sox game on the television on the wall facing our side of the table, a table full of love, and I said a prayer of thanks.
In between garlic shrimp and the most delicately topped bruschetta, I took nearly one hundred pictures. With close to twenty-five of us, the back room where we sat was dimly lit, but the icicle lights hanging from the ceiling were more than enough. I had more than enough light to see the black olives, mozzarella, and red onions in my salad. I didn’t need bright overhead lighting to smell the Italian Sausage and amaretto-soaked tiramisu I somehow found room for.
Everything was served family style, which may just be the best way to eat any meal. Passing heaping bowls of steaming hot pasta, with everything slathered in olive oil and butter, topping off each other’s wine glasses, taking that third helping of sausage and peppers you know is a bad idea. But you don’t care because you’re surrounded by people you love and it’s a weekend of marriages. First, at this you’d never know it was there if you weren’t looking for it restaurant, a marriage of home-cooked food and a table of two Irish families, howling laughter, and the sharing of stories. And tomorrow your best friends will marry each other. Fettuccini alfredo will make an appearance there too.

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