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The Great Garlic Challenge

Dinner, "senz’aglio," at Ristorante Ancora and Via dei Mille in New York

I might not trust Silvio Berlusconi with my daughter or my country, but when it comes to commanding a menu, he’s my guy.

You may remember that in June of 2007, Mr. Berlusconi—between stints as Italian prime minister but not exactly out of power—decreed that Roman restaurants should abstain from the use of garlic. The predictable brouhaha arose, with some chefs defying him and others embracing the chance to show off subtler flavors.

I’m allergic to garlic. It’s not that I don’t like it, as I’ve explained to a hundred restaurateurs and dining companions; it doesn’t like me. Itchy nose and ears, a sensation of pitchforks attacking the roof of my mouth, nightmares you don ‘t want to know about; and the taste lingers on for three days, no matter how much parsley, mint, and lemon I munch.

As a working chef, I know what a pain in the ass other people’s food allergies are. I once crewed on a yacht rented by a family of five whose mother told me she would die if I used a cutting board on which watermelon had sat for even a second. She and her daughter lived the low-fat, dairy-free life, and two in the family eschewed wheat—they didn’t have celiac disease, they had a theory. They insisted wrongly that spelt wasn’t wheat and buckwheat (a fruit) was wheat, but I did it their way, deliciously. And I gave Dad straight-up steak and spuds, as he wished. All this out of a tiny galley kitchen, with an oven that broiled whatever it baked.

And so, when I go to a restaurant, I expect indulgence and nuanced attention. If my idea of a great meal featured steamed white rice and poached chicken breast—well, it wouldn’t be a problem, but I like lusty cooking, with concentrated flavors, and don’t spare the heat. Just please, please leave out the garlic. Other members of the Alliaceae family sit fine with me, by the way, though I prefer cooked onions to raw. Leeks and shallots are staples of my larder. A snip of chives—onion, not garlic, chives—can make my day.

Of course it’s a lot easier to avoid watermelon than garlic, which lurks behind “spices” and “flavorings” on many labels. It’s murmured among garlicphobes, for instance, that Heinz ketchup contains garlic. My inquiry to the company brings a letter that refuses to confirm or deny its presence; their spices and flavorings are proprietary, they say. They want to assure me, however, that their ketchup is innocent of dairy, meat, soy, or eggs.

Meanwhile, a little online investigating unearths a compelling fact. Heinz makes a ketchup proclaimed free of garlic and onion for South India, where these foods are banned on religious principles, some authorities declaring garlic and onions too stimulating and others blaming it for lethargy. Out of mere self-preservation, not ethos, I avoid the New World version, although sometimes I crave the all-American dunk.

Go ahead, make your vampire jokes, but for me the scariest sentence in the English language is, “The Chef uses just a little bit of garlic.” That soupcon is enough to bring me to my knees. If, heaven forfend, the garlic is powdered or in a salt, the suffering is worse. When my kids were little and addicted to pizza-by-the-slice, their afterschool kisses made me reel. And I do love my children’s kisses. Yes, the very smell of garlic poisons me. I once broke the lease on a glorious Greenwich Village apartment when I realized I’d be inhaling the exudate from a famous Spanish restaurant around the corner. Give me secondhand smoke instead, any day.

According to Anna Teresa Callen, beloved cookbook author (Food and Memories of Abruzzo, My Love for Naples) and real-life cooking teacher, it’s either onions or garlic, never both. So garlic has no place, for notable instance, in Mrs. Callen’s superb Bolognese sauce, which begins with the “holy trinity” of finely chopped onion, celery, and carrot slowly softened in olive oil. On a recent trip to Sicily with my brother, I scarcely needed to use the cards I’d printed up: “Sono molto allergica a l’aglio….” I needed only say “senz’aglio, per favore,” to a waiter, and I was home free.

But In New York? Fuggedaboutit. In one week last month, I am garlic-slimed so often, although waitstaff and chefs promise to keep me safe—that I go through a box of Benadryl. In tears after one betrayal, I vow henceforth to eat only desserts unless I am at the stove.

Here’s a tragic example from the awful week. I order one of my favorite pastas, cacio e pepe, renowned for its simplicity and intensity. The ingredients do not deviate from kitchen to kitchen; thus an Italian restaurant’s reputation is said to rise or fall with its cacio e pepe. A long pasta such as spaghetti or bucanti is cooked just so in salted water. It’s tossed with pecorino-romano, freshly cracked (and maybe toasted) black pepper, enough of the cooking water to help coat each strand of pasta, maybe a touch of butter. No less, no more—with the quality, texture, proportions, and temperatures of the ingredients determining the merit of the dish.

Except that on one perverse night, a local joint, where I have previously reveled in this dish, adds garlic oil. No matter that I have stressed, as always, my need for zero garlic—and indeed have enjoyed a lovely starter of unsullied octopus.

I’ve concocted oddities in my day, including tomato and basil marshmallows at the height of a Putnam County summer. I salute the kitchen iconoclast; how not? But garlic belongs in tiramisu sooner than in cacio e pepe.

I can dunk my fries in mayo or malt vinegar. I do love dessert. But four nights out of seven, I want to be able to enjoy the range of la cucina italiana—without paying awful dues. So I approach my dear friend and esteemed editor Vivian Fancher with the idea of throwing down the Great No-Garlic Challenge. Might there be Italian chefs in New York who would embrace the idea of feeding this hyper-vigilant crank?

Moments later, I have two fabulous invitations. Ancora Ristorante, a Financial District stalwart, will let me choose from their regular menu and adapt the dishes to meet my needs. Via dei Mille in SoHo will craft a tasting menu just for me. I am assured that whatever I eat will also be available to any other patron who sounds the garlic alert.

Two very different restaurants, two stellar evenings. My partner in mischief, Ricardo, who is fond of garlic, says he finally understands what I mean about the absence of garlic letting subtler flavors shine.

Ancora Ristorante

Double Cut Pork Chop in Cherry Pepper Sauce, Ancora
Credit: Matthew Matossian

Just finding Ancora puts us in a festive mood. Tucked away downstairs on tiny, hard-to-find Stone Street, it makes arrivals at 8:30 on a Friday feel as though we’re in on a wonderful secret. Elegantly attired Elio, one of the partners (he uses only his first name), greets us effusively. Were we strangers and not the press, the greeting would be the same, I’m certain. Hospitality isn’t just his business, it’s his soul. I’m glad I’m wearing my good pearls.

We’re led down two short flights to a subterranean space where the tables are widely spaced and the napery gleams. We two are seated at a table that could comfortably handle six because that’s how they do it for everyone. It’s a room where diners’ words will stay private, whether the talk is of derivatives or burgeoning romance.

Tony Fantastico, Elio’s partner, an exuberant charmer, rules the back of the house. He waves his hand and antipasti arrive, as they do for all guests. Can it be, I ask, that the gossamer slices of sopressata are garlic-free? He assures me it is so: made to his specs in the Bronx. I taste and I am in heaven. This bite alone would be worth the detour. Reader, you cannot imagine how sausage-deprived I have been.

Chunks of a supple, well-aged parmigiano are perfect with our aperitifs. No surprise that thoughtful Tony stocks Punt e Mes, the aperitif that by law should be offered by every restaurant that calls itself Italian. Mine is served in a chunky glass crammed with ice. If I dwell on details, please understand. The one thing worse than no Punt e Mes is Punt e Mes with insufficient ice.

My garlic-detector flutters when a plate of hot peppers is proffered. “Reassure me, Tony,” I murmur. He rolls his eyes to heaven, commands a waiter, and soon the wrongful peppers are replaced by the pure. Again, I am blissed. Heat without garlic is tough to come by. These juicy torpedos are brilliant.

Cheesecake, Ancora
Credit: Matthew Matossian

I tell Ricardo I hope I’m not driving everyone crazy. “I think Tony likes a challenge,” Ricardo observes. When I repeat this to our host, he laughs. “You’ve got that right.”

We try merely to nibble on the antipasti, for we’ve only begun. Tony insists we try the Oysters Rockefeller, not usually my favorite dish, but these are briny, free of clutter, on the money.

We share two special ravioli, one made with creamy seafood, one with Kobe beef in a port reduction. I love sweet and savory in tandem, so the port is just my thing. But minced as it is, cooked through, the Kobe seems to have lost its defining juiciness.

The veal chop, my main, is simply the best I’ve ever had, and I’ve had more than I want to admit to. The visuals are hilarious: a Tom Jones / Fred Flintstone haunch of meat with maybe ten inches of frenched bone sticking up into the air, flourishing a foil ruffle. The treatment is simple: butter and sage. The temperature is impeccable: enough pink to promise succulence but not enough to scare me. As to the flavor: Well, when was the last time you really tasted veal. Ancora’s is the paradigm.

Interior, Ancora
Credit: Matthew Matossian

Tony explains that of a rack that would normally yield eight chops, they carve out three. There’s enough in my take-home bag to provide the makings of vitello tonatto for two of us the next evening.

To my surprise the dessert cart boasts few Italian specialties—no ricotta cheesecake; but never mind. The simple key lime tart is as good as any I’ve had, and I’ve had the best, from Steve’s in Red Hook, Brooklyn to the roadside wonder at Islamorado on the way to Key West.

Tony and Elio’s hospitality means no one escapes without being offered a sip from the cart of homemade after-dinner libations. Rick, half Amalfitano, gives thumbs up to the limoncello. My raisin grappa is what the doctor ordered, strong enough to dissolve half the calories I’ve ingested, sweet enough to make me sigh.

Your hosts will conjure a car if you need one, a good thing. After dinner at Ancora, one lists rather than walks.

Via dei Mille

Four days later, we are hungry again. As indeed we need to be. The extravaganza designed for us at this chic, vivid SoHo spot might qualify as a Damon Runyon eating contest. Except that instead of hotdog-scarfing, scale-busting ruffians, our fellow diners are sleek and gorgeous twenty-somethings. Can someone explain to me how all those size-zero women drink and eat as if they were Amazons, larding up for battle?

Our special menu includes three starters, three pastas, and three entrees. My plea for small portions is shrugged off. Abbondanza is the theme song.

Fritto misto, which we eat all over town (hold the aioli), is a stand-out among the small plates we taste, maybe our favorite version anywhere: crisp-tender, hot, sufficiently de-greased, with a just-right counterpoint in slivers of squash and carrot. It is perfectly accompanied by the house Prosecco, a yeasty frizzante served deeply chilled in a handsome tubular glass.

Lamb Chops, Villa dei Mille

One pasta is so especially superb, all other reality fades. Tender, silky pappardelle come tossed with a rabbit ragout, fresh baby spinach, and caramelized onions. You would think that “garlic” is the middle name of rabbit, given the difficulty, in the normal world, of getting one without the other. Oh, why? The rabbit here, is just the right degree gamy and toothsome, needing to taste of nothing but itself; the onion assertive enough (though sweet), such that garlic would be as discordant as Stravinsky played over Bach. No disrespect to the fine ricotta-spinach ravioli finished with sage, but the rabbit ragout is an epiphany, nothing less, the winner.

This unabashed carnivore savors every bite of minty lamb chop with orange-flavored mashed potatoes. I admit to favoring mashed potatoes that taste only of earth, butter, milk, and salt, but these fluffers make wonderful sense and round out the dish. People, why would you put 40 cloves of garlic in a leg of lamb, unless you wanted to kill me or sleep alone? Salt, pepper, mint, a dab hand with the timing so the lamb is rare but not raw, a touch of citrus potatoes: that’s what the world needs now.

Grilled salmon is also squisito, though full disclosure requires me to tell you it is eaten cold the next day, satiety (and then some) having been achieved after the lamb. As in the other small plates and mains, vegetables are co-stars, here shredded and barely cooked. A vegetarian could dine joyfully at Via dei Mille.

Squid Ink Pasta with Shrimp, Villa dei Mille

Our gracious server and hosts offer us a trio of desserts, but we manage only a spoonful or two (maybe three) of hazelnut and pistachio gelato, nicely sandy.

As I mention to one of the managers, such good food deserves to be tasted in all its nuances, and nuances vanish when the music is loud, the senses being connected as they are. Early on, he indulges us by lowering the beat, but it creeps back up as the regulars stream in.

My own toque is off in homage to the chefs who rose to my challenge and exceeded my hopes. Might I dare think I inspired them to re-think the ubiquity of garlic? I can understand so-so cooks who want to perk up pallid tomatoes with a sauteed clove or two of you-know-what. But where quality is high—the cheese aged to perfect fullness, the herbs perhaps from the chef’s own garden, the meat from the finest purveyors—why obscure the flavor?

Now to find a Chinese chef who will make me hoisin sauce without garlic...

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--Nancy Weber

Summer 2009

Editor’s Note:

On Tuesday, September 22, Ancora Ristorante officially opened a Pasta Bar by celebrating the publication of yet another book by photographer Ron Galella, Viva L’ Italia, and used the occasion to  introduce  a supplementary menu designed around appetizer-sized portions of homemade pastas and classic Italian small bites. Guests were treated to sumptuous samples of ravioli stuffed with Kobe beef and Portobello mushrooms; risotto with pears and gorgonzola cheese; penne, broccoli, and carrots napped with a creamy sauce; rigatoni Bolognese; and penne pomadora and buffalo mozzarella, as well as other savory dishes.

Galella’s tome of famous faces of persons of Italian heritage include Liza Minelli, Frank Sinatra, Sophia Loren, and Luciano Pavaretti. Lacking the background necessary for a page in this thick volume, Galella’s most famous and unwilling subject, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, adorned a wall in her most casual splendor. Dressed in jeans, her hair flowing in the wind, the candid shot of Onassis strolling the city is more beautiful than a formal portrait.

Like a play within a play society photographer, Patrick McMullen, covered the room snapping  Galella, his pals, and other party goers. For a glimpse of the merriment, open the eponymous picture taker’s website, patrickmcmullen.com and log on to September 22.