Marriage is a big step. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that. It’s a lifetime commitment, none of this two-years-and-I’m-bored-so-see-ya stuff. It’s major! And since I answered yes to a particular question last week, I’m gonna be doing it. Wow. Who knew? I never really imagined I’d get married. I’ve been single for a long time, and if you’re out there dating and single in New York City, I have a feeling you can relate to my pessimism. I just didn’t see it happening. And on top of that I didn’t exactly grow up dreaming of walking down the aisle. (Not sure that anyone really does.) You see, my parents’ marriage didn’t go so well. I mean they had my brother and me, which I guess was good, but otherwise, it lasted about six years and then that was that. And those six years were not so great if I remember correctly. (And I remember correctly.) Then again, I’ll admit that while I wasn’t raised with a great example of marital bliss, somehow marriage has still been something I wanted to do. I’m a die-hard romantic sap as most of you know, and the idea of being someone’s partner for the rest of my life is really something I wanted to do. I guess I had gotten to the point where I figured that if the right person came along, and if I was at the point in my own life—where I felt good enough with who I was and where I was going with myself— then I’d get married. And until then, I’d just write my columns. I guess both of those requirements have been met because last week Craig got down on one knee and took a black box out of his coat pocket and asked me to marry him, and I said yes. Well, actually I should explain that I said yes after a very small period of hesitation. I was sort of in shock. I mean I was very happy about it, but I just didn’t expect it to come on a Sunday morning. (We had been away for the weekend and he waited till Sunday morning! Who does that?) So he caught me way off guard, and while I was processing what was happening, he was down there on one knee waiting for the most important answer to the most important question of his adult life, and I sort of forgot to answer. Just for about ten seconds, maybe twenty, but you know how time stands till at those moments. Well, I guess after enough time had passed and he started to get a cramp in his leg, he had to give me a multiple-choice answer (Yes, Yes, or Yes?) I choose (d)—all of the above. I can still feel my heart beating from that morning. The night after Craig and I got engaged, I met Jamie, Adrienne, Kiri and Alison for an improptu dinner celebration at Dell’Anima, a new West Village Italian restaurant. Jamie and Alison were already at the bar and screamed and jumped up and down when I walked in. I am sorry if you were one of those people at the restaurant whose hearing is now compromised. I admit that we were a little annoying. Kiri and Adge showed up a bit later and while we waited for them, we toasted with various cocktails (created by Dale DeGroff) like the Fragoli Sogno, a fresh mix of gin, Fragoli liqueur, limoncello and fresh mint. By the time we were seated at a cozy banquette across from the open kitchen (wear a tank top, it’s hot back there), we were onto our first bottle of wine (a juicy, bright 100% Sangiovese Cima called Romablo from Tuscany) and were quite giddy.
Dell’anima, which means “of the spirit,” represents the union of two young talents in the business—Joe Campanale, a former sommelier from Babbo, and Chef Gabriel Thompson, formerly of Le Bernardin and Del Posto. Their mission was to bring a smart neighborhood trattoria to the city, to serve a menu stocked with rustic seasonal Italian fare with a choice of 100 Italian wines from Campanale’s favorite producers like Emidio Pepe, Paolo Bea, and Movia and Bruno Giasco. To give the modest glass-front West Village space a sleek New York sensibility rather than the traditional wood-washed Tuscan farmhouse motif, they hired the design firm Bihuber who installed a sleek bar room up front with a granite bar, and raised bar tables, and a small dining room in the back with a few tables for larger groups, and a chef’s counter for dining up close and personal. It’s a smallish space, and it gets busy quickly, but somehow it doesn’t feel too cramped.
A nice way to start a meal at Dell’Anima (other than copious amounts of bubbly) is their collection of make-your-own bruschetta. Basically this is a kit of all you need for your feast—a bowl of warm freshly grilled country bread, and either one ($5), three ($10) or five ($15) different toppings. We were celebrating, so we got them all—yes, the dieting will have to start at some point, clearly—and passed them back and forth reaching over and under each other to get at the ones we liked best. The lily confit (onions, garlic, and shallots, all from the—get it?—lily family) was one of my favorites—soft and sweet, with just the right nudge of chile heat, but the caponata was also terrific: sweet and sour and nutty, and good enough to spoon over bread or quite frankly a paper towel. The tuna rillette was not so much a rillette as a fresh Calabrian tuna salad treated to briny salt-slapped capers and smoky roasted red peppers. The last of the lot—the roasted beets—was the most captivating—a garnet dice spooned with mascarpone yogurt and toasted pistachios.
As we ate and drank the temperature seemed to climb even higher in that banquette next to the open kitchen and Alison was melting and decided it was time get undressed. She was wearing a black vest over a white button down shirt, and managed to somehow contort her body into a sort of pretzel, so that she removed her white shirt without taking off her vest. It was like something out of Cirque de Soleil. I have no idea what she can do with a cherry stem.
Thompson’s menu is nicely edited down to just seven antipasti, four pastas and five secondi. I’ve spoken about this before, but I’ll say it again: less is more. I don’t need a choice of a dozen cold and a dozen hot antipasti, and an equal number of pizzas, meat and fish entrees, and sides. Keep it simple and focused. In my experience, it undoubtedly reflects a more precise kitchen.
With four house-made pastas to chose from, Adrienne chimed in about what to order. “We need to have them all,” she declared, putting her menu down. This proposal (read: order) was met not met with even the slightest bit of resistance. How could we choose from tagliatelle Bolognese ($17), spaghetti neri ($18), pizzoccheri with sage, potato, garlic, brussel sprouts, and fontina ($15), and risotta alla pilota with sausage salumi and pecorino Romano ($18)? We couldn’t, and I’m glad we didn’t. The Bolognese was killer—a softly spiced luscious ragu spooned over a tangle of tagliatelle ribbons. The spaghetti neri was serious—black spaghetti cut with an inky calamari ragu that tasted like the sea salty air. But Thompson really got with the risotta alla “pilota”—more of an Italian sausage fried rice than a loose and creamy risotto dish. Thompson explained that this “pilota” style of risotto comes from the town of Mantova in Lombardi, where rice is cooked separately from a mix of sausage, salami, and onions and then tossed together in the pan, and fried up and garnished with cheese. Indeed it tastes wok-fried and quite fabulous. You’ll want to take it home in a little Chinese to-go container and eat with chopsticks the next day for lunch.
The pizzoccheri is also native to Lombardi, from a town called Valtellina in the Alps, and these wide rough-cut noodles are similar to tagliatelle, but made with a hearty buckwheat flour and traditionally tossed with cabbage, garlic, butter, and cheese. In this case, the noodles are tossed with brussel sprouts, potatoes, sage, and garlic and handfuls of shredded (and soon melting) fontina cheese. In a different form, it could be the world’s greatest casserole (it’s served that way at Morandi), but here it’s lighter and just an honest earthy expression of flavors. I’d say it was my favorite dish but it might be tied with that Italian fried rice, er, risotto.
At this point, the conversation at our table was on a rather funny pendulum, swinging back and forth between reception halls, dresses, caterers, to Bolognese sauce, fried rice risotto and pizzoccheri pasta, which I thought was quite fitting for the first discussions of my wedding. It continued that way through the secondi—the chicken al Diavolo with roasted autumn squash and chicken sugo ($19), and a poached halibut with caramelized and candied fennel. The fish was opal in color, like the inside of a pearl’s shell, and was silky and sweet and beautifully perfumed with fennel. This was truly a magnificent dish. The chicken was a bit more clumsy in comparison, a pan-fried bird swimming in an in-your-face spicy and greasy red sauce. It wasn’t as refined as the fish, but still, a good juicy bird.
Instead of dessert, we had more wine. And I think maybe some more proseco, too. Yes, definitely more bubbly because there were quite a few toasts and more ridiculousness. Honestly, I never thought I’d be this person, but I sort of lost my mind for a period of time last week. I couldn’t focus, and I was transformed into a giddy, silly, 12-year old girl. I guess that’s okay. It’s fun to be this happy. Don’t worry, I won’t be turning into some annoyingly overly-happy person, I’m still a girl from Queens after all. And for all the wonder and thrill of becoming engaged, I’ve also lived long enough to know that marriage—and life for that matter—is not a fairy tale. I think the promise of permanence is a beautiful ideal and one that I truly believe in, but it’s also somewhat of a fiction we create for our own purposes. I am not speaking about the marriage bond as much as this thing called life in general. When I was 18 years old (quite a while ago), I lost my aunt, someone I loved like a second mother. One morning she was there and then that night, when I came home, the news was on—there had been a fire in her building—and then she was gone. I think, for better or worse, that loss has informed the way I approach my life. This is not meant to be a pity party, I am aware that my own loss is just a blip on the screen of hundreds of thousands of losses far worse—the loss of wives, husbands, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters. But my point is that when you have life taken from you so suddenly, you live with this little reminder in the back of your mind that everything can be taken away at any time, and this breeds, for me at least, an immense appreciation for what I have and the abundance that is here right now. I don’t know what the key to a successful marriage is; I’m not Doctor Phil. But I know I found someone who I love, adore, respect, and admire; someone I want by my side for as long as we are both lucky enough to stick around on this planet. And I guess that’s a good start. Now pass the bubbly.