Chasing a Food Memory

It’s an unassuming plate – little irregular lumps of nearly naked pasta. No visual fireworks, no flashy garnish. I doubt I’d have ordered the agnolotti dal plin if a dining companion hadn’t praised it. “Guido’s mama makes them all by hand,” Daniel said, describing the folded, veal-stuffed pockets. “The sauce is just meat drippings from the roasting pan – but it’s probably the best pasta dish I’ve ever had.” We were eating at sleek, modern, expensive Guido Ristorante, in the little town of Pollenzo, Italy, home to Slow Food’s gastronomic university. There were plenty of flashier dishes on the menu (see one here), some with tennis-ball sized white truffles shaved on top. But I went for the agnolotti dal plin, and was blown away by the intense, long-roasted veal filling that’s encased in delicate pasta, then tossed in the rich, meaty pan juices. I understood why Guido chose to hang a huge black and white photo of his mama’s right hand on the restaurant wall. It hovered over our table like a benediction. When I walked into San Francisco restaurant Perbacco, it had been a year and a half since I devoured those heavenly agnolotti – which grew more and more delicious as my memory savored them. I scanned the menu, and a dish popped out: agnolotti dal plin filled with roasted vitellone and savoy cabbage, sugo d’arrosto. Crisis. Should I risk disturbing a perfect food memory? Of course, I reasoned, these agnolotti must be good, since the chef presents them with so little fanfare on a menu packed with items designed to impress. They’re competing with truffle-herb ricotta gnocchi in wild mushroom brodo, for heaven’s sake. I decided the agnolotti must be a special, secret dish for those cognoscenti belonging to the Order of Mama’s Hand. I could easily have been disappointed – but wasn’t. Chef Staffan Terje’s agnolotti were just as unassuming, spilled onto the plate without the least attempt to impress. And when I bit into the first rich, meaty bundle, it transported me back to the table in Italy where I’d crowded in with seven friends for an incredible meal beneath that benevolent hand. It’s tempting to chase a food memory – but not always successful. And yet, who can resist? You can leap over miles and years, dine with lost loves and dear friends. It’s alchemy, in the hands of a chef.
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