I still remember the calzones.
I was 7 years old, at my grandparents’ house in New Jersey, with no fewer than 20 members of my extended Italian family.
Someone suggested we all go to a restaurant, something we rarely did — this was 1977, and the female members of large Italian families in New Jersey were basically kitchen conscripts. But that night they got a break from boiling pastas and rolling meatballs when we all went to… Umberto’s? Ignacio’s? The name is so close, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.
But I remember the calzones. It was the only thing we ordered, enough for all of us.
“They deep-fry them here,” my uncle stage-whispered to me as we filled every single table in the tiny basement restaurant. I was still too young to get excited about such things, but that would change on this day.
The calzones, as they came out to the tables, were the color of honey. A half of one was slapped on the table in front of me, on a paper plate stained with grease. In the cross-section, I could see the mounds of flowing ricotta and mozzarella, but also sliced Italian sausage, peppers, onion and pepperoni. No sauce — Italians don’t put sauce on calzones.
It was sweet and crispy and meaty and I swear to Christ I can still taste it if I concentrate hard enough.
It was the first time I ever ate something so good, so enlightening, that I will remember the moment forever.
I had my first soft-shell crab at a restaurant on a family vacation when I was 11. At 13 I ate a bowl of peanut soup at a restaurant in Virginia that I will never forget. When I was 16, I ate a cheeseburger at a drugstore counter in Quebec, in February, made on a bun but grilled like a patty-melt. The first time I had unagi was on a not-a-date with a new friend my freshman year of college, and no variation of the dish has ever tasted the same.
In 1992, I ate sweetbreads for the first time at Susan Spicer’s Bayona restaurant on Dauphine Street in New Orleans, paired with a gewurtztraminer, also a first for me that night. That meal hit me so hard I still remember the exact table and seat I was in. I even remember the shirt I was wearing that night.
I remember the third course of a seven-course meal prepared by my friend Nick Gile in 1996: a single oyster cooked in a tiny souffle with broiled cheese crust atop it. I remember a cold sandwich from a place called Butcher made with shaved rare lamb and fresh mint leaves. And I will remember a restaurant dessert of carmelized chocolate ice cream with carmelized phyllo shards for the rest of my life. Charles Barkley was at the next table. And I remember the first time I ate the hot glass that came off the pig at my first pig pickin’, held in a backyard off a canal somewhere near Edenton.
I’ve been incredibly fortunate in my culinary life, enough so that my sense memory is loaded with meals that I can call up with ease. But I think everybody has a store of experiences like this, moments made indelible by the flavor, the company, the perfection of the moment.
Maybe that’s why I still remember the calzones: the joy in being part of a loud Italian family, the novelty of filling up a restaurant and eating a dish that neither my grandmother nor my aunts and cousins nor even my great-grandmother would make at home — and she used to make her own ravioli.
I can still remember that first bite, the sweet ricotta and crisp peppers, the way it exploded all over my fingers. I can still see it; I can still taste it. And in a way, I’ve been looking for it ever since.