Monday, August 9, 2010

Food, Glorious Food

I find myself eating a lot of dinners (and occasional lunches) in restaurants this summer — it's a great way to socialize with friends. Walking with my husband to the Anna's Taqueria on Cambridge Street, or at MIT, or even out to Brookline, is a good way for us to get a little exercise plus our favorite meal a few times a week.

It's been too hot to cook this month. Imagine making soup, or roasting a bird, in this weather. This weather IS soup, if you ask me. I've been limiting my offerings to guacamole, salads, and sandwiches. I'll only heat up the oven to make a pizza, which bakes in 12 minutes.

It's often hard for me to eat in trendy restaurants because I can't have red meat, alcohol, strong spices, or anything made with lots of cream — in other words, almost all of the things that make food tasty. Thank god I can still have some cheese. Nevertheless, there are usually salads and one or two entrees on almost any menu that will work for me. (I avoid certain French restaurants, like Sandrine's, where every item on the menu, except maybe Alsatian flatbread, comes spiked with liquor. I've had to order off the menu in these restaurants. My conclusion is that the chefs need either an intervention or an introduction to the concept that exciting flavors don't have to come from bottles.)

But, honestly, I'd rather eat simple, inexpensive food anyway. Wrap it in aluminum foil or serve it on an aluminum pizza pan, and I'm happy.

As we put it, we don't like "snooty food." We love the original Regina's for pizza. We recently tried their all-white, four-cheese pizza and it was heavenly. Without tomato sauce, you can concentrate on the rich, toasty flavor of their crust, which is the best I've ever tasted. And all that cheese was surprisingly light. Their margherita pizza, covered in basil, is otherwise my favorite, although I have nothing bad to say about their pepperoni, either, except that I feel mildly guilty afterward. I also love the atmosphere despite all the racket. It feels like home.

We love the burritos at all of the Anna's Taquerias, which you would know if you've known us for longer than two days. We keep them simple, but always add a dollop of cilantro-free guacamole. It's been our favorite meal for at least 15 years, and we have not yet tired of eating them at least twice a week, and preferably more often. Our foodie friends would probably charge us with having extremely limited, unadventurous palates, and we admit to that culinary crime — as long as we're forced to eat more burritos as community service.

But now we've discovered Felipe's Taqueria in The Garage in Harvard Square. It's almost like Anna's but the flavors — while nearly identical — are a little more intense, there's a little more variety (grilled corn in your burrito! fresh key limes for your drink!),  the burritos are a little bigger, and the seating and atmosphere are generally nicer (upholstery!). It's Anna's cranked up a notch. We are only averaging one meal there a week and I'm sort of unhappy about that. (We've also tried El Pelon, Boloco, Boca Grande, and one or two other local taquerias over the years, but one burrito was always enough to send us back to Anna's.)

We just went to Teatro, on Tremont, near the theater district. Aside from the noise, it was excellent. It has a sleek art deco design and excellent service. I ordered a vegetable pizza that turned out to be crispy, flavorful, grilled flatbread covered in seasonal garden vegetables, including battered zucchini blossoms, heirloom cherry tomatoes, and grilled corn. Plus fresh ricotta and basil. I loved it, and couldn't finish it all so it made a nice lunch yesterday. I sneaked a few spoonfuls of my husband's gelato for dessert and found it superb.

Almost all restaurants are designed to be noisy, which we can't understand. We like to have some quiet conversation as we eat, rather than screaming. But it seems that noise signals "We're having a good time" to other diners, so restaurants are acoustically designed to amplify every cackle and clang. I guess the average diner likes yelling more than we do. Yelling, while a key element of every meal I've ever "enjoyed" back home with my Italian relatives, tends to put me on edge outside my family circle. Besides, the yelling we traditionally do around the dinner table is entirely unnecessary, so we can stop if we feel like it. I hate having to shout in a waiter's ear.

That's why we prefer to eat outside in good weather; aside from the motorcycles and sirens, Boston's natural acoustics generally allow you to hear the people at your table.

On a summer evening, I like the outdoor tables at Cafeteria and Charley's on Newbury. Both offer lots of dinner options for me, and their service, casual atmosphere and people-watching are relaxing and fun. We took a large group of young Parisians, here on business, to Charley's on their first night in the US, and they had a blast choosing between burgers, spareribs, salads, and fajitas not so easily found in Paris. They also enjoyed the American-style desserts.  Charley's often offeres tall slices of Boston cream pie, dusted with slivered almonds. It's as light as air and my current No. 1 favorite dessert. I try to save room for it by ordering their grilled chicken salad with walnuts, blue cheese, and dried cranberries, although I always eat too much of that round loaf of oven-warm bread that comes with it.

We recently ate at Bina; we seem to be meandering our way through the Italian options in the Theater District. I expected Bina to be somewhat on the snooty side, but it was wonderful. I'm learning that sleek architecture and high style doesn't not always mean that you won't find a warm welcome and simple, but perfect, food. Their menu is varied, with many down-to-earth choices. I started with salad (actually I started by having too much of their good bread and olive oil), and moved on to a memorable bowl of spaghetti with fresh tomato sauce, followed by a little dish of lemon sorbet and mango gelato that put me back in Florence. It was too hot to eat outside, but despite the soaring ceilings, we could talk at normal volume. And the air conditioning was refreshing, not blasting. I always pack a cashmere sweater when we go out to eat, and sometimes I wish I could ask the waiters for some tablecloths so I can bundle up further. But Bina gets everything right, and is not to be missed.

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