It was shaping up to be a tough week. Late summer is like that. Transitions abound. Nudgy kids think ahead to September mornings, anticipate unwelcome commitments, mourn unrealized summer plans. June's rabid expectations are now August's fond memories or failed hopes.
Our happy family of 20 (two parents, two sons, three summer guests, eleven fish and one pet rat) will shrink to a nucleus of three in ten short days. Like charged particles bouncing around in an atom, people in our house are a barely contained emotional firestorm primed for nuclear reaction. It gives new meaning to Chaos Theory.
Wednesday afternoon means a trip to the airport, the last of a half dozen this summer. Terminal A and E long term parking is feeling like my own personal garage. This trip marks the departure of our final transcontinental guest, who, after a month, is winging his way back home. Unthinkably, he starts school Monday. We are sad.
It is time for a cannoli. It is time for an espresso. It is time to see if my parking karma extends to the North End. Is there light at the end of the Sumner Tunnel?
I take a risk. "Hey," I say to my unusually quiet 16-year-old son, "Wanna go to the North End and get a cannoli?" "At Mike's Pastry?" he counters. The baseline of a Calvin Harris remix, tethered from his iPod to the car's sound system, thumps away the seconds as he makes his decision. "Sure. Do you think we'll get parking?"
Questionable. It's feast time in the North End. This week, the Feasts of both Saint Anthony, my father's patron saint, and Saint Lucia, are being celebrated. I navigate our car down narrow streets beneath garish green and red and orange faux pine-bough flowers and ribbons and leaves. Threaded with mini-lights, they canopy the streets. I make a silent prayer to the Saints, first, ever practical, for parking. These are Saints in a 21st century setting, after all. And second, in thanks for some time alone, after a long, busy summer, with my son.
Tony and Lucy come through big time. In nothing short of a miracle, a parking spot opens up on Hanover Street, right in front of Mike's. And inside Mike's, amid the clamor of dozens of customers crowding the counter, a table frees up in the window. Complete with a plastic daisy centerpiece and a bird's eye view of the tourists taking pictures of the Mike's marquee. We sigh, we sit, we order.
Things are going so well I half expect the foam on my espresso macchiato to arrive in the shape of a feathery plaster of Paris relief of the baby Jesus. Our North End miracle immortalized forever in pop culture terms. Captured for eternity by Instagram.
We bond over ricotta cannoli, espresso and thoughts of the dozen cannoli we order to go without having to join the hordes, thanks to our waitress. Thank you, I solemnly say to no one in particular, bowing my head slightly, eyes to the heavens. In response, Tony and Lucy give me a smirk, a wink and a smile in my mind's eye.
Let's see if my good luck streak holds. "The Salumeria Italiana is right around the corner," I throw out nonchalantly. "They're celebrating their 50th Anniversary. And the owner is celebrating his 90th birthday. Wanna go by and say hello?" My ever-easy going son, now hopped up on sugar and caffeine courtesy of Mike's, happily agrees. "Hey, Mom. I'll carry the cannoli," he offers.
Was a time, two decades ago, when the Salumeria was an every-Saturday destination for me. The owner, Erminio, and his son, Guy, are old school, and have always been the go-to store for authentic Italian ingredients. They know their customers and their products, appreciate both, and treat them with the care they deserve. Even now, with months, sometimes years, between visits, they welcome me warmly. We hug, we chat, we talk food, we hug some more. It's all good.
I guess that's the point. It's all good. Time passes, things change, but the possibility always exists for an unexpected surprise or two to soften the road. Today, it was cannoli and hugs. And because I have always believed good things come in threes (I guess it's a Sicilian thing) I had my eye open for the third blessing of my completely unanticipated triumvirate.
And as we pull into the driveway, there it is, right outside my front door. Giant heirloom, San Marzano, and cherry tomatoes, their red, fiery flesh a shot of brilliance amid the green lushness of a mid-August garden. Tonight's dinner is in my garden. The bounty of a warm, sunny summer, brought to my family table. There is nothing better to cheer about as summer wends it's way to a close.
- 4 tbs. olive oil
- 1/2 lb. pancetta, or bacon, cut into 1/2" cubes
- 1 large white onion, peeled and diced to 1/2" pieces
- 1 cup white wine
- 1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
- 1 tbs. fresh thyme leaves, picked from stems
- 3 lbs. tomatoes, San Marzano, cherry or Heirloom, seeded, cut into 1/2" dice
- 2 cups arugula
- coarse salt and black pepper to taste
- 1 lb. good quality dried pasta
- Parmigiano Romano cheese, optional
- Place 6 - 8 quarts water to boil in a large pan.
- Place a large, heavy bottom sauce pan over high heat. Add olive oil.
- Sauté pancetta in olive oil, stirring frequently, until gently browned.
- Add onions and thyme. Sauté until onions are translucent, 5 -7 minutes.
- Add wine, and deglaze the pot well, scraping off all the little caramelized bits.
- Reduce wine until only a scant 1/4 cup remains. Reduce heat to very low.
- When the water is boiling, salt well and add the pasta. Boil until the pasta is just shy of al dente. Scoop out 2 cups of pasta water with a pyrex or other heat proof container. Set aside.
- Drain the pasta well and transfer to the pancetta and onion pan. Turn heat up to high.
- Add the tomatoes, arugula and as much of the reserved pasta water is necessary to coat the pasta nicely.
- Cook for a minute or two, until the flavors meld.
- Serve immediately, with grated cheese for sprinkling, if desired.