Remembrance of Things Pasta

Often lost in the immediacy of eating is the transcendent connection between taste and memory. Like, every time I eat spice cake I remember how my mother always baked spice cake for my birthday because she believed it was my favorite, which it wasn't, yet I never had the heart to tell her, so I got it year after year—which is why I never eat spice cake, anymore. Okay, so that's not such a good example.

A better one, maybe, is the flood of memories that swept over me during my dinner at Basilico's. Sampling the fare at this little family jewel box of a restaurant, squeezed into a corner store of a busy-intersection shopping center in Huntington Beach, brought to mind a very familiar scene—from long ago, in a neighborhood way back east, where a young man would drop into a mom-and-pop spot just about anytime and be greeted with heaping plates of linguine with clams, fettuccine alfredo with milanesa and chicken parmesan. Know the scene I'm talking about? Help me out, because I'm totally drawing a blank on the name of the movie. Something by Scorcese, probably.

Me? I've never eaten Italian food east of Brea, not counting those microwaved pizzas a flight attendant once handed out somewhere over Oklahoma. But eating at Basilico's makes me think I may have. The place connects me with memories I don't even have. That's transcendence!

The small dining room holds perhaps a dozen tables and fills them every night. The walls are covered with funky stuff—old-timey photos of the family (and the Rat Pack), a few paintings, some foreign beer and wine signs, as well as a kitschy twist on the grape-arbor motif, in which each of the phony, fruity orbs is a glowing little lightbulb. With such eclectic décor, something's going to make you think you've seen it before.

The menu delivers the same déjá vu, and not just because it's a pretty straightforward litany of the basics—appetizers like traditional antipasto and caprese salads, entrees like lasagna and spaghetti and meatballs or sausage, desserts like cannoli and tiramasu. Actually, it's the variations in Basilico's versions of the standards—subtle, but unmistakably family recipes—that make these foods so truly comfortable that they make you feel a part of their heritage. That said, this is Huntington Beach—our waiter was an early twenty-something with buzz-cut hair, who recited the nightly specials in a surfer's inflection that made them sound tuhohhtuhhly duhlishuss.

Susan and I set the tone for a gluttonous evening by ignoring the complimentary basket of warm bread (the better to extend our appetites) and beginning with a caprese salad. It arrived looking like three-dimensional Italian flags—thick slices of dark-red tomato and rich-white mozzarella cheese separated by a leaf of green basil—seasoned with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, presented simply in the center of a wide, round, black plate. Something about the aromatic combination of juicy, creamy, tarty flavors—for only $7.95—made me remember anew how glad I am that I never wasted good money to see Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Penelope Cruz notwithstanding.

We ordered three pasta entrees for the two of us and dished them up family-style. Susan went straight for the linguini with clams, opining that this dish is always the best way to measure an Italian restaurant. I chose the fettuccine alfredo with milanesa and chicken parmesan, both on the recommendation of the waiter, who explained they were “tahohhtuhhly duhlishuss.” His description sent me back to that place of profound regret—basically, any beach in Southern California—and left me again asking myself, over and over, why I never learned to surf. But only until the salads came.

They were serviceable mixtures of greens, purple onions, parmesan cheese—nothing to write home about . . . although, of course, that's always been the big complaint about me, that I never write, and deep down I think it's what sent my grandfather to his grave. That, and the massive stroke he suffered in his mid-80s.

The entrees were fabulous. The linguine with clams proved Susan's theory, the pasta firm but completely permeated with a garlicky goodness that could not be ignored, yet stopped before it was overpowering. There maybe could have been a few more clams, I said, but I would have said that no matter how many they gave us—I remember when I opened that present from my aunt on my fifth birthday, right after I'd blown out the candles on my spice cake, and complaining because she had given me a pair of pants instead of a toy.

The fettucine was ooey-gooey cheesy—Susan's description—and the accompanying milanesa was about the shape and size of the United States, although incredibly more tender. The chicken parmesan was fine—no complaints, really—but I don't think I'm going to order it, anymore . . . anywhere. I've been ordering it all my life. I remember ordering it the first time, when I was 10—I loved it; we all did, didn't we? But it's time I grow up.

We'll be coming back to Basilico's because there's so much left to try on that menu, particularly the Italian wedding soup, which is apparently a traditional favorite on the east coast. It's a chicken broth filled with pastina (very small pasta), tiny meatballs and escrole greens. Escrole? I had to ask, too. Turns out it is a salad plant with wide, dark green leaves—sometimes called Batavian endive . . . where, come to think of it, I think I once vacationed, back before the Serbo-Croatian conflict.


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