Another long dry spell, forgive me. I need to be talk about a meal I had back in September (this is how behind I am.)
A dear friend and I attended a screening of Amelie in the park in Little Italy– a great deal of fun despite the freezing winds. Afterwards we were both starved and craving food and warmth; luckily, finding comfort food in this part of town was not going to be difficult. Which to choose though? The decision was daunting.
We were walking up Stockton, clutching at our coats and our grumpy tummies when it happened– I knew I was already in love. It was like catching the gaze of the perfect woman. I was too shy to speak up and say, “that way, I want to go that way!” I locked eyes with her, the object of my affection … my head turned as we kept walking, my little heart weeped. My friend pointed this way and that way– “this place? This place! No, no, thiiiiiis place…”
We turned a corner and I thought I had lost her forever. We walked into another Italian restaurant, but I felt dead inside; it felt as if I had missed my one chance at true love. But! To my delight and my friend’s dismay however, the prices on the menu were just shy of atrocious. We walked out and I doubled back, knowing she’d still be there, waiting for me, windows aglow exuding a come-hither sort of warmth and charm. The sign displayed her name so I may remember it forever: Maria.
Caffe Maria. Her prices won our immediate approval– it was warm, moderately crowded, warmly lit, and the waitstaff was pleasant. We were seated in a nice romantic corner nook and served bread, butter, and this was just… oh my goodness– a whole dish of olives. Olives. It was only recently that I had developed a taste for them, but the combination of the fresh bread, soft flesh, crisp skin, absolutely rich, flavorful butter, and these perfect ovals of savory complexity. It didn’t matter what we were going to order and have for the meal. This appetizer made my night.
Both of us ordered gnocchi; my friend had it with pesto, I had it with pink sauce. There is not much more to say than to describe the gnocchi as divinity. Gnocchi are always described as pillows of potato, and yes, that’s exactly the description that fits. The housemaid gnocchi gets two thumbs up and multiple high fives. Highly, highly recommended.
I’ll visit Maria next time for their seafood, because it’s apparently what they are known for. Maria, Maria. And if that wasn’t enough, there were huge bowls of dessert cookies and Andes mint chocolates circulating the room. Our eyes grew wide and we nibbled and were tempted to stuff our pockets. I chose to take six of the chocolates, only to be devoured on the train ride home, but seriously? A delectable meal, affordable, generous in variety and portions, a beautiful ambience, and what I imagine would be a just-as-reasonable Italian wine list. This is love.
A word on olives. If you’re thinking that olives are a pizza condiment to pick off, oh baby, are you missing out. There are so many many many different kinds of olives. My favorite thing to do with olives though is make a tapenade. A tapenade is defined by the Food Lover’s Companion as a “thick paste [from Provence] made from capers, anchovies, ripe olives, olive oil, lemon juice, [and] seasonings… used as a condiment.” Now I know plenty of people who hate olives, capers, AND anchovies. I used to be one of them. The whole, however, is most definitely more than the sum of its parts. Tapenade is that statement’s culinary testimony.
I have several fantastic recipes of variations, many of which come from a book called Pestos, Tapenades, and Spreads. I am a sauce and spread fanatic, this small little book was just the best thing that can happen to a girl like me.
Then there is Big Small Plates, which also has a tapenade recipe that claims to be the “best ever” that I haven’t tried yet. I’m going to come back with a tapenade that takes the best of both worlds, but for now…
Traditional Tapenade, Take one (modified from Pestos, Tapenades and Spreads)
- One 10-ounce jar or can pitted kalmata olives, drained and rinsed
- 2 anchovy fillets
- 2 small garlic cloves, minced
- 1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 4 fresh basil leaves
- 1 tablespoon capers, drained
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- Freshly ground pepper
Put everything in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until a course mixture forms. Makes about a cup.
I eat it on bread, but try to be creative with its application. Enjoy.