It was one of the best meals of my life.
I was new to Woodlawn C&P, my most recent place of employment. We were across the street from a rustic Italian joint called Firehouse.
Appropriately enough, the building itself used to be a firehouse; back when pictures were just black and white, and a giant rail car ran through the streets.
Matt, the chef and owner of the restaurant was around a lot during the beginnings of WCP, so one day he said, “Come to dinner tonight, I’ll take care of y’all…”
I wasn’t used to industry talk. We had been saving for a night out, anyways.
Hannah and I got dressed up well, or maybe she did, and I just did my best.
My favorite server Stephen, which I didn’t know at the time, was serving us.
“Hey, I work over at Woodlawn…Matt told me to come in and I think we’re just gonna leave it up to him!”
“Sure thing.” said Stephen. His presence helped the entire place feel warmer.
I don’t think anyone at the time knew I was any good at cooking (not even me), or that I knew what good food was supposed to taste like. I had been reading cookbooks and memoirs about kitchen life, and I was still antsy to soak it all in.
I watched the inferno in their gorgeous wood-fired oven lick the top of the dome where they would cook pizza and mussels and bread. Wood smoke on food is amazing, if you didn’t already know that.
For the life of me, I can’t remember everything we ate.
But it began with fried cauliflower. Like most of the meals I continued to eat at Firehouse, it always started with fried cauliflower. Nutty, brown, and the first bite was always too hot, but you bit into it anyways. Served with lemon crème fraiche, it was the most comforting thing.
Sliding over our cocktails came a few more dishes. Romaine hearts, with anchovy, lemon and shaved pecorino. Bruschetta with chevre and acorn squash.
Then the pizza.
Neapolitan style. Almost gooey-like in the middle, as it should. 6-8 minutes max in that blazing hot oven, and they are done. It was a simple but perfect margherita. Basil, light tomato sauce, and buffalo mozzerella. Doused with a bit of good olive oil before hitting the table, and with a pinch or two of chili flake to taste.
I was almost full.
Then came the meatballs.
Three rich, fatty, sweet balls of meat that I’d never had come close since then. Braised in a light tomato-rosemary sauce with lucinato kale and a hunk of pugliese bread.
Hannah was done, but when someone is giving you the whole nine, I ain’t stoppin’.
We did it.
We ate all the food.
Then came the digestif.
And then some sweets. Perhaps one of their pot de crèmes or tarts. I can’t quite recall, I think I was so blissed out that I lost some subtle conciousness.
If Matt read this, I know he would probably shake his head, and downplay how dramatic it was to me.
They comped our entire meal that night.
Not only was it a gesture of thanks, but it was a welcoming. I was becoming part of a bigger family.
It was this meal that taught me how good and simple and close to home food could be.
It changed how I cooked at home. It changed a lot more than that. It set the bar for what I wanted for myself.
I kept going back. For cauliflower, for meatballs, for the pizza. Each time, throwing my hands in the air (at least in my head) and submitting to the whole damn thing over and over again.
It allowed me to venture into other places that took just as much care of their food. I was spoiled rotten, I tell ya. Rotten.
Yes, it was one of the best meals of my life. And I will hold it deep down with all those good things that make me want to be a better cook, and how all the work they put in, came out to me on that table.