In which I celebrate the big 3-0 with food, friends, music and a once-in-a-lifetime wine
A couple of Fridays ago I celebrated my 30th birthday, an event which probably varies in significance depending how old you are! Over the last year, several of my friends had reached this undeniable milestone, and had described to me their sense of panic at having to kiss goodbye their roaring twenties. I personally felt happy to embrace a new decade: I’ve had thirty years to prepare for it, and after all, doesn’t life begin at 30? I certainly feel more content these days than in 1999, the year I first visited these shores as a wide-eyed 20 year-old. Exactly ten years later I find myself living in New York City, signing the lease to a new apartment on my 30th birthday. Blame it on a simple twist of fate…
After getting the keys to our new place we went home to crack open a bottle of Extra Brut 2001 by Bruno Giacosa which Jim Hutchinson had gifted me on New Year’s Eve. It had been sitting in my fridge ever since, just waiting for an appropriate moment — I suppose this was it. Renowned in Italy for his Barolos and Barbarescos, Giacosa’s “spumante brut” is made from Pinot Nero grapes grown in what is known as the Oltrepò Pavese, an area south of the river Pò which covers the province of Pavia. My first year living in Italy was spent in this foggy university town, so I couldn’t think of a better wine to pop open on this special night. It certainly got the evening off to a bubbly start as I opened my cards and unwrapped my presents. Thanks everyone!
I’d made no plans for the evening but it turned out Hillary had, and I was soon being bundled onto the uptown-bound 6 train, final destination unknown. Exiting the subway at 86th and Lexington, we walked up to the corner of 92nd Street, where the warmth and coziness of Sfoglia awaited us. Owned by Ron Suhanosky and Colleen Marnell-Suhanosky, the restaurant is the Manhattan outpost of their original in Nantucket, and the ambiance is definitely more New England kitchen than Upper East Side hotspot.
The portions are equally homely: I ordered the exquisitely-textured pappardelle alla bolognese (my personal idea of comfort food), a sizeable bowl of which took me roughly an hour to finish along with a decidedly rustic Chianti Riserva by Poggio della Torre. Perhaps foolishly, I had pre-ordered the bread pudding which could have easily fed four. As luck would have it, it was all delicious, and we lingered over cookies and Moscato until the wee hours.
The birthday weekend was put on hold as I spent the next two days carrying boxes and lugging furniture (thankfully only a few blocks) between homes. The prospect of moving house had forced me to postpone my party until the following Saturday, by which time the new pad was at least taking on the semblance of a home. Hillary had surprised me with a new stereo and turntable, and so we spent most of Saturday scouring the West Village in search of used vinyl. After stopping for an old school pizza experience at John’s of Bleecker, we picked up a bunch of classic LPs (many for as little as a dollar), which we spun that night at the party. (As a result my meticulously compiled ’79-’09 iTunes playlist was thrown out the window at the last minute.)
The tunes taken care of, party guests made some important contributions to an excellent spread: Jess (who also made a mean Joe Greene spinach dip the night of the Super Bowl) brought a homemade cheesecake which went well with Hillary’s mysterious sangria-punch (the effects of which I certainly felt the next morning!). My roommate from Pavia and another recent addition to the thirtysomething club, Federico (co-founder of Roomorama), brought a cream and chocolate cake from The Black Hound, which we washed down with Metodo Classico 2003 by Lini which Michele, my colleague from Domenico Valentino, had kindly brought with her. Grazie mille ragazzi!
My birthday present to myself was an original 1974 New York City subway map, designed by Massimo Vignelli. Famed for its clean, simplistic beauty but infamous for its odd irregularities, the popular design ran from 1972 to 1979 before being replaced with something akin to today’s map, although Vignelli’s visual identity for the subway is still in use. It is now considered something of a modern design classic: the map is on the walls of MoMA and was updated in 2008 for Men’s Vogue.
Hardly in-keeping with these recession-filled times, I also splashed out on a bottle of Barbaresco Asili 1979 Riserva Produttori del Barbaresco from Vino. Our man in Austin, Jeremy Parzen aka Do Bianchi, had recently written about enjoying a bottle of Borgogno Barolo from his birth year, which more or less convinced me to do the same. It was an extravagant purchase but hey, you only live once. And what fun to drink a great wine that’s the same age as you!
Hillary and I finally got the chance to savor it on Saturday night, which also happened to be Valentine’s Day. After what had been a busy two weeks it was the first occasion we’d had to cook a serious meal in our new place. A pizza-and-Menabrea combo on Friday night at Luzzo’s (the best pizza in the city, secondo me) followed by a tasty brunch at The Little Owl the next morning held us over until Saturday evening.
I prepared a simple-but-already-legendary spaghetti all’amatriciana (bucatini sometimes splatters too much) with pancetta, and let the sauce sit simmering for a couple of hours while we drank a tasty Cava by Dominio de la Vega, probably the only non-Italian wine mentioned on this blog!
Then, with a sense of enormous anticipation, we tried the Barbaresco. The first sip (without food) tasted as expected, and left an “apple juice effect” which lingered on the gums but all but disappeared once we began the first course. Hillary certainly enjoyed my amatriciana, describing it as the best pasta she had ever tasted. High praise perhaps, but I have to admit it was pretty darn good. For secondo we cooked up some patate alla besciamella (potatoes sliced and baked with béchamel, also known as aux dauphinoises), sides of spinach and two huge hunks of filet mignon which we grilled on a very hot stove.
A great meal calls for a great wine, and the Barbaresco drank beautifully, only improving as the evening progressed. Produttori has been making wine from the south-western facing Asili vineyard since 1970, and it’s considered by some to be the quintessential Barbaresco. It was actually kind of awe-inspiring: I’d tasted some very old wines in Italy but couldn’t believe that something that had been sitting around for most of my life could taste so good and still be so drinkable after all these years.
Having both come close to passing out at the table we wisely agreed to skip dessert, but our epic feast was still the perfect end to a fun, hectic couple of weeks, and a crazy, life-altering couple of years. And when I think about how I found myself in another part of the world, in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife, I do sometimes indeed ask myself: Well, how did I get here?
All photographs and photomontages by James Taylor, 2009.