Have you ever heard about this restaurant, Munchies Bluues? So there's this Roman guy, he relocates to Nicaragua, plants himself in the jungle and opens a reservation-only, authentic Italian pizzaria. And this guy, Sergio, he's not just the Chef. He does everything himself. He's the grocery shopper, conciercge, prep cook, waiter, dishwasher, dj, and General Director of atmosphere. You served your own alcohol from his fridge and when you told him how much you had drank he believed you. He only opened the place three nights a week, and you could only come if you made a reservation with him personally. And even still, if he was tired that day, he might tell you he was booked out even if he wasn't. The only thing on the menu was pizza which he rolled out one by one as it was ordered making the average wait time 1-3 hours long. Sometimes more, never less. Anyone who has been there will forever dream of going back. And all pizza will, forever pale in comparison.
Sadly, oh so sadly, The Legend left us behind last week. That's the thing about life. Sometimes you just have to go. For him we are happy. He lived his life the way he wanted to to and didn't give a shit what anyone thought. But for those who knew him, our hearts are swollen and tender. For now all we can do is lean on each other and look up. Remembering him, and reminding each other that we are still alive.
I was fortunate enough to call him a friend. Once we had both tried and approved of each other's food we had an unspoken bond that all Puritanical Chefs understand. He took me under his wing and he taught me things. We used to meet for espresso in the mornings and he would grill me. "What is in Carbonara?" Confidently, I would rattle off: "yolk, cream, bacon, peas, parm, pasta water." "Ha! See I knew you didn't know! I will teach you. Everyone thinks there is cream in Carbonara, but there isn't. Why would you put cream in Carbonara? I mean if you think about it, it just doesn't make sense! What about Alfredo sauce how do you make that?" Still (foolishly) confident: "you reduce cream by half, add parm, then finish with salt and more cream." "Wrong again! There is no such thing as Alfredo! The Americans made it up! hahahaha!" And that's how it was. He preached Italian, and I sat at the pew.
One time I found a jar of pesto in his fridge. I took it out and asked him what nut he used in his pesto. Now okay, yes I know pesto is traditionally made with pine nuts, but here in Nicaragua they are at least a million dollars a pound, available in only one store three hours outside town, and plus (confession) I’m a locavore. In the past I’ve even made a sauce out of pumpkin seeds, cilantro and asiago cheese and called it pesto *gasp!* (I absolutely never told him this story). Anyways, he looks at me like I am the biggest idiot he has ever met. Completely inept. I felt as though I had just asked him if he puts the sauce on top of the cheese or the other way around. It’s awkward. Am I about to be disowned? Did he finally realize I am a hack? And then the tension breaks, he laughs (at me), kisses me on the forehead and says,
“Pinoli, Tesero. Pinoli.” He laughs again and tells me to take the jar home because I’ve obviously never tried real pesto before and need to be educated. Three days later he calls me.
“Have you finished the pesto yet?”
“No, not yet.” I lied. It was a huge jar and it was fucking amazing and of course I had eaten it already. But who eats a jar of pesto in three days? I felt put on the spot and unprepared to admit that I was a glutton so I lied.
“Nope, not yet. Why do you ask? Do you need the jar back?” (Note: we do not live in the developed world. Glass jars are hot commodities here in Nicaragua.)
“The jar?! What? Why would you think I give a fuck about a jar? Fuck the jar! No, I just forgot to remind you that you have to make sure you keep adding a nice layer of olive oil to the top of the pesto to preserve it. And make sure you use real Italian Olive Oil. And nothing too strong. There is real Parmigiano Reggiano in there. If you mix it with the wrong oil it will be ruined. Do you have the proper oil? I can bring you some if you don’t.” At this point I’m feeling ashamed more of my piggishness than my lie: he thought I would need to preserve it? But of course I told him I had the right oil and promised to fulfill his instructions. You know, so it didn’t spoil.
The next week I broke down and told him the truth, that I had actually finished it in three days. He rewarded me with another jar. Which, of course, I ate again just as quickly. How is this possible? It was easy, I assure you. I put it on absolutely everything. Most notably in pasta with wilted kale, a splash of pasta water and a squeeze of lemon. As a dip for raw vegetables, with roast chicken and potatoes, and on toast with tomatoes and poached eggs. And yes, absolutely, I ate more than several bites plain on the spoon.
It was this respect and need he had for tradition, for doing things “the right way” that imprinted me and my craft so strongly. In our modern age it can be so easy to find traditionalism to be repressing. How can there be a right way? Aren’t all ways right in their own way? We feel this immense pressure to reinvent the wheel because we believe we have been given the tools and creativity to do so. It can feel as though it is our generational obligation. But in our quest to be fresh, unique and creative we can lose our balance and fall into a new kind of equally stifling repression. Because the truth is you can’t reinvent the wheel. The wheel is already perfect. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make your own wheel, and a damn fine wheel at that.
There are so many more things to share about Sergio. Lessons learned, jokes to pass around, and legendary tales that would make you shake with laughter and inspiration. But for today I’ll leave you with this, a recipe for classic Italian Pesto. It’s not Sergio’s recipe. I never did ask for his recipe. But that’s a moot point anyways because I wouldn’t have been able to share it without his permission anyways. That said, I’m (relatively) confident that he would have approved. And if he doesn’t then at least I know he’s somewhere laughing at me for trying. And for me, that is enough.
Classic Basil Pesto
For the best pesto use the smallest leaves you can find. They are the most fragrant and flavorful. As you may know, basil bruises easily, and the more your basil bruises, the less vibrantly green your pesto will be. With that in mind wash and dry your basil leaves with the tenderness they need and desire. A quick rinse and a gentle pat down with a clean towel or flour sack cloth will be just fine. For the cheese, use either Parmigiano-Reggiano or Italian Pecorino. As far as the oil goes it obviously must be quality “Extra-Virgin Olive Oil,” and if you have access to a variety of Olive Oils, go for something less peppery and more mild and buttery. You don’t want the flavor of the oil to overwhelm the basil. The important thing to remember is that all of the ingredients be of the highest quality. I always serve pesto with a wedge of lemon, because for me most things are incomplete without one.
This recipe is my adaptation of recipes written by Giorgio Locatelli, author of Made in Italy, and by Rachel Roddy, author of the soon to be published, My Roman Kitchen.
3 whole cloves of garlic, peeled
3 Tbsp of toasted pine nuts
250g fresh basil leaves
3 tbsp grated Italian Parmesano Reggiano or Pecorino
250ml extra virgin olive oil
pinch of sea or kosher salt
Either in a food processor or using a pestle and mortar grind and crush the nuts and salt into fine flour. Add the garlic and work until it is incorporated.
Next add the cheese, and mix until it to is incorporated. Add the basil leaves a few at a time and work them in as quickly as you can.
Finally, add the oil, mixing until everything is emulsified.
Top with a generous layer of olive oil.
To serve, mix the pesto up again to blend in the oil on top. If there is more in the jar when you are finished, add another layer of oil on top, just as Sergio instructed. If you do this your pesto will keep fresh for up to six months if you are fortunate enough to live in a country with consistent electricity.