Without a moment's hesitation, my hands flew to the key pad on my pink Motorola Razr that stopped being cool two years ago.
"Yep!" I typed out with enthusiasm, and as I hit the send button, I immediately began fantasizing about the evening we would have celebrating his 30th birthday with fifteen of his closest friends.
I had the whole fabulous night mapped out in my head. We would be dining in a private room at a chi-chi restaurant in a trendy neighborhood -- ideally Buddakan in the Meat Packing District where Carrie Bradshaw had her rehearsal dinner in the Sex and the City movie. We would would sip $11 Asian mojitos with ginger and mint, nibble on edamame dumplings and miso cod, and then depart the restaurant for an equally chic lounge where we would continue to imbibe until the last call at 4 am.
Instead, we ended up at Bacaro, a decidedly unposh Italian trattoria near Chinatown. And then sang karaoke and drank Amstel Lights at a dive bar called Winnie's.
Despite the lack of scene at the restaurant, and my fear of contracting a venereal disease from the red leather booths at the bar, it was ultimately one of the most unexpectedly great nights I've had in the past year. It didn't matter that Bacaro wasn't trendy or worthy of a cameo in "Sex and the City." What mattered was that for three hours, my brother, his dear friends and his superbly awesome sister, were treated to the type of service and feast befitting for A-list celebrities in Manolo Blahniks.
When we walked into the cozy space of the restaurant on Division, I had my doubts. When we walked down the stairs into the main dining room, which felt more like a cavernous wine cellar, I felt a thread of anxiety needling through my belly. And as we walked into our nook of the space, and I spotted our picnic-style table with wood benches instead of cushy chairs, my heart lurched with despair.
Or at least it did until I spotted the food that was already adorning the rustic table upon our arrival.
Generous platters of meat and cheese, baskets of freshly baked white rolls, plates of octopus and potato salad (slightly remiscent of the version at Osteria Mozza in LA), and dishes of assorted crostini with chicken liver, salt cod and mushroom, beckoned everyone in our party to immediately find a place to sit. As we sipped our glasses of Barbaresco and Sauvignon Blanc (we'd go through seven bottles over the course of the meal), and nibbled on silky proscuitto and pears with blue cheese, my Buddakan fantasy became a distant memory. Bacaro's family-style feast of classic Venetian dishes transported us away to another time and place -- a place outside of New York City, a place where the location is a meaningless component of the dining experience.
Once we made our way through every last sliver of cheese and stray red grape, our present, but not too present, servers descended upon our table with the first course (aka a carboholic's dream course).
Golden fried arancini stuffed with succulent mozzarella, mini spicy meatballs with just enough heat for a trip to the water glass, delicate gnocchi dumplings enrobed in a rich mushroom sauce, and impossibly creamy white asparagus risotto, commanded our attention from every corner of the table. Despite the heartiness of the fair, I couldn't stop myself from going in for another helping of the gnocchi, one of my favorite dishes of the evening, or another bite-sized meatball. Everyone else seemed to feel the same way -- no one was shy about diving in for a stray mushroom or, sadly, about stealing the last gnocchi dumpling away from the birthday boy. The evening wasn't just a celebration for my brother -- the restaurant seemed to be subtly crafting a celebration of good food and wine for everyone at the table.
By the time the carb-heavy plates had been cleared, the wine had taken a firm hold of our sensibilities and had, quite fortunately, severely compromised our ability to discern that we were too full for the main courses. While the marinated sliced steak over peppery field greens and fritto misto didn't captivate our forks like some of the other dishes of the evening, the braised pork shanks over polenta precipitated many a battle over the serving utensils. My brother's former roommate and I deemed it the "perfect comfort food" -- a cliched assessment that, while true, does not do justice to the juicy pork that is stewed into a state of Elvis Presley "Love Me Tender(ness)."
The meal was aptly capped with the only acceptable dessert for a 30th birthday party -- a three-layer chocolate cake from a specialty pastry shop (in this case, Venieros). We inhaled our slices of the delicate chocolate whipped cream-frosted cake, and then proceeded to demolish the tiramisu, flourless chocolate cake, panna cotta, and assortment of gelato and sorbet that was included with our prix fixe menu.
As I pulled myself up from our picnic table -- the ideal scene for an evening of laughter, indulgent eating/drinking, and several TMI's about my brother's love life -- I felt a twinge of sadness for what might not have been if we'd managed to secure a table at Buddakan. Bacaro was the place for this special night in my brother's life. And I couldn't have been happier to be there with him, his friends and that meaty hunk of pork shank.
Happy Birthday, Richard.