One cold and sunny Friday morning several weeks ago, I was leaving my Brooklyn apartment to visit my ill father. As I stepped outside into a comforting chill I noticed a small book sitting on my front stoop, abandoned and as apparent as the looming sun. It was a copy of Dante’s Inferno, in pristine condition, with pages marked by tiny pink and yellow stickers and notes scribbled in the margins; clearly the property of an absentminded student who by now was probably on a subway well on their way to a classroom where they might find themselves ill equipped to participate in a discussion.
A little background history is crucial here to convey the bizarre nature of this moment. My father is a recently retired professor of Italian comparative literature and a Dante scholar. What this means is that he is completely mad and irrational but in that endearing academic way. As children, we ate Dante for breakfast, shat Dante after lunch, and consumed Dante once again for dinner. He was the ubiquitous poet in our home; a subtle sign of him hidden in every crevice of our house. So it may come as an ironic surprise when I tell you that I never actually made it more than halfway through the first book of the Divine Comedy; The Inferno. I’ve tried. But my attention span for a laborious and voluminous read has always been lacking.
This particular week my father’s illness and mortality was weighing heavy on my thoughts. Of all the stoops in New York City, and all the literary classics in circulation, and all the days in that week, this book was left at that moment and on that stoop. The universe has a funny way of delivering signs. When I happened upon this one, my life grew quiet for a moment, my banal worries were lifted like steam off of a hot car in a cold rain, and a sense of clarity was all consuming.
I thought that perhaps there may be someone nearby returning for their forgotten book. So I went off to fetch my car and eat some breakfast. After feverishly devouring a sexy and greasy ham, egg, and cheddar filled croissant, and several gulps of hot coffee, I returned to my apartment. The Inferno was still laying there keeping the cold concrete steps of my home warm. This “Inferno” officially belonged to me. I now need to read it through to the end.
I drove off headed towards my father’s home still processing the mystery that just occurred and thinking about how deliciously flaky that croissant was. Feeling infinitesimal, humbled, and confused by what I had discovered, I thought about overlooked simplicity. We complicate our lives with superfluous drama. But some of the most important things are in plain view. I struggled with a minute sense of guilt, an unwarranted emotion that was branded in my soul as a young Catholic. The guilt was about taking that which did not belong to me, and also the stick and a half of butter that made that croissant sublime.
When I arrived at my father’s home I told him about my experience. His reaction seemed lackluster, and his only question was “Who is the translator?” I told him “John Ciardi”. He nodded and replied “That’s a good one”. He didn’t seem to to grasp the oddness of my morning but at least we talked for a bit about Dante. Some days he is too pensive and introspective to engage his visitors in conversation. Today he was moderate. Perhaps I should have brought him a croissant.
Today I’m posting one of my father’s recipes. It’s one I grew up eating as a child. It’s incredibly simple. The key, as always, is the quality of the ingredients, and even more importantly the heart of the cook.
Linguine with Tuna Sauce
This dish is essentially a poor man’s tuna sauce pasta. I tweaked a few things because I cannot help myself. But the foundation of this recipe (a dish that my father has made for us a countless number of times) is using Italian canned tuna. Not some Bumblebee shit or Chicken of the Sea crap, but good quality imported Italian canned tuna. Anchovy fillets gives it a great flavor as well. I added lemon zest, chili flakes, fresh parsley, and more tomatoes than my dad would normally add.
This dish is not going to knock your socks off, blow you away, or make make you writhe in ecstasy. The flavors are simple. More importantly, it reminds me of home.
A lot of extra virgin olive oil
3 garlic cloves minced
1 medium onion finely chopped
1 can of anchovy filets
2 cans of imported Italian Tuna packed in olive oil
pinch of chili flakes
2-3 tblsp. tomato paste
1 can of San Marzano tomatoes
a fistful of parsley, finely chopped
1/2 lb. dried linguine
Read the first Canto of this book:
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
In the meantime, add about 1/3 cup of oil to a large deep skillet over medium heat until almost simmering. Add the anchovies and cook until they start to break down. Mash them with the back of a fork into a paste. Add the onions and stir. Cook for about 5-7 minutes or until soft. Add the garlic and chili flakes and cook for about a minute. Add the tuna and tomato paste, and stir everything until incorporated evenly. Add the can of tomatoes crushing the whole tomatoes with your hands into the pan. Season with salt and pepper, bring to a slight boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer and cover. Let it cook for about 20 minutes.
Drain the pasta reserving about 1 cup of the water. Add the pasta to the sauce along with the zest of 1 lemon, most of the parsley, and as much pasta water as you deem necessary to loosen the sauce a bit. Stir and cook for a couple of minutes. Serve with another sprinkle of parsley on top, and drizzle a bit more olive oil on top if you like. I certainly like to.
That’s all I have for now. I can’t be funny all the time!