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Remembrance of Things Pasta

Joe Rocco

You know the story. French author Marcel Proust is having tea one day. He dips a piece of cookie — a sugary, scalloped confection called a madeleine — into a spoonful of brew. The tea-cookie emanates molecules of scent. Proust tastes; he swallows. Suddenly, he's there, a small child in his aunt Léonie's sunlit bedroom. She offers him a piece of her madeleine soaked in a tisane of lime-blossom.

"After the people are dead," Proust wrote later, "after the things are broken and scattered... the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls... bearing resiliently, on tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence, the immense edifice of memory."

Proust must have been right — the memory-taste connection explains our implacable, emotion-rich cravings. It's the reason we'll gleefully open the can of manufactured cranberry sauce, wolf down the White Castle burger, demand chicken soup for a cold, compare every meatball unfavorably to Mama's. Imagine operating a restaurant, having to contend with all this! Under the circumstances, any restaurant meal is doomed to imperfection. No matter how artful, it can only approximate our memory of the sublime.

I've had very few dinners out that I thought were nearly perfect from beginning to end, but I did have one recently — at Café Sapori — and it began with the exquisite taste memory generated by a lushly flavored slice of focaccia. I used to eat focaccia just like this, baked at a tiny Italian grocery in London. I routinely walked three miles across the city and back for the sea-salty, yeasty, olive-oily bliss of it, and I'd never tasted anything like it again until last week. The second I had a hunk of this stuff on my tongue, I remembered the complicated, fusty scents of that little shop — floury sweet smell of freshly made tomato tagliatelle and cheese ravioli, pungent smokiness of salamis hung from the ceiling, faintly ammoniac sulfurs of ripened cheeses — the gritty, lemon-colored scent from giant wheels of parmesan. All my nostalgias for authentic Italian food, the taste of my first freedoms, my young heart in love, had condensed into this one tiny pinch of bread.

A perfect meal, it goes without saying, should start well. This one had. And truly, my expectations for Café Sapori couldn't have been lower. I knew that the place, situated just over the Southern Boulevard bridge from Palm Beach, relied heavily on the island's rich stock to keep its tables booked (Sapori is in the space formerly occupied by Jo's, another favorite of the smart set; before that, it was hoarding gold in another incarnation — as a bank). Palm Beachers are as weird about their food as they are about their fashion, paying big bucks for mediocre meals, quaffing Cokes with their lemon sole, ordering prime steaks well done, playing head games with the help — all while dressed from head to toe in, say, hues of salmon. Even worse, the owner and chef, Francesco Blanco and Fabrizio Giorgi, had come from Bice on Worth Avenue, where both food and service are frankly abysmal. The menu at Sapori, I'd heard, was Italian (yawn) inflected with Japanese (a few sushi-style rolls) and a bit of tapas (huh?). Early reviews in the dailies, when the place opened in February, had pegged it as a moderately priced and relatively casual neighborhood joint with food that was good but not stellar.

Wrong on both counts: Prices have almost doubled on some items in the past six months and been well padded on others — lobster ravioli has leaped from $25 to $29, and the penne à la vodka ("a great bargain!" crowed one review) is gone entirely. I suspect the management thought desperate measures were called for to discourage the riffraff. Or maybe they just needed to generate the income to pay their enormous staff. As for the food, it's excellent in every way and just goes to show what could have been done at Bice all these years if the management had only given half a shit.

You can't help but compare them — menu, clientele, and atmosphere are so similar. But where Bice's staff is snotty, Sapori's is warm and unfailingly precise. When we stopped for a breather halfway through our salmon, we were asked if the dish was satisfactory. It was, very. And so was the feeling of being attended to without obsequiousness or flattery but with honest compassion. In this beautiful mellow space (high, bare-wood ceiling, candle-lit patio, profusions of flowers), over a little tapas plate of cold roasted peppers with anchovies, it's very hard not to feel at least a little bit loved.

The ladies and gentlemen who haunt this place are of a type — they travel in packs, emitting the faint green rustle of freshly minted cash. Their designer jeans (size 0 or 2) cost $450; they are putting their plastic surgeons' kids through law school. The figure-conscious ladies always order salad as a starter (I suspect the sushi rolls are designed as bait for them too), a real shame, since they're missing out on delightful tapas like the warm chickpea cake mixed with goat cheese and topped with sautéed mushrooms ($9) that we ecstatically scarfed down, feeling the elastic of our size 10 pants relax. They miss the mini rice balls ($9) too, subtly laced with mozzarella and parmesan and holding a tiny dab of meat sauce in their center (the presentation on both of these, on white plates, was attractive and delicate, never overwrought).

 

Sapori has quite a large menu, 40 or so of the starters alone ranging from mussels with sausage, baby spare ribs in apricot sauce, tuna tartar with eggplant, and imported Parma prosciutto with melon to white and mushroom pizzas, composed salads, and bowls of barley and bean or egg drop soup. If these are half as good as our appetizers were and our salad of fresh spinach with crunchy Parma prosciutto, thin sheets of parmesan, and artichokes ($16), they're worth sampling.

There are 13 varieties of fresh pasta and three of dried: among them, orecchiette with rapini, hand-rolled ricotta cavatelli, pappardelle with veal meat sauce, maltagliati with boar sausage ragu, and risotto with seafood. We split a plate of lobster ravioli ($29) three ways for our second course; I advise this rather than trying to wade through it as an entrée, as it's extremely rich and highly caloric — I don't think we quite finished it. The homemade ravioli had the slightly chewy density we were looking for. The lobster meat inside was generous and flavorful; it was tossed with fingers of zucchini for texture and color and doused in a creamy pink "bisque" sauce that was excellent but could have used a kick of something (maybe I was hoping for sherry) to sharpen it slightly.

Main courses were just as lovely. We went for simple and cheap — a roast chicken in mushroom and aged balsamic sauce ($20)— and the sumptuously expensive — braised osso buco with saffron risotto ($35). And we ordered wild salmon baked with escarole and mustard apricot glaze ($32). The breast of the tiny chicken, accompanied by zigzags of green basil sauce and balsamic vinegar, had been cut from the bone; it was served with two little drumsticks and a wing in an unctuous, deeply satisfying sauce that had thoroughly infused the tender meat with the sweet-sharp of vinegar and soft essences of mushroom. Talk about a bargain! Osso buco fell from its big bone with the flick of a fork, dissolving in waves of chewy, fatty joy on the tongue, basted in pan juices, wine, tomato, and pepper, and the shank was full of silky, rich marrow (osso buco means "hollow bone"; I was given a little fork to aid extraction). The saffron risotto (a traditional Milanese accompaniment) was infused with veal stock and parmesan but just a tad overcooked — it had lost its "bite."

We'd been asked, rather oddly, how we wanted the salmon cooked. I guess some people object to moist fish; in confusion, we said "medium." It arrived just this side of overdone, probably our fault for not being more assertive, but it was still a lovely, big, pink fillet, set over wilted emerald-colored escarole for crunch and drizzled with bright, fruity apricot-mustard glaze, reminiscent of the Italian fruit chutney called mostarda — a marriage of wilderness and civilization.

To finish: a little round chocolate ricotta cake ($10) topped with homemade chocolate ice cream and a side of freshly whipped cream — ideally balanced among rich and bitter and sweet, a refreshing change from the ubiquitous chocolate overkill served everywhere and thoroughly delicious. A tall glass of cabernet blackberry sorbetti ($8) topped with a couple of fat, fresh blackberries was light, fruity, and mildly sour— a grownup's dessert. We spooned it up accompanied by a perfect espresso and a frothy cappuccino.

I've been thinking longingly of this meal ever since, dreamily studying the menu the way you might moon over a lover's photograph. Except that I love food, I don't fit in with this crowd zooming up to the valet station in their Porsches and Maseratis. I'll probably sit outside on the patio next time so I'm not distracted by the glare of big rocks and glossy, artificially plumped lips. I want to reserve my attention for the polenta with sausage and cheese, the veal meatballs, the focaccia filled with soft cheese and truffle oil. I intend to make a few new taste memories to take home with me.

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Cafe Sapori

205 Southern Blvd.
West Palm Beach, FL 33405

561-805-7313

www.cafesapori.com


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