Monday, March 31, 2008

More on Pellegrini’s

March 14th

Today I spent more time in the city. I spent a frustrating day searching for a crocodile skin belt only to find what I need is only available in Sydney and Darwin. Thus I went to Pellegrini’s Espresso Bar, to eat my frustrations away.

The restaurant is quite narrow, and the long espresso bar takes up half the restaurant. Between the seats at the bar, there is a long narrow table attached to the wall that runs parallel to it, forcing customers to sidestep to the kitchen/dining room in the back.

In the "dinning room" sits a long wood table 10 feet long and three inches thick. It is one piece of wood. An arm’s length away stand the cook and her kitchen. It has been five years since I last ate here, and the gray-topped lady who used to cook and swear in Italian has been replaced by a younger version - second generation, whom I would imagine would be beautiful if she smiled. She speaks in a heavy Australian/Italian accent. This time I understand the swearing. The staff does not smile, with the exception of Nick, the owner, whom I recognize from the many awards, articles, old country ads, and autographs (Billy Joel’s is conspicuous) that cover the wall. I think Nick smiles because he does no visible work but sip espresso, read the paper, and shoot the bull with customers. He walks in to the kitchen, a man from a different time - "Rocky and Gnocchi. Gnocchi and Rocky, you could switch the names and it would not make any difference to us."

I only caught the tail end of the conversation, but I got the gist. Nick turned to the beleaguered cook and said something in Italian, teasing her, and then walked back for "an important phone call." She muttered " Nick, the dick" under her breath and served up my Gnocchi. Nearly a dozen dishes are either cooking or warming in the kitchen on one old stove that looks like it could barely boil water. The food cooks all day and thus is far past "al dente", but it’s still "deliciouco." The gnocchi is hand made, each piece is similar in shape, but not precise. I ask about the old lady who used to work here, and I am told she broke her leg. I was glad to find she was still alive. The cook continued "us old wogs, we don't want our kids to work as hard as us" ("wog" is a derogatory term for Italians in Australia). She continued, "it’s hard because the staff is getting old, and it’s hard to get good help that sticks around."

I was crushed at the idea of this restaurant disappearing to old age, but that can’t be stopped. At least for now, I could enjoy my gnocchi, washing it down with the grapefruit granita. They keep it in big plastic buckets in the back, pulling it out as needed into a large stainless steel tank behind the bar. It is sweet and tangy, and the ice fine and grainy. Little slivers of grapefruit float in it. You drink it through a black straw that gets you 3/4ths of the drink and a teaspoon that lets you go after the icy, watered-down fourth.

I finish and make my way from the kitchen to the espresso bar and order a double espresso.
The cook comes out with a causal flourish holding a plate of Marinara.

"Marinara" she calls out in what might be described as a downright pleasant Italian accent. It is clear it was her first language. "Marinara?" she calls out again. Her irritation is becoming quite visible, and she calls out once more. I quietly hope that a customer will pipe up. My lady seems likes she lives in a world of not enough good days. She turns to one of the men behind the counter and questions him in harsh English.

I finish my coffee. I have had better food and been served by more friendly staff, but the granita and coffee are superb. It’s the character I crave and keep coming back for. I pay the man behind the counter and get a "thanks" with no smile and hardly a look in my direction. He picks up his towel to dry dishes and starts singing something softly in Italian. I would imagine it was the same 56 years ago when it opened.

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