Chef Carlo Middione closed his Pacific Heights Italian, Vivande Porta Via, this New Years after almost thirty years in business. The press release is blunt: “The chief cause is that Chef Carlo Middione lost his sense of taste and smell in an auto accident in Spring of 2007. It was hoped that the problem might improve with time, but it has not.”
This is indisputably tragic, and compels me to tell you now that Vivande Porta Via is where I, in fact, learned to taste and smell. Years ago I worked the deli at the front of the restaurant. It was a welcoming, homey, pristine shop with a wide selection of oils, vinegars, pastas, as well as the meats, cheeses, salads, and baked goods typical of a high-end deli. It was my job to know everything we stocked and to be ready to explore it with any inquiring customer. I made custom gift baskets, did impromptu oil tastings, and even designed cold plates for the dining room. I learned the rule in restaurants: If you can take on more, more will come.
My diet was a steady stream of taleggio, coppa, baguette, and espresso. And there was staff table. Oh, the staff table. My first week I took home two jars of past-date truffle paste. The label recommended stirring a bit into a risotto or a sauce. I smeared it on a slice of Italian bread. This was my first food revelation, the first time there were no words, just sounds (that translate roughly as “Yum,” “More,” and “Don’t talk to me”).
I was daily amazed at the meticulousness of the kitchen staff. With all the bustle, I assumed there must be some corner of the kitchen where the detritus would build up when the rush hit. If there was, I never saw it.
Every day one of the chefs made my staff meal before I headed out and the night shift came on. And every day I had the same thing: orecchiette alla’amatriciana. There is nothing so good as this: pancetta, tomatoes, onions, and red pepper flakes. That’s it. Each chef tossed these same four ingredients together and each time it tasted completely different. Make this dish as soon as possible. And make it often. And if you crave variation, you can add in some garlic or toss some smoked mozzarella in the finishing, but THAT’S IT.
So every day for nine months, the chefs at Vivande Porta Via let me watch and learn; and every day I watched them make the same pasta dish; and every day there was that revelation: They’ve created something new.
It’s been almost 15 years since I worked at Vivande, and I haven’t been back once. In fact, I’ve never sat in the restaurant and had a meal. That’s another one of those restaurant rules.
My ears always prick up when I hear someone say they’ve never worked in a restaurant. I’m listening for an intoned regret, but it’s never there. Instead, they always look like they’ve caught wind of something off, as they add, “I don’t think I could do it.” It must be hell to be one of those people.