Friday, May 24, 2019

Mamma Grimaldi: The Final Lasagna

Indexing previous reporting from my 2019 Italy trip:
The Naples Diet
Lines in Italy Explain My Exasperation
His Dying Thought: Oh, right; this is how you die in Italy
The Surprising Truth About Real Neapolitan Brick Oven Pizza
The Surprising Truth About Real Sicilian Rice Balls
Marzipan, You Idiot! Marzipan!
Naples: Mistaking Soulfulness for Danger
Two Recent Glimpses of Ridiculous Death
Pasta Time!
Miscellaneous PIzza
Sfogliatelle Shootout in Naples
Desserts and Lodgings
The Benign Insanity of Scouting Moroccan Food in Naples
Jewish and Comedy Food in Italy
Mamma Grimaldi: Lasagna Preface

Prerequisite: Mamma Grimaldi: Lasagna Preface (don't forget the homework assignment at the end!).

28 years - exactly half my lifetime - ago in Barcelona, I ecstatically devoured precious cargo brought back from Italy by one of my music students at the time, guitarist Andrea Grimaldi. Andrea was a wonderful cook, but he insisted he was nothing compared to his mother. I'd flown in for my biannual Spain gigs, and this time the timing had lined up. Andrea was just returning from a visit home, bearing holy parmigiana from The Master.

Even reheated, it was one of the greatest things I'd ever eaten. I've spent the past three decades dreaming of meeting Mamma Grimaldi.
In the meantime, I've visited Andrea's rustic hacienda in northern Catalonia several times (documenting his amazing cooking here and here, plus a slideshow here). I was also proud to host Andrea's photo essay about Mamma Grimaldi here on the Slog, starting here.
Last month, stars finally aligned. I was in Rome for Easter, and Andrea had brought his family for a visit. So I finally got invited for lunch at Mamma Grimaldi's house in the village of Aprilia, between Rome and Naples.

Andrea, a Slog reader, was aware of my lasagna obsession, and asked his mom to make some for me, an act of kindness so great that I despair at my inability to show sufficient gratitude. She prepared it with mini meatballs. Let's go to the videotape.

A couple of brief "making-of" videos:

Extremes can be strange. You'd expect them to be like lesser instances, only more so. But sometimes they're a whole other thing; a different world. This is why "The very rich are different from you and me", and it's why "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." There's a threshold past which it's just strange. You can't anticipate it. You can't extrapolate it from what you already know. It's terra incognita.

This is because we are a conservative species that does a poor job with edge cases. We instinctively place the extraordinary adjacent to the very good, even if it's light years beyond. As I recently wrote:
Human beings compress extremes. We regress toward means. In plain language, we narrow our perspective, which means we "clip" the ends of the scale, mentally compressing extremes into a nondescript paste.
I've reviewed food that's good, delicious, and transcendent, and, once, a Oaxacan corn porridge/drink (which I dubbed "The Medusa Gruel") that went beyond the beyond:
As its sublime, all-embracing soulfulness penetrated every capillary, I became utterly lost within myself. The flavor simply would not fade. In waves, it permeated my internal universe, and I didn't realize I'd fallen into a stupor until Manuel came over and waved into my eyes and asked whether I was ok. It took effort to return to the conversation, as the afterglow still showed no signs of dimming, but I managed to wrench myself from its tendrils and resurface. Until, that is, my next sip, which again turned me to stone. I was eating very languidly, yet Manuel kept urging me, with a degree of urgent concern, to "¡Cálmate!", or calm down - which, even in my hazy state, struck me as an inapt instruction for someone who'd gone essentially catatonic.
That description bears no resemblance to anything I - or anyone else - has ever written about food. It's not relatable. There are peaks where we must abandon toolsets and find new means of description and comprehension. At a certain point along the upward reaches of the curve of declining results, the fog clears and we've landed elsewhere. Or turned into stone. Or who knows what.

I've also seen this with very rare and prized wines, and struggled to explain my experiences in a posting titled "The Beauty of Water, of Whiteness, and of Silence" (I'd strongly suggest reading the whole thing):
Having tasted 1929 Chateau Lafite, and many of the very greatest sakes, wines, beers, Chinese teas and spirits of the past century, I can report that those diverse experiences all triggered a similar observation: they all struck me as improvements on water. They uplifted its essential purity rather then masked it. All I've thought about while drinking those masterpieces was....water. I reveled in water. It's a miraculous feat! While anyone can tastefully mask water, improving on it is a seemingly impossible task because water is perfection.
The very best stuff has a shocking purity, a grace, an emptiness. You don't process it, it processes you. It's a whole other thing.

When I took my first bite of Mamma Grimaldi's lasagna, nothing happened. It fit my biology so precisely - the natural state of my taste and texture receptors - that it was devilishly hard to recognize it as something foreign to my mouth. It was like descending into a pool heated to body temperature. It was like kissing a mirror. You might pronounce it "light", but that would be grotesquely faint praise. It was evanescent. You search, but...nothing.

What the hell just happened???

So you take another bite, and it all repeats. Exactly, like a computer algorithm reliably producing the same answer to the same question until the heat death of the universe. While dream-like, it's also paradoxically rock solid because it's repeatable.

The experience of Mamma Grimaldi's lasagna was total intimacy...with no specificity whatsoever. No noodles. No sauce. No cheese. No lasagna. If anything, it was water. Pure water gently trickling. A soothing stream, at body temperature, scarcely vulgar enough to fill your gut or tickle your palate. Happy flipping Easter; you have received communion.

I will never eat another lasagna. Lasagna has been retired. I couldn't bear to eat a merely fantastically delicious one. I'd perish from the sadness.

Mamma Grimaldi also made parmigiana (because of course she did) and I was shocked to discover that I'd held a perfect holographic memory for three decades. This was a Swiss-precision match of my recollection. The prior parmigiana had imprinted like a trauma and, even all these years later - her age now advanced, and living in a sci-fi future with Internet and mobile phones - her concept and execution remain so solid that the parmigiana hasn't wobbled. My 28 year old self waved at me, and I, at 56, waved back. Sup.

Nutty. So nutty. Nutty from the flavorful wheat in the breadcrumbs. Nutty from the mild olive oil and ultra-gentle sauté . Nutty from the eggplant, grown in the sunny Grimaldi garden. Nutty from the rind-ish cheese. And, above all, nutty me, sitting there at the table, grinning widely like some dolt.

Amid all the nuttiness: a precisely calibrated zing of acidity from the tomatoes.

If you're still breathing normally, I pity you.

This sums up Mamma Grimaldi better than anything: After we'd risen from the table to resume terrestrial activity (more wafting than walking, though), she went straight to work on dinner, which was, ho-hum, totally normal, nothing special, an entire meticulously-split lamb's head.


And that's a rap.

Next installment of my Italy trip: Back in the Hemisphere

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