Open to Possibilities

A comment among strangers turns into a new friendship--and food paved the way

I was gonna spend this column talking about ovens and stuff, having just installed a new one--complete with convention--after my 25-year-old model burned up. But I met Elaine and Aaron Schecter the other night, and started thinking again about the magic of food and restaurants and chance happenings.

I'm in Manhattan as I write this, here for 2 1/2 days of meetings, then staying a third day to see the new MoMA and the Chinese show at the old Met. I'm at The Melrose, which used to be The Barbizon--a place where menfolk were not allowed beyond the lobby until 1981. Pretty posh digs in the very Upper East Side, but I got a great air/hotel deal on the 'Net.

Anyway, I landed at JFK around 5:30 p.m. and was in my room two hours later. I asked the lobby barkeep for a recommendation of a joint of gustatory virtue, preferably Italian, which is how I ended up at Barbaresco, just around the corner on Lex, between 64th and 65th.

It's a small place--15 tables--and, despite the assurance that reservations would not be necessary, a very busy place. And friendly. They made room for me at a tiny two-top at the foot of the entryway, but after a few near-Arctic blasts as patrons came and went, I asked if I might sit at the small bar. Instead, they moved me to a four-top in the window on the landing, where I became an unofficial greeter of the hungry and the satisfied.

Which is how I met Aaron and Elaine. Actually, I met their daughters first. They had the same entrée that was sitting in front of me in my window--a pounded, breaded, butterflied chop in a peppery tomato, garlic and mushroom sauce. The sisters advised me to have the fruit ice after, although they couldn't agree whether it should be the pineapple or the orange. Their job done, the sisters bustled out, expecting their parents to dutifully follow. But Elaine and Aaron, being independent sorts, also stopped to talk, assuming I was an old school friend of their daughters, whose identity they had temporarily misplaced. I explained I was in town for a few days, and we quickly cleared up that confusion. The conversation continued: Where was I from? What was I doing in the city? How long would I be in New York? The Melrose?--Aaron laughed (and he has a good, hearty laugh). Twenty-five years ago, I couldn't have stayed there. I should see Democracy or 12 Angry Men, they decided, and Aaron recommended three nearby restaurants for me to try. And, by the way, asked Emily--what was I doing Friday night? A friend had an improv show that night, and why didn't I come by their place on Park for a drink and then go to the show with them?

"This happened in New York?" an astonished colleague asked the next afternoon, as we were taking the subway from Chelsea to a midtown restaurant. "And you're going?"

Of course I was. Here's the thing I've found about great restaurants: They do simple things excellently and generally have great patrons. Barbaresco is a great restaurant. Here, to keep this honest, is its recipe for Pappa col Pomodoro--Tuscan bread and tomato soup.

  • 2 medium tomatoes
  • Fresh basil, shredded
  • 2 cups cubed Italian bread
  • Fresh garlic, crushed
  • Shaved parmesan
  • Salt to taste
Chop the tomatoes. Sauté them with the shredded basil and crushed garlic; simmer for five minutes. Add bread cubes and stir. Salt as needed; sprinkle with parmesan and serve.

Now, back to two of its great patrons. Elaine had left a message at the hotel that she had the dates mixed up and that the show wasn't happening until the following week. Nevertheless, would I stop by for drinks? So, after a full day at the MoMA, the Met and the Whitney, I showed up at Apartment 5B, two-dozen roses in hand and the expectation of some interesting stories. And I got them.

Aaron is an accountant who worked in the entertainment biz with the Stones and the Who, among others. He and Elaine sold their big house in the country after their three daughters grew up and relocated to the heart of this city they love with a passion. An avid sailor, Aaron now charts the seas of the Central Park pond with his grandson and a fancy radio-controlled model boat. Elaine, with whom he has been "involved" for 60-plus years, is the passionate daughter of a union worker, an outspoken liberal and a gifted and exhibited watercolorist. "The girls thought we were getting a divorce when I started doing that." Her watercolors are dynamic and energetic--quick studies with subtle colors that capture the feel and memories of trips they've taken and places they love. They are a delightful couple, very full of life and the concept that it is meant to be lived generously.

After an hour-and-a-half that passed too quickly, I left for dinner at one of the places they'd recommended, and they went to meet one of their daughters. I look forward to seeing them again.

What is it that lets this magic happen around food? Obviously, we are satisfying our basic, atavistic need to eat. How we socialize--or come to accept socialization--is another thing. I can be quite content dining alone and enjoy the company of close friends at the table. These not-so-cold New Yorkers re-taught me the lesson that ya gotta be open to all possibilities.