I’ve had many memorable meals in my life. Elegant multi-course tasting menus. Debauched “that’s a wrap,” production dinners. Hedonistic affairs at long, loud tables, the food kept coming until someone needed to dump me in a cart to get to my car. But spontaneous dinners beat pre-planned every time. The kind where a restaurant beckons unexpectedly, and all the moments contained within play out like an unscripted movie.
Like everyone except Gov. Gavin Newsom and other members of our aristocracy, I’ve more or less been deprived of this experience for two years. The campaign of fear is so strong that even during fleeting moments where mandates were lifted, the persistent question wasn’t “Should I have the Cornish hen or steak frites,” but “Will going out to eat be hazardous to my health.”
I managed to build up immunity to state-sponsored fearmongering. With the latest variant infecting everyone I decided I’m not going to spend one more year, let alone a month, in culinary purgatory. Joie de vivre is as vital to our physical and mental health. Last night’s dinner was all the proof I needed that throwing caution to the wind is worth it.
Sometime around 6:30, after we wrapped another long commercial shoot day, I went to a 1960s red sauce Italian joint where the Rat Pack never died, the Christmas tree was red, white and green, and roses glistened from half bottles of chianti. In some ways, Basilico’s Pasta E Vino in Huntington Beach represents the forgotten America. At least forgotten in most of California. It’s a time capsule representing an era when strangers didn’t yell at you from across the street that you were going to kill grandma and college graduates didn’t accuse people of racism and cultural appropriation for their dinner choice.
Great food is of the moment and exists outside of it at the same time. A bowl of spaghetti (or Coq au vin, or a Tiki bar cocktail) doesn’t represent the patriarchy or outdated morals. It represents food and drink. This is true of all art forms. Louis Prima might’ve been an asshole in real life, but when the live version of “Angelina Zooma Zooma” kicks in double-time it really swings, especially in an Italian restaurant. The energy surge is a Calabrian chile designed to wake up even a Covid-numbed tastebud. Anyone who’d dare deprive me of this moment should be whacked.
Basilico’s also represents more fundamental things than the right to eat whatever you want without a lecture. American individualism. The assumption that people are allowed to make personal decisions regarding their health. And the right to question authority.
Recently, the restaurant owners spat in the face of authority, even leaving a billboard in the progressive neighborhood in Venice with a line referencing The Godfather: Leave the mask, take the cannoli. I don’t blame them for grabbing some free publicity even if they’re now labeled “anti-maskers,” which might be the dumbest pejorative ever. The restaurant industry has struggled for a while; they should hold those responsible for it accountable.
As for the experience, the service was friendly, and the calamari and rigatoni with Sunday sauce were excellent, although not for the garlic-adverse. And if you aren’t afraid of germs or enjoying your life with others, the portions are big enough to share.
I spent an hour eating at the bar and chatting with a man in his mid-70s who had lived more lives than I could ever hope to. Racecar driver. Drummer for a 1960s band. Furniture company CEO. The conversation was a perfect anecdote to a beleaguered society run by Nurse Ratcheds hell-bent on destroying lives and livelihoods in the name of health and equity. I left with a full belly and the hope that everyone embraces good food once again, and the hope we’ll all find the fortitude to tell the overlords that be va fongool.