Three solid months. That’s how long it had been since I’d eaten at a restaurant. And I’ll admit: I had butterflies as we crossed the street to the corner of South 17th and Carpenter where L’anima’s patio was already alive at dusk with colorful outdoor tables and joyful guests.
You’d think a guy who makes a living eating out more than 300 times a year wouldn’t flinch at the prospect of another restaurant meal or that I’d take another plate of gnocchi with wild boar Bolognese or a bowl of house-churned gelato for granted. But I was uncertain and little fearful. This was the longest I’d gone in my career without eating out. And, of course, this past three months has been unlike any in our lifetimes, with the deadly health threat of COVID-19 still out there and my family emerging from our kitchen cave at home where, like so may others, we’d taken refuge for some serious social distancing.
Would we be safe? Would it be worth the risk — both for diners and the restaurant staff coming back to work? What could I touch? How would we pay? Who would pour our BYO wine? These are questions I’ve only begun to process as they move from the hypothetical shadows of my anxiety to the actuality of a seat near someone’s restaurant kitchen, not to mention tables of strangers. And I’m certain they’re going to evolve as the reopening of local restaurants, and eventually their dining rooms, begins now.
But with outdoor dining debuting Friday in Philadelphia for the first time since the citywide dining room shutdown in mid-March, it was time for that first step. Yes, I had to cancel our plans for cooking at home that night, some turkey cutlets I’d begun to thaw. Judging by the speed with which my wife and kids disappeared upstairs to change into some decent clothes for what felt like a celebratory meal, I had no doubt they were up for the outing.
“You’ve done a really great job cooking for us for the past three months, Daddy,” my daughter, Alice, said sweetly, sensing my home cook’s pride potentially at stake in her eagerness to eat out. “But … can I get the fettunta toast with prosciutto and buffalo mozzarella?”
The excitement was universal as we took our seats in some pastel-colored chairs beside a planter. The tables were spaced on the gracious patio comfortably beyond the required six-feet separation, but neighboring tables could be seen still catching up, trading stories with hand gestures for extra emphasis. And while the service staff in colorful We Are Philly fund-raiser T-shirts were wearing protective masks, as expected, I could sense their big smiles underneath. Rarely before have I felt such a palpable energy of radiating hospitality as we ordered from the online menus on our phones.
My early apprehensions still lingered, though, until I heard the voice of a woman dining with a friend behind me introduce herself to the server.
“I work for the city health department,” she said, with a pause, “and you guys are doing great.”
If the health department lady couldn’t wait for 24 hours before going out on her free time — and approved — then I could try to exhale. And with that, it was as if three months of pent-up appetites were released from the gates of quarantine as the meal was off and running.
Luscious pink strips of meaty tuna crudo drizzled with pine nut citrus vinaigrette came laced over fennel salad and Taggiasca olives beside a Sicilian orange salad. Soulful meatballs were rich with pork shoulder and ricotta. Toothy house-extruded pasta came tossed in a zest all’Amatriciana tomato sauce sweet with onions and zesty with nuggets of pancetta.
I’ve long been a fan of Gianluca Demontis, the Roman-born chef who also owns the three-bell BYOBs Melograno north of Rittenhouse and Fraschetta in Bryn Mawr. And this meal would have been excellent before “pandemic” ever became a part of my regular vocabulary. But with a gentle 74-degree breeze caressing the wide patio in front of his third restaurant in South Philly, and a perfect Saint-Pourçain rosé imported by Mary Taylor chilling on the side, the flavors this evening seemed more vivid than ever.
There were pasta tubes glazed in a rich pecorino froth of cacio e pepe that sparkled with cracked black pepper. Silvery white anchovies laced through the gently bitter crunch of Little Gem lettuce. A juicy pork chop alla Fiorentina with grilled radicchio perched over Gorgonzola polenta ringed by a dark drizzle of sweet balsamic and tangy bursts of little blueberries.
There were some lovely desserts, too, from a perfect take on classic tiramisu to an olive oil cake with a trio of pistachio, strawberry, and fior di latte gelati.
These were beautifully sweet harbingers of what the ideal Great Restaurant Reopening can look like.
But I have no illusions at all. There will be other restaurants that don’t handle the meticulous logistics and awkward hospitality required by social distancing with nearly as much grace as L’anima did. There will inevitably be the occasional party of insufferably inconsiderate strangers at the next table who will make six feet as uncomfortable as six inches. There also may be a scary spike in COVID-19 cases to come as the world returns to its public spaces.
And, to be honest, I know I’m going to have even more nerves when it’s time to enter an actual dining room again. But all I can say is that it felt great to be the guest at a restaurant again, to be surrounded by the feeling of community and hospitality that tasted like a genuine moment of rebirth and revival. Are we deluded in returning to the table so soon? We will know soon enough.
But the hunger to return is so strong. By the time we paid our bill through a touch-free QR code and finished our first restaurant meal at L’anima, we’d literally scraped our plates clean.