Red sauce for the blues
Pity those whose otherwise broadening travels render them unable to enjoy American immigrant iterations of their ancestral cuisines. I think of my old classmate returning from a semester in Rome, heartbroken from an affair and recoiling from the messy red spaghetti and glass shakers of parmesan cheese and red pepper flakes that seemed to him newly inauthentic. It was loss upon loss, in my view, to break up with the very vinyl booths and candle-stuffed chianti bottles that might have given solace. By all means, let love break your heart but not your appetite.
An NCJ staffer's recommendation sent us to Ferndale Pizza Co. (607 Main St., Ferndale) for an eggplant parmigiana ($13.70) that would make a fine emotional salve. A solid Italian American classic, the broad slices of eggplant, dipped in egg and homemade breadcrumbs with parmigiana cheese, and fried until their flesh is soft and translucent, are stacked and topped with mozzarella and marinara sauce. That a block of lasagna is one of your side options solves the conundrum of which to order but not where you will nap later. The lasagna, too, carries old-school, pizza parlor cred, with thick, curly edged noodles, ricotta, an all-day-big-pot meat sauce and mozzarella under a ladle of still more red sauce. Though it bears the saucy, meaty markers of the dish's evolution stateside, its mail-order DNA test kit would skew toward Southern Italy, with nary a spoonful of northern béchamel in sight. In those layers lies the comfort of tradition. And sauce. Lots of red sauce.
After months and years of wishing, manifesting, prayer and vision boards failed to yield a deli within medium-heel walking distance of the NCJ offices, I was about to move on to witchcraft. Then Delish on 5th (440 F St.) opened up in Old Town with its case full of cured meats and cheeses, for which I'm deeply grateful, as spellwork looks like a steep learning curve.
The setup — fancy kitchen shop on one side, fancy baked goods and sandwiches on the other — is a little more bespoke than I was going for but, in fairness, I did only skim The Secret. The hot pastrami sandwich ($11), for example, comes on a crusty, Dijon-swiped hunk of house baked ciabatta and grilled until the Swiss cheese bubbles down over the sides. The meat itself has some smoke and pepper to it, but its fall-apart texture and edge-browned fat is more akin to a roasted brisket than what you'd normally order on rye or in a Rueben. This is not in any way a bad thing. Likewise the handful of tart giardiniera, with its pickled carrots, cauliflower and green beans in place of the usual dill spear.
The ciabatta shows up again panini-pressed around the Muffuletta ($11), rather than the big, soft, round Italian namesake loaf the traditional New Orleans sandwich is made on. It is, however, generously layered with salami, ham, provolone, tangy olive tapenade and Dijon, which you might ask to go easy on if you're not a fan of strong mustard. The giardiniera stays on the side and the mortadella stays on the bench, but, departures from the standard recipe aside, it's a meaty joy worth the napkins you'll need.
The sea salted chocolate chip cookies are marvelous but if you've got room, invest in a hefty wedge of cheesecake ($4.25). A pinky-thick graham cracker crust cradles the fluffy, creamy filling — listen as your fork makes its way through to the plate and fully appreciate the experience.
So long, Savory. Hola, Fregosos Comida Mexicana (1504 G St., Arcata). In November, Savory's owners, who also own the Fregoso Market across from the Arcata North Coast Co-op, made the switch with a bright coat of paint, a fully Mexican menu and a new name in the same location across from Stars Hamburgers in Arcata's Northtown.
Those in thrall to the queso fresco-stuffed chile relleno served in a bubbling molcajete ($12) will be happy to learn it's still on the menu, along with a side of homemade corn tortillas, whole pinto beans and saffron risotto. The Mason jars of house made horchata, with telltale sediment and deep vanilla and cinnamon flavor, deserve an equal following ($3.50). Branch out for the octopus and aguachile ($14), a bright tumble of seeded cucumbers, yellow tomatoes, radish, red onion, fresh jalapeño and cilantro, with thinly sliced octopus and shrimp in a chile lime marinade. It's possibly the only salad you can lord over your companions in a Mexican restaurant. The aguachile also comes with a handful of crispy wontons, which you have missed at Chinese restaurants, whether or not you can admit it.
It also leaves room for two desserts worth your gastronomic real estate. The tres leches cake ($6) is a light sponge soaked in its namesakes — condensed milk, evaporated milk and cream — and updated with a fresh mint syrup. Its polar opposite is the thick, alabaster flan ($6). You may marvel equally at its intense caramel flavor and the richness of the custard, which offers your spoon more resistance than the typical flan. And if you do order both desserts for yourself, I'm happy to report your server won't blink. That is service.
Share your Hum Plate tips with Jennifer Fumiko Cahill, arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.