After more than a year of only ordering takeout, with vaccinations in arms, my wife and I were ready to eat in a restaurant again.
Our first night back was at Frasca Food & Wine, the reining James Beard Award-winner for Best Hospitality. Go big or go home, we thought quite literally, and on this night, home was not an option. It wasn't the fact I didn't have to cook, though, or that my wife didn't have to do the dishes that made this night so special. It wasn't because we were out with friends or didn't have to cleanup afterward. Having our wine poured for us was great, but for me, it wasn't the big differentiator.
What I loved was experiencing the mark of a great meal, which in my opinion, is learning something.
Frasca is inspired by a part of Italy with which many are unfamiliar. North of the Venetian region of Veneto, Friuli is framed by the Adriatic and the nations of Slovenia and Austria. Red sauce be damned, the food here has a much different sphere of influence. Geographically and culinarily, it more resembles the cuisines of central Europe than your local pizzeria, and course by course, Frasca unveiled it.
What makes the food of Friuli unique? To start, many of the dishes from this region are smoked -- from smoked trout and speck, a smoked and cured meat, to smoked ricotta. We sampled a pasta dish called a cjalson, which is similar to a Polish pierogi that can be filled with a wide range of ingredients. At Frasca, it was a beet purée with smoked ricotta, and they looked like tiny sunsets on the plate. Though the staff seemed shocked at how much I liked it, how it wasn't typically a guest favorite, it turned out to be one of my favorite bites of food when paired with a Friulian pinot nero. I also learned about the infamous pinot noir/beet combination, which I never knew was a thing.
The main course was a lamb chop encrusted with bread crumbs. It reminded me of a good schnitzel, a dish made most famous in the city of Vienna. When I thought about it, it made a lot of sense. Friuli is about three hours closer to Vienna, the birthplace of wienerschnitzel, than it is to Rome. Yes, geography makes a difference when you're talking about ingredients and culinary influences.
The point of this isn't to bore you with a blow by blow, bite by bite recap of my meal, nor is it to introduce you to Friulian cuisine with my limited exposure to it. The point is to convey what the point of a great meal can be in my opinion -- to educate. You can taste a new ingredient or try an unfamiliar dish or learn about a new wine pairing. You can be inspired to visit a new region of the world just because of a meal you've had. You can travel with your tastebuds.
But what you likely can't do is have that kind of experience at home, when you're cooking the same familiar dishes for yourself, night after night after night. That is the true joy of dining out.