It sounds like a movie title. It isn’t. It was a real Monday night, end of a trip and dawn of a week, as so many things in life morph from one into another… We walked east from Cobble Hill, leaving Henry Street behind and following Union Street towards and past the now ritual Gowanus bridge and its nearby strange sidewalk garden, and on to Park Slope. The air was crisp and we moved briskly, looking around us with pleasure, noticing small things like hints of spring and touches of tasteful caring on doorsteps. We turned right on 5th Avenue and kept going for a couple of blocks to the corner of Caroll. And there it was. The odd little lobby stuck out onto the sidewalk, antechamber of Al di Là‘s cavern. As we eased through the outer door, we gave way to a lady stepping out while talking on her cell phone: "I don’t think we should eat at Al di Là, she was saying to someone invisible, there’s an hour wait to get a table." We looked at each other, incredulous. This was Monday night, not Saturday.
But we pushed in, brushing past the heavy curtains that completely isolate the dinning room from the street, and were immediately immersed into the warm ambiance of the place. There stood Emiliano, greeting us and looking a bit discouraged as he smiled apologetically as if to say: "I know what you are going to ask, and you know what I’m going to answer." We did know, but we asked any way. The room was buzzing with activity, conversations were loud and happy. "About an hour, he said. It’s so busy tonight. You could wait downstairs." Neither one of us had brought a phone, but we headed downstairs any way, back outside and around the corner, to the low-ceiling little room they use as an overflow dining room, a bar, and a narrow waiting area.
At first, we felt like the last two onions squeezed into an already tightly stuffed turkey. No way to approach the bar, nowhere to sit, the waitresses looking frantic. But we’d been there before. Soon, as people having arrived ahead of us managed to grab a seat here and there, we were able to order our ritual glasses of Prosecco. Having claimed those, we retreated to a corner by the window and stood there toasting to us, and to them. When a couple sitting at the bar gave clear signals of preparing an exit, we made our move to replace them. But just as we took possession of our 2 square feet of bar space, the word came from above: our table was ready, no later than 20 minutes after we’d arrived. Maybe 15. There was magic in the air. Our drinks took a shortcut via steep inside stairs so that we wouldn’t have to carry them in the street; we walked back outside around the block, through the curtains, into the main dining room and sat down. Sigh. We had arrived.
Al di Là is a tradition. We’ll always come here once in a while and melt. "I love this place, says Marie, it has seen me through a lot, from way back in the beginning. And now you are here. Happy ending." She is somehow wrong, though, it’s a happy beginning. But she is right to like Anna and Emiliano’s restaurant. There’s something in the air, here. Intangible, but very real. And the food is just superb.
So we picked up our menus and the wine list. Well, the wine is generally Marie’s baby. For my part, I had a rendez-vous with gnocchi and nervously glanced up and down the page, worried they might have disappeared. No, there they were, Malfatti, Swiss chard and ricotta gnocchi with brown butter and sage. I took a deep breath. Choosing a dish to compliment the malfatti was superfluous, but I did any way, because a hangar steak sounded like a funny choice for an Italian resto. Marie made love to her spring salad with peas and pea shoots and then had slow-cooked beef cheeks with green garlic and Jerusalem artichokes. Time flowed slowly, along with a bottle of pino nero. Eating at Al di Là is like embarking on a broken time machine; you know when you arrive but never really know when you’ll leave… In any case, my resolution is now strong. These gnocchi are the best thing I have ever eaten and next time, I’ll order a triple serving and nothing else.
We finished dinner by sharing an affogato di gelato. And then, still hypnotized by the company and confused by such delicious food, I think I messed up the tip. I’m quite happy doing maths while flying IFR but staring into amazing green eyes, it’s a whole other story.
We finally stood up and, having fetched our coats, headed for the door. Emiliano was eating dinner at a small corner table, alone, and gave us a smile and a wave as we were leaving. We waved back. Until next time…