1731 India St.
Why do we do it? Is there a blind date in the history of humankind that hasn't ended in awkward next-day reports of, "Um, well, thanks for thinking of me and all, but he was, well, boring sounds so negative-he just wasn't dynamic enough." I'm sure the other end usually goes something like, "Dude, you didn't tell me she talks so much."
What is it about Italian restaurants that inspire such grand romantic delusions? Maybe it's the long, dangling strings of melted cheese, dripping marinara, slurping pasta or (I'll bet this is it) the overpowering deluge of garlic infused in every entrée, ensuring mutually pungent after-dinner conversation.
Nevertheless, I'm 25, I'm single and I'm too nice to say no. And so I found myself, seated at an uncomfortably intimate table, in an otherwise crowded dining room, at Café Zucchero on a Friday night. Babies were crying, the birthday gathering was already drunk, the older patrons appeared annoyed, and all I could think was, I walked three blocks in heels for this? What a waste of cute shoes. Don't get me wrong; he was a nice enough guy. They always are.
"So what do you think of this place?" I asked.
"It's OK, I guess. I usually only eat at Islands and California Pizza Kitchen. You know-normal, middle-class places."
I was rescued just then by our waiter, a lovely older man with shockingly white hair and a thick Italian accent. He brought us water and bread with olive oil and vinegar, and then disappeared much too quickly. I was still perusing the second section of the menu (it's broken down into antipasto, salad, pizza, pasta and meat sections) when I noticed my date had already folded his in front of him.
"Did you decide already?"
"Yep. Linguini with Alfredo sauce."
I took my time, anyway, narrowing my selection down to the Gnocchi Alla Sorrentina (potato dumplings in tomato cream sauce) and the Pollo Alle Zucchero (chicken breast layered with prosciutto and mozzarella cheese, topped with cream sauce). Upon our waiter's return, I asked him, "Which of these do you recommend?" Misunderstanding, he replied "This one pasta, and this, this is meat." "No, no. Which one is your favorite? Which one would you eat?" "Ah! You have gnocchi. I bring." Done deal.
Waiting for our entrées to arrive, more enlightening conversation ensued.
"Just so I'm clear. You only went to Coachella once, but you have T-shirts from every year?"
"Yes, it's something of a tradition."
I tried, really I did. The evening just wasn't going anywhere, and I sensed I wasn't the only one who knew it. Dinner arrived-as cheesy, saucy, stringy and garlicky as anticipated. Seriously, folks, there's just nothing vaguely romantic about Italian food. My date appeared to eat constantly for the next 10 minutes, but we both swore it didn't appear that there was any less pasta on his plate than when he'd started. I tried a bite, though, and it was everything linguini Alfredo should be: al dente pasta and smooth, buttery sauce, set off by a light sprinkling of freshly ground black pepper. My gnocchi was slightly under-cooked, leaving it a bit chewier than it ought to have been. It was flavorful, though, and the tomato cream sauce was genius. Achieving the perfect balance between the acidity of the tomatoes and the sweetness of the cream, it nearly made me forget that I still had half a bad blind date to go. At least while we ate, we didn't have to talk to each other so much.
Dinner was cleared, and the dessert selection appeared before we had a chance to say, "No, thank you-just the check will be fine." I pointed here and there just to be polite: "And this green one? What is that?" Suddenly, as though struck with sugar-induced inspiration, our adorable waiter exclaimed, "Tiramisu! You share!" and disappeared. We'd been railroaded by the dessert brigade.
As it turns out, it was the saving grace of the evening. Pastry chef Frank Busalacchi is brilliant with espresso, ladyfingers and mascarpone cream. It was soft, melt-in-your-mouth Italian-pastry heaven. Everything at Café Zucchero is made in-house, so we were spared that shipped-in, made-two-days-ago sogginess often associated with low-brow, knock-off tiramisu.
Savoring another fork full, I couldn't help but think, Maybe this wasn't such a waste of shoes, after all.