CALIFORNIA, Part 5 of 5

Dear Diary, Day 16 … While David, Rich, Bill (of smoked tri-tip fame), and old golf buddy, Dick, were golfing, Leslie and I went to Nordstrom Rack. Yeah, you knew there’d be some shopping. When we gathered back at the house, there was much discussion about dinner. Some suggested a sports bar … others said nobody goes to a sports bar without specific sports … a few suggested fish since we were in a town that has beach in its name. In the end, “beach” beat bar, and we went to Roe’s Seafood. A long list of appetizers became dinner … popcorn chicken, batter-fried and spicy … ahi poke, spicy and saucy with large chunks of moist ahi… duck fried rice with quail egg, delicious and my favorite … ceviche with tortilla crisps, one part cool and one part crispy … salmon taco, an unusual (and flavorful) fish filling, but a smidge bland in the accompaniment category … fried calamari strips, nicely meaty with flavorful breading … California roll, good filling, but wrapped in rice paper gave it a tad less zing than the more popular nori wrapper. We headed home, glad to find some ice cream in the freezer, as we curled up on the big leather chairs to chat and watch TV.

Dear Diary, Day 17 … We were heading FROM THE SOUTH BAY TO THE VALLEY on a Friday, so we said our good-byes in the early afternoon. The traffic gods were with us … and we arrived in Santa Clarita for our visit with Agat and her daughter, Annie. Annie … the inspiration for naming our kitty, Annie, since she was there at her birth. Annie … my unofficial god-daughter. A bit hungry, we (finally) enjoyed our leftover Lebanese for lunch.

Agat recently rescued a little dog … Miley, a German shepherd-chihuahua !!! mix … and we walked to and around the park. Lively doesn’t describe her … Miley is a speed racer and could give a greyhound a run for the money. She’s very sweet, she even slept with us that night. Canine cuddles. Back at the house, we shared wine and enjoyed some appetizers. Bowls of lentils/goat cheese/chopped tomato … spicy hummus … black bean hummus (still trending) … carrot sticks … and a basket of whole grain crackers and French bread. Agat is French, and her simple and simply delicious broccoli soup is one of my standard recipes. For her dinner tonight she began yesterday … simmering beef stew, and today, better and richer, she added carrots and potatoes for a terrific result. A little more bread to enjoy the last of the sauce.

When we moved, I gave Agat the KitchenAid mixer that my father had given to me years before. I had another mixer, a bigger one, to bring with us. Agat and I often talked about our fathers, both gone too soon, too young … too long. That, and because I had baked Christmas cookies with her two older children when they were young, made her the perfect person for this present. When we finished dinner, she looked at me and smiled. I knew. She took the mixer out of the cabinet and handed me a bag of chocolate.

We ate chocolate chunk cookies hot off the cookie sheet.

HERE COME THOSE SANTA ANA WINDS AGAIN. My sensitive skin and dry hair, having adjusted to damp Italian winters, were reasonably happy in this near desert air. My sinuses, not so much. I used what I call la cura fazzoletti … the kleenex cure (the alliteration makes it funnier in English) … Italian-style to skip medicines for seasonal symptoms.

Dear Diary, Day 18 … In the morning, we cheered Annie as she played soccer … she had three assists in 4–0 win. Bravissima! It was too short a visit, but a wonderful one. We were weaving our way to Hollywood, where we were staying for our last three nights.

We met a mutual friend, Chris, for lunch at Malbec, an Argentinean restaurant in Toluca Lake. He was sitting at a table on the covered patio outside, and we were glad to absorb some Vitamin D. Let the white wine flow. By the glass, when we should have ordered a bottle … who knew? I had two very good spinach and cheese empanadas (I joked they were spanakopita). David also went regional, with grilled steak and French fries. Chris also enjoyed empanadas, plus a beet salad. David’s dessert was that international favorite … ice cream. Coffee ice cream artfully decorated with nuts and crispy cookies.

The 1930s apartment, charming and vintage, was just steps from the Hollywood sign. Lots of uphill steps from the Hollywood sign. A narrow driveway lead to a backyard with a couple of trees … and hummingbirds.

That evening, we were going to a concert with Fredde and a new friend, Donna … and we decided to eat at a restaurant that was steps from the venue, McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica.

Lares is a small Mexican restaurant. Stress on small. We wedged into a table, barely any room for our handbags. David had a margarita while we pursued the menu, not sure what to get. Ok, I already knew … guacamole with flour tortillas. David had chicken fajitas, Fredde and Donna opted for an enchilada. How small was it? I said it was like eating on an airplane. Sometimes the important part of a meal is the company, not the comida.

The concert was the premiere and/or goodbye performance of Action Skulls. The group is the trio of Billy Mumy and Vickie Paterson and John Cowsills (some of you may recognize one or all of those names … all have professional pedigrees), plus a keyboardist and bass player. The stage is in the back of the shop, and the walls are filled with vintage guitars, creating a friendly and intimate setting. The group played great songs … original and cover versions … making for a terrific and very enjoyable music-filled evening. And we had a backstage pass to make it even more special. Fredde told Billy we came from Italy to hear them play … yeah, he was impressed.

(A woman is on trial for killing her husband. The judge turns to her and asks, “First offender?” “No,” says the wife, “First a Gibson, then a Fender.”)

Sorry.

Dear Diary, Day 19 … Our lunch idea fell through (hope you’re feeling better Barb … and thank you for being willing to drive in from Riverside), and we made maximum use of the newly-found time. Packing. No easy task since we arrived with one golf bag and were leaving with two … and the clasps/latches on the second bag, discovered in the back of Rich’s attic, were broken. (Luggage straps, courtesy of TJ Maxx … metal ties through the screw holes, courtesy of The Linda.)

It was old school Sunday. We drove up to Sunset Boulevard early … and decided to soak in the atmosphere at Cabo Cantina. It was Happy Hour … 2 for 1 … and we ordered Mango Margaritas and chips/salsa. On the rocks … but the bartender blended them. After a few sips resulted in brain freeze, the waitress brought us what we ordered. But a few sips had taken hold … thank goodness for the chips. Wink.

For dinner, we walked down the street to the train car known as Carney’s … an iconic place on an iconic street. We were meeting Susan and her middle son, Michael (one of the most “balanced brain” people I know … his day job is as a computer designer; by night, he plays and tours with a professional rock band … we saw him perform in Bologna last year, another proud “aunt” moment). Tonight we all fell off the organic/km-zero, vegan/raw/gluten-free/[insert trend here] bandwagon. And we all enjoyed each and every cheesy, greasy, beefy, salty, starchy bite of French fries … sweet potato fries … cheeseburgers … chili cheeseburgers.

I do want to take a moment to give a shout-out to Susan’s #1 son, Christopher (who lives out of California) … when we met, he was 8, and said he wanted to be a pilot. Fortunately, no nanny heard the word “pirate” … and today he is an airline pilot.

Dear Diary, Day 20 … For lunch, I had picked a cafe based 100% on location, and when elementary school friend and our lunch partner, Barbara, said her older son knew and liked the place, I was confident in the decision. Apparently, Komodo, on Pico Boulevard near Robertson Boulevard in Beverly Hills adjacent, started life as a food truck, that oh-so-California addition to the American food scene. This was a small place, with two tables and lots of counter space. I even liked that the menu said No Substitutions, with a notation that the chef has created unique flavors to be enjoyed as he intended … because I tell our guests to take at least one bite of what I have prepared before making a mashup on the plate. Another elementary school friend, Wendy, was joining us later … and another long-time friend, Hilary, was planning on coming, but unfortunately had a last minute conflict. (Drat.) David ordered garlic fries to start … and boy were they garlicky and good. Barbara and I decided to share two dishes … I picked a loco moco burrito (Hawaiian-Mexican fusion), and she picked Chinese chicken salad (California-Chinese fusion). The burrito was so good with the rice and egg and hamburger and sweet shoyu, all wrapped into a big flour tortilla … the salad was full of cubes of tender chicken and tangerine wedges, with the flavors of toasted sesame oil and rice wine vinegar in the dressing. David had four-taco platter … chipotle-flavored chicken and loco moco and Komodo 2.0 and MP3 steak. Our taste buds were content.

In a last minute squeeze to see friends, we made a quick stop to say hello to one of David’s first co-workers during his career, Alex, and his wife, Dana, in their newly remodeled home in West Hollywood. Do you want an apple?, asked Dana. Yes, please … we’ve been eating oranges. As we were driving away, I got a message from our dinner date, Doreen, my elementary school friend who had The. Best. Birthday. Parties. She wrote that she had lost her voice, so had to cancel our get together. She had been out-of-town for most of our trip, so this was our first and last chance to see one another. (Let’s work on our next rendezvous. Hint, hint.) So David & I ad libbed, and stopped at Trader Joe’s … we’d have a picnic of sourdough bread and Monterey Jack cheese, just relaxing at the apartment.

Dear Diary Day 21 … IT’S TIME WE BETTER HIT THE ROAD. We go home today, and see our kitties soon!!!! (Four exclamation marks … one of each of them … I miss them so much.) Wendy is very sweet, and said she’d drive us to the airport so we’d have extra time together.

We started taxi-ing down the runway ... I handed David the little NoJetLag pill, and I took mine. Staring out the window, I said sottovoce, "We’re on our way home, kitties." I continued staring as we circled south along the coast over El Segundo and Long Beach (hoping to see whales), then turning northeast across California ... the U.S.A. ... toward home.

The itinerary said we had a 5-hour layover in Frankfurt … and it was made longer when we landed an hour early. Yes, the lounge serves frankfurters, with the skin that almost pops as you bit into the veal filling … and Warsteiner beer on tap. We struggled to stay awake, and were rewarded when a server came by offering a tray of pretzels. Not just any pretzels … these were hot from the oven, big, softly doughy, slightly salty pretzels covered in a layer of warm, silky, melting Muenster cheese. A nice transition back to European eats.

And finally … benvenuti a noi! Kitty kisses!!!!

So, three weeks in Los Angeles. It seemed like a lot of time, yet not enough time. To friends we didn’t see, we zigged while you zagged. Zig-issimo. I would have shown you my graph paper chart that I needed to keep us organized … and transferred, color-coded, onto my smartphone’s calendar. To friends who were too sick to zig or zag, I’m disappointed that I couldn’t bring you chicken soup. To friends we did see, thank you for welcoming us. To all we say, we hope to see you (now) (soon) (later) … we have two countries from which to choose.

So what is my take away? What do I, will I remember?

Food. Being a foodie means being open to it all, appreciating all the atmospheres. Fine dining to food trucks, wine to room temperature water (learning by Day 2 that “no ice” just means ice cold water), fish fork to fingers to chopsticks, classic to ethnic to fusion. And we did. But … in the end, I found myself really looking forward to making and tossing and savoring some pasta (slowly twirling a forkful), and to assembling that winter favorite from Tuscany, la cucina povera … grilled bread topped with cannellini beans, just harvested and boiled cavolo nero, olive oil, and coarse salt (licking oily fingers with each bite).

Folks. As drivers, they stop for pedestrians, pause before making a right turn, yield. As pedestrians, they smile. And they have botox and injectables and lifts so everyone looks young. Younger. They talk to you … chatting over the chard, wondering about a wine. (In our local grocery store, only at the fish counter do I discuss cooking and recipes.) Nobody smokes cigarettes [smiley face]. Music is played very, very loudly in cars.

Fenders. It felt strange to use navigation in my hometown. A few areas were new … other places I hadn’t seen in years. But the small screen helped us maneuver around all those yellow and red lines indicating traffic Traffic TRAFFIC … something the Thomas Brothers Guide never could do. Some streets, some shortcuts I knew instinctively.

So much has changed. Century City growing more out than up. Expensive parking … and using a credit card at parking meters. Third Street Promenade growing more up than out. Clusters and colonies of homeless people. Lots of left-turn lanes. “Hummus.” Permit parking everywhere. More food trucks.

So much has stayed the same. Carney’s. Driving on PCH … and the Pacific. Nordstrom. Right on red. Trader Joe’s. Nobody walking. Santa Monica Pier. Vanity license plates, now also available in throwback yellow-on-black (making it changed yet the same). Avocados and oranges. Random oil wells. Customer service. The climate. And … friends.

IT AIN’T LIKE ANYWHERE ELSE.

Life … and cooking … in the Tuscan countryside.