About a month or so ago now, after finding myself quite lost in the kid free zone, the wife convinced me we needed to enjoy a romantic Friday night out, which honestly was long overdue. Even so, I grudgingly went about the task of ironing my clothes and applying mascara for our rare out-after-seven evening ahead. Much adieu later, all primped and (mostly) wrinkle free, with the god awful black crap already flaking off my eyelashes, I stole a quick minute to indulge in a few much needed sips of herbal vape, before finally descending the cement stairs leading to our driveway. After nearly two years of having to juggle my overwhelmingly worrisome, self-deprecating doubts without it, the smudge like cleansing of my mind on exhale transformed my hypothetically perceived judgements into gentle, fluttering butterflies beneath the surface of my skin, which were a screaming lot of banshees trying to convince me I didn’t deserve a night out just moments before inhaling. I opened the door to our Outback, which was gently humming since Amy so patiently warmed the car up, and sat down on a very thoughtfully preheated seat. In true Southern fashion, I’m always the last one out the door, as I always need to use the powder room one last time, not to mention all the other distractions I find to avoid social interactions a little while longer. The wife used to tease about how long it took me to get ready not knowing that it was all a cleverly plotted ruse to arrive after everyone was at least one drink in already. For some reason, I find it much easier to relax when entering a new social environment when the party got started without me. So with belts finally clicked, we started our very short drive to downtown Newark. On the way, I attempted to manage my most recent bout of flared up social anxiety and was still struggling with apprehensive feelings about going out. Honestly, I felt immeasurably grateful for the medicinal herb I’d just inhaled, because the more it kicked in, the more relaxed and happy I felt to be out on a date with my wife. Warm and cozy Subaru style, we arrived about 10 minutes later in Newark and found a parking spot rather quickly on Main Street. We walked against the chilly night air trying to decide where we might like to pop in for dinner. The glittering lights against the darkened sky, the youthful, buzzing college vibe everywhere makes it nearly impossible to not feel energetic while strolling up and down the aromatic street at night. After a short walk, we stopped at our quick go-to, Iron Hill Brewery, but the 45 minute estimated wait for a table seemed like forever at the time. Starving, we braved the ever chilling evening breeze and chanced finding our eats elsewhere. We finally landed a table for two with no reservations (because my wife always insists reservations aren’t needed) at Taverna Restaurant, and oddly enough, as this is like maybe the second time we’ve chosen an Italian themed restaurant for dinner. We’ve gone with the crowd to Italian restaurants several times in the past, but rarely choose them on our own. I’m not sure why we don’t choose Italian more often. Perhaps it’s the overwhelmingly oversized portions or the fact that pasta dishes aren’t really that difficult for us to prepare at home. Whichever the case, we usually gravitate towards the spiced up Indian or Thai establishments whenever we dine out. Being from Texas, the more spice the better, and this doesn’t necessarily mean capsisian heat, but definitely means big flavor. Italian restaurants just produce images of bland nondescript cheese and onenote tomato sauces in my mind, but “Americanized” menus are evolving however, and so I’m glad we did not allow our prejudice to shy us away from Taverna.
In true romantic form, we left our phones in our coat pockets (so no pics), and decided to share a few plates with each other instead of ordering separately. A few sips of wine in, we finally decided on the fried calamari and grilled artichokes to start and then to finish with the flatbread special for our entree. The calamari and artichokes arrived at the table together, and we rushed in ravenously skipping right over the tiny individualized plates delivered with the two appetizers, like the old married couple we are, instead of daintily insisting on taking turns, while serving ourselves from the main platter, with our napkins in our laps, elbows off the table, meticulously chewing through one small portion at a time, with five rounds of “No, I insist! You should have the last bite.” Once the honeymoon is over, it’s every hunty for herself, darling! The calamari was delightfully crisp and light, but the mayo based lemon aioli did nothing for the dish, except sog it down, and I’d definitely ask super nicely if I could skip the aioli on my next calamari order, that is, if I’d even order it again. I prefer a simpler finish to my calamari, with a few pickled cherry peppers for a pop of acid and a hint of heat to balance the deep fried dish, with no fancy ketchup or mayonnaise needed. Excellent calamari shouldn’t swim in a medicare pool of mayo, but that’s just my opinion. Frankly, who needs any other starter at Taverna but their grilled artichokes anyway! OMG! The smoke, the lemon, the peppery arugula, the umami punch of Parmigiano! It was hands down the favorite dish at the table all evening! And they were fresh artichoke hearts too, not the briny canned ones. We dreamed about those grilled artichokes for weeks after dinner, but that’s a dish I’ll leave to Taverna, as artichokes are a hell of a lot of tedious prep work, and when a dish is so perfectly balanced and delicious, it’s best to leave it to the experts anyway. Some dishes just aren’t worth the hassle to replicate at home, especially when you don’t have your own personal prep chefs on staff! We finished our dinner with (a second glass of wine) and the flatbread special. The pizza dough? Well, you could top that dough with mud and it would taste fantastic! The wood fire char, the soft chew, the delicate crunch, and dare I say a hint of Toasted Sesame Oil? Our server proclaimed the dough is only brushed with a little olive oil, because I couldn’t stop myself from trying to identify the subtle flavor left on my lips after every scrumptious bite, of course. “Only a little olive oil” was definitely not the answer I anticipated, because honestly I’ve never tasted an olive oil like that before, and I’ve been to more than a few tasting rooms. So, well done Taverna! Perhaps there’s some sort of magical flavor transformation that happens when olive oil is cooked at such a high temperature, because it definitely tasted of sesame seeds to me. Whatever the dough sorcery going on at Taverna, our meal was superb over all, and we will definitely dine there again on our future date nights to come.
We order pizza out about as often as we dine at Italian restaurants, which is to say not that often. However, after our serendipitous dining experience at Taverna, we definitely left the restaurant warm, full, and cheerfully inspired to upgrade our pizza dough recipe, which we’ve only been perfecting for about eight years now. Breaking down enough artichokes to grill up the delicate hearts at home? Not so much. Switching up the baking method for our weekly pizza night dough? We originally thought, “Now that’s something we can easily duplicate at home!” Again, not so much. The first flatbread recipe we attempted with AP flour resulted in a crunchy cracker finish, which was good and all but definitely not our intention. The resulting “mishap” fully charged our creative determination however, and we ended up ordering “00” (double zero) flour, which I discovered on one of my recipe research quests in the days after our crunchy cracker pizza experiment. Reportedly, “00” is THE flour for excellent quality pizza dough, without exception. However, it is not the most affordable baking ingredient out there. Who knew that even flour can be fancy? Our second flatbread attempt with the “00” flour resulted in a dough much closer to flatbread and less like a damn cracker, but it still didn’t have the chewy mouthfeel we experienced at Taverna. So, back to the old drawing board it is. Our experimentation with flatbread style dough is in fluid hypothesis, and so we will keep trying until we are 100% satisfied with the end result. So, at this time, I don’t have a finalized recipe to share with you, but since we normally cook pizzas at home, at least once a week, the recipe should be perfected to our satisfaction soon. So, stay posted, as we are cooking up another round of flatbreads this weekend, or just give it a go yourself and let me know how your dough experiments turn out.
The lesson, beyond amazing flatbread, I’m trying to learn right now, and would like to impress you with as I write this blog entry is this: even if cooking at home is a sacred ceremony your family loves sharing together, and even if experimenting and developing personal recipes sparks joy for you, it is necessary to never forget how utterly important it is to go out and feel special on occasion. In the least, you will find inspiration for new kitchen challenges at home, while dining on delicious food someone else prepared (and no clean up!). At most, you will provide enough space for your family, with regular date nights, to keep your hearts full of gratitude for the beauty and love of your home. I know, for us at least, it’s all too easy to fall into a pattern of taking our home and lifestyle for granted. Taking off on a weekend excursion, off-grid camping, date nights, etc. all provide a much needed broader perspective of the world around us. And for a couple of home bodies like us, it is essential to get outside and experience the world beyond our own backyard, because Dorothy’s right, there’s no place like home, especially when you’ve been gone a while. So, here’s to more date nights out at local restaurants, like Taverna, dining on expertly prepared cuisine! May they ever create more beautiful date nights in with family, even if that means crunching on homemade pizza crackers instead of flatbread sometimes.