Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Visiting My Books

It's a long way from Prince George's County to the Devil's Workshop.

Not every evening's companion could hold an extended conversation about Greenbelt, Maryland, a New Deal-era co-op community but also the first place I lived outside of my parents' home, not to mention my first exposure to a co-op grocery store.

We began our conversation marathon on this breezy Spring evening at Nota Bene, not just because I'm such a fan, but because visitors love a chef's recommendation and this was one he'd been given. Date Night ("Bring your friends!") was in full swing, but a happy-looking couple were kind enough to give us the international "we'll-slide-over-so-you-can-have two-barstools-together" signal and we were seasoned enough to read it.

Sitting down, the man leaned in and told me, "Three words: fig and pig. It'll change your life." Gently explaining that my world had been rocked, I don't know, six or seven years ago when I'd first had Pizza Tonight's fig and pig pizza, he looked incredulous. "It's our first time!"

Better late than never, sir.

My friend's suggestion to start with pasta and pizza was overruled (I was looking for a tad more balance) and he graciously relented, thus averting a carb nap for dessert. Straight outta the wood-burning oven, braised fennel got points for its charred bits while a special of seafood ragu - octopus, crab, scallops and rigatoni in a tomato and clam sauce - presented itself as rustic but tasted anything but peasant-like.

It was over dinner that the subject of our University of Maryland roots and my art history major came up. "Did you ever take a class from Rearick?" he asked, triggering a flood of classroom vignettes I hadn't even realized my brain still stored.

Professor Rearick lives on in my memory bank for many reasons, not the least of which was his complete passion for all things Italian. He had a habit of walking around the classroom as he lectured - not taught, a distinction we both recalled with clarity - one hand making a near-constant rhythmic movement as he moved about.

But it was mainly his voice that mattered. Stentorious with measured cadences, it would rise and fall for emphasis as he shared his wealth of knowledge with kids like me, in love with art history and eager to absorb this learned man's years of study.

No memory is clearer than the one where a hapless student casually referred to Leonardo as "da Vinci." Rearick looked at the kid like he was an imbecile and asked where he was born. After he squeaked out an answer, Rearick quizzed the kid about whether people called him "of Silver Spring?" Duh. The professor drew himself up and said that the great artist's name was Leonardo and he was to be referred to as Leonardo or Leonardo di ser Piero but never, not ever, as "da Vinci."

That story has lived on in my brain for decades, but until my dining companion brought up the professor's name, it had been stored so deeply in the recesses that I couldn't have pulled it up for anything. And that, dear reader, is the unabashed pleasure of spending time with a person who shares youthful people and places with you, even though we didn't know each other at the time.

Since there was still Gavi in my glass, we closed out the meal with a new dessert -  Sullivan's Pond Farm goat cheese custard with fruity Sicilian olive oil and a sprinkling of sea salt - that ate like the equivalent of a cheese plate in a petite mason jar.

But there was more dazzlement to be had. We headed up the hill to the Gypsy Room for music, gingerly stepping around two passed out people being carried out of the Bonobo concert at the National and laid out on the sidewalk. It wasn't pretty.

Downstairs, my music aficionado of friend was immediately seduced by the low light ambiance of the subterranean venue as the Devil's Workshop Big Band set up to play and we sprawled out on one of the couches. I was especially impressed with the trombone player whose music stand was fitted out with a small shelf for his PBR.  That's a musician who'll go far.

The collective took a few minutes for their sound to fully gel, but the result was a satisfying evening of popular music arranged - often by the bass player - for 14 players (drums, bass, guitar, keys and horns), making for some bass-heavy funky grooves.

They played through Kool and the Gang's "Sea of Tranquility," with a segue into D'Angelo's reworking of the song for one of his own, along with Stevie Wonder's "You've Got It Bad, Girl," The Spinners' "People Make the World Go Round" and something called "Houston Express" that wasn't readily found in my friend's mental musical card catalog.

Closing out with an original song, "Mushroom Tattoos" (only in Richmond, right?), that gave everyone a chance to solo and chant the refrain of "mushroom tattoos for everyone," the band put a feather in the cap of our evening.

The best I could do to follow that up was putting some Isley Brothers and Dramatics on the turntable and letting it wash over us with the windows wide open to the night air.

You can always count on a Prince George's County boy knowing his R & B.

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