Carpaccio & Manhattans – Durango Telegraph

I’m standing in line at my local Albertson’s. Three ladies with their baskets wait 6 feet behind. The cashier is also the manager. She’s expediting very well. She’s a bull of a woman in a black mask. We all have masks. We’re all eyes.

 “Excuse me … ,”

A young male joins the tail-end of the line, wearing a midriff tee and ignoring the 6-foot rule. He has a huge box of Captain Crunch and a six pack of Charmin.

 “Nice chin strap, Cavity Sam,” snaps our cashier. “You gotta pull your mask up – over your nose. Both nostrils.”
 Instead he pulls it down into what looks like a dirty ascot.

“I happen to have a perfectly working immune system. And I can assure you that it protects me a hell of a lot better than this bird cloth does.”

“It ain’t you that I’m worried about.”

She ushers him to the front of the line and before we can blink, he’s paid and gone.

Whew. The manager stands tall behind her mask. I pay, give her a slight bow and take my bag of frozen shrimp and wipe down in the car.

Our friends are hosting a birthday party that afternoon. When I get home, I ask Paul if he’s sure about going. We’re both dying to get out of the house, and it is a small pool party in the sunshine, but still. My husband, usually the rational one in the family, adores splashing in water, especially when it’s blowing 100 degrees of dry heat.
“We’ll just stay in the pool the whole time,” he begs.

“People can still sneeze in a swimming pool,” I tell him.

“Please? They’re our neighbors, not just a bunch of strangers!!”

We arrive with plump grilled shrimp, savory watermelon salad and a couple of bunches of fresh asparagus, the dreaded Faber Castell variety – pencil thin. (We girls had a joke in college about Faber Castell, but that’s a different story.)
The patio is divine. Spacious. The pool’s jewel blue and the gardens above it full of fruit trees and the entire alphabet of eatables. A compost pile dotted with purple flowers rests in the shade. I sip a frozen margarita as my husband larks about in the water.

Across from me grilling is a man in great shape (for his age), who happens to be a very religious consumer of all things keto. I brace myself for his soggy hamburger. And sure enough, right off the platter, it drips. The rareness doesn’t bother me so much as the chef’s intention. Cooked bleu as the French prefer or grilled in the Pittsburgh style, burgers should have an intense caramelized crust that contains the juice and adds a truck full of flavor. To distract myself, I tell the others about the guy at the grocery store.

 “He was breaking the law and didn’t care a bit who he breathed on. How can a mask be a symbol of tyranny when a pandemic is ripping across the landscape? I don’t get it. How can someone not believe in a virus?”

I notice their fine-tuned friend is glaring at me. He says in a Clint Eastwood sorta way, “We don’t wear masks. We don’t follow the ‘herd’ mentality. We leave that to the woke folks.” And with that, he coughed. At me. Right across the table. No elbow. Silence invades the space. I’m confounded.

“But your wife’s a nurse,” I reason.

“We’ve released the muzzle,” she says with her head up. They won’t look me in the eye. Just having eaten their food is regretful. I give myself a double pump of Purell and go find another cocktail. Laura’s giggling in the kitchen.

“I tried to warn you!”

“God-damned anti-maskers. I guess we can thank our president for creating a club of fools.”
She nods. She knows.

So when the entire state of New Mexico recently shut down, again, I wasn’t astounded. No dining in (funny, I always thought of it as eating out.)

With servers looking like triage nurses, people staring dumbly into space while chomping their food, yellow tape clumsily placed around every other table, music and proper lighting seem pointless. Ambiance today has – how shall we say – de-materialized?

Once upon a time in the not-so-distant past (circa 2008) in Durango, on the stylish side-street known as College Drive, sat a small, north-facing restaurant called Ariano’s. I guess you could say it was just an Italian joint, but it was more than that. Ariano’s stood out in a way that was quiet and dignified. They didn’t serve lunch or mess around with happy hour, they made one thing: Northern Italian Cuisine. Pictures of generations of families tipped charmingly across the walls. Nothing phony to entertain the tourists. Just really good food that you were lucky as a ducky to dive into.

We’d drive the 45 minutes twice a month, or three times if we had company to show around. In the alley in the afternoon you could hear soft Italian music wafting down from the second story kitchen, along with scents of garlic, marjoram and artichoke. That’s when you knew Vince, the chef and owner, was in the midst of his mise en place.    
Doors flung open at five o’clock sharp. Reserved and busy upstairs, we usually sat at the dark, wonderful bar on the first floor. Carmine, the doorman, with his gleaming copper complexion, would give a quick glance to Jake, the unsmiling handsome bartender, and pretty soon they arrived: two Maker’s Mark Manhattans straight up, their cherry lit beneath tiny moon lights.

We always started with the fresh carpaccio, served with big flaky shavings of parmigiana, cut lemons and capers. And then the homemade pasta with a veal Marsala so delicate you could devour it in under 10 seconds but instead savored it with bread and wine for a long part of the night.

Vince would descend from his perch when the kitchen closed. As always, from a very old bottle, label near gone, he’d pour us icy cold house-made limoncello. The talented, charming chef was a delight to drink with. If his brother was in the house, then it was a party.

We’d drive back home with the kind of dinning satisfaction that has never been available where we live.  We, of course, visited many other wonderful spots in Durango, like Chez Grand Mere, Ken and Sue’s, the Red Snapper, Le Rendezvous Swiss Bakery, which tragically burned down (remember the old bread cutter in the window?)
But my deepest yearning remains for Ariano’s. The quality that the people and the food brought into our lives is unquestionable. We were living to eat and drink there, basically. When Vince retired and sold it, our hearts broke. The best was lost.

Back in Farmington, it’s been tough.