Once in a blue moon, a phrase that I naïvely thought genius Dad had invented, we kids got to go to Baskin Robbins for ice cream. I’d get blueberry cheesecake or bubble gum because I thought that was a much better deal to have gum even after finishing the ice cream. But blue moons are rare, as my Dad explained the phrase, so on regular nights when the moon was white, or even yellow, ice cream for dessert was at home, from H.E.B. It was that awful gallon block of generic grocery store brand frozen crap that Mom used to buy, with the logic that it would make everyone in the Delicious household happy without having to buy three different flavors and spend three times as much. Neapolitan. I hated Neapolitan and would pray, "Dear Lord, please bless us with a blue moon every night this summer. Amen."
Strangely, even though Mom bought the Neapolitan to appeal to all of us who wanted three different flavors, for some reason, by the end of the week, there was only a melted-then-refrozen-to-solid stripe of brown residue along one side, about half of the pink left, and no one had touched the white. Neapolitan with three flavors, and all we ever really cared about was chocolate.
Neapolitan ice cream was my childhood nightmare, made worse later when I was introduced to...spumoni. Would striped ice cream blocks haunt me forever?!?! Spumoni, from the Italian word for foam, spuma, is actually the original ice cream block that originates from Naples. It’s whipped cream foam sandwiched between two layers of different flavored ice cream, but I’ve only ever seen pseudo spumoni – three layers of cherry, vanilla, and pistachio ice cream, modeled after the Italian flag. Spumoni is to Neapolitan like Eggs Benedict is to the Egg McMuffin (and that alone is a subject for another post).
It’s years later now, and though I don’t think too much about Neapolitan ice cream because I make my own food decisions now and would never subject anyone near and dear to me to such horror. But I do get reminded every once in a while when I’m at Ralphs, blasting down aisle 11 to get to the paper towels, and I pass the bulk Brach’s candy bins. They still make those pink, ivory and brown striped blocks of disgusting Neapolitan candy! Or maybe they stopped making them 15 years ago, and the specimens in the candy bin are inventory they have left to sell a decade and half later. Neapolitan. Spumoni. *shudders*
We went to a new little restaurant on Montana Avenue the other evening called Spumoni and I think I might have subconsciously *shudder*ed when we actually decided to stop and eat there. We had been meandering along Montana for dining inspiration, and even though theirs wasn’t the only neon nigh that was lit, it was the only restaurant that had people in it. Spumoni is an Italian joint, which is no surprise, as Brentwood/Santa Monica seems to be quite the center of an Italian Restaurant Renaissance. However, Spumoni, it seems, has been there for years, the ultimate neighborhood restaurant. It never gets hype in restaurant review publications, doesn’t advertise, but on a Sunday night, the place was packed with what appeared to be Santa Monicans who had walked the few blocks in and around Montana Avenue and 7th Street. It was so full at 9 pm, that diners had spilled out onto the sidewalk, some with dogs under the table at their feet.
We had to take a seat inside, as patio seating on the sidewalk on a warm, summer Sunday evening in Santa Monica is a hot commodity. There didn’t appear to be a dedicated host or hostess of any sort. Two menus magically materialized out of nowhere in the hands of a passing server who motioned for us to follow him through the tiny dining room. We tried to keep up wth him, squeezing as politely as we could through the maze of tables. He’s done this many times tonight and agilely maneuvers through what are barely cracks between the tables to the far corner. We nestled in, cozy under a tiny bookcase filled with knickknacks that might have been made to look like decoration, but I suspect the faded and tattered King James version of the Bible, dusty bottles that perhaps held perfume long ago but have now since evaporated into memories, other wooden toys and stuff, were actually rescued from the garage sale bin of someone related to the restaurant. It felt like Sunday dinner at my Italian Nana’s house. I’m not Italian, and I don’t even have a Nana, but if I did, that’s what it would have felt like. ;)
Our server dropped off a shallow, napkin-covered basket and small bowl with olivade to tide us over as we perused the menu. The plastic-covered menu is lovingly well-worn, pages flipped hundred and hundred of times by loyal locals who only look through the menu to pass the time, since they know by now exactly what’s on it – fried calamari, chopped salad, pizza, calzones, stromboli even, veal parmesan, chicken piccata, pasta with Bolognese, pesto and all sorts of other sauces – all of the typical Italian American fare. We ordered spaghetti alla puttanesca because we were feeling a little saucy and eggplant parmesan. Not chicken, but eggplant, because vegetables cancel out the negatives of breading, frying, and oozing cheese. Duh. ;) We handed the menus back to the agile little server, and had to ask for more of the warm, oilydelicious bread, a little embarrassed that we had just inhaled the whole loaf. And a little more of the olive stuff, too? Thanks.
Puttanesca. What an awful word for such a delicious concoction of anchovies, cap
ers, and olives. Not only does it sound horrible, but it means “whore.” I don’t need to bust a kimono on you (just think of the father from My Big Fat Greek Wedding), but the spicy, saucy, strongly flavored sauce definitely deserves the name. Spumoni does their puttanesca sauce fairly well and the spaghetti noodles were al dente as they should be. The dish certainly wasn’t something to write home about, but how often do you write home about a turkey sandwich? The only thing I would have done, but it’s only a particularly personal preference, is added more anchovies. Salty salty filthy fishy stinky little anchovy whore, that inspired me to try making puttanesca myself at home sometime soon.
The eggplant parmesan wasn’t as good as the spaghetti, but only because the thin rounds were covered so thickly with everything else that I could hardly identify the eggplant, which itself had softened so much it was almost indistinguishable from the rest of the gooey ingredients anyway. Luckily, there were other steamed vegetables on the plate that gave my teeth something to bite into. The penne with a simple marinara on the side was hard to eat after the spicy puttanesca, so they went into a to-go container along with a few of the eggplant rounds. Incidentally, the eggplant parmesan actually tasted better the second time around after a day in the fridge to solidify a bit, then re-heated in the microwave oven. *shrugs*
No Italian American Sunday night supper at Nana’s would be complete without dessert, so we gave in to the E. Norm. Ous - block of tiramisu. The texture of the cream tasted more like whipped cream rather than mascarpone, which was slightly disappointing, but other than that it was fine. Like the rest of the meal, the tiramisu was nothing to write home about, but served its sweet purpose.
Spumoni will never make it onto the pages of the LA Times, but it never aspired to in the first place. It is nothing but a lovely, charming neighborhood Italian restaurant with food that is decent enough that locals within strolling distance can enjoy a warm evening. Thank goodness, though for the place, otherwise spumoni would forever have been nasty Neapolitan to me.
713 Montana Avenue (@ 7th)
Santa Monica, CA 90403