Tuesday, November 1, 2011

No Gin, No Pepper

Veal Parmigiana -- Il Vagabondo
Il Vagabondo

"I just feel funny eating a calf, you know?" Ginger says as we dive into our veal parmigiana.  "I mean, when I went to farm camp -- "

"When you went to WHAT?!" Vodka interrupts her.

"Oh.  Have I never told you about my time at farm camp?"

There is a lot that is confusing to us about Il Vagabondo, up to and including the fact that Ginger apparently spent her youth milking cows and herding sheep over summer vacation.  Along with Ginger's secret rural tendencies, we also do not understand:

1. why there is a bocce ball court in the restaurant
2. why we're the only ones in the dining room
3. what personal connection Emeril Lagasse has to this place that has caused his seemingly random Best Thing I Ever Ate selection.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

We are at Il Vagabondo to sample their veal parmigiana, the dish which Emeril had chosen on the CLASSICS episode of Best Thing I Ever Ate.
Gotta Love a Fermented Cheese
In news that will come as a surprise to no one, we arrive as the place is opening at 5:30pm and are the only diners in attendance.  Escorted into the dining room, we are granted the benefit of choosing our own table, and we synonymously pick the one at the very end of the long corridor, furthest from the host station, kitchen, or any other forms of civilization.
Miles to Go Before We Eat
We are not far at all, however, from the mysterious bocce ball court which occupies a solid one half of the dining room.
Take Us Out to the Bocce Ball Game
The reasoning behind this bocce ball court is never quite explained to us by the waitstaff, and we eventually give up trying to rationalize it.  Instead, we focus on the meal at hand, and more importantly, the drinks.

"Can I have a ginger ale and tonic with just a little gin?" Ginger asks the waiter.  When Vodka looks at her quizzically (some would say "judgmentally"), Ginger explains, "I haven't eaten all day.  If I drink on an empty stomach, I'll be on the floor."

On the floor, and presumably bowled over by bocce balls.
Are Bowling Shoes Appropriate Footwear for Bocce Ball?
This hunger causes Ginger to dive into the (rather tepid) bread basket with ravenous enthusiasm, along with requesting that we order a caesar salad to share.  When our salad arrives, Ginger denies the waiter's offer of fresh ground pepper.

"You don't take pepper now either?!" Vodka asks.  "No gin, no pepper, what's happened to you?"
Caesar Salad Sporting a Powdering of Pepper
It soon becomes apparent, however, that we are both out of our minds, as Vodka casually sips a dirty martini (vodka-based, naturally). 

"Why would you get that?" Ginger asks.  "It's like all of the worst parts of alcohol."

"I've always wanted to try one, and I always wuss out at the last minute when I intend on ordering one," Vodka explains.  "It's time."  But as each taste of the beverage brings Vodka closer and closer to the dreaded green olives in the bottom of the glass, she decides that it is never time to overcome one's fear of dirty cocktails.
Clearly, We Are Not One for Clear Beverages
Meanwhile, we cannot tell if our caesar salads are actually as good as they seem or if we are just hungry.  In either case the lettuce is crisp and crunchy, despite that fact that it is sufficiently coated with a generous helping of dressing.  Shaved parmesan and miniature croutons add to its appeal, and before long, our plates are clean and we are diving back into the bread basket.
Maybe If We Pretend We Are Back at Scarpetta, This Bread Basket Will Magically Improve
Along with the fact that the bread itself is nothing to write home about, the butter packs are frigidly cold, which makes spreading their contents onto the bread slices a debacle in crumbs.  Nonchalantly, Ginger begins sweeping the leftover bread bits onto the floor.  "Excuse me while I clean my table, " she exclaims, noticing them accumulating (a nighttime treat for Il Vagabondo's rodent population).
I Can't Believe It's Not Spreadable
Still alone in the restaurant, we are growing increasingly suspicious about Emeril's choice of this location.  Not only is it far from populated for a weekend night, it is also located in the boondocks of the Upper East Side, so far to the east that it may spill into the East River at any moment.  Non-descript in outside appearance, it is downright bizarre on the inside, and we decide that he must know the owner or have an investment in the place itself in order to warrant its placement on Best Thing I Ever Ate.

That, or the food is downright phenomenal, but when our platters of veal parmagiana and sides of spaghetti appear before us, we are fairly certain that this is not the reason.
The Limp Green Garnish Really Makes a Difference, Don't You Think?
"My friends and I stole a cheese grater from Olive Garden once," Vodka confesses to Ginger, causing Ginger to chuckle uncomfortably, not due to Vodka's criminal past so much as due to the fact that Vodka has revealed this tidbit as the waiter is sprinkling cheese onto our pasta with his very own grater.
Not Olive Garden Quality, But It Will Do
"I like how you said that right in front of him," Ginger says, assured that the waiter is now stuffing his precious grater into the restaurant's safe (or onto the bocce ball court, which we assume is in a constant state of vacancy). 

Turning to the veal parmagiana, we saw through the thick, goopy layer of melted cheese, the sprinkling of tomato sauce, and the crisp of the breaded veal itself.
Portrait of a Cow as a Young Man
Taking our first bite, the dish is completely adequate.  It is probably good, as far as veal parmagiana is concerned.  But neither of us is too familiar with the stuff: Ginger for the aforementioned forays to "farm camp" and Vodka because she "has only ever had veal at Penn State" (a fact that is thrown into the conversation with no further explanation or anecdote, leaving Ginger to sputter with laughter at the irrelevancy of it all).

The spaghetti itself is equally fine - neither the meat sauce nor the tomato sauce pack much of a punch, and the pasta tastes no better than what we could prepare out of a box in our own kitchens.
This Might Have Been Better Had Vodka Been Permitted to Grate Her Own Cheese
We cannot manage to finish our portions -- not because we are not overeaters, because ample evidence to the contrary exists on this blog -- but because the dish becomes less and less appetizing as we shovel in the bites.  Eventually, Ginger simply pulls all of the cheese off of her veal and consumes it piece by piece, proving that if Il Vagabondo really wanted to please us, they would have just presented us with a cheese wheel.
Now THAT Looks Mouth-Watering
In the end, we feel that there are many things about Il Vagabondo that we are just not meant to understand.  But why Ginger spent her childhood summers at "farm camp"?  Vodka is about to launch an investigative report into that mystery.

Il Vagabondo's Veal Parmigiana: 3 stars

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