Thinking, loving, dining

Photo By David Robert

Rating: Classic

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well,” hypothesizes writer Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own. “The lamp in the spine does not light on beef and prunes.”

Woolf was exploring why so few women novelists had emerged from the new ranks of educated females by the late 1920s. Fine dining, or the lack of it, seemed to be a symptom of a larger socio-economic gap between even educated men and women. In her book, Woolf writes about a lunch at a well-funded men’s college (where partridges with sauces “sharp and sweet,” potatoes “thin as coins,” “succulent” sprouts and “a confection which rose all sugar from the waves” were on the menu) to a similar event at a women’s college (dry biscuits, beef with greens and potatoes—"a homely trinity, suggesting the rumps of cattle in a muddy market"—and prunes).

After the fine manly lunch, Woolf felt the “profound, subtle and subterranean glow, which is the rich yellow flame of rational discourse.”

“No need to hurry. No need to sparkle. No need to be anybody but oneself. … How good life seemed, how sweet its rewards, how trivial this grudge or that grievance.”

The meal in the women’s college, however, ended with no such subterranean glow.

“Everybody scraped their chairs back; the swing-doors swung violently to and fro; soon the hall was emptied of every sign of food … Indeed, conversation for a moment flagged.”

I was thinking about Woolf’s theories after an incredible dining experience at Johnny’s Ristorante Italiano. Folks who’ve lived around here know about Johnny’s—the homemade pastas, fine sauces, attention to detail, courteous service. Everything zen.

Johnny’s is on the way out of town on West Fourth Street. If you smoke or aren’t afraid of breathing some secondhand Camel fumes, you can sit near a row of windows with a great view of the valley. During a recent visit, Dave, my husband of nearly 20 years, and I ended up in the non-smoking section, which is just as elegant, but without the windows.

After a glass of Chianti and an appetizer, bruschetta mista ($6.95), my significant Republican and I engaged in a lively, amenable discussion that delved into topics we sometimes consider off-limits, like politics and religion. The bruschetta was soft and bready on the inside, with a lovely crunchy crust. Several cheeses blended together on each piece to complement the varied toppings: tender shrimp, ripe Roma tomatoes, portabella mushrooms and sausage. Our server brushed the crumbs from the white cloth before serving our Caesar salads. The tang of the dressing and the flavorful fresh-grated Parmesan made the salads perfect. We indulged in a second glass of wine with our entrees, the seafood lasagna daily special for me ($12.95) and ravioli con pollo e formaggio ($12.95) for Dave. Johnny’s offers many more meaty selections, including steaks and veal, but we’re pasta people. As we relaxed over dessert, sharing a Florentine cup ($5.50) with ice cream and strawberries in a delicious almond pastry shell, I sensed a subtle, profound happiness with my life, my marriage, my kids and my job.

This isn’t always the case. During another recent trip to a popular steakhouse, I’d made my own salad out of drippy iceberg lettuce at an unimaginative salad bar. The wine was bitter. I couldn’t eat the dry glomp of garlic mashed potatoes that came with my overpriced steak. The rumps of cattle in a muddy market came to mind. I felt argumentative, and some unpleasant discussions ensued.

To think well, to love well, one must dine well. Johnny’s makes this as easy as a Florentine cup with ice cream and strawberries.