Not far down the road from us — on a tiny back road, nestled in a copse of trees — is a little Italian restaurant. La Campagna. To be clear, our area is home to approximately 1.2 billion Italian restaurants, and most of them are of the “pizza and cheesesteaks” variety. Nothing wrong with that, but this place? This place is different.
We lived here for almost two years before even realizing they were open. They’re closed most hours, only opening for dinner on a handful of days.
It’s low-lit. BYO. Warm tones. Candles. Maybe… ten tables total.
Thing about this place is, it’s a family establishment. The chef is a CIA graduate (culinary institute, not the spy agency) and he takes his grandmother’s recipes and gives them an added something-something. The aunt makes the cakes. His mother is the main hostess, and his sisters are waitresses. I’m fairly confident that everybody that works there belongs to the family.
Er, not The Family. At least, I don’t think. I don’t see dudes in black suits speaking in Jersey Italian hiding pistol-shaped objects beneath napkins.
Ooh, unless it is. Unless it’s a front joint for the CIA and the Mafia. Maybe the chef isn’t from the culinary institute. Mayhaps this is the center of a conspiracy!
Holy crap, these people killed Kennedy.
Wait, where was I?
Right. The restaurant. So, we go, we dine, we love it. Calamari, veal saltimbocca, this broccoli rabe soup concoction, beef tips, a honey-ricotta cheesecake — a whole blow-out dinner. In face, we more than love it. It feels warm. It’s comforting. It’s complex and interesting and conjures up feelings of home and love and context.
Rewinding a bit, let’s talk about the calamari. No, not the Mon Calamari (it’s a trap!), but the squid dish. Light. Soft. An airy batter. A squeeze of lemon. My mouth is doing a slam-dance just trying to recreate the palatal memory of the appetizer. (Actually, if you’ll see the picture, atop the dish they also had little… baby something-or-others. Since the rest was squid, I’d be inclined to say, “Duh, it’s squid,” except for the fact it looks more like an itty-bitty octopus. Maybe they deep-fried one of those wacky wall-walkers.)
Once upon a time, I wouldn’t have eaten calamari. Why?
Because, say it with me, “I don’t like seafood.”
It was true. I didn’t like seafood. Of course, all my experience with seafood hadn’t been ideal — fishy fish, ill-prepared, a pungent smell. In short, I’d never had good seafood.
And that was the trick.
Good is good.
I know. That’s pretty retarded. I see that I’m reaching for a big blob of obvious here, and yet, I’ll suggest that something slightly profound lurks in the center of that quivering mass — it sounds so obvious, so simple, that it’s truth is all too easy to dismiss.
Good is good.
Now, before I get into the nitty and the gritty, let’s talk about what that means in the context of last night’s dinner.
First, the dinner wasn’t super-fancy, but the presentation was clean, simple, elegant. More importantly, it was made with quality ingredients, and crafted with care and love. You can taste that. Good is good.
Second, I wouldn’t have eaten calamari because I once thought, “Ew, rubbery squid bits.” And yet, it was delicious. Good is good.
Now, what the hell am I talking about? Am I even making sense? Where are my pants? Why is my diaper filled with warm, buttery noodles?
What I’m saying is, once you open your brain to this idea that good is good, you become capable of looking past categorizations and carte blanche statements of dismissal and disapproval. “I don’t like seafood” easily becomes, “I like seafood when it’s good.”
This translates over to your pop culture experiences, too. I could say, “I don’t really like the fantasy genre,” but what I really mean is, “I like fantasy when it’s good.” The first statement shuts the door. It stops me from picking up what might be a truly excellent novel. The second statement opens me up — it allows me the willingness to experience things I might really like. It grants me the ability to be pleasantly surprised. Without that willingness, without that openness, we’ll find it hard to be surprised.
You don’t like big-budget blockbusters? You would if they were good.
Don’t like hard-boiled crime novels? Hey, good is good.
Can’t stand stuffy literature? But what if it’s actually good?
Now, I get it. This is a subjective thing. “Good” to you is different than “good” to me.
Maybe it isn’t.
I’m not speaking about our enjoyment or appreciation. I’m speaking about a base level of quality. The ingredients put into the Italian food last night, and the love, was of a certain quality regardless of what happened when I ate it. My experiences with it do not change that. So it is with many things. Writers, artists, filmmakers, creators, they sometimes create things with a level of attention and detail and quality and love that goes beyond what happens when I read it — ideally, it translates to my enjoyment and appreciation, but maybe it doesn’t. Even still, does it change the equation of good is good?
I’m pretty sure I’m rambling at this point.
Ultimately, what I’m telling you is — open yourself to things before you close yourself to them. It’s not a guaranteed win every time, but you allow yourself the ability to be surprised. I didn’t really care for beaches, so going to Hawaii was for me a silly idea. And then I went. And then I realized, I just hadn’t been to a really great beach. Because Hawaii was transcendent. It was a whole other world, a world I wouldn’t have experienced if I’d just shut the door and said, “I won’t like that.”
Good is good.
Realize that, and you will be free.
Now, will someone help me get this diaper off? The noodles are getting cold, and it’s really freaking me out.