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| SETTINGS: Stops on a Tasting Tour of Orange County

Recipes and Reminiscence

Dinner with a special friend rekindles memories of days in a rainy Northwest college town, failed attempts at cooking and romantic afternoons; Issay, 485 Old Newport Blvd., Newport Beach (949) 722-2992.


I don't see Lee as often as I once did, though she's still one of my favorite people. I think of her whenever it rains, perhaps because we first met in a small college town in the Pacific Northwest, where entire months could pass without the slightest suggestion of sunshine.

I had a one-bedroom upstairs apartment then, just blocks away from her bustling sorority, and like Holly Golightly, Lee would drop in unexpectedly at times, usually without knocking, when she needed a break from the phone calls and boyfriends and parties that filled her life. She'd throw her blue wool coat across the steam radiator, toss off her damp shoes and plop herself on my sofa, staring at me until I looked up from the novel I was invariably reading. "Well, hello, Lee," I'd say. "I didn't hear you come in."

"Hmmm," she'd say, smiling at my lie. She'd stay until the rain let up or until she grew bored by me. If I was lucky and she didn't have other plans, I could sometimes talk her into staying for dinner.

Back then I was enamored of two things: blue-eyed Lee and Italian food. Somebody--perhaps my mother--had given me a heavy Italian cookbook with delightful-sounding recipes full of ingredients that were impossible to come by (this is when there were no porcini mushrooms in the stores, nor fresh basil, nor even balsamic vinegar; there was only Chef Boyardee). The cookbook, I remember, was old, something picked up in a yard sale, with pages stained from dripping olive oil and splashes of Chianti from someone else's kitchen.

I thought of the cookbook as something akin to a sorcerer's guide. I imagined that if I came up with the proper dish--uova in purgatorio? Carciofi in umido?--I might actually charm Lee the way George Peppard charmed Audrey Hepburn. And certainly the ingredients required for my libidinous dishes were just as bewitching as anything in a love potion: hearts of palm, sweetmeats of a calf, the head of a pompano. But what were prosciutto and Fontina and grappa, and where would I find them? How could my Italian love potion work if I didn't have the right ingredients? Still, I tried. I chopped shallots and poached frozen squares of cod, while Lee, my unwitting acolyte, laughed as she read the recipes out loud.

"Cut the fresh pompano into 2-inch-thick slices and cover with four cups of hot fumet--what on earth is fumet?" "I think it's a wine."

"Do you have any?"

"Not exactly. But I thought some Inglenook would work as well."

Through a twist of fate, Lee and I now live very near each other. Sometimes she calls me up and invites me to dinner, and now I'm the one who offers to stir the cream sauce or saute the mushrooms while she tries to figure out some convoluted recipe. Last week Lee called and said she was making pasta puttanesca and would I like some, so I braved a downpour to drive to her house. When I got there, she was sitting in the candle-lit living room drinking a glass of wine and looking a bit distracted. "The electricity went out about 10 minutes ago," she said. "How about an olive sandwich? I'll cut the crusts off."

Instead, I suggested we go to Issay, a little Italian place with a very unlikely name, on Old Newport Boulevard. It was early, and many of the tables had reserved signs on them, but there were only two or three other couples dining when we walked in. The waitress offered us a cozy booth in the back, but Lee wanted to sit at one of the window tables where she could keep an eye on the rain. I could tell she was feeling a little melancholy, though she smiled at me as we sat down and quipped about how the neon light from the sign in the window made her skin look green with envy, "which seems appropriate at the moment."

We ordered the bruschetta and a bottle of pinot grigio, and silently watched the rain come down. There's no point in rushing Lee into conversation when she's in a mood like this. I know from experience that she'll get around to telling me what's on her mind in her own sweet time.

The restaurant had a warm, rustic, sleepy charm to it. There were big bouquets of red tulips and pale alstromerias in the dining room, and pots and pots of glossy green vines climbing over the walls. The aroma of garlic and olive oil and seafood was as heavy as fog. The rain came down and Lee stared out the window, her chin in her hand, watching the rivulets stream down the pane. Eventually she started talking about a man she was involved with. A man we both knew only too well.

"Karen says it doesn't have anything to do with me," Lee said, spooning tomatoes and capers onto the toasted bread. "She thinks he's just having a midlife crisis."

"And what do you think?"

Lee shrugged. "He's a malcontent," she said. "He always wants whatever it is he can't have, and then when he gets it, he wants something else. But nothing ever makes him happy. Including me."

"Then he's a fool," I said.

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