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“No, no. You do not want that. Choose this”. As I watched the ebullient restaurant owner’s finger slide down my menu it came to a stop on crostata al limon con meringa, lemon meringue tart. “This is good. You will like it”.
It had been the most charming evening at da Mimmo, a Neapolitan style Italian restaurant in Paris’ 10th arrondissement. The 10th was new to us and its main draw was the Canal Saint-Martin, a length of slow water that used to carry the city’s commerce but is quickly gentrifying with trendy bars and bistros dotting the long Quay de Valmy. For us, this meal was a break from the formules that usually make up our evening fare whenever we spend time in Paris. We had passed by da Mimmo on our way home that afternoon and the blazing brightness of the newly stoked pizza oven bursting through the front window caught our attention. As we made our way back to our rue Faubourg rental we decided to return to the pizzeria for dinner.
“You came back. I am Matteo,” he boomed. Apparently, he had seen us peering into the restaurant earlier. He led us to a table and we watched as throughout the evening he greeted every new patron with a boisterous “Buona sera!”
Soon, every seat in the restaurant was occupied. Matteo bounced from table to table, many of which were occupied by Italian speaking families. It was a joy to watch. As the evening progressed there were frequent exchanges with Matteo covering everything from the changing city of Paris to our shared Neapolitan backgrounds. Through aperitivos, pizza (terrific) and several glasses of Valpolicella the smile never left Matteo’s face. That is, until we ordered dessert. “Zabaione!” I said trying to match his effervescence. A frown revealed that I had created some kind of culinary faux pas. That is when he firmly said, “No, no. You don’t want that.” I accepted his recommendation of the lemon meringue tart but was puzzled that he would direct me away from an item listed on the menu. My wife and I pondered this question a while and then we heard one of the two French women at the table next to us ask Matteo’s wife for the zabaione. Like her husband, she rejected their request and shortly two coupes of glace appeared on their table.
We returned to da Mimmo a second time later that week. The crushing embraces we received as we entered was unexpected. With a big smile, Matteo escorted us through the packed restaurant to a corner table where he continued to lavish us with attention and inside jokes. It was another great meal and when it came time for ordering dessert I jokingly said, “Zabaione!” The matching looks of utter shock on the faces of Matteo and his wife were disarming, truly comical. I quickly changed my order to tiramisu. “Good,” he said and left to place my order. Nancy and I both agreed that it was the best tiramisu we had ever eaten but the mystery around zabaione, the item that appears on the menu but is never served, deepened.
On our last day in Paris, returning from a visit to the Sacré Cœur, we exited the Château d’Eau métro station. I knew we were close to da Mimmo. “I only have this one last chance to find out what is the deal with the zabaione,” I told Nancy. The restaurant appeared closed but the doors were wide open. Matteo and his wife were eating their lunch at a front table. They looked a little surprised to see us as we walked in and I think they were torn between finishing their meal and giving us the joyful welcome they had shown before. “Zabaione?,” I said, and explained our puzzlement. “You have to pay attention when you make it,” Matteo replied. “It takes too much time to make zabaione the right way when the restaurant is full. You need fire and you have to make it at the table.” He paused and then said, “I will make one for you now.” And with that he headed to the kitchen and I followed close behind. I watched as he poured the sugar, egg yolks and Marsala wine into a pan that soon began to simmer. He then briskly whipped the ingredients into a smooth, yellow custard that was promptly poured into a cornucopia shaped parfait glass. A few anisette cookies sprinkled onto the plate and, voila, zabaione! Mystery solved. It was delicious and as we departed I asked Matteo’s wife how much we owed. She looked at her husband and said, “One million, right?” “One million,” he said with that familiar big grin on his face.
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Lead photo credit : Trendy bistros and boutiques now line the Canal Saint Martin © ChristopherGeorge / shutterstock
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