ou really don’t want to be driving in Rome when it rains. Traffic comes to a standstill. People lean on their horns. It was on one of those rainy mornings that the radio played “Club Tropicana,” a George Michael hit from his early days with Wham! Hit with nostalgia, I decided to look up the video on Youtube when I got home.
The first thing that struck me was how incredibly young George Michael was at the time — he’d turned 20 in 1983. As for the video, he’s mostly seen on a flotation cushion in a tropical resort swimming pool sipping a cocktail and flashing his million-dollar smile. Girls (and boys) are everywhere. Just to show you how above-it-all he is, he casually spills his cocktail into the pool.
Fast-forward a day: I’d just attended a long conference and spent more hours stuck in traffic. Suddenly, George’s video came back to me — and I felt like choking him. Not because he was young and carefree and on a make-believe MTV vacation but because he’d tossed away perfectly good cocktail (probably a Negroni).
That day’s drive took forever and I hoped and prayed for a little time alone when I got home. Sure enough, my wife and kids were still at the park. I tossed my jacket on the couch, kicked back, plugged in my ear-buds, and listened to George Michael.
I didn’t need a shrink to know what was happening. “Club Tropicana” had turned me into a time traveler headed straight back into my 1980s youth, a time when plenty of Italians didn’t think twice about emptying expensive cocktails into pools on a whim. It was a decade that came to symbolize self-involvement, greed and Nero-style waste. Tax evasion was the norm (you can say it still is, but if you do you have no idea what things were like 30 years ago). Those who did pay up were seen as idiots messing things up for everyone else. Lots of Italians suddenly seemed rich — though the money turned out to be about as real as George’s pool party — with installment plan scams giving the new “rich” a chance to buy things they couldn’t possible afford. Leasing schemes were all the rage. No one paid much attention to how they’d pay anything back. Who cared? All that mattered was showing off the latest model of whatever even if that meant taking out an outrageous bank loan (which banks were more than willing to give) or cozying up with the underworld. The colossal corruption scandals of the early 1990s would sink all that high living, and the wreckage endures, but no one said a word at the time.
I remember harping on my father when our neighbor bought a Mercedes using cambiali, a long-gone kind of promissory note commonplace until the early 1990s. My father stared me down: “Never overstep yourself,” he told me. We stuck with our beat-up Fiat 121. These days our credit-happy neighbor is under house arrest.
Kitsch and excess ruled the day. One summer at Fregene, a beach resort near Rome, I earned cash on the side by working as a parking lot attendant near a group of seaside cabins. One day, a couple got out of a Porsche. He had on gold-and-platinum Rolex; she wore a leopard-skin bikini. They also had guests: two growling cheetahs on leashes. I was petrified. My reaction was so funny to them they tipped me 50,000 lire, basically €150 in today’s cash.
It was a parallel dimension. Though we didn’t have Facebook (which would have sounded like science fiction) it seems to me that I talked to my friends a lot more then than I do now online. Mobile phones didn’t exist either, not the pocket kind, so we’d meet over pizza or at a pre-arranged stretch of local wall. We might have been the “wall kids,” but it was nice knowing you’d always find someone hanging around the same place.
As for food, cream was the king of kings. How much we managed to put away would make modest cooks shudder. At the time, every hotel and restaurant featured pennette alla vodka, pasta drenched in heavy cream and vodka, often followed by costly beefsteak with green pepper. The beef had to “float” on a bed of cream and ground pepper.
As for our group, a cash-only bunch on a budget, we’d check out the menu and then get into our gunslinger stare-down, with everyone thinking the same thing: “Don’t even think of ordering the steak with green peppers!” We’d go with pizza and let the local faux Wall Street brokers and cheetah-owners order the steak.
Even wine culture was different. The elite got the top-flight bottles. The rest of us depended on two cheap Portuguese rosés, Lancers and Matteus. I recently went to a party where someone brought a bottle of Lancers. I took a sip for old time’s sake. Bad idea. It was awful. The nationalists among us (there was no EU) usually ordered the slightly more expensive Galestro Capsula Viola, a dry white wine tinged purple so that it stood out. Its been dying a slow death in the decades since then.
But back to present: George Michael has finished his set. The kids will be home soon, hungry as wolves. I open the freezer and see some frozen mushrooms and peas. Suddenly I get a bright idea. We’ll have a 1980s-style meal, fettuccine with mushrooms, peas and… cream!
Fettuccine with Mushrooms, Peas and Cream (serves 4)
- 350 gr of pasta (any shape you like, although egg tagliatelle would be ideal).
- Half a shallot, finely chopped.
- 80 gr of button mushrooms (frozen button mushrooms are also fine).
- 80 gr of fresh or frozen peas.
- Extra-virgin olive oil.
- Salt and pepper.
- White wine.
- 200 ml of heavy cream.
- Finely-grated Parmesan cheese.
— Put the pasta water on to heat, remembering to salt the water. Sauté the shallot in a frying pan until it is transparent, but not browned.
— Add the sliced mushrooms to the shallots with a bit of wine, cooking until the liquid evaporates. Add the peas, salt and pepper to taste and cook until the vegetables are ready.
— When the water boils, add the pasta and cook the prescribed number of minutes. It should be al dente.
— Add the cream to the pan with the vegetables and heat, removing after 2 to 3 minutes. Drain the cooked pasta and add it to the pan with the mushrooms, peas, shallots and cream, mixing well to cover the pasta. Serve with a generous sprinkling of Parmesan and some freshly ground pepper.
A sauvignon goes well with this dish. And — if you dare — set the meal to George Michael tunes.