|This isn't Chuck E. Cheese, it's myzithra cheese. © Ryan Schierling|
Old-fashioned lampshades with long fringe and soft light glowing over vintage oak furniture. The occasional worn velvet settee. The heady scents of sourdough and garlic perfuming the air. A scoop of tri-colore spumoni ice cream in a fancy little silver dish.
If you're not already thinking "The Old Spaghetti Factory," I'm willing to bet there wasn't one of these fine establishments in your home town.
At The Old Spaghetti Factory you could feed a family of four a hearty dinner complete with sourdough bread, side salads and a little dish of spumoni ice cream at the end, all without going broke. It's been many years since I've been to The Old Spaghetti Factory (not to be confused with other "spaghetti warehouse"-type establishments) and my memories are still fond. The restaurants I've been to have always had that fun cafe buzz and noise about them, while still being warm, comfortable and family-friendly. The locale we frequented when I was a kid living in Spokane included a fabulous old trolly car inside of the restaurant – a wondrous attraction for any seven-year-old. I remember the rhythm of the waitstaff bustling in and out of the kitchen and in these formative years it was an intriguing and special place to be taken out to eat.
The concept being basically "prix fixe" on a budget and the fact that dinner was always served in proper courses – bread on the table, soup or salad, entree, dessert – was a wonderful entry-level education in how to be a good diner. This was not fast food and decidedly not the kind of place where chicken nuggets were featured on the children's menu. In fact, I checked today, and their kids' menu includes all of the same courses, only with an abbreviated selection of entree options on a smaller scale (including a white clam sauce for your children with sophisticated palates).
For an establishment with a price range of $$ on Yelp and middling reviews on the quality of their marinara sauce, there is one thing you can't fault it for – their offering of spaghetti with myzithra (or "mizithra") and browned butter. I do not recall seeing a menu from any other restaurant that has featured this wonderfully-salty aged Greek cheese.
It's an extremely simple dish: spaghetti tossed in browned butter and sprinkled generously with grated myzithra cheese. Aged myzithra is a very dry cheese similar to parmesan, pecorino romano or a particularly arid ricotta salata. But even more so. It doesn't seem to absorb liquid so much as act in opposition to it – which is why copious quantities of browned butter are such a perfect compliment. It reminds me a bit of one of my "simple pleasure eats" for leftover pasta where I toss it in a warm saucepan with some extra virgin olive oil, freshly grated parmesan and salt and pepper to taste. Easy and somehow tremendously satisfying.
Okay, so let me bring this back around... A few days back I was poking around the refrigerator case at Phoenicia Bakery and Deli and came upon a block of aged myzithra. It was like striking nostalgia gold. It's not one of those cheeses you see every day or that most people really have any idea what to do with, so I was pretty darn excited to take a chunk home with me and give my simple pleasure a few substitutions, a la The Old Spaghetti Factory, and share this fabulous fromage treasure with Ryan.
I could have kept it easy with a generous crack of black pepper, but being all grown up and generally unwilling to leave well enough alone... I quartered a clove of fresh garlic to flavor the butter as it browned and topped the finished dish with some of the fresh thyme we had growing gang-busters in the garden. I'm pretty proud of that choice, because I had plenty of fresh herbs to choose from and the thyme turned out to be a bit of flavor magic. We went back for more, and then a little more. Don't skimp on the thyme. The fragrance and flavor with that soft evergreen note get on splendidly with the salty cheese and toasted butter. Splendidly.
A nice bottle of red wine will compliment this entree charmingly, but I can't promise that it, or a side salad, will keep you from the inevitable carb and butter coma that is certain to follow. Spumoni with the candied fruit, my friends... eat at your own risk.