Home Cooking

Mike Cook

There are certain foods anybody can cook. Even the most careless of cooks can put together a sandwich without burning down the house, and most children can boil pasta without undue bodily harm. It's not hard to make a decent sandwich or bowl of pasta at home, and yet we still go out for this kind of food constantly.

It feels silly to buy a plate of spaghetti when out. In Baltimore at least, restaurants have responded and there aren't many places you can get a simple spaghetti dinner anymore. Though it's on most Little Italy menus, even that neighborhood has grown past the marinara and meatballs staple, and I haven't seen a fundraising spaghetti dinner advertised in years.

Nonetheless, home style cooking is more and more popular in restaurants. Down-home classics are not only all over menus, restaurants have spawned that are dedicated solely to providing them. While Emporio Grano's in Hampden offers upscale Italian, at Little Grano's on the Avenue you can pick your own combination of pasta and sauce. It's simple, savory, and seems pretty successful. Another example is Grilled Cheese and Company, which is coming soon to Light Street in Federal Hill. I don't have to tell you what they do.

But why do we go out to eat these dishes, rather than make them at home? Part of it might be convenient, but I bet most of us aren't getting the plain grilled cheese, even if it is the first thing on Grilled Cheese and Co.’s menu. Seeing a home style classic jazzed up by a professional chef is always interesting, even when it's not entirely successful. When it does work, though, it's a real pleasure. If you want to try something simple raised to another level, try the chili dog at Alewife.

There is a downside to this takeover of restaurants based on the modification of familiar dishes. The traditional restaurant, where raw ingredients are put together in different ways every day, is growing scarce as we adhere closely to what we know. We don't often trust chefs, and sticking too closely to what we already know is no way to experience all the delicious flavors that are out there.

But one of the benefits of the reinvention of classics is the way they help timid diners try new things. We all know someone who orders a burger everywhere they go. At a place like the Grilled Cheese Company, maybe those conservatives will finally come out of their box and try a sandwich with crab or (gasp!) a vegetable. Even if it's as simple as veal substituting for beef in a pasta dish, variations on familiar plates can expand horizons.

That has to be something that's good for everyone. We can all make grilled cheese and spaghetti at home, but that doesn't mean there isn't a place for restaurants that do it well. As diners we need to learn to appreciate both comfort food and things we wouldn't have tried normally. After all, that's what mom spent our whole childhoods trying to get us to do anyway.

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