Twenty eight years ago I “discovered” The Daily Catch, a restaurant in Boston’s North End. I usually didn’t bother with Italian restaurants — I cooked my own pasta & sauce, and anything more exotic could be supplied by Mon when I visited home. But Mom had one gap in her repertoire: she didn’t cook seafood because she didn’t like the taste. When I learned that there was a storefront-sized place on Hanover Street that served Italian seafood, I had to go.
I soon became a regular at the Catch. For the first few visits I dutifully waited on line outside until a table opened up, but after chatting up Denise, the waitress who managed the line, and tipping well a few times, I discovered her VIP treatment. She’d wave me and my girlfriend in ahead of ten or twenty people — and no one would complain. It was the North End, and it was full of connected people.
I also learned that although the Catch had no liquor license, you could bring in wine purchased at the shop on the corner. If you kept the bottle in a bag under the table, the staff would not only look the other way, they’d give you paper cups (opaque, can’t see the contents) and a corkscrew.
After exhausting all of the calamri dishes, I tried the linguine in white clam sauce, as seen here. This was the dish I fell in love with. I didn’t even have to order it anymore; whenever I showed up, Denise would see me on line and have a pan ready by the time I was seated.
I stopped eating at the Catch around the time I started really cooking for myself. I would make the occasional attemt to cook my own white clam sauce, only to be met with dismal failure. Even Cooks Illustrated let me down — they had a good recipe, but it wasn’t what the Catch served.
About a year ago my local Italian food purveyor, Capone Foods, expanded the line of sauces they stocked in the freezer. There I discovered, tucked next to the alfredo and puttanesca sauces, white clam sauce. I bought a container and some linguine to make for that night’s dinner.
I reheated the sauce according to Al’s (yes, the proprietor of Capone foods is named Al) directions: put the frozen block in a pan top down, that way the clams on the bottom (now the top) won’t overcook as the sauce heats. I mixed it with some al dente linguine and sat down to eat.
In her essay collection Metropolitan Life, Fran Lebovitz describes the difference between a notion and an idea: “linguine” is a notion, “linguine with white clam sauce” is an idea. The first forkful of that pasta was like Proust’s madeline — I had an overpowering flashback of meals at the Daily Catch, eating my favorite dish straight out of the pan. Poor Diane must have thought I’d gone spare, I was staring blankly at the ceiling while I remembered everything about the dish.
I realized it was possible that I’d been so disappointed at my own efforts to make the sacred sauce that any close approximation would seem perfect, so I tried Al’s sauce a few more times. It was always the same: perfect.
A few months ago Al noted that I always bought white clam sauce whenever I came to the store. When I mentioned that it tasted just like the Catch’s version he started laughing. “You’re the first person to notice that,” he explained. “I practically begged them for the recipe, but they refused to tell me. That sauce you like so much is the result of years of my trying to replicate it at home. I think I finally got it right.”
Al hadn’t simply reverse engineered a taste, he’d reverse engineered a memory.