Gaetano Palmeri has an imposing mustache, a crisp striped shirt, double-breasted jacket and a lilting Sicilian accent. The food and service at his Henderson restaurant, Gaetano’s Ristorante, are known for their delectable simplicity and elegance. Gaetano likes to drop by the table and offer choice fillets of wisdom, gratis.
He recommends the special appetizer, figs—which are still in season in California—stuffed with goat cheese and wrapped in prosciutto, served on a bed of arugula. A famous Las Vegas entertainer came in and asked Gaetano what a fig is. “I says, ‘It’s a fruit,’” Gaetano says. He’s incredulous. What kind of life can you live without figs?
So we order some.
Over refreshments we discuss a recent article in Vanity Fair about the economic troubles in California. The article leaps to British neuroscientist Peter Whybrow, who posits that the California problem is just a symptom of a larger pathology: Humans just aren’t well equipped to deal with excess. For hundreds of thousands of years scarcity was the prevailing paradigm. Now, with food and drink and gambling and drugs and consumer goods and entertainment in such abundance, we can’t exert self-control because our nature is to grab whatever we can to survive.
Just then, Gaetano walks up and begins discussing his frustration with customers who don’t trust his culinary instincts. Specifically, the need for cheese.
No matter the dish, always with the cheese. He is especially irked by guests who want salty Parmesan on his simple seafood pasta dishes, only to complain that they are too salty. He shakes his head, disbelieving of human folly. “When you make the food, and it tastes good, why to ruin?”
His experience seems to dovetail perfectly with Whybrow’s observation about our inability to deal with abundance. I like seafood. I like cheese. Give me lots of both. Gaetano says just because it’s there doesn’t mean you should take it.
Born in Sicily in 1949, Gaetano was cooking on cruise ships when he met his wife Rory in California in 1974. They were married in 1977 and opened a restaurant in Southern California in 1981 before coming here about a decade ago. “What I accomplish here I never could in another country. Hard work—it pay off.”
We are eating insalata of tomatoes, avocado, peppers and olives. Gaetano explains the importance of ingredients.
“You have to buy the good olive oil, good tomato, good fresh fish. Otherwise, how does it taste?”
Most restaurants, especially the chains? Meh. A look of mild sickness comes over his face as he thinks about them. He gesticulates, moving his hands as if holding each end of a football and passing it off to you and then taking it back, passing it off, taking it back.
Certain Italian-themed restaurants come to mind. “All the breadsticks you can eat,” he says in evident frustration.
My dinner guests and I are having risotto with bay shrimp and scallops, lamb and a simple pasta, with wine. He likes the way we luxuriate.
“Everyone in such a rush,” Gaetano says. “They here 20 minutes, already with appetizer, and they want to know, ‘Where is entree?’
“Here 20 minutes, already have appetizer! All this rushing around. Is bad for you.”
He was recently asked to be on the Food Network program Chopped, but he declined. “What kind of food can you make in 20 minutes?” he asks, as if the question is so absurd that it answers itself.
“Enjoy yourself. Live the way it is supposed to be. Try to know better your friends. Share the food and wine with them. What you rush home for?” He then pantomimes someone wielding the TV remote control.
We have pistachio ice cream, coffee and espresso.
I ask Gaetano his favorite Italian phrase: “La vita e bella pero la devi saper vivere.”
Life is beautiful, but you have to know how to live.