There’s no sign above the door at Puccini’s. White drapes block the windows. You cannot see in or out. No walk-ins. You must have a reservation for your assignation here.
Located in a strip mall down from a Dollar Store, Puccini’s is like a clandestine private club you learn about from a friend. Inside, candles and a quartet of chandeliers glow against moody dark walls.
Slide into a discreet corner and you become practically invisible. A server hands you a corkscrew, because you bring your own wine. Or whatever. I once saw a man haul out a liter-size plastic bottle of Sunkist orange soda to enjoy with his gourmet Mediterranean meal. Opera rises and swells; the chef/owner—who’s listed on his business card simply as Richard—likes to chop and sauté to the sounds of Puccini and other opera legends.
The restaurant seats 50 in two rooms. We choose the long narrow space that puts us opposite the open kitchen and Richard.
A long wooden table is laid with fresh vegetables, fruits and herbs; we watch as Richard assembles his ingredients from the farm table and turns around to the stove to cook. There are about a half dozen items on the printed menu and about that many nightly specials. Recipes are uncomplicated and reduction sauces rich.
Richard is particularly gifted with seafood. Many of the dishes might seem underseasoned, but eggplant tastes like eggplant, scallops are rich with the taste of the sea, and the veal is mild and tender. There’s no bread—too bad, because almost every sauce begs for a crusty morsel for mop-up. And there’s no coffee to accompany house-made sweets such as a lemon layer cake or pecan pie. Finish the wine you brought. And you pay by cash or check. Better not to leave an incriminating paper trail, after all.
I hope Puccini, with its seductive atmosphere and food, stays both small and hidden. “I know a dark secluded place, a place where no one knows your face…”