Did you read the New Yorker’s feature this January titled "Doomsday Prep For the Super-Rich" about how tech-billionaires are preparing to (luxuriously) survive the collapse of global institutions that their disruptive greed perpetuates? They are buying islands, building bunkers, stockpiling medications, and surgically correcting their vision.
But the billionaire’s most sinister maneuver has been to outsource the funding of key aspects of their preparation to the rest of us. Our purchases pay for the development of ultra-HD screens that will mimic ocean views deep underground; our tax dollars equip and train the military contractors who will serve as their private armies; our climate change anxiety creates the renewable energy technology they will need.
In this context, the entire overheated restaurant industry represents an elaborate group-sourced tryout for the chefs invited to survive the coming apocalypse and cook for the elite. Especially well-positioned is David Levi, the chef at Vinland, where he has made it a mission to prove that excellent and interesting cuisine can be done with entirely locally grown ingredients. It’s a compelling application for a job in the nicest bunker.
How then to understand Levi’s new venture, Trattoria Fanny, which makes no similar claims regarding hyper-localism? Fanny, rather, calls to mind a distant place and time — it is named after the owner’s Italian grandmother. In doing so, it appeals to the psychological and existential needs that will still face post-apocalyptic billionaires once they have been well fed: the deep familial nostalgia necessary to spur them to repopulate the earth.
Sure enough, there is something quite appealing about the unpretentious (and rather affordable) approach at Fanny. Taking over a large scrappy space with a colorful culinary history (anyone remember Honey’s? Or Mr. and Mrs. Sandwich?), Levi has cleaned it up — but not too much. There is lots of attractive dark wood and big windows, but also unfinished beams and bare bulbs. The tables even seem casually arranged. The service hits the same note: done by committee, warmly and without fanfare. There is no threat of a rehearsed take on “our approach.”
The approach becomes clear nonetheless, Italian dishes that feel traditional even while delivering an expert’s twist of flavor or technique. So a simple black-rice salad — sweet with red pepper and raisins, crunchy with bits of cauliflower and pine nuts — is plated as an elegant dark puck. The ravioli filled with sage pesto is earthy and buttery, with an added funkiness from a generous sprinkling of hard cheese. But there was also a sour-sharp pop of pink peppercorn in nearly every bite, adding a touch of enlivenment to a buttery soothing dish.
Other dishes were simpler still, especially the appealing side dishes. The oyster mushrooms were tender and buttery, with just the right dash of salt. Bitter rapini added a bit of extra crunch with breadcrumbs. Celery root, its sharpness mellowed by a quick pan fry, were like especially succulent french-fries. Only the entrée of roast pork seemed too simple — the slab of meat needing more than its hint of sage to be interesting. But a similarly shaped slab of creamy and rich chocolate bonet could not be better.
The deep appeal of the sort of simple nostalgia on offer at Trattoria Fanny is obvious now, but will it really be useful in the luxury bunkers of the future? Perhaps. The super rich are too experienced at destroying children’s futures to suddenly care about them after the collapse. Only something that appeals to their own deep and childish narcissism — a visceral nostalgia — could push them out of their bunkers to recreate the world. Levi, in his many manifestos about food, speaks in terms of “healing the world” and “re-indigenizing” our way of life. It will soon be very necessary malarkey. At Vinland, he perfected the technical challenges of fine dining without the global food chain. At Trattoria Fanny, they are working on the emotional origins of our incoherent, inconsistent, but perhaps not yet extinguished care for the world.
Trattoria Fanny | 3 Deering Ave., Portland | 317-2766 | Pasta around $13, entrees around $18 | Daily 5:00 - 9:00 p.m. Friday & Saturday 5:00 - 9:30 p.m.| http://www.trattoriafanny.com