Home Field Advantage
How big games on TV have served as one man's inspiration to entertain
Wednesday, January 28, 2009; Page F01
Nearly a decade ago, my problem wasn't wanting to cook or choosing what to cook; it was getting people to come over. Approaching a bunch of single guys straight out of college with the prospect of a dinner party was awkward at best. Besides, Friday nights were for cabs and bars and house parties whose only culinary attraction might be a sheet pan of Jell-O shots.
I knew my meager form of entertainment would never stand up to the throngs of Adams Morgan or a bustling Clarendon night life. If I was going to cook for my friends, I was going to have to find another pull, so I started inviting them over for football. Soon, on any given Sunday my handful of friends knew I would be up to something in the kitchen, there would be beer in the fridge and the TV would be on.
I started with essentially the same food we'd have at a sports bar. Pizza, wings, burgers, Reubens: the pub grub classics. Gathered around the couch, with some of us on the floor, we'd gorge ourselves while guarding our plates and paper-towel napkins from my ever-present dog, Finn.
As my confidence grew, I used some Sundays as an excuse to try out more ambitious menus. I even coaxed guests away from the TV (at halftime, of course) and started using the dinner table, plates and (gasp!) real napkins. And it worked. We started lingering at the table a little longer, joined by wives and girlfriends. Bar food slowly became something more like supper, while in the background the Redskins pummeled D-town.
For the past eight or so years, my Sunday suppers have culminated in an all-day event during the playoffs. I focus on the championship round to reduce my competition with the big-screen Super Bowl parties, as my living room boasts a mere 25 inches of old-school television tube. But the playoffs also present a cooking challenge the big game couldn't hope to beat. While the rest of the country hunts for the next great chili recipe or a new twist on nachos, I'm combing the Internet to learn about foods from towns that host the top four teams.
My playoff menu takes shape partly from cookbooks and magazines but also from my own food experiences. Every time Pittsburgh makes the championship round I revisit my days at West Virginia University, coveting the great Primanti Bros. sandwich. Packed to the hilt with spicy capicola ham, french fries and tangy coleslaw, the sandwich has as much girth as Jerome "the Bus" Bettis. Although it was more than worth the 90-minute drive from Morgantown back in college, making my own version is all the more sweet.
When Philly took on Atlanta in 2005, I knew cheesesteaks were in order. Not happy with the prepared beef in the grocer's freezer, I asked my butcher to shave an entire three-bone rib roast. It was clear he was not amused, but my friends certainly were. The resultant cheesy mountain heaped into three feet of freshly baked bread kept us full for hours. Later that day we delved into the same creamy clam chowder we'd enjoyed the year before. I've since grown to hate that chowdah, but the lone Patriots fan in the room cheered its return year after year.
As this year's professional football season drew to an end, I perceived a Southern dominance I hadn't experienced in quite some time. Commanding teams from Tennessee, Georgia and North Carolina filled my head with visions of barbecue, fried chicken and biscuits, maybe even some mac and cheese. A true Southern feast! But if there's anything to expect in professional sports, it's the unexpected. A weekend of upsets sent me scrambling back to my cookbooks in a desperate attempt to find something that represented Arizona and wouldn't clash with Baltimore's crab cakes.
But that's the whole point, really. In bounding a party with rules I don't control, I force myself to step out of my comfort zone and hunt for dishes I might otherwise ignore. I love watching the last few games, my coffee table filled with books and magazines, screaming at my little TV as a menu slowly solidifies. Abandoning my Southern banquet after the divisional round, I called a local bakery and asked about a perfect bun for crab cake sliders. Fried chicken be damned, Baltimore's victory would allow me to revisit one of my favorite memories of growing up on the Eastern Shore.
I also asked about breads to house the two great sandwiches of Pennsylvania and searched for a butcher who wouldn't mind shaving another rib roast. And still I racked my brain for something Southwestern that could hang with the blue-collar sandwiches of the Northeast. When I stumbled upon Pizzeria Bianco, my menu was complete.
Pizza didn't first cross my mind when I tried to conjure food from Arizona, but Pizzeria Bianco has been making its mark on Phoenix since 1993, using the same philosophies that I love to embrace when I cook: Take a few simple, high-quality ingredients, do as little to them as possible and reap the benefits. Bianco's Rosa pizza does just that, topping a sauce-free pie with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, thinly shaved onions, pistachios and the faintest hint of rosemary.
Pizza, Primantis, cheesesteaks, crab cakes. It was a meal that could satisfy a linebacker -- maybe even two. I started to wonder if I should put out a candy dish filled with Lipitor next to the chips and queso dip. Thankfully, this party happens only once a year.
I say that reluctantly, because its passing leaves Sundays with a void that's hard to fill. Nearly five months of roasts, pizzas, endless pots of chili and then nothing? An Iron City sandwich and an Arizona pie won the hearts of my guests as much as they dominated four quarters of regulation, and they're tailor-made for this weekend's showdown. But they just don't seem to fit when the season comes to an end.
On second thought, I haven't been out in Adams Morgan on a weekend in years, and the throbbing pulse of dance clubs is a thing of the more-than-distant past. Maybe this is the year I set my table on a Friday night instead. I don't need a sporting event for a crutch now, anyway. Though I certainly wouldn't mind a bigger TV.
Scott Reitz is a freelance food writer who lives in Alexandria.