A carbonara with its roots in queer history

San Francisco's legendary Zuni changed restaurants forever

By Mary Elizabeth Williams
Published June 23, 2021 12:00PM (EDT)
Carbonara (Mary Elizabeth Williams)
Carbonara (Mary Elizabeth Williams)

It's been far more joyful June this year than last, a much closer to normal Pride Month than last. As part of that buoyant return, a lot of us are finally going out drinking and eating again. And though you may not know his name, you should know how Billy West helped bring us together at the table.

I was utterly transfixed recently by author John Birdsall's meticulous, moving appreciation of the Zuni Cafe founder, who died of AIDS in 1994. Birdsall, author of the James Beard biography "The Man Who Ate Too Much," has a keen understanding of that intersection of queer culture and food culture, a space that West helped pioneer. In 1979, he opened Zuni on a bleak downtown San Francisco corner. It was three months after the murder of Harvey Milk a few blocks away. It was one year before San Franciscan Ken Horne, the first identified American AIDS patient, would be reported to the CDC.

From its earliest days, writes Birdsall, Zuni "put queerness on display to San Francisco's political class," and as its reputation grew, it became a space catering to "a mix of politicians in suits, opera goers in tuxedos and gowns, and out gays and lesbians in T-shirts and jeans — all served by waiters with an uninhibited queer presence… at a time when the tragedy of AIDS was intensifying the stigma around being gay."

With its southwestern name and decor, its Californian and European-inspired cuisine and its elevated yet easy vibe, Zuni has been a mainstay of American cuisine for over four decades now. When I lived in San Francisco in my extremely broke twenties and worked in a grimy office by the strip club down the street, I walked past Zuni every day — and ventured in when I had a little money and a reason to celebrate. That it endures, after a devastating plague that has hit the most vulnerable the hardest, that has shuttered other beloved, LGBTQ+-owned restaurants, is cause for gratitude and remembrance. "Mr. West's legacy," writes Birdsall, "is the queering of the American restaurant."

I miss San Francisco every day, but uniquely during Pride. So until I can get back there to visit, I'll raise a glass with my friends on this side of the continent, and replicate a Zuni meal in my own rushed and inexpert way. The restaurant is justifiably most famed for its roast chicken bread salad, which is extraordinary, as well as its top notch burger and Caesar salad. But my increasingly insistent wanderlust makes me lately want to pull something from its current menu. And you can never go wrong with carbonara, never. Even when it doesn't have eggs. Maybe especially when it doesn't have eggs.

At Zuni, you can have the rustic Roman dish and with "English peas, house cured pancetta, ricotta and pecorino romano." In my house, I swap out the peas for edamame, and the pancetta for prosciutto. At your own stove, you can dress the dish up or down to your liking, with fresh herbs or naked, with a buttery Spanish ham or the pepperoni from your child's Lunchables. Relax, it's pasta, it will be delicious. Just eat as you would if you were at hanging out at Zuni tonight — surrounded with friends.

***

Recipe: Summery Carbonara

Inspired by Jamie Oliver and Zuni

Makes 4 servings

Ingredients:

  • Olive oil for the pan
  • 12 - 16 ounces of spaghetti (or whatever pasta you like)
  • 4 ounces of diced prosciutto (or salty meat of your choice)
  • 1 cup of thawed, shelled edamame (or peas)
  • 8 tablespoons of ricotta cheese
  • 3 - 6 cloves of garlic, or as much as you like, sliced thinly (Well cleaned sliced leeks would also be delicious here.)
  • Black pepper
  • Pecorino Romano or other hard cheese
  • Optional: Lemon zest, torn mint leaves

Directions:

  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook pasta recommended time and drain, reserving a cup or so of the cooking water.
  2. While the pasta is cooking, heat oil in a large pan over medium heat.
  3. Add garlic and sauté 2 - 3 minutes, watching carefully that it doesn't burn. Add chopped prosciutto to the pan and fry up until just crisp.
  4. Add drained pasta to pan and toss everything together well. Add a little cooking water so it's loose and silky.
  5. Add edamame and stir, then add a big grind of fresh pepper.
  6. Plate up the pasta and serve topped with ricotta and shavings of pecorino. Garnish with lemon zest and torn mint, if you like.

Hint: If you want the full Zuni experience, serve this with a simple dish of celery, olives and anchovies drizzled in oil.

More Quick & Dirty: 

 

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Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Billy West Carbonara Easy Cooking Pasta Pride Quick & Dirty Zuni