Alfredo Cipolato stands next to the old stone hearth in the Garden Room of Perugia. Somebody taps a wine glass with a spoon, and the roar of voices slows to a hush.
“The first thing I want to say,” he says, with a glance toward the corner table, “is…is…why you, how you get the name Perugia?”
Raucous laughter from the crowd betrays their awareness that Alfredo already knows the name’s origin. As the owner of Broadway Market, Missoula’s Italian import food store, the Venice native knows that in Italian, Perugia means heaven sent. And he knows of the Umbrian town of Perugia, home to Europe’s oldest university. But the 90-something-year-old heckler is as stubborn as he is old, and he gets away with the joke.
Alfredo is one of many diners taking his turn as the guest of honor. And tonight’s installment of Perugia’s Ports of Call, a six-course Sicilian dinner, gives him the home-court advantage, which he enjoys with the authority of a mob boss. He whispers, “We had a beautiful meal tonight. You need to give them a hand.”
The room is full of contented souls, freshly wined-and-dined. They lounge in their chairs, burping quietly, grinning, sipping on the twin dessert liquors Giori Lemoncillo and Giori Lemoncillo Cream—both sweet and tart with lemon, but neon and neon-opaque respectively in their dessert goblets. Everyone cheers the hosts.
After the applause Alfredo says, “This meal tonight brought me back to what I used to eat in Sicily.”
As if the mention of that mysterious island in the Mediterranean magnetizes Alfredo’s thoughts, his words take us there.
Soon, these Sicilian memories touch a nerve, and without warning, Alfredo releases an explosion of emotion, bolting from zero to full-blown opera in under one second.
The Venetian tenor belts out a tune as mournful as it is undaunted, and as rich as the lustiest chianti. The room vibrates like a singing wine glass. The kitchen crew, the servers, the Italian wine reps from Maryland—everybody is watching and listening and feeling.
I’m no opera fan. I’ve never understood it. Never been moved by opera. But there in the Garden Room, I got hit. For the first time in my life, I’m crying at opera. Then I’m laughing at myself because I’m crying at opera. I’m laughing and crying at the same time. It’s the second time this night that I cried.
The first time was during the main course, when the Valiano Chianti Classico in my glass mixed with the half-masticated rolled pork loin in my mouth. The pork loin was fully drenched in a garlic oregano sauce called salmoriglio and dusted with pomegranate seeds. While I chewed, the pomegranate seeds exploded into my mouth like fireworks, cutting sharp and sweet through the fat. Then, a sip of wine into my full mouth and…wow. It was so full and rich and balanced and perfect that my eyes could only overflow.
It takes a village to raise a child, so the saying goes. The same is true of a dining experience like the one at Perugia that night. It was a confluence of many cultures, and the nexus of this confluence is the Risho family. Through their work with food over the years, the Rishos have helped transform the village of Missoula into the international culinary crossroads that, on good nights, it can be. Especially on nights like this.
This evening began with the sound of Susie Risho tapping a wine glass with her spoon. The sound cut the expectant din like a pomegranate seed in a mouthful of pork loin. Standing up, Susie’s husband Ray introduced himself as founder and guest-chef of Perugia, and welcomed the guests to the Risho family restaurant.
As the guests were well-aware, on this special night they were to experience the food of Sicily. “Sicilian,” Ray reminded us, “is not the same thing as Italian.” Just two miles off the coast of southern Italy, and 90 miles from mainland Africa, many cultures have left their mark on Sicily, including the Greeks, Romans, Normans, Arabs, North African Berbers and the Spanish Moslems. We would taste it in the food, Ray promised.
After Ray’s introduction, the servers and the wine reps moved in, flooding the tables with course after course of Sicilian love, a la Risho, each course with its accompanying glass of wine.
The appetizer medley, or antipasto, was a symphony of North African, Italian, Arabian, and Spanish flavors. The deep-fried artichokes, sweet and sour eggplant, roast onions with pistachio pesto, and stuffed squid were complemented by a fruity pinot grigio that unleashed untold orders of culinary complexity upon the captive taste buds. Standing alone, each of these dishes is exceptional. But as the flavors of each combine in your mouth, catalyzed by a glass of wine…the result is disorientingly good. Not to be eaten standing up.
Integration is key to the large presence of the Risho family in Missoula’s food scene. Ray and Susie’s eldest son, Sam, is the restaurant’s general manager. Their youngest son, Abe, is the head chef. Their middle son, Ephraim, is at seminary in Vancouver, BC.—he does what he can from his faraway divine tower, designing and managing the Perugia website.
Susie is the head integrationist, the seamstress of all threads. She is also a much-needed feminine counterbalance to her family’s masculine energy, describing her role in the Risho equation as “glue behind the glitter—peacemaker, problem-solver, affirmation-giver, interior design consultant, and nurturer of these beings who are being so creative.”
Another Perugia integration is found in the Ports of Call program, for which Ray emerges from the wings of semi-retirement to captain the Perugia kitchen to faraway shores, pouring wine and telling stories all the way.
Recent Ports of Call have included a Japanese Country Dinner, a Bengali Cuisine of Calcutta, and a multi-installment series on World Jewish Cuisine, which follows the Jewish diaspora through Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. “That series,” says Ray, “is far from done.”
These culinary excursions take place in the restaurant’s Garden Room, designed and built by Sam Risho. Sam created a space with the look, feel, and flavor of a Mediterranean grove, the interior of a Greek myth.
A large faux tree in the center of the room spreads its branches in all directions, where they interlock with branches from other trees built into the walls. Behind the branches, powerful spotlights shine down, giving the impression of bright skies above. Except for the trees, the room is completely open, and the hanging branches provide a sense of intimacy, a neighborhood feel at each table.
Lanterns hang from the branches, which droop between the neighborhoods, providing habitat for a growing population of stuffed animals. Over the course of dinner, the gastronomic ecosystems around each table evolve their own jokes and stories.
With each new course comes a new glass of wine, and with each glass of wine the Garden Room roars louder. As the evening progresses through fennel soup and wild mushroom risotto, the chatter in the Garden Room rises to a raucous hum, and then a minimal roar. By the time Alfredo the Venetian tenor stands up, the crowd is primed to gush.
Behind the scenes, the kitchen hums fast and cool. Pots boil, sauces simmer, pans fry. Abe and the crew are calmly throwing strikes, delivering the Sicilian Port of Call to the Garden Room, and simultaneously serving the normal Tuesday night crowd seated in the front dining room.
It’s time to dish out the main course. The warmed plates are arranged on the counter, and the kitchen staff, Ray included, falls into line. One slices the rolled pork loin; one lays the slices upon the plates; one person on sauce; another on penne pasta side dish. Finally, the plates are dusted with bright red pomegranate seeds.
The plates are loaded onto large trays, which servers Joyce and Krystal hoist onto their shoulders and up-turned hands. They carry the plates into the Garden Room, where gallons of saliva are spilling in expectation. Once the plates have left the kitchen, Ray and Abe share a warm embrace, satisfied with how it all came together.
In January, Abe will leave for Denver to enroll in a two-year culinary arts program at Johnson and Wales University. It’s a little hard to swallow that the kitchen-wizard wants to go to cooking school, but “It’s not so much need, as much as there is so much out there to learn,” he says. “This will really help round off my cooking expertise.”
“When we first opened Perugia,” says Abe, “dad made me promise that I wouldn’t make cooking my career. A year later he began talking about culinary school for me. When I reminded him of my vow, dad said,
‘I said that?’”
In preparation for his absence, new chef Jack Spiess is being groomed to run the kitchen. With pitches from risotto to Asian seafood, Spiess has quickly found the strike zone in the Perugia kitchen.
Abe’s final Port of Call for the near future will take place this January, when he and Ray present a 15th-century Sephardic Jewish Spanish meal. After that, Ports of Call will continue under Ray’s stewardship as usual. He plans to finish the World Jewish Cooking Series with a Tunisian meal, and finally a culinary exploration of the Three Jewish communities of India—including the Bene Israel, purported to be one of the lost tribes of Israel.
Meanwhile, Ray seems content to linger a little longer in Italy. On Wednesday and Thursday, Dec. 10 and 11, he will present La Vigilia di Natale, aka The Feast of Seven Fishes, an 8-course traditional Italian Christmas Dinner.
“You could abstain from meat and still eat fish on fast days,” says Ray. This loophole grew into the Italian tradition of eating seven fishes during Advent—either seven fish courses or seven types of fish. “At Viglia di Natale,” Ray explains, “we will eat seven fishes in seven different ways: as fresh stuffed oysters, seafood salad, fish soup, squid ink-blackened risotto, salt water eel, pasta with lobster sauce and grilled herbal salmon.”
Many of the dishes that first appear at Ports of Call will return to the restaurant as daily specials, and perhaps make it to the regular menu some day. In the meantime, a portal is opened, thanks in no small part to the worldly guests, like Alfredo, who have found their way to this gastronomic gathering place in pursuit of their worldly paths.
When you enter Ray and Susie’s home on S. 4th St. East, you walk beneath a big sign that says “Old World Cooking.” At home and in the restaurant, this is the Risho culinary manifesto. “Old World Cooking describes more than a well-crafted dish, it’s about feeling like the guest of honor at a friend’s place,” says Ray. “It’s about an entire ethos of service. As soon as people walk through the door they’re in for a dinner experience.”
In the kitchen, Ray puts on his apron. He is preparing a meal of wild duck, teal and partridge. The birds were shot by two of his closest friends, local fixtures Abe Abramson and Retired Brigadier General Dale E. Stovall.
The kitchen is filled with culinary apperati and memorabilia. Pots and pans hang from ceiling racks, along with a gaff hook, a fully inflated blowfish and a variety of measuring and pouring devices. Moroccan clay cooking vessels called tajines, a lineup of coffee-making devices, and a jungle of plants adorn the shelves.
The guests are scheduled to arrive in little over an hour, and the only evidence of any action is a large pot shaking with steam atop “The Wolf,” a six-burner gas stove that Ray bought in 1969. He made monthly payments for years before it was really his. “The Wolf is like a family pet,” he says.
Despite compelling evidence that the meal is far from ready, Ray is calm and pleasantly on-task, as if slowly waking up from a nice long nap. Susie, his wife of more than 30 years, hums her way through the kitchen, helping prepare the bread crumbs. When I ask what’s on the menu, Ray claims he hasn’t even decided what he is going to cook. “Tonight,” he says, “I’m doing it as I go.”
Almost, perhaps, but not quite. A little culinary sleight of hand is all. The birds have already been cleaned, marinated 24 hours and steamed for several more. Ray removes some hot eggplants from the oven and scoops out their soft, cooked interiors, which he mixes in with tomatoes, yogurt, olive oil, and roasted garlic. “Palestinian baba ganoush,” he said. “But they call it baba mtabal.” Then he mixes steamed duck livers with sweet peppers, onions, garlic, shallots, leeks, fresh herbs, extra-virgin olive oil, cream sherry and bread crumbs, and stuffs it into some green peppers he finds in the fridge. “I didn’t even know we had those peppers,” he marveled.
A meal quickly emerges that includes fried celeriac, cucumber salad, Szechwan duck, Hungarian partridge with wild grape sauce and Kashmiri sharp tail in curry cream. Wild birds have never tasted like this.
Ray reminds me vaguely of Ray and Tom Magliozzi, aka Click and Clack, the NPR Car Talk brothers. His olive skin, curly hair and stocky build, combined with his Boston accent, put him squarely in the category of East Coast Mediterranean stock.
Ray’s family is Assyrian, from the Armenian plateau of eastern Turkey. His parents, Assyrian Orthodox Christians born in Damascus, fled the persecution of Kurdish and Turkish pogroms, during a period sometimes referred to as the Armenian Holocaust, when two million Christians were put to the sword. Eventually, they ended up in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, where Ray was born.
He grew up stuffing grape leaves and learning the ways of parsley, cheese and olives under the tutelage of his mother, Mary. One day in Provincetown, Cape Cod, young Ray passed Susie on the street. He did a double take, then doubled back and asked her for a date. Soon he was commuting on the weekends to Massachusetts, where Susie was a leather clothing designer.
“He drove his motorcycle to Cambridge every weekend to court me,” says Susie. “I made him sheepskin mittens to keep his hands warm.”
I asked Ray if Susie’s Jewish family helped him get so interested in Jewish cuisine.
“Not really,” he said. “I’ve always been fascinated by Jewish culture, their ability to not only survive, but to thrive in the face of so many hard circumstances. Susie’s family would cook the Jewish food of Eastern Europe, where most Jews lived in large communal groups called shtetls. In Europe, these Jews were able to obtain traditional ingredients and preserve their traditional recipes. But for a long time I had no idea about the cuisine of the Sephardic Jews, who traveled to Spain, North Africa, South Asia and Persia, assimilating the culinary traditions of their adopted cultures into their own. That’s why Sephardic cooking is so fascinating and diverse.”
Ray and Susie married in 1968 and moved to Missoula, where Ray enrolled in UM’s Wildlife Biology program, which he then flunked out of, joining Susie in the UM Art program. “That got me back on track,” he says.
The Rishos left Missoula for home on the East Coast after graduating, but quickly returned, drawn back primarily by their ties to the Community Covenant Church, in which Ray was a minister. The church took out a second mortgage to finance a community restaurant venture, called Emmaus Road, with Ray at the helm. Like Perugia, Emmaus Road focused on Old World cuisine and hospitality. During that same period, the Community Covenant Church also served as majority owner and manager of the fledgling Good Food Store.
In 1979, the church moved to divest from some of its businesses, including the restaurant. Ray had the choice of purchasing or closing Emmaus Road. Exhausted from his years running the restaurant, he chose to close. “That was extremely painful,” says Ray. “I cried like a baby.”
Ray took a job as a wine rep, traveling the state doing sales and consulting. “People would ask me, ‘is there anything to eat out there?’ So I took out a loan and traveled the state, visiting 450 eating establishments, and wrote a book on it.”
The book is called Risho’s Registry: From Absarokee to Zortman, a town-by-town review of Montana eateries. It is full of wit, humor, and, most importantly, where to eat in Montana’s boondocks. Under the entry for Moose’s Saloon in Kalispell, for example, the author advises “try the Missoulian (all the news that’s fit to eat) for $2.40, rare roast beef with mushrooms and Swiss.”
After a stint as executive chef at the now defunct Northern Pacific restaurant on Higgins, Ray burned out of the restaurant business for good, and officially retired at age 48. After that, he opened the first licensed adult day-care center in Missoula, where he and Susie cared for adults with brain injuries. In 1995, while one of his clients lay in a coma, Ray heard about the availability of the building that was to become Perugia. In addition to meaning “Heaven sent” in Italian, Perugia also alludes to Christ’s second coming in Greek.
“Susie suggested we do a restaurant to teach the boys the food business,” says Ray. “Although I had sworn off it, I asked them if they wanted to learn the business, and they said ‘yeah.’ So we decided to go for it, but I had two conditions: First, we would only be open for 22 hours per week. Second, this was not to be a permanent full-time thing for me.”
Nobody knew just how impermanent Ray’s full-time status was to be. “In 1997 I was diagnosed with cancer, and went in for treatment,” explains Ray. “That was the end of my working a regular work week. Sam and Abe took over after that.”
Despite the scary circumstances under which the transition occurred, the boys were ready. “Sam opened his first bottle of wine when he was 12 years old,” Ray reminisces. “It was a good bottle, I remember. That’s when I was a wine rep. We drank a lot of decent wine.”
Meanwhile, things in the Middle East, cradle of Ray’s ethnicity and spirituality, continued to erode. According to his friend Abe Abramson, “Ray is pro-Arab without being anti-Jew. Ray is pro-everything. When things don’t go right it just really bothers him.”
Ray’s interest in Middle Eastern affairs compelled him to join the National Council on U.S.-Arab relations. This work took him to Israel, Gaza, The West Bank, Jordan, Egypt, Syria, and Yemen. Many of the dishes on Perugia’s menu were inspired by these travels, including Chicken Yamoon, which is Ray’s name for the dish, not the traditional name (which is too difficult to pronounce). “Yamoon,” says Ray, “is a Palestinian village where they make this dish very well.” Traveling to North Africa with the same organization, Abe Risho brought back the Moroccan ceramic tajines—and the know-how to use them—in which many Perugia meals are cooked. “If I went to Paris with your credit card,” claims Abramson, “I still couldn’t eat the way I do at Perugia.”
Sam Risho cruises Perugia, keeping a watchful eye on simultaneous happenings. Elbow-deep in salad one minute, in dialog with a customer the next, then mixing a martini.
The bar contains a special shelf holding over 30 types of aged single malt scotch. The bar-top is recycled parquet floor from the old basketball floor in Schreiber Men’s Gym at UM. Replicas of Medieval weapons adorn the walls. “I love this bar,” says the bartender, Angie Maddux. “I love it so much I got a job here.”
Sam offers customized Spirit Tasting sessions. Based on client interest, he picks a dozen premium spirits and creates information sheets to help the client understand and decipher the tastes in their mouths. For about $30, you also get an appetizer buffet corresponding to the region from which the spirit comes.
Sam’s martini menu boasts over 30 variations, including the Dark Side of Yamoon (Blavod vodka and Arak anise, served dark and cloudy), Tropical Lake Missoula (Kaniche Blanc Rum, splash of coconut, pineapple, Blue Curacao and lemon garnish), the 007 Martini (“shaken, not stirred”), the Pear Martini (Absolut, splash of Poires d’Anjou), and the Breakfast Martini (Stoli’s Vanil Vodka and Baileys, over Grapenuts).
Unlike the open glade of the Garden Room, Perugia’s front dining rooms are full of richly adorned nooks and crannies in which diners can happily disappear into their personal dining experience.
In addition to the regular menu, Tuesdays and Thursdays offer family-style dining, in which huge bowls of food are brought to the table, and the assembled group digs in. Tuesday is Italian night, and Thursday is Greek. The quality is as high as any night, but the portions are bigger, and cheaper.
Much of the artwork in the dining area is made by Susie, although it isn’t labeled with her name. “They are kind of anonymous,” she says, “but I’m interested in what people think.”
Ceramic sculptures up front near the bar are particularly captivating, their smooth, rounded, intensely feminine surfaces giving form to the space within. Two new paintings adorn the foyer.
“They are healing paintings,” she says. “They have to do with bones inside of you, alignment, energy, mystery, darkness, pain, lightness, and hope.” Below the paintings, Susie’s recent Valentine’s Day gift to Ray sits atop a pedestal: a ceramic water lily shaped like a heart.
During the 15th century, Chinese merchants intermarried with the Malay women of what is now Western Malaysia, and the Baba Nonya culture was born. The Nonya produced one of the most epic cuisines of southeast Asia, and Ports of Call docked there in October. The menu boasted, among other things, that the spicy, pungent sweetness of the Ikan panggang would culminate in a “harmonious delectation.”
Ikan panggang is filet of cod, marinated in tamarind paste and cumin. It is dressed in a sauce of toasted shrimp paste, sour tamarind, chili paste and garlic. It’s broiled and served with a sprig of an unusual Asian mint, whose name nobody could remember.
In the kitchen, it’s the breather after the main course. I’m still catching my breath after witnessing the assembly of the plates, which culminated with a scattering of purple currants upon the bright yellow jasmine rice and yellow Captain’s Curry. The kitchen vibe is over the hump. The crew is having fun. The only thing left to do is dish out the sago—supersized tapioca balls drenched in palm sugar and coconut milk.
But first, Ray hands me a little plate of Ikan panggang. His eyes twinkle, because he knows that in my mouth there will soon be a stunning integration of acid, sour, garlic, hot, spice and ocean, followed by an aftertaste that keeps on giving. Harmonious delectation. Yes. I opened my eyes. Ray nodded. “Complicated,” he said.
In the Garden Room, Vincent and Wai Fong, both Malaysian born, are pleased with the meal. Their favorites were the squid in black sauce, and the crisp baby anchovies with peanuts. “Very Authentic,” says Vincent. Abe Abramson wanders over to the table and tells dirty jokes in Mandarin. Wai Fong smiles. Then she and Abe are trading verses of the ancient Chinese poem “On a Quiet Night,” by Li Po.
When he looked at the moon, Abe said in Chinese…
…he thought of home, answered Wai Fong, finishing his sentence.