Delectable delicatessen delivers delicious delights
As I press myself into the door frame next to the stovetop where Sam is operating, I try to keep my promise of staying out of the way while observing him work. The small kitchen is just barely big enough for one person, but Sam doesn't seem to mind my company as he multitasks, preparing that day's food and entertaining all of my questions. I listen to the pot of water boil and fill my lungs with the scent of fresh ingredients being blended together as I watch Sam demonstrate how to make one of La Bodega's most popular dishes, spicy macaroni and cheese. He quickly stirs a browning, sizzling, popping mixture of flour and fat: roux, he explains, a thickening agent for sauces.
"A lot of places use cornstarch to make the roux because using flour leaves more room for error and can take longer," Sam commented, "but I use flour because it tastes better, it adds more flavor."
That seems to be the common theme for La Bodega, located on West High Street. Sam Markey, the general manager and chef, prepares all of the food made each week, sometimes each day, from fresh, organic and, when possible, local ingredients. The cozy eatery, described by the owner as, "kind of like your mom's living room," takes pride in serving nothing but clean, delicious food to the community of Oxford, Ohio.
La Bodega opened its doors in 1989, with Diana and Dean DiPaolo at the helm. At the time, Dean DiPaolo's family also owned a successful catering company, an upscale restaurant and a pizzeria that occupied the space before La Bodega. Currently, La Bodega serves a refreshing break from the chain restaurants and dining halls threatening to run small businesses out of town.
Diana describes her vision in the beginning as an, "old world deli." Considering herself a foodie and continuously looking for new and unique recipes, she recalls being the first in the area to use a panini machine, a fish smoker, and serve espresso. They were the only place to serve a range of gourmet and ethnic foods like tapas, falafels, and muffalata sandwiches to traditional meals like lasagna and grilled rosemary chicken. "People begun 'cocooning,'" Diana comments, referring to a term used to describe the movement of staying home and creating a safe place, which explained the limited seating as a sign of the time where carryout was key.
Tessa Thomas, who has worked as a server at La Bodega for several years now, described the typical day-to-day as steady business, serving both Oxford residents and Miami students. Tentatively responding to a question about powerful chain restaurants moving into the area, she delivers a carefully crafted answer making sure not to step on anyone's toes, but when asked about Miami's new winter term, a six-week break for students, her demeanor visibly changes. A slow exhale and quick nod, Tessa responds, "it was slow."
Sam, who has been at La Bodega for 14 years, trained under Georgia DiPaolo, Diana's brother-in-law, at their family restaurant. He commented on their long-standing success before the recession hit in 2008 and the increasing rate of dining halls on Miami's campus.
"I'm grateful to Miami, they provide a ton of jobs for the residents of Oxford, a couple of my friends work for them, and if I didn't work here I'd probably be working there too," he says.
"I just wish there was more of a symbiotic relationship with the university."
Although he humbly doesn't consider himself a professional chef, a title he says is tossed around too freely these days, watching him measure out seasonings, slice cheese and pour milk seems like a skill only an expert can do just as gracefully. When he describes how he was taught to measure spices by counting the shakes of the bottle and learned the feeling of how long it takes to pour a cup of milk, it sounds oddly like poetry.
Most of the conversation between Sam and me over the last few days has revolved around his desire to continue making quality food. Watching him in the kitchen I can feel the pride that floated off of him when talking about the reason people keep coming back. He dolls out a small heap of the steaming macaroni and I take my first bite, trying to remember the last time I tasted something this good.
Walking out the door, I try to sum up why La Bodega is such a special place and Diana's voice pops into my head, "I have a wonderful staff, the best we've ever had: they care," she smiles, and there it was.
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