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August 13, 2010 at 9:04 AM

Napkins: rant and rave

When I was an impressionable teen, I spent a lot of time at the home of a friend whose family always used linen napkins at their dinner table — the height of elegance for me, seeing as table linen only made two appearances at my house: at Passover and Thanksgiving. And my mom had ripped those napkins off from the Woodbine Inn.

But at my friend’s house in bucolic Bucks County, each family member had his or her own dedicated napkin-ring encircling a colorful collection of cotton napkins. These were kept in a worn wooden bowl in his family’s old farmhouse-kitchen, reused by their rightful “owner” and laundered as necessary.

Taking note of this practice, I swore that when I grew up and became the maid of the manor, I’d adopt the custom myself. No paper napkins for my dining room table! And indeed, that’s the case today. Which might explain why I have a pet peeve when it comes to the specifics of paper napkin-use in restaurants.

Bon Appetit! Mac and I found a pair of “Madame” and “Monsieur” napkin rings in an antiques shop in Paris on our honeymoon years ago. After Nate was born, my best friend Abbie scored a second set for us here in the U.S., and each is put to good use.

I was thinking about napkins again this week when delving into a big bowlful of slippery noodles at my favorite pho stop, Than Brothers, after I stripped the accompanying herbs from their stems, tossed in a handful of beansprouts, squeezed lime into my beef broth and reached for a paper napkin. As I ate, I grabbed another napkin from the dispenser on the table, then another, then one more — because each of those thin offerings practically disintegrated as I slurped my noodles and swiped broth from my lips.

Yeah, yeah. I hear you screaming: “Cut ’em a break, Nance! Than Brothers is a bargain-priced Vietnamese cafe! What do you expect for your $6 meal, French linen embroidered by Carmelite nuns?” Hey, I wasn’t expecting fussy napery or anything, but still: I felt like I was using up the stock, and wasting trees to boot.

Call me a pretentious PC-Seattleite (I’ve been called worse), but I feel that way often while I’m dining out around here — at everywhere from burger joints to neighborhood bistros: I eat. I wipe my mouth. I need additional napkins because the ones in hand are so flimsy they can barely handle three swipes. To Than Brothers’ credit, at least they’ve got more sitting on my table. Elsewhere, I’ve got to flag down a server to beg for “extras,” or (taking after my mother, God forbid), “steal” napkins from another table.

But a couple weeks back, while eating pizza at Tutta Bella, I saw — or more precisely, felt — the light. It was a large, soft napkin that looked like paper, yet felt (and wiped) like fine linen. The Holy Grail of paper napkins!

San Marzano tomato-sauce on your chin? Bet you CAN use just one.

So, yesterday, when I was chatting with Tutta Bella’s Joe Fugere about his big nod from the pizza-press and subsequent pizza giveaway, I asked him about those napkins. “They must cost a fortune,” I said. Indeed they do, he replied, noting that he and his restaurant managers went back and forth over that cost before determining that those paper-goods, “the closest thing you can get to linen,” were worth the freight.

Joe explained that not too long ago he and some friends were knocking back Neapolitan pizzas at one of his shops. “They’d take one bite,” wipe the sauce from their lips, he said, “make a mess of the napkin, and grab another one.” And that’s when the thought occurred to him: “We’ve got to get better napkins.” So he called his supplier and asked them to send samples of the best paper napkins available to compare to the brand he’s long been using, and to also send something between the two for comparison sake. Then he sat down with his restaurant team (you’ll forgive him, he’s a former Starbucks guy) for a company-Kumbaya.

Despite protestations from the team (“We can’t afford that! We’re a pizzeria!”), he said, it was no-contest. And though the satiny paper napkins cost four times as much as the ones they’d been using before, “If you’d usually use two napkins” — and so many people did — “that halves the cost.” Plus, Joe added in true PC-Seattleite fashion, there’s the sustainability factor.

Anyway, in case you were wondering, while I don’t keep paper napkins in the house, I do swear by Bounty, the “quicker-picker-upper,” bought in bulk at Costco — and it’s put to good use in my household, then thrown in the compost-can. And given the choice between a paper napkin that lasts for the duration of a restaurant meal and paying an extra 20-cents to have that “luxury,” I’d be willing to cough up the coin. You?

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