The Special Projects Social, a pop-up restaurant project, popped up again earlier this summer with their dinner event Casa Mala.

Artist Cruz Ortiz sprinkled the space with small, Spanglish collectable posters hanging over Peter Zubiate‘s furniture, which included Peter’s signature raw tables and benches for dining. (And all of it was for sale.)

The space was owned by artist Peter Glassford and his wife and used as exhibit space. It’s recently been bought by Beto Isunza, an architect who is making it his office. In its present state, it’s a very raw and industrial street corner space in the middle of Southtown. It’s so primitive in fact, that Isunza scrambled to get some plumbing and air conditioning in for the Special Projects Social. At the entrance is a wide concrete slab surrounded by an iron gate. Entering inside the building was not much different: cement, bricks, tall glass windows and some wood partitions and counter space. No unnecessary distractions from the food or company, you could say.

The impromptu nature of Casa Mala made it all the more alluring.

After each appetizer I consumed, I shamelessly (yet strategically, eh?) dumped my trash in the bin next to the working station in the makeshift kitchen. And I took the opportunity to chat with Chef Luca Della Casa, the guest chef for the event, and ask him more about the food, but not get too much in the way. He fastidiously worked and prepped, piercing meat pieces on skewers or tossing ceviche. I remembered him fondly from his recent Il Sogno days. All that fresh, elegant Italian food, and the airy tiramisu that he served, his grandmother’s recipe. I reminisced seeing him behind the restaurant’s counter, keeping a sharp eye on plates, flashing frequent smiles to patrons. We chatted about the pickled veal with tomatoes on skewers, a common summer food in his native Italy (he’s from Torrino). The pieces of veal resembled veal scaloppini and were tangy with some mild vinegar sprinkled on them. Just then, a woman passed behind him. She stopped and turned to me. “He’s so hot,” she mouthed, fanning herself. When I looked back at Chef Luca, he tore off a paper towel and sweeped his face. Yes, he actually was.

Tim McDiarmid, of Tim the Girl catering, fluttered around making sure everything was going smoothly. A pleasant surprise: I found myself chatting with her mother visiting from Victoria, Canada. Tim grew up in rural Western Canada, outside of Vancouver. Clearly, the family’s truly green lifestyle (admittedly before green was green), was a natural way of life for them, including growing their own food. “Tim’s appreciation and love of food came from her upbringing,” her mother explained. They started joking that when Tim was growing up, she was used to roughing it regarding cooking, much like what was happening at this event. “We’re used to this!” they joked. Here, Chef Luca had to make do with a prepping area only, along with some of Tim’s assistance. As a nod to her roots, Tim actually cooked with small torches at the first Special Projects Social event earlier this year. “I grew up in hippie land in a dome, and we didn’t have many amenities until I was older,” she said.

Wines were poured and margaritas made. For a cool, non-alcoholic drink, a watermelon chili aqua fresca glowed in a deep glass jug. Local artist Katie Pell concocted it from a recipe idea of Tim’s. “How did you make it?” I asked the ladies. “I took the watermelon in my hands…and I went like this!” exclaimed Katie, squishing her fingers around in the air as if playing with invisible Play-Doh. Tim added: “Just crushed watermelon, some fresh mint, some chili powder and a tiny bit of sugar to taste.”

The Dishes:

Salmon ceviche – Salmon, scallops and shrimp with lime and grapefruit juices. With a hint of sriracha, it gave a soft, lingering burn on the tongue. Not something to kick you in the pants – just a reminder of the season’s heat kick outside.

Pickled Milanese – Veal skewers with cherry tomatoes and fresh mozzarella.

Farro salad – Roasted peppers, sweet peas, black olives, goat cheese.

Roasted eggplant and asparagus  – With pesto and mozzarella.

Pulled rabbit sandwiches – Piled high on soft buns with greens and homemade pickles. They melted in your mouth.

Coconut rum ice pops – Frozen treats that one could dip in communal bowls of chocolate or blueberry sauces.

While finishing up popsicles or the last glass of wine, plates were washed so each guest could take one home. “Hang onto this,” Tim said, wiping dry a plate by Cruz Ortiz. “It’s going to be really valuable someday.” With such a superbly curated dinner event to remember it by, it already is.

There’s another Special Projects Social event around the bend on October 1st at 6:30 – Sides: Backyard, BBQ, Beer. The location will be announced by midnight on September 30th. Tickets are $60. It’s being billed as “kick ass food, people, art, music and more.” Sounds like a great party to me. 50 seats available. Tickets must be purchased at thespecialprojectssocial.com.

Want to read about another Special Projects Social event? Read my entry, An Enchanted Tea Party.

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