Most religions have their dietary rules. No meat on Fridays for Catholics, no pork for Jews, no pork or alcohol for Mohammedans, no meat for Hindus, and the individual proscriptions of Santería’s orishas. Ital Rastafarianism is hardly an exception: no meat, no dairy, no salt, no white sugar, few processed foods, and an abundance of freshly prepared juices and teas are the generalities. But I always assumed this would play differently in tropical Jamaica, where lush soursop and fragrant Otaheite apples are there for the picking, than in Brooklyn, where ackee is against the law and ganja tea is a federal offense.
I would find out when Leadfoot Louie finally revealed his secret Ital place on a seriously Caribbean strip of Nostrand Avenue. Hard by an upstairs recording studio and sharing space with a shop selling 10-karat gold jewelry and sundries, it was easy to miss, so narrow you could almost touch both walls. A cardboard list on the wall offers a selection of juices from the usual ginger beer and sorrel to the more exotic Irish moss and peanut punch. Prices aren’t posted, but this doesn’t daunt the line that runs to four or five at any given time. These faithful wait patiently to step up to the window, order a container stuffed with the dishes of the day, and pay—$4 for small, $6 for medium, $8 for large.
When I first entered the tiny place, the surroundings looked more like a paneled finished basement of the ’50s, complete with dining counter and wooden stools along one wall. The Caribbean was alive in the testosterone-filled air as I interrupted a profane political rant by a Jamaican laborer to his more moderate dreadlocked companion. A complicitous smile from the latter relaxed me as I edged up to the window to point. I selected the fillings for a
medium-sized plate: coconut-flavored stew peas and rice, a massive brick of macaroni pie, brown rice, and a rich tofu and tomato stew, the whole topped with two slices of wonderfully sweet fried plantain ($6). I accompanied it with a bony but tasty fried fish covered with a mass of tangy sweated onions (prices vary) and a refreshing glass of homemade ginger beer complete with small bits of grated ginger ($3). The taste combinations in this stevedore’s helping of starch were intriguing and satisfying, and the ginger beer was sublime.
On my second visit, I joined the line intent on cutting down the bulk while keeping the flavors. No to the macaroni pie and yes to the broccoli and cabbage cooked long, low, and slow. Sweetly starchy boiled green banana, one of the quintessential tropical sides, was slightly sugary, slightly flaky, the perfect foil for any sauce; the “Irish” potato that I also ordered paled in comparison. The pièce de résistance, though, was a fish steak transformed from the usual escovitch by a short dip in a hot tomato-infused broth rich with carrot chunks, bits of soft green pepper, and translucent rings of chewy onion. The result was moist, tender, and light years away from the commonplaces of my Babylonian captivity. A mixture of ginger beer and sorrel combined sweet and bite, and established that Jamaica Bay and Montego Bay aren’t so far apart after all.