The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Mario Batali Is A Rotten Role Model – But He's Still A Great Chef

Personal Inadequacies Have Overridden Professional Brilliance

With apologies to the Bard, I come not to praise Mario Batali, but not to bury him, either.

Everybody knows I like Mario, so I've been hearing it all week. “Hey! What about your buddy Mario?” “What do you think of Batali now?” “Man, that's really something about your pal Mario.” Frankly, it's all left me quite conflicted. Before you start screaming, “How can you be conflicted? The man's obviously a pig!,” let me attempt to explain.

I used to work with a guy in radio who was a champ in terms of being offensive. This guy used to bring in nothing but young college-age girls to work as interns, producers, and on-air personalities. Most of them had no experience and little aptitude or talent, but that was okay: our boy was only too happy to “train” them. One of them showed up on my doorstep in tears one night when an attempted “training” session went sideways. After she related her story of being backed into a corner and groped, my wife said, “God, what a pig! Can't somebody do something about him?” It was the '80s and the short answer was “no,” because although being a debauched, leering, philandering, womanizing, lecherous Lothario might have been highly distasteful, it wasn't strictly illegal – and he was, after all, the boss. The law was laid down: “It's my way or the highway.” Women had to take it or leave it. A few of them took it: most of them left.

For all that his personal conduct was deplorable, though, he was absolutely brilliant at what he did professionally. He was an innovative, gifted, talented broadcaster without peer. He was famous for single-handedly turning around the ratings at radio stations wherever he went. Don't think for a minute that his licentious behavior went unnoticed. His moral shortcomings were pretty much an open secret in the business, but, dammit, he got ratings and he made money. As long as he didn't depants some teen intern in the hall and publicly have his way with her, his proclivities were generally overlooked by management and ownership. None of the rest of us could understand it. He was A) physically unattractive, B) possessed of a permanent case of halitosis, and C) married with two kids. But there he was; turning stomachs when he thought he was turning heads. One of my coworkers said it best: “As a professional, you can't touch him. As a person, you don't want to.”

Apparently, that's also Mario.

I don't know the man personally. I was in the same room with him once during a live cooking demo. That's as close to him as I ever got. But even from a distance, I could detect elements of my former radio colleague in Mario's attitudes and mannerisms. Reading Bill Buford's “Heat” reinforced my observations. I've seen Mario described as “hedonistic” and “a man of Falstaffian appetites.” I've heard that he likes to “live large.” That his presence “dominates any room he's in.” Even at the cooking demo, his personal dynamic changed the very energy in the room as he breezed in and immediately took charge of his fawning, adoring audience. He's Mario-freakin'-Batali, fer cryin' out loud! And he knows it. So what that he likes to get liquored up and put his hands where they don't belong? Isn't that a small price to pay for the privilege of basking in his greatness? Ah! But now it's the twenty-teens and, having been caught one time too many with his cargo shorts down figuratively if not literally, the answer appears once again to be a resounding “no.”

Times have changed and are continuing to do so at a dizzying pace. “Take it or leave it,” “my way or the highway,” and similar sentiments are not tolerated as well in the current generation as they once were. And, for better or worse, Mario and his generation are products of their time. I can say that because I'm a few years older than Mario and I know whereof I speak. The world was a different place when it was handed over to us in the sixties and early seventies. The swinging “Playboy philosophy” and the concepts of “free love,” “do your own thing,” and “sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll” that informed our formative years simply don't fly anymore and anybody unwilling or unable to make the adjustment is riding for a fall. And it seems that Mario, a poster child for the freewheeling, free-loving, hard rockin' past, has, indeed fallen.

And the thing is, nobody is in the least surprised because everybody was in on the “secret.” A headline from Eater sums it up: “The Food World Reacts to Mario Batali News With Anger — and a Lack of Surprise.” Mario Batali, known by some as the “Red Menace,” is a lecher and a creep? Why, we're shocked! (Wink, wink.) So do the right thing already, Mario. Apologize. Admit to what everybody already knows or at least suspects and move on. Great advice. And then what does he do? He goes and pillories himself by attaching a holiday cinnamon roll recipe to his heartfelt mea culpa. (Sigh: facepalm)

The pity is that his personal inadequacies have overridden his professional brilliance. While you may not want to touch him as a person, nobody but nobody can touch him as a chef. A Michelin star, three stars from the New York Times, and a James Beard “Best New Restaurant” award for his work at Babbo, GQ's “Man of the Year” in the chef category. “Who's Who of Food & Beverage in America.” “Best Chef: New York City,” “All-Clad Cookware Outstanding Chef Award,” and “Best Restaurateur” from the James Beard Foundation. Induction into the Culinary Hall of Fame. Emmy Award-winning TV shows and a raft of bestselling cookbooks. Those are bona fide bona fides if ever there were any.

I make absolutely no bones about or excuses for the fact that much of what I know about Italian food and cooking came from Mario by way of “Molto Mario,” “Iron Chef America,” “The Chew,” and many of his dozen-plus cookbooks. The man is a walking encyclopedia of ingredients and techniques. More importantly, he is a natural teacher who is fun and entertaining to watch as he imparts his knowledge. I came away with more useful information from a single thirty-minute episode of Molto Mario than I did in many hours of more “formal” culinary instruction, and I had more fun doing it.

And it is just a dead-dog shame that so many people, in the interest of modern political correctness masquerading as social outrage, are willing to crucify Mario for being what he can't help being: a product of his time. I'm not saying he's right for some of the things he did. I'm not holding him up as a role model for young chefs or for young men in general. The “product of his time” excuse should not excuse his egregious transgressions, but perhaps it should serve as a prism through which his actions can be viewed and from which a perspective can be taken that might ameliorate the consequences. Mario's a creeper. I get that. He's a low-down, lascivious, concupiscent, satyric libertine. (He also likes big words.) I'm not going to argue. He likes to leer and fondle. Yuck! So let's bring him to account for his actions and force him to accept the mores of modern society no matter how antithetical it might be to his psyche, his adopted persona, and his core upbringing. Make him capitulate and conform to current ethics. If not, kick him to the curb. But let's not erase him as if he never existed.

Right now, as I write, his products are being pulled from store shelves. He has been sacked by his employers. His longtime backers are backing away at a furious rate and future projects are being put “on hold.” He has become anathema; the fashion-challenged face of all that is wrong with the industry in specific and with society at large. Michael Chiarello, Todd English, Johnny Iuzzini, John Besh: they've all been scrutinized for their indiscretions and peccadillos and found scorn in the public eye. But Mario, with all his swagger and bluster, is bigger, much bigger, and so is much more fun to take down and tear apart. “The bigger they are, the harder they fall,” don't you know?

Another thing to consider as the almost gleeful disassembly of the Batali empire continues to dominate the media cycle is the effect it all has on the thousands of people employed by that empire. Mario's made his fortune. He's worth more than twenty-five million. Even if he never works another day, his future is fairly secure. But as we tar and feather the boss and ride him out of town on a rail, are we giving any consideration to the people who are really being affected by all the bans and boycotts? “I'm never gonna eat at another Batali restaurant!” You think you're hurting Mario? It's the cooks, the servers, and the rest of the staff you're giving the shaft. And they didn't do anything to deserve it.

Yeah, I'm disappointed in Mario and more than a little disgusted. But I'm even more disappointed and disgusted in the people who are chomping at the bit to pile on to somebody who's down. Like the bottom feeding “reporters” who followed him down a New York street snapping pictures as he tried to go to lunch and pointing out to readers that he was still wearing his wedding ring. Apparently they were incredulous that Susi, his wife of more than twenty years, hadn't immediately and unceremoniously turned on him. They had done it, after all; why shouldn't she?

I'm not going to participate in the wholesale slaughter of a fallen icon whose greatest offense was being a misguided member of a misguided generation. Okay, so he should have kept it in his pants. Point taken. But as we censure and castigate him for his iniquities can we at least leave him his pants? Is it necessary to completely expunge him from our collective consciousness. Or can we, perhaps, as the evangelicals say, “hate the sin but love the sinner?” He's still a human being, after all, and capable of redemption. Which reminds me: isn't there some biblical reference to stone throwing? Reading the comments that accompany some of the press leaves me heartened to know that I live in a country with three-hundred million saints and apparently only one sinner.

So I'm not going to remove references to Mario from my past writings and I'm not going to excise his recipes from my collection. I'm not going to throw away his cookbooks, I'm not going to divest myself of products bearing his name or likeness. I will invoke his name in a positive light when the situation warrants, and if he ever turns up on TV again – which doesn't appear likely – I'll watch him. Why? Because even though he's a rotten role model, he's still a good chef. He taught me a lot and he brought me a lot of enjoyment over the years and I'm not gonna trash his ass and toss him in the gutter because he has proven to be flawed. Everybody's had fun sitting in their judgment seats and giving full-throated voice to their righteous moral indignation. Now leave him alone to reevaluate and rebuild his life.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

They Used To Give Pizza Away Because Nobody Knew What It Was

Enjoy Your Slice!

Pizza is everywhere. You can't sling a ball of fresh mozzarella anymore without it landing on a pizza of some kind. And what kinds there are! These days it seems you can take anything from anchovies to zucchini, slap it on flatbread, and call it a pizza. (Squid are big in Japan and they like coconut on pizza in Costa Rica.) In fact, in some places if you order a pizza with just the traditional elements – tomato sauce and cheese – you get funny looks and they ask if you're sure that's all you want. Like there's something wrong with a cheese pizza.

I hope you're sitting down because I'm going to reveal something shocking: I never ate pizza as a kid. Me. The part-Italian guy. It wasn't in my mother's wheelhouse so I never had pizza until I was in my early twenties. When I was in high school, Mom and I used to go to Pizza Hut every week – for spaghetti! (Hey, don't judge. It was the '60s, okay?) And the first pizza I ever had was really awful. I was dating a girl who innocently made a pizza from a box mix. It was not an auspicious introduction, to say the least. It was a couple of years later before I tried pizza again. This time, the girl I was seeing suggested we go to Pizza Hut, not for the spaghetti, but for actual pizza – or at least as close to it as Pizza Hut gets. I found it to be way better than the box mix and I was hooked. The relationship with the girl may have fizzled, but my relationship with pizza sizzled and I became a devotee and student of the art not only of eating pizza but of crafting it as well. My Italian roots finally surfaced and I live in a whole different world of pizza today. There's even pizza that's out of this world. Check out the YouTube video circulating of astronauts making vaguely pizza-like things on the ISS.

But there was a time in the not too distant past when Italian pizza makers in America had to give their wares away because American customers simply didn't know what it was. È vero!

Some form of toppings on flatbread has been around in Italy since Roman days. The introduction of tomatoes to the peninsula in the the sixteenth century helped shape the form into the familiar “pie” we know now; the one that was perfected in Naples in the nineteenth century and brought to America by immigrants in the early twentieth.

Break for a quick Italian lesson: have you ever seen the name of a place that serves pizza spelled “pizzaria?” I have, and it's wrong. “Pizza” is a singular noun. And unlike English you don't pluralize something in Italian by tacking on an “s.” The correct plural of “pizza” is “pizze.” The word “pizzas” does not exist in Italian. And since a place that sells pizza usually sells more than one, it is properly spelled “pizzeria.”

The country's first pizzerie (there's that correct plural again) opened on the East Coast shortly after the turn of the century. Lombardi's has been acknowledged by the Pizza Hall of Fame as the first pizzeria in the United States. An immigrant named Gennaro Lombardi started up a grocery on Spring Street in Manhattan in 1897. He converted it into a pizzeria in 1905 and history was made. A place called Papa's Tomato Pies set up shop in Robbinsville, New Jersey in 1912. Under the ownership of a former Lombardi's employee,Totonno's popped up in Brooklyn in 1924. Frank Pepe's in New Haven made the scene in 1925 and introduced the world to White Clam pizza. And Regina Pizzeria moved pizza westward a bit when it opened in Boston's North End in 1926. Tacconelli’s Pizzeria, in Philadelphia's Kensington neighborhood, opened as an Italian bakery in 1921, but Giovanni Tacconelli saw the writing on the wall in 1945 and started turning out pizza to satisfy the appetite of returning WWII GIs who acquired a taste for it while serving in Italy.

All these places existed in Italian neighborhoods and primarily served Italian immigrant clientele. The real test came when pizza entered the Midwest and the South.

I grew up in the Midwest: specifically, between Milwaukee and Chicago. There were Italian enclaves in both cities. In Milwaukee, it was the Third Ward, nowadays an upscale artsy neighborhood but a ghetto recently vacated by the Irish and left to the Italians back in the day. The Caradaro Club on Erie Street was Milwaukee's first pizzeria. Conceived by John Caravella and Joe Todaro, when it opened in 1945, it didn't actually serve pizza: it was one of the up and coming Italian restaurants that were gaining post-war popularity by featuring lasagna and spaghetti. Pizza? What's that? The locals couldn't even pronounce it. They called it “pissa pie” among other weird variations. But they had no idea what it was. A recipe of sorts was featured in a 1937 Milwaukee Journal article about Christmas breads. Columnist Jean Templeton wrote, “The day before Christmas is a fast day for Italian families, so they make a bread named pizza.” And there followed a recipe for a sort of dough that would be “spread into a shallow pan or deep baking sheet. … Over the top sprinkle chopped tomatoes … anchovies, onions and grated Romano cheese.” Yummy, huh?

So when the Caradaro Club decided to put pizza on the menu, it was a tough sell at first. In fact, they didn't “sell” it at all; the owners gave it away to restaurant patrons and sometimes even passed out samples on the street. “Here try this,” they would say to some unsuspecting local. “What is it?” “It’s pizza.” It took about six months before pizza caught on and the restaurant actually started putting a price on it.

Down in Chicago, an Italian food and wine merchant named Anthony Paterno, a Sicilian immigrant who came to the Windy City by way of Brooklyn, opened what is believed to be the city's first pizzeria on Grand and Western Avenues in 1938. A few years later, in 1943, a former University of Texas football star, Ike Sewell, and his friend, Italian immigrant Ric Riccardo, opened a place in the River North neighborhood they originally called The Pizzeria. They later changed that to Pizzeria Riccardo and, when they opened a second location nearby, the original became Pizzeria Uno and the new place was called Pizzeria Due. Clever, right? Sewell actually wanted to open a Mexican restaurant in the beginning but it's been said that when Riccardo got his first mouthful of Mexican food, that idea quickly went by the wayside. Anyway, both Sewell and Riccardo and former Uno employee Adolpho “Rudy” Malnati, claim to be responsible for that heavy tomato casserole that masquerades as pizza under the name “Chicago-style Deep Dish.” I'm not sure if they had to give it away at first, but I'm certain more than a few people asked “What is it?” when faced with the new creation because it sure didn't look like pizza. (Yes, I'm a snob and a purist. So sue me.)

Okay, so obviously cities with a big Italian presence got aboard the pizza bandwagon fairly early. But what about places like Columbia, South Carolina? While the city had its share of Italian immigrants, it didn't exactly have an Italian-American “community.” What it did have, however, was Fort Jackson, the largest US Army training base east of the Mississippi and temporary home to lots and lots of Italian and Italian-American trainees from the big northern towns. Enter James and Sadie Tronco. James was sent from his native Philadelphia to serve as a WWI medic at then Camp Jackson. He met and married a local girl and moved back to Philly before returning to Columbia in 1930. They opened a fruit store downtown, but Sadie started cooking up spaghetti and meatballs for those hungry, homesick Yankee Italian soldiers out at the fort. The fruit store morphed into South Carolina's first Italian restaurant, a place originally called Tony's Spaghetti House and now known as Villa Tronco. And Sadie, aka “Mama Tronco,” laid claim to being the one who first introduced pizza to the capital city. And again, she initially found herself giving it away because no one other than the Italians from the fort knew what it was.

It is often said that servicemen returning from Italy were responsible for the burgeoning popularity of pizza in the post war years. But believe it or not, comedian Milton Berle also had a hand in it. Host of NBC's Texaco Star Theater from 1948 until 1955, Berle, known as “Uncle Miltie” and “Mr. Television,” was America's first major TV star. His influence was vast and when he occasionally spoke of “going out for a pizza after the show,” millions of ordinary viewers who had never been near Naples or Salerno during the war asked themselves, “What's a pizza?” and then they set out to find one. As a result, mom and pop pizzerie bloomed like wildflowers across the American food landscape throughout the '50s and '60s. For example, my little Midwestern hometown was populated by 5,856 people in 1960 and was served by not one but two pizza shops. A guy named Lawrence Marino opened the first one in 1955 and Luigi Petracchi started up the other one in 1957. The Natale family added a third pizza restaurant to the area in 1963. This was typical all over the country until (dah-dah-DAH!) chain stores like Pizza Hut (Wichita, Kansas, in 1958), Pizza Inn (Dallas, Texas, in 1958), Little Caesar's (Garden City, Michigan in 1959), and Dominos (Ypsilanti, Michigan, in 1960) started chipping away at the market. (Papa John's came late to the party; Jeffersonville, Indiana in 1984.) That market was further eroded by the Celentano brothers and by Rose and Jim Totino who started commercially producing frozen pizza in 1957 and 1962, respectively.

But fear not, pizzerie are not dead. There are about seventy thousand of them operating in the United States today, only one in four of which is a Dominos, Pizza Hut, or Papa John's. In fact, seventeen percent of all restaurants in the United States are pizzerie. More than ten percent of America's pizzerie are found in New York City. And eighty-three percent of American pizzerie currently offer delivery.

Nowadays, Americans consume an estimated three billion pizze every year. At least, that's the number sold; which doesn't account for people like me who make our own. Ninety-three percent of us will eat pizza at least once in the next thirty days. (I'll be eating mine in the next thirty minutes, thank you.) And the average American eats twenty-three pounds of pizza annually. (Boy, am I above average!) That's a far cry from the days just seventy or eighty years ago when pizza purveyors had to give the stuff away! The closest thing to a pizza giveaway in recent memory was when Lombardi's celebrated their one hundredth anniversary in 2005 by selling a whole pizza for the original price of five cents.

So there you have it; a little American pizza lore with which to amaze and baffle your family and friends while you're waiting for your server, your delivery person, or your oven to provide you with your share of the estimated one hundred acres of pizza Americans will consume today. Enjoy your slice of the pie!