. . Italian Thing by
NEW YORK CORNER: NY's Food Scene in 2007 by John Mariani
This. . . Italian Thing
Hey, who don't love Italians? Those lovable goombahs, wiseguys, goodfellas, garlic-eaters, macaroni benders, greaseballs? How can you not admire endearing characters like big fat Tony Soprano, Bobby Bacala, and Paulie Walnuts? And when you go to a restaurant in Little Italy, don't you get that little tingle that someone's gonna come through the freaking door and whack the guy at the next table? Don't you just get hysterical thinking about the time Gambino crime boss Paul Castellano was gunned down outside of Spark's Steakhouse? True, that was way back in 1985, but, hey, you never know, right? And whenever you enter an Italian restaurant isn't it giddy to think that the place might be, y'know, connected?
Such fascinations, affections, stereotyping, and assumptions about Italians, their food, and their restaurants seem so ingrained in the American psyche that, while people who would never think of asking an African-American if he knows a lot of drug dealers or where pimps take their girls to eat, or asking a Mexican-American how many illegals in his family are cooking or washing dishes at the new restaurant in town, that same person will nevertheless ask Italian-Americans--including me--if this or that restaurant is owned by the Mafia or--and I'm not kidding--is it safe to eat at that Italian restaurant?
Worse still is the fact that so many food service people--including many Italian-Americans--trade on those very stereotypes and anxieties, appropriating gangster symbols and Joe Pesci-like mannerisms designed to appeal to the clueless clientele that thinks such pandering perfectly acceptable, even funny.
Consider just the major pizza chains in America: Little Caesar's Pizza was created by Mike and Marian Ilitch in 1959 in Garden City, Michigan, and is now the world's largest carry-out pizza chain. And even though their cartoon logo is of a toga-clad cross-eyed, three-toed, hairy-chested Roman (right), the reference to Little Caesar clearly derives from the 1931 gangster movie of the same title, in which Edward G. Robinson plays an Al Capone-like mobster named Enrico Bandello. Even more direct is Godfather's Pizza, founded in 1973 in Omaha, Nebraska, by Greg Johnson and Greg Banks, later owned by Pillsbury, and afterwards sold. With obvious reference to the "Godfather" movies, the chain's ads have used paraphrases from the motion picture like "A pizza you can't refuse," and the slightly threatening "I know your neighborhood." Godfather's even has a figure dressed in the stereotypical white fedora and pin-striped suit (left) who goes around and makes appearances at Godfather's Pizza stores; on the website the character is quoted as saying, "As the boss, I feel it's my duty to make sure you get the goods. You may have noticed that I take my job very seriously. I demand that my crew serves you a pizza pie piled high with your favorite toppings every time you visit my joint or else they have to answer to me. Every so often, I like to watch 'em in action make sure things are bein' done right."
The irony is that a former CEO of Godfather's Pizza was an African-American named Herman Cain (below, right), who I suspect would be outraged if a chain came out under the name "Step-'n-Fetchit's Fried Chicken" or "Gangsta Soul Food." Consider that the chain named Sambo's, started in 1957 by Sam Battistone and Newell Bohnett using a cognate of their names, became so associated with the The Story of Little Black Sambo (an 1899 children's book by Helen Bannerman, writing about a child in India) that they began decorating their restaurant walls with scenes from the story. By 1979 there were 1,200 Sambo's units in the U.S., but, partially because of protests by African-American organizations, the company went bankrupt two years later.
While it might be argued that the Mafia gangsters of filmdom and TV and the Little Black Sambo character are in some way beloved figures of American culture, they are still disturbing stereotypes, and in the case of the Italians, vicious, amoral killers. Just imagine someone stupid enough to try to open a chain of restaurants called Bugsy Siegal's Deli or Meyer Lansky's Bagels? Or the Nazi Rathskeller? Or The Russian Hitman Restaurant? Or Tokyo Rose Sushi? Or Wetback's Chili Parlor? Or Fu Manchu's Dim Sum? There would be protest rallies around them within 24 hours. It is no surprise, then, that the long-lived figures of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben, once icons of another era, have been modernized to be more reflective of contemporary African-Americans. Indeed, Uncle Ben, once he was shown as a white-coated servant, is now depicted in ads as a corporate executive (below left), not unlike Herman Cain . Aunt Jemima, once a bandana-wearing kitchen cook, now looks more like Oprah Winfrey.
Yet when it comes to Italians and their food associations, the field is wide open and few complain, especially those who still see no offense in diner lingo like "wop salad" and "dago red." A food and beverage manager in Las Vegas once nonchalantly told me that he likes to go to New York to get "some of that real guinea food."
In Nashville the owners must think it cute marketing to call their restaurant MAFIAoZA's--"a 1920s New York-style restaurant." In Las Vegas, restaurateur Steve Martorano of Cafe Martorano adopts a look and stance on his website--sleeveless t-shirt, bulging tattooed biceps, pinkie ring, cross necklace, and a scowl--that looks positively menacing; although no one has ever suggested Martorano is connected in any way to the mob, he has been interviewed in Gang Land News, "The Nation's Foremost Expert on the American Mafia," and Vegas Magazine has called his place "the Godfather of Restaurants," a title he uses in his ads. In Philadelphia, Robert Liccio opened Joe Pesce restaurant (one wonders what the actor Joe Pesci thinks of that!), and in his ads adapts a line from "The Godfather": "Leave the gun, take the calamari," calling his food "Sicilian-style seafood" with the belligerent tag-line "What's it to you?" I recall another, now defunct restaurant in New York whose ad used a photo of a corpse under a sheet on a barbershop floor, holding a loaf of Italian bread, with the line, "Italian food good enough to die for."
Perhaps worst of all are those Italian-American trying to capitalize on the Mafia image in cookbooks, as if in some way suggesting that any of the buffoons on TV have any particular taste in food aside from the ability to gorge on enormous quantities of it. There is The Mafia Cookbook, written by Joseph "Joe Dogs" Iannuzzi, a former mobster with the Gambino crime family and FBI informant, who, according to publicity, "took the quintessential Mob formula--murder, betrayal, food--and turned it into a bestseller, not surprisingly, since Joe Dogs's mixture of authentic Italian recipes and colorful Mafia anecdotes is as much fun to read as it is to cook from. Now The Mafia Cookbook is reprinted with Cooking on the Lam--adding thirty-seven original new recipes and a thrilling account of Dogs's recent years since he testified against the Mob in five major trials, all told in his authentic, inimitable tough-guy style. . . Tested by Mob heavy hitters as well as FBI agents and
There is another by the same title, The Mafia Cookbook, this one, by Barbara La Rocca, subtitled, "Killer Recipes from Gangland Kitchens."
Then there is The Mafia Women's Cookbook: Quick Hit Recipes You Can't Refuse from
Those non-Italians who might just shrug and say, "Hey, lighten up!" probably wouldn't say the same thing if cookbooks and food products and restaurants appeared that drew on mobster or criminal stereotypes about any other ethnic group, say, The Shyster Lawyers' Cookbook, The East L.A. Street Gangs' Cookbook, or The Colombian Druglords' Cookbook. Yet Italians are supposed to take it all in stride because we're a fun-loving bunch of fat greasers who all have family members connected with the mob and frequent restaurants that are laundry operations for the Mafia.
It's not funny to us; it's stereotyping of the worst kind, and while I would fight for anyone's First Amendment rights to say or publish whatever they choose, such ethnic slurs against Italians are being perpetrated by a lot of people who should know better. It's pretty despicable.
NEW YORK CORNER
NEW YORK'S 2007 FOOD SCENE
by John Mariani
Hundreds of restaurants opened in New York's five boroughs last year, and hundreds closed. As with everything in New York, real estate was the determining factor in both instances. Getting a decent lease in New York, or losing one, determines everything in the restaurant business, and too many eager restaurateurs and young chefs think that they will become so successful so quickly that they'll sign a deal they can just barely live with. That way lies disaster, and the number of good restaurants that flare brightly than fade away is legion in New York. Even a city permit for a hot dog stand in prime territory can cost up to $300,000 a year. (Read an amazing article on the subject of one vender outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the NYT). As Cindi Lauper has observed, "Money changes everything," and many fine restaurants have been closed because a landlord thinks he can make more money renting to a Baby Gap or The Body Shop.
New York is still one of the few cities in the U.S. where you can dine high on the hog at lunch. In cities like Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Miami, Atlanta, Houston, and Dallas, the soup-salad-and-sandwich mentality still rules. And while you can eat very expensively in New York, you can also eat very moderately or even inexpensively. And the spread between prices at a funky, low-rent eatery on the Lower East Side is not very wide anymore compared to high-end restaurants in midtown. A $35 main courses is as easily found on a menu in TriBeCa as on the Upper East Side. And for that, you probably won't even get a tablecloth downtown.
So what was dining out in 2007 like in New York? It was certainly as enticing as ever, though with fewer big deal restaurants opening in big deal real estate developments. There was nothing like the Time-Warner Center opening, and no significant new hotels, except Ian Schrager's Gramercy Park Hotel, with its Chinese restaurant Wakiya, which got trashed by most critics. Nor were there any new $15 million restaurants; indeed, the look of so many new restaurants was so modest, even cheesy, that one had to wonder if you were eating out in New York or Ames, Iowa. As in Paris, Rome, Moscow, and London these days, multi-million dollar restaurants need to be bankrolled by hotels or real estate developers who give them sweetheart deals to anchor their investments.
Extravagantly loud restaurants, with booming music, became the rule rather than the exception, and a cheesy no-reservations policy has taken hold in way too many places.
Dress codes have all but vanished in all but a handful of restaurants with the audacity to "request" men wear jackets. Outright slovenliness, even among waiters, has taken a fearsome hold.
Despite such trends, I have been surprised by some of my colleagues' year-end contentions that few people have any interest in fine dining anymore in New York. The Times' Frank Bruni entitled his article "Let's Eat, Not Fuss" (Dec. 26) choosing Momofuku Ssam Bar the best new restaurant of 2007, writing, "I was struck by how seldom I found myself in stylish showpieces beseeching rapt attention, how often I visited humbler, more peculiar haunts. That’s where the buzz was. Much of the talent, too. . . . A few years earlier the successes of Prune and the Spotted Pig suggested that a new generation of food enthusiasts would trade convenience and comfort for pure deliciousness, but neither was worshiped quite as fervently as Ssam Bar." He's certainly right about this new generation, although I would argue that true food enthusiasts have always believed that wonderful food can be found in New York without all the attendant pomp. One only has to look back a decade or more ago to find foodies massing around casual new downtown places of the day like Duane Park Café, El Teddy's, Layla, Canteen, Blue Ribbon Sushi, Kelley & Ping, Omen, Peasant, and many, many others--not to mention the droves of people who inundate Chinatown for Sunday dim sum.
New York Magazine's Adam Platt writes of 2007's offerings ,"In fact, dining decadence is in retreat all over town. The city produces more first class pitmasters these days than fancy haute cuisine chefs. Mixologists are in, bar dining is in, big slabs of bbq pork are in, burgers, of course are in. Everything that's casual, relaxed, and won't cost you an arm or a leg," and he correctly notes, "Haute food isn't disappearing. Like everything else it's evolving. Chefs aren't following the old French model in lockstep anymore. And the dining public isn't, either. They've decided they don't want to wear jackets and ties anymore, they don't want to be bossed around by haughty maître d's. But there's plenty of interesting, even upscale dining going on, and there's certainly more accomplished in cooking in more places around the city, and the country, than ever before."
I agree, but let me modify that by saying that haughty maître d's can just as easily be found at a thoroughly mediocre, low-lighted West Village haunt like The Waverly Inn, where they never answer the phone, may deign to let you in, and, with scads of tables empty in the front room, shunt you to a designated Siberia to the rear with sadistic glee, just as they do at uptown nightclub-restaurants with pinheaded bouncers out front, like Tao; yet people will try anything to get into such restaurants, including bribes, and then complain about what they perceive as "haughtiness" in a posh French restaurant, where the style is more often a cool professionalism committed to higher standards of sophisticated service. There will always be people--including some nebbishy critics--who will always believe they will always get a "B' table and others who will always get the "A" table because they are celebrities or, more important, regulars. But that is just as true at a faddish noodle parlor as at an haute cuisine table. Does anyone really believe that Tom Cruise and Katie Homes would have to wait for two hours for a table at Momofuku Ssam Bar or at any of Keith McNally's restaurants like Balthazar, Pastis, or Morandi? Do people with names like Uma, Jay-Zee, Puff Daddy, Charlize, and Reese get treated a teensy bit better than you and me at hip Meat Market hot spots like Del Posto, Morimoto, and Buddakan? And does anyone believe that the majority of restaurateurs (places like Waverly Inn and Tao excepted) deliberately design their spaces with "A" and "B" and "Siberia" tables?
Like Broadway, fine dining is always being written off yet again. Yet very upscale places have opened all over the city, including Gordon Ramsay at The London, Anthos, Park Avenue Summer/Fall, Dennis Foy, and a slew of steakhouses where you'll easily spend $80 per person before wine, tax, and tip, including Kobe Club, Craftsteak, Benjamin Steakhouse, Porterhouse New York, Prime House New York, and T-Bar Steak. Restaurants like Oceana, Le Cirque, and Gramercy Tavern all acquired brilliant new chefs last year and are thriving. Veteran pricey Italian restaurants like Fiamma, L'Impero, and Alto (left) changed chefs and styles and are booked every night with people happy to spend big bucks for rare Italian bottlings, while wonderful trattorias like Bar Stuzzichini, Focolare, and Centro Vinoteca and terrific Latino places like Lucy of Gramercy, Rayuela, and Pamplona opened downtown.
There's no question that things have loosened up--too much so, when it comes to chintzy décor, unsanitary bare tables, cacophonous noise, imbecile waitstaff, and slovenly dress--but New York still offers more variety in more neighborhoods, at every price level than any other American city. And now that Brooklyn and Queens are acquiring better restaurants to join the already delightful ethnic places that have long been their strengths, New Yorkers and the 38 million visitors who will come to the city in 2008 will have plenty to choose from without waiting two hours for a seat at a hot new tapas bar in the East Village or a noodle parlor in Brooklyn.
THESE TACOS TASTE A TAD CRUNCHY
BLOCK THOSE METAPHORS!
“The nectarines were all pick of the litter; their pink-and-orange speckled skins brought to mind a mackerel sunset, and the wish that August would last forever.”—Laura Collins, “Marlow & Sons,” The New Yorker (
* From now until Jan. 17, Hostaria Mazzei in Port Chester, NY, will be featuring the foods of Italy's Alto-Adige region, with focus on the smoked ham called Speck and varieties of asiago cheeses. Special menu in addition to regualr menu available. Call (914) 939-2727; Visit www.hostariamazzei.com.
* From Jan. 16-Feb. 3, Tourism Vancouver's Dine Out Vancouver 2008 offers diners a record number of restaurant choices—182-- at 3 price points at $15, $25 or $35 CAD for 3-course menus. The list is available at tourismvancouver.com. Reservations for all restaurants are now open, with many of them directly bookable through the Tourism Vancouver website, thanks to a partnership with the OpenTable reservations system.
* On Jan. 24 The Island Hotel Newport Beach, CA, announces that Palm Terrace’s Executive Chef Bill Bracken will hold a wine dinner entitled “Excellence From the Ground Up” featuring Joseph Phelps Insignia; $250 pp. Call 949-760-4920 or visit www.theislandhotel.com
* From Feb 1-29 Lark Creek Restaurant Group is ushering in its 19th Annual Crab Festival. Participating restaurants incl. The Lark Creek Inn in Larkspur (415-924-7766); One Market Restaurant (415-777-5577) and LarkCreekSteak (415-593-4100) in San Francisco; Lark Creek Walnut Creek (925-256-1234); Yankee Pier in Larkspur (415-924-7676), at Santana Row in San Jose (408-244-1244), at the San Francisco International Airport (650-821-8938), and in Lafayette (925-283-4100); and Parcel 104 (418-970-.6104). Visit www.larkcreek.com.
* On Feb. 4 in Dallas, Bijoux will host winemaker Dennis Cakebread featuring the wines of his Cakebread Cellars at a 4-course dinner by Chef/Owner Scott and Sommelier Gina Gottlich. $165 pp. Call 214-350-6100.
NEW FEATURE: I am happy to report that the Virtual Gourmet is linking up with two excellent travel sites:
Everett Potter's Travel Report:
I consider this the best and savviest blog of its kind on the web. Potter is a columnist for USA Weekend, Diversion, Laptop and Luxury Spa Finder, a contributing editor for Ski and a frequent contributor to National Geographic Traveler, ForbesTraveler.com and Elle Decor. "I’ve designed this site is for people who take their travel seriously," says Potter. "For travelers who want to learn about special places but don’t necessarily want to pay through the nose for the privilege of staying there. Because at the end of the day, it’s not so much about five-star places as five-star experiences." To go to his blog click on the logo below:
Tennis Resorts Online: A Critical Guide to the World's Best Tennis Resorts and Tennis Camps, published by ROGER COX, who has spent more than two decades writing about tennis travel, including a 17-year stretch for Tennis magazine. He has also written for Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel, New York Magazine, Travel & Leisure, Esquire, Money, USTA Magazine, Men's Journal, and The Robb Report. He has authored two books-The World's Best Tennis Vacations (Stephen Greene Press/Viking Penguin, 1990) and The Best Places to Stay in the Rockies (Houghton Mifflin, 1992 & 1994), and the Melbourne (Australia) chapter to the Wall Street Journal Business Guide to Cities of the Pacific Rim (Fodor's Travel Guides, 1991). Click on the logo below to go to the site.
MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET NEWSLETTER is published weekly. Editor/Publisher: John Mariani. Contributing Writers: Robert Mariani, Naomi Kooker, Suzanne Wright, John A. Curtas, Edward Brivio, Mort Hochstein, Suzanne Wright. Contributing Photographers: Galina Stepanoff-Dargery, Bobby Pirillo. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.
Any of John Mariani's books below
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