Best Laid Plans

I Meant to Post More from Italy, I Really Did 

Imola, Italy

I’m just back from my Italian adventure with Michael White. To those who have checked in on the site for more postcards from overseas, my apologies–a number of factors conspired to prevent blogging from on the ground. I wasn’t able to get the post done before a family vacation that immediately followed the Italy trip, so a wrap-up post or two on an unforgettable trip will follow soon, though not immediately.


Moment in Time: The Thinking Man’s Profession?

A Lightbulb Moment as Some Woodworkers Learn About Ghostwriting

[This is my second post from Italy, where I’m traveling with Michael White, researching our upcoming book, along with Evan Sung, who’s shooting photographs for us. (First post is here.) I’ll be abroad through Thursday, July 19, so check back for further posts here in the Toqueland Wire.]

Michael White (second from right) and Evan Sung (far right) greet some craftsmen in Imola, Italy, July 12, 2012

While walking to our car in Imola yesterday, Michael, Evan, and I passed by a woodworking shop situated, rather charmingly, in the former home of a small church. Some of the craftsmen there fashioned the original woodwork for San Domenico restaurant when it opened way back in 1970, and they were old friends of Michael, who introduced Evan to the guys. They had no problem understanding when he told them that Evan was photographing his cookbook.

But when he introduced me and told them that I was writing his cookbook, he was met with quizzical glances. How could I be writing his book?

Michael explained, in Italian, the nature of our working relationship. The quizzical looks continued, so he kept explaining, until finally one of them got it. I only know a few words of Italian, but I understood perfectly what the concept-grasper said next:

“Ah,” he exclaimed.  “Tu pense e lui scrive!” You think and he writes!

Everybody cracked up, and after a second, so did I: It was the perfect, five-word explanation that eluded the food-writing world a few months back.

Esatto,” I said. Exactly!

– Andrew


Local Hero

Maybe Michael White Really Is Italian After All

[This is the first of several posts from Italy, where I’m traveling with Michael White, researching and photographing our upcoming cookbook. I’ll be here through Thursday, July 19, so check back for further posts.]

Michael White, talking and gesturing like a pro, Tre Monti, Italy, July 13, 2012

When people remark on how much Michael White loves Italy, he’s apt to go them one better, replying that “I am Italian.”

Uttered in the concrete canyons of midtown Manhattan, where Michael is the chef of restaurants such as Marea and Ai Fiori, and of Osteria Morini and Nicoletta further downtown, the line seems like a bit of a joke. If there’s one thing this perennially pale, hulking, former offensive tackle from Beloit, Wisconsin isn’t, it’s Italian.

At least that’s the logical and literal truth of the matter. But spend a few days in Italy with Michael, as photographer Evan Sung (who’s shooting our forthcoming cookbook) and I have been doing this week, and you might be left with the impression that Michael’s birthplace and nationality are mere technicalities and that he is, in fact, Italian.

I had my first inking of this when he picked us up at the Bologna airport Tuesday. He’d come out a week early to do some advance work for our photo shoots and spend some time with his wife Giovanna, and their young daughter, who are summering here. (Gio is a bona fide Italian; they met when Michael worked at the original San Domenico in Imola for a span of several years in the 1990s.)

Having spoken almost nothing but Italian for a week, Michael had a tough time reverting to English. “We have to get on the … the–” he said, trailing off. “Sorry, guys. I’ve been speaking Italian for a week. My English is—“ he made a gesture, indicating “gone.” Finally, the elusive word came bubbling to mind: “Highway! We have to get on the highway.”

Those hand gestures were more exaggerated than they were back in New York just a week prior, as well–more proof of his true nationality?

But linguistic amnesia and a tendency to speak with his hands, was nothing next to the nonstop evidence of his true identity we experienced over the next several hours as we saw Michael walk in and around our hotel in the hills of Dozza, through the kitchen of San Domenico, and in and around the streets of Imola. I’ve never been to Beloit with Michael, but Imola is his hometown as surely as any other place could possibly be. Shopkeepers stop and wave at him, and the chef and waiters at the hotel pool all know him (he never worked there, but this is, to put it mildly, a small and intimate area). What’s more, Michael recently shepherded Tony Bourdain around the region for an upcoming No Reservations episode, and the visit garnered some local media attention, so Michael is also a bit of a celebrity; strangers stop and subtly point at him, or nod in his direction as he passes by.

Word of Michael’s success in the States has spread around his old circle of friends and acquaintances, and they stop him and speak Italian, adapting his American name from the rather innocuous “Michael” to a heavily accented, affectionate, and emphatic “MY-KOL” that seems to have an exclamation mark as part of its spelling.

Everybody here seems to know that Michael’s back in America, in New York, and that he operates a lot of restaurants. They ask him how many, and he tells them. The one they all know about is Osteria Morini, named for his mentor, San Domenico’s founder Gianluigi Morini, which tickles them.

Michael White and Gianluigi Morini, circa 1994. This picture sits in the San Domenico dining room today.

Thanks to his network of friends here, our work has been made relatively easy: we borrowed an outdoor space next to San Domenico to shoot dishes for the book Wednesday (more on that later), and the restaurant’s kitchen has been available to us whenever we need it. Today, we’re shooting at a spectacular outdoor patio that belongs to a friend of his, and most of the mise en place and prep was provided and seen to by San Domenico’s chef Valentino Marcattilii (more on him later, too) who surprised Michael by taking the day away from his own kitchen to come with us and help his old charge prep food for photographs.

I’m writing this post from the patio pictured at the top of this post, the one where we’re shooting today. (That’s Valentino on the right in his chef’s whites). We’re having dinner at San Domenico tonight and tomorrow we push off for a day in Bologna, and then on to Campagna, which will be our base for the next five days. I myself am already getting a little homesick for Imola, and not just because of the incredible hospitality that’s been heaped upon us and the fact that nothing like it awaits us in the south. I’ve come to understand what this place means to Michael, and can only imagine how hard it’s going to be to push off. It’s a contagious feeling.

– Andrew


Slice of Life: Ciao, Centolire

My Last Lunch at Pino Luongo’s Upper East Side Restaurant

Pino Luongo, at “our” table at Centolire

A few weeks ago, I went up to Centolire on Madison Avenue, for a last lunch there with Pino Luongo.

I’m about the last person capable of writing an objective sentence about Pino. Not only was I briefly his publicist a lifetime ago, but we’ve written three books together and he’s been an exceptional friend to me: the year that I became a professional writer, he gifted me an office in his corporate headquarters over Le Madri so I wouldn’t have to spend all my waking hours in my cramped apartment; when he heard I was going to propose to my then-girlfriend on a trip to Italy, he arranged all of our Tuscany accommodations; and, last year, when I was rocked by a family tragedy, he was among the very few who picked up the phone and made one of those excruciating, supportive calls that nobody wants to make.

Of course, if you know anything about the New York City restaurant business, then you know that this isn’t necessarily everybody’s relationship with Pino. In an affectionate chapter in Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain famously summed up that Pino was “.. . a man envied, feared, despised, emulated and admired by many who have worked for and with him” and acknowledged that much of what his fellow chefs who’d been through “Pino’s wringer” had to say about him was “undoubtedly true.”

I’ve always found those sentences especially memorable, apt, and fair: Pino has his detractors and his enemies, but he also has his fans and friends, a small and strangely silent group of journalists and chefs who will privately tell you that they admire and learned a lot from him. For my part, I’ve generally made it a policy to go by own experience with people, adopting an “innocent until proven guilty” approach. It was with that orientation that I began my working relationship with Pino, and we’ve been tight for more than a decade.

I knew that Centolire’s closing was coming, having had a window onto Pino’s feelings about what he had long considered exorbitant rent, and of his deteriorating relationship with his landlord over the past several months.

And so, there we were at lunch. We only ever sat at one table: the deuce at the top of the stairs to the second floor, from which Pino could thank diners as they left, or urgently wave over a floor manager to tend to them as they arrived. We interviewed for two of our books there and caught up over dinner regularly when we weren’t engaged in a collaboration.

It was a spectacular June afternoon, and the downstairs cafe was full. Upstairs, in the main dining room, the crowd was sparse, as it usually was at lunch. For this momentous occasion, I wanted a pasta and selected the Bolognese, robust and soul-nurturing as ever.

It wasn’t exactly a mournful meal, but Pino was clearly a man with a lot on his mind, because news of the restaurant’s imminent closing was about to break, though we had no idea how soon that would happen. Although he still runs the modest Morso, on East 59th Street, Centolire was the last in a string of grand restaurants that went back to the mid 1980s and included such juggernauts as Le Madri, Coco Pazzo, Mad 61, and Sapore di Mare in East Hampton. Centolire opened at the tail end of Pino’s ill-fated takeover of the Sfuzzi restaurant chain in the late 1990s as well as his personal Everest, Tuscan Square, a combination restaurant and retail concept in Rockefeller Center that never quite found the substantial traction required for such a gargantuan enterprise.


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