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.]
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.
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.
PS If you worked in a major American restaurant in the 1970s or 1980s (kitchen or front of house), I'd love to hear from you and possibly interview you for my forthcoming oral history of that era. Please reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.