The Big Eat: The Guns of Provolone

For The Big Eat this week, I drop by Giovanni’s Deli in Secaucus for some of the best “mutz” or fresh mozzarella, a great chicken parm, and Italian specialties. Also to show off “The Guns of Provolone” and explain what “Secaucus” means…

Giovanni Sandwich

My Voyage to Italy

I just got back from a short vacation in Italy. The Firecracker and I were visiting friends in Napoli, home of the Camorra crime syndicate and the world’s greatest pizza. We took day trips to Pompeii, Rome and Capri and tried to smuggle home a water buffalo so we could make our own mozzarella di bufala, but customs wouldn’t allow it. We stayed in the suburb of Pozzuoli, where Sophia Loren was born and where St. Paul first arrived in Italy. I haven’t read or seen Gomorrah yet, but we were not robbed, molested or frightened. It’s a nice town with a lot of character and I suggest you visit.

The Blue Grotto, Capri

Vesuvius from Pompei

The prostitutes in Pompei had picture menus.

 Pompei is enormous and daunting and impossible to capture the scale of from the ground. It was amazing, and walking there all day whet the appetite for…

Pizza at Cipster in Pozzuoli.

 Local pizza joint in Pozzuoli run by a guy named Mario, they make a great pizza. I liked the one at Acqua e Farina as well.

Movie poster – a comedy about the “Malavita” or mob life

 Napoli has a reputation of being a rough criminal hell hole but we ran into no trouble. Cars get broken into a lot and the Camorra crime syndicate skims everywhere with a street tax, but you get that in Chicago too. Pozzuoli is where Sophia Loren was born. It has a sulphur smell from a vent of Vesuvius nearby but it was a charming tough locale that I enjoyed… but I didn’t have to drive!

 Random Capri photo. This guy is in a film by Michelangelo Antonioni, he just doesn’t know it yet.

The Green Grotto, Capri

The Love Hole, Capri

Looking down on the peons from Capri

 The Coliseum is amazing and enormous, even when crammed with tourists. We rebuild stadiums every 15 years. This one is 2000 years old and show me a bad seat.

One of the Four Fountains of Rome

The extent of the ruins in the Roman Forums

Detail of the Trevi Fountain. 

 The Trevi fountain at night is a madhouse. We dined at a lovely restaurant called That’s Amore, and despite the name, Italians eat there and the food is excellent. The best mozzarella di bufala of the trip, and I had an excellent linguini with tuna, capers, tomatoes. The pizza in Rome sucks compared to Napoli.

 The Pantheon was retooled by the Catholic church and they hold mass there. One day Athena will strike down the interlopers and Pluto will swallow them in the Underworld.

 The Fabricius bridge was built in A.D. 62 and still stands over the revolting green waters of the Tiber.

Trajan had a little winky.

An attempt at capturing the extent of Pompei

A white dog in Pompei. They are wild but friendly. I let one sniff my hand, pet his bony back and he licked my hand, for the salt I am sure. They look hungry. They manage to funnel thousands of tourists through here and protect things just enough. It is more important to let the world see the past than to protect it. Compared to American sacred sites they do a much better job of making you feel welcome instead of an escaped prisoner.

Italy was fine to travel to. The trains ran on time from Rome. In Pozzuoli, they were like New York in the ’70s, without Snake Plissken to save you. Okay, not that bad, but very old, slow, noisy. The airport was excellent in both Rome and Napoli and takes a big dump on Charles de Gaulle in Paris, where we nearly missed our flight due to their disorder. When the Italians are more organized than you, you have a problem, France. How do you tell when a French airport worker is on strike? They aren’t smoking. The French people are very friendly and helpful, however. My short visit to Paris years ago was delightful, and a smile and a little bon jour (or bon giorno in Italy) gets you a long way.

I can’t wait to go back. I want to visit the north, Venice, and the south, Calabria and Bari where my family came from. But if I don’t, Napoli is close enough. I’ve been to my grandfather’s house in Bray, Ireland. In Italy I would just look at the little town of Acri and wonder where they might have lived.

© 2011 Thomas Pluck

Kobe Dogs & a man with a 68" cucuzza

Let’s go by phallic measurement, or pecking order if you will. Click the image above to see the article and the guy who grew a cucuzza- an Italian squash, and euphemism for his sazeech, his gabadone, his pistole- that was as tall as he was. Of course, the guy’s name is Ben Longo. Yes, look at Longo’s enormous cucuzza.

Cucuzza are relatively tasteless like large zucchini, but when cooked in a tomato based sauce with hot peppers, sort of like ratatouille, they are excellent and absorb all the flavors. They look like a lime green baseball bat and if you see them at your local farmer’s market, give them a try.
Next, I finally had a “Kobe” hot dog. I highly doubt that high quality wagyu beef was used in these. I had them at Legends, the sports bar in the mid-30s that shows the LSU football games in Manhattan. They were good hot dogs, admittedly, but no better than some non-Kobe franks I’ve had. In fact, they tasted like Hebrew National. I’ve avoided Kobe sliders and franks because of this; it’s like using Beluga caviar to make an omelet, or top shelf liquor for most mixed drinks- you’re not going to taste the difference. I sure didn’t. I liked them, but the Usinger’s hot dog at Big Daddy’s is more memorable. If I want “Kobe” or wagyu I want it rare and mostly untouched. Sorry I’m singling out Legends- they’re a good bar with a good menu, and this was hardly a bad meal. It’s just endemic of the Manhattan bar food world, that “Kobe sliders” are used to sucker people in, when a good bit of ground chuck cooked right would taste nearly as good, without the caché.
Firecracker got a crockpot and made some kick-ass pulled pork, which we turned into Memphis style BBQ sandwiches. I brought the corn! I do cook, and made bacon-wrapped hotdogs recently- photos will be shared soon. This was some really good BBQ. If you love you some pork, a crockpot is definitely a must. Make your own!
Another time, for breakfast, my girl made me waffles. Isn’t she the best? I made the bacon and eggs- cooked in the bacon fat, of course- and decided to make a breakfast sandwich out of them. Now, am I the first guy to think of this? I’ve had ice cream sandwiches made of waffles, but it makes you wonder why more breakfast sandwiches aren’t made this way. I once made a peanut butter and honey sandwich out of Egg-Os, and I heartily recommend using waffles as bread. The honeycomb structure is ideal for collecting drips of egg yolk, as well as the standard maple syrup. Give it a try.

time to make the zeppoles

Nothing says summer festival in north Jersey like a bunch of old Italian women huddled around bubbling cauldrons full of oil, frying the bits of pizza dough known as zeppoles. They vary from lead sinker belly bombs, to these airy doughnuts we had at St. Joseph’s Fiesta in Jersey City. Lightly dusted with powdered sugar and bagged so you can shake them and get them fully coated, these were light and easy to eat as we walked the neighborhood. If you don’t like fried dough, you don’t know how to eat.

meat sticks to shove in your mouth

I bent my wookie. That’s a garlic bread straw wrapped with prosciutto and whipped cream cheese with chives. They are a fantastic party treat. A co-worker made them and I’ll probably be making them myself, for Firecracker’s apartment-warming party at her new digs in downtown Jersey City.

80’s Trash of the Week: Fatso

Dom DeLuise is probably best known for being Burt Reynolds’ abused sidekick, but he did star in a few films of his own, and probably the most personal, and one of the funniest, was 1980’s Fatso. Movies like Big Night, Moonstruck and even Goodfellas– with Henry trying to work his illegal deals while also preparing meatballs and veal cutlets- have shown the Italian-American obsession with food, but I think none hit the mark as closely as this DeLuise film.
We see little Dom born, and he is a colicky baby who grandma placates with a cannoli when he cries. He grows into Dom DeLuise, and we meet him and his sister Antoinette (Anne Bancroft) at a funeral for an obese cousin. Everyone is crying and emotional, and fiery Antoinette is crying into the casket of Sal, telling him how much she’ll miss him, and she soon tirades into how angry she is at him for eating himself to death. Bancroft wrote and directed the film, and she perfectly captures that uniquely Italian-American manner of boisterous emotion, where the more we love you, the louder we berate you. Another matron just shakes her head and opines, “no more eggplant parmigiana, Sal.”
Dom sneaks to the kitchen to drown his sorrows with a heel of Italian bread dunked in bubbling tomato sauce and then coated with grated parmesan cheese. His New York food predicament is hilarious. He can’t walk five feet without a fruit salesman tossing him an apple, a vendor making him a dirty water dog as he approaches, the baker hoisting a sfogliatelle to lure him in. It’s very amusing today to see DeLuise, who’s skinnier than Kevin from “King of Queens,” be in a movie called Fatso. Compare it to Simon Pegg with a tiny beer belly in Run Fatboy Run. Nowadays DeLuise is barely fat.
Dom DeLuise is at the top of his game here, with a character capable of subtle sheepishness, exemplifying human weakness, and bursting into energetic comic slapstick. The funny fat guy- we all know one. Anthony DiNapoli is a hilarious paradox, showing how food is like air to some of us. He tells his younger brother, “You don’t know how to run your plate!” because he eats all his eggs first and then the bread. When he finally goes to the dietitian, he brings a bag of food for everybody from Balducci’s. The look of pure horror on his face as the nurse reads off the list of foods he’s not allowed to eat. When she says bread and macaroni, a tear runs down his cheek.
He meets a nice Polish girl named Lydia (Candice Azzara, Easy Money), and finds that when he’s around her, his romance with food slips to the wayside. He’s got someone to love other than eggplant parmigiana. When he goes to pick up a birthday cake and ends up waiting so long in line that he can’t stand it anymore, and eats a slice of the cake. This infuriates Antoinette so much she explodes in the way only Anne Bancroft can. This is the final straw that sends him to Chubby Checkers, a support group for dieters. Among them, Dom really looks like he barely has a weight problem, and Bancroft uses the camera to make us feel like gazelles caught in a herd of water buffalo. But the film is never really cruel; it just wallows in self-deprecation and celebrates human weakness.

“Give me those keys or I’ll cut you from your throat to your balls!”

They padlock the fridge and pantry cabinets shut with chains, and one night he’s watching food commercials and can’t sleep. “Gimme those keys or I’ll cut your throat down to your balls!” After chasing each other around with knives, his little brother Junior (Ron Carey, High Anxiety) convenes an emergency intervention of the Chubby Checkers. The parade of portly pals comes in to help, but Dom’s confessions make them so hungry they tear the chains off the wall and eat everything in the house. The slow descent into madness is brilliant. They start with hot water with lemon, which makes Dom say he doesn’t like cold food. Not even a cold apple? No, I like warm apple pie. With cold ice cream. You ever suck the jelly out of a jelly doughnut and then stuff it with chocolate swirl ice cream?
Watching Junior refuse to get the honey out of the cupboard as the houseful of hippos sits around talking about chocolate-covered orange wedges, he feels like a lamb in a wolf’s den. “The big guy couldn’t wait for Dom to make tomato sauce, so he ate my leftover lasagna- FROZEN!” After his big binge, he concentrates on time with Lydia, as she distracts him. And all his well until one night, after he decides to himself to ask to marry her, she doesn’t show up. Family is visiting, and they order Chinese food, which Dom goes to pick up. But he can’t get over why Lydia hasn’t shown up, and the Pu Pu Platter starts calling…
“You eat $40 worth of Chinese food and scare the shit out of everyone and you’re SORRY?” The final blow-up with his sister lets Dom have a funny, touching heart to heart with them about why he eats so much, and how he might not be so anxious about it if they loved him for who he is. “Do crazy people hate themselves? I’m always trying to find an excuse for eating! I don’t need an excuse. When I eat, I’m ME!”
Now, this might not be trash, it’s actually a funny, touching and still poignant move madeon the cusp of the ’80s that feels more like an independent ’70s production. As someone who was morbidly obese and lost 160 pounds, the depiction of food cravings and how difficult it is to diet when you’re surrounded by a thousand sumptuous feasts beckoning you from every restaurant, bakery, and snack shop in the neighborhood were hilarious and true. (For the record I used to be Hurley, and I’m down to Jack Black size and still losing). If you want to remember Dom DeLuise at his best, this is the movie to find. Though his Caesar in History of the World Part One is unforgettable, natch.

“You want to get something to eat?”
“No, I had some Chinese.”
“What did you have?”
“Oh, everything.”

Beers Required to Enjoy: 2 cannolis and an espresso
Could it be remade today? Sure, it should be.
Quotability Rating: Minor
Cheese Factor: Ricotta, melted mozzarella, and parmesan on top
High Points: Anne Bancroft’s insane sister
Low Point: The romance montage drags a bit
Gratuitous Boobies: Actually, there’s a tit in the opening credits…

Latino Images in Film on Turner Classic Movies

Got a late start on this one, but Raquel over at the excellent Out of the Past movie blog- named for that awesome Robert Mitchum noir but so varied in scope that you’ve always got something interesting to read- is reviewing many of the movies on Turner Classic’s marathon of Latino Images in Film. Now I’m not Latino, I’m of Italian & Irish descent, but I get mistaken so much- as evidenced by Latino restaurateurs insistence on addressing me in Spanish, then looking puzzled when I say I can’t speak it- that I feel that I can speak about issues such as “brown face” as Raquel calls it. Because if I were an actor in the ’40s, I’d probably be doing it.

“Brown face”

I’ve always been fascinated with old Hollywood’s treatment of race; it began with theater, when Shakespeare would have actors cross-dress, and do you think he got a Moor to play Othello? That carried over, and in high school I got my first look at insidious prejudice when a theater troupe came to perform Romeo & Juliet for us. Romeo was played by a big black dude who’d have made a great Othello, and I thought he did a great job, but my classmates couldn’t get over his race. This was the era of “reverse racism,” when Clinton was about to be elected, and whitey was scared. If a black guy can play Romeo, how come Charlton Heston can’t play a Mexican in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil? Well, no one wants to erase Charlton and use CG to put in Jimmy Smits for crying out loud. I think Welles, with his theater background, who had played Othello himself, was a product of his times. He wanted the best performance, and meant no disrespect. He just wasn’t enlightened enough. It’s still one of my favorite films, but it’s a sure improvement to hear filmgoers complain about Heston in brownface, and not carp on Baz Luhrmann using Harold “Waaaaalt!” Perrineau as Mercutio in Romeo + Juliet.

“Says here you immigrated from the Planet of the Apes.”

I’m most interested in seeing these:
Salt of the Earth (1954), a docudrama about a New Mexico miner’s strike that was mired in the shameful House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. This film shows how progressive Hollywood was getting after the Code made things child-safe in the mid-30s, only to be smacked down by another witch hunt. The Mexican-American workers are striking for equal wages, and the film follows the effects on them and their families at home.

Terror in a Texas Town (1958) which stars the always-excellent Sterling Hayden in even-whiter-face as a Swede whaler who fights a greedy rancher who killed his Paw. I’m assuming this is in the series because Eugene Martin plays Pepe Mirada. I love Hayden, and the script is by that other blacklisted pinko Dalton Trumbo, whose talents are well-known, so this is worth watching. Let’s see how Trumbo writes the Mexican characters- patronizing, condescending, or believable? Plus, I hear Sterling kills with a harpoon in this. A western with harpoons? Cool.
Popi (1969) I love Alan Arkin, and we watched this a lot as children in the ’70s. We were too young to wonder why Arkin- who also played *cough* Bean in Freebie and the Bean (full review)- was doing “brown face” or to think about the poverty of Spanish Harlem. We did know that a lot of Cuban refugees were coming over on boats and that’s why Popi- a Puerto Rican immigrant working 3 jobs to support his children- comes up with his crazy scheme to pass the kids off as Cuban refugees seeking asylum. I wonder why TCM didn’t also choose Freebie and the Bean, where Arkin plays a Mexican-American cop with a temper, arguing with his wife when he’s not saying “let’s get a taco.” (Yes, that’s where the line in Reservoir Dogs comes from). Well, actually I do- it’s pretty offensive, hearing him called “Bean” the whole time. It’s been ages since I’ve seen Popi and I want to see if it’s any better.

Thankfully nowadays instead of suffering through brown-face, we’ve gone full swing- now Italian-Americans are portrayed by Latino actors. Andy Garcia being called a “stinkin’ wop” by Sean Connery in The Untouchables, John Leguizamo as Vinny in Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam are two examples. Now we just need Hollywood to understand that we don’t need movies with more ethnic roles, we just need to realize that Leguizamo doesn’t need to do “pasta face,” he can play any character. This is America, we don’t need to make excuses for ethnicity like in Jean-Claude Van Damme movies! “How come he’s got a French accent? Um, he’s a cop from Quebec, on vacation, when uh, terrorists strike!

“pasta face”

We’re slowly seeing that happen now that casting directors are more enlightened. At least Leading Man’s Ethnic Comic Relief Pal is better than Gang Member or Mechanic at Shady Body Shop. That’s about as lame as making every token Asian character a tourist or laundry owner. In New York City, the Chinese run the taco shops now anyway. It does bug me that some of my favorite actors like Luis Guzmán are often relegated to the same kind of role, so the problem still exists. But no one ever complains about Al Pacino as Tony Montana in Scarface, or Cesar Romeo in whiteface as …. the Joker! Those are funny now. But Hollywood needs to stop worrying about what will play in the Walmart belt. “Ethnic” people live there too. All Americans were “ethnic” once!