Sunday, April 03, 2022

The Death of an Iconic Italian Restaurateur

In the book, “The Sicilian,” by Mario Puzo, there was a passage on a curved archway above a cemetery near Palermo. On that archway was the message: “WE HAVE BEEN LIKE YOU – AND YOU SHALL BE LIKE US.” Sobering words for any and all who are fortunate to breathe these few short moments on Earth.

Restaurateurs come and go, just like all of us. Some of them leave a bigger mark. Maybe it was the time they were in. Maybe they were just lucky. Maybe they were exceptional. Or all of the above. But nothing is forever.

We lost one of those this week in the person of TonyMay. He advanced the cause of Italian food and wine in New York in a time when interest in Italy was blooming. And he took advantage of that moment to strike a chord in the hearts of diners, winemakers, critics and other folks who just wanted something better, something higher for Italy. His obituary is here.

What I’m musing about is what remains. What did he leave us? How much of it stuck?  Did he leave us better than he found us? And those who picked up the baton, do they run faster, brighter, better?

There was only one Tony May. But there were other Tonys, and Marios and Alfredos. And Marcellas and Micheles and Dianes. Collectively they have raised the stakes on Italian dining in America. There are many women and men, so many of them nameless, working in the kitchens, slaving away in the heat and the cramped quarters, so that people on a Friday or Saturday night could don their best, their Guccis and their Pradas and their Panerais and slip into their Alfas or maybe their Ferraris (more likely their Fiats). And experience dining, all’ Italiana, in America, in a fluffy cloud of sublime wonderfulness.

I first started seeing this in the 1970’s in Los Angeles. And in the 1980’s in New York. And in Texas, as well, it showed up here and there. The world was opening up, people were traveling. White truffles were being flown over from Piedmont. Branzino and Orata made the trip too, thousands of feet above where they grew up and swam, then swimming at 35,000 feet, to make their way onto our plates.

Pesto was taken to new heights. Pasta experienced a renaissance in America, combined with the deft touch of the high priests of Nouvelle Cuisine. And thanks to the influence of visionaries like Gualtiero Marchesi, we were even eating gold atop our saffron blessed risotto.

And where are we now? Well, it depends on where you are now, I would wager.

I’m in Dallas. And every other month a shrine to Italian food is opening. Lavish, bold, lots of gold and shiny bright things. Wine lists of biblical proportions. And that gold leaf we dined upon the risotto? Now one best bring gold bars when perusing the pages of those lists. You’re going to need it.

The tires are oversized on the trucks the valets are parking. And a meatball can feed a family of six in a third world country. The prices are skyscraper high, but as one of the new giants of Italian dining recently said, “We just keep feeding you.”

Don’t they ever?

That same celebrity chef who wants to keep feeding you,” also claims “The whole experience is not to create something new. It’s to preserve something old.” (Shades of Gattopardo.)

Tony, where ever you are, thank you - and those who have been like you – for elevating Italy in America. Let’s just hope those – who shall someday be like you – can find themselves in a time which will, with a little luck and a whole lotta exceptionalism, furnish a triplicity that will manifest a synchronicity for everything Italian in America. And that they will move beyond preserving something old. For as may of us know, the whole thing about being Italian is to continually be creating something new. That’s who we are, it’s our DNA. Or as Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa wistfully declared in Gattopardo, "If we want things to stay the same, things will have to change."

Let’s just hope that the death of an iconic Italian restaurateur won’t be the final curtain for America.

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W

1 comment:

Carmen C. said...

I recall a Limo ride to SD26 on a wintry night…..

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