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Mangia, Mangia

"Eat, Eat” —Italian style—was the byword at an Opera News pasta fest celebrating the new Met production of La Bohème. 

ScottoWithPasta
Photo by Dan Wynn

by Robert Jacobson

PavarottiWithPasta
Photo by Dan Wynn

 

From the Archives Button 

S OMEWHERE IN THE MYTHOLOGY of food it says that any time more than two Italians get together, a large metal pot is put on the stove, water begins to boil and handfuls of golden or verdant pasta are submerged— to emerge al dente, of course. In these days of fast food and synthetic hamburgers, this may be a vanishing scene, but not where Italian singers are concerned. Whether it's New York, London, Paris, Berlin or Vienna, apartments and hotels are redolent of sauces and pasta if an Italian singer happens to be in residence. 

To celebrate the premiere of the Met's new production of La Bohème, Opera News and food authority George Lang (called "the man who invents restaurants" by Fortune) collaborated in bringing together two of Italy's golden children, Renata Scotto and Luciano Pavarotti, to do just that—cook their favorite pastas for some friends in an evening of food, wine and song. The place was Lang's duplex apartment, just doors from his pride and joy, the Café des Artistes on Manhattan's West Side, a restaurant he personally brought back to life and made a showplace. The Hungarian-born restaurateur has been involved in a multitude of food projects. Currently, via his international food, hospitality and design consulting firm George Lang Corporation, he is devising complexes of food services all over the globe, among them The Market in the new Citicorp complex due to open in New York next August, as well as the new Loews Monte Carlo and Porto Carras, a resort village in Greece. 

Miss Scotto and Pavarotti had been involved in a day-long rehearsal onstage, so they indicated what they would like to prepare, the soprano's ingredients being gathered by Lang, the tenor's personally transported in a shopping bag. Guests included the world's foremost food guru and opera-lover James Beard; pianist and opera buff Eugene Istomin and his wife, Marta Casals Istomin, who heads the Casals Festival in Puerto Rico; Miss Scotto's husband, Lorenzo Anselmi; and Lang's daughter, Andrea, a young artist. 

Lang loves food and the way it looks. To complement the various pastas that would be sampled, he prepared a platter of fresh sturgeon with scallions and cherry tomatoes; a terrine of veal, venison and pork; fresh asparagus marinated in lemon juice and oil; a large salad of watercress and fennel; and several desserts, including the richest chocolate cake known to man, Ilona Torte, a family treasure. The sideboard in his brilliantly lit white-and-mirrored dining room, adjoining the modern double kitchen, held four red wines: Brunello di Montalcino, a jeroboam of Chateau Carbonnieux (a 1971 Bordeaux), a Chambolle-Musigny called "Les Croix" (1959) and Vino Spanna from Casa Vinicolo (1955). Whites were Pinot Grigio (Tenuta S. Margherita, 1975) and Corvo Salaparuta (from Sicily, 1974). Lang juxtaposed the best Italian and good French wines to embellish the various dishes. For starters, Lang proffered an apéritif of champagne with cassis. 

No sooner did the cooking guests arrive than the kitchen action was in full swing, beginning with Marta Istomin preparing an eggplant-tomato-onion-pepper dish from Barcelona called Chanfaina, using garlic, cumin and coriander as main seasonings (similar to ratatouille). Pavarotti's pasta is al tonno, a basic dish of tuna fish, anchovies and tomatoes, easy to whip up for company or when alone. From the Ligurian coast, Miss Scotto had a unique dish of egg noodles (homemade, of course) with a walnut sauce that blends tomatoes, butter and chicken broth with the nuts. Lang had also concocted a rich mussels-in-cream-sauce pasta and another called Primavera. In the various kitchen areas, all were set to work to get things in order. 

Miss Scotto reminisced about her roots on the Italian Riviera at Savona, where she learned how to make valigette (little cases of veal with beef) from her mother. There was also the traditional pesto with trenette (or linguine)—a sauce of fresh basil, garlic, pine nuts, walnuts, grated parmesan and pecorino cheese. And Miss Scotto savored ravioli with a green filling made from meat, eggs, cheese and herbs ground up in a mortar. She often makes her own pasta to this day, using a machine, though her mother persists in the hand method. "I made tagliatelle the other day," she boasts. Other favorites include pasta with ceci (chickpeas) and a special Arrabiata using plum tomatoes cut in half, garlic, red pepper (pepperoncino) and olive oil, all sautéed together and poured over No. 8 Ronzoni. 

Pavarotti's origins are in Reggio Emilia, the food center of Italy, with Bologna as its capital. He was raised in Modena and savors the rich tortellini alIa panna, twisted pasta with cream, cheese and butter— "but deduct the calories, please," he advises. Along with this would go bollito misto, a boiled dinner of beef, veal, ham and tongue, served with a green sauce made from herbs, carrots, green pepper, celery and anchovy. 

Marta Istomin is sautéeing onions and green peppers, which later get combined with canned tomatoes and eggplant, which has been baked in the oven until tender, then skinned. Anselmi tells her he met Casals twenty years ago when the Società Corelli toured to Puerto Rico. Pavarotti notes that the combination she is cooking, with chicken instead of eggplant, becomes Chicken Cacciatore in Italy. Lang serves hot cabbage crisps, a Hungarian creation of cabbage leaves, onions, herbs and butter that is slowly sauteed and then rolled flat together with puff pastry and baked flat until golden. 

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The pasta is deemed al dente by (l. to r.) Renata Scotto, Andrea Lang, Luciano Pavarotti, George Lang and Marta Casals Istomin 

First onstage is Pavarotti's pasta al tonno with its tuna, anchovies, onion, tomato and juice paste. "There is a secret ingredient. If good I tell you. If not, I don't." He uses imported DeCecco "pennoni" (2" slant-cut macaroni) and adds a hefty portion of grated parmesan to finish off his steaming pot of pasta. At table, Istomin asks Scotto about the difference between penne, ziti and other tubular pastas, and she explains how they are cut. Beard, seated at the head of the table and overseeing this culinary effort, beams and begins to recall hearing Melba's farewell at Covent Garden in 1926. The talk, with Scotto to his right, gets around to singing Verdi and what is needed. Both agree that if you can sing Gilda or Violetta you can do almost anything in the repertory, such being the demands and range. 

Suddenly Lang appears with a silver tray bearing a special pasta created for Beard, who is on a salt-reduced diet: pasta with Scotch salmon, Beluga caviar and lightly salted whipped cream in a crystal bowl. Lang jokingly calls it "Poor Man's Spaghetti," and it is instantly devoured. When someone declares it "beautiful," Miss Scotto retorts, "It's not beautiful—it’s good," and she savors every morsel. A special Lang creation follows—still another pasta, this one combining a Primavera mixture (chopped, peeled, seeded fresh tomatoes, Bermuda onions, parsley, oil and lemon juice) mixed with steaming green fettuccine and linguine as a kind of pasta salad. The consensus is "spectacular," and plates are wiped clean. Pavarotti, having gotten to sample the Vino Spanna, declares it "a great Italian wine," but it is rare in America. Lang says his Primavera is best in summer, when tomatoes are at their peak, but that the American kind can't compare with the southern Italian pomodori. Pleased with the pasta procession so far, Lang toasts the assemblage: "Don't forget that music and food go together." "And don't forget the wine!" Beard interjects without missing a beat. 

Istomin has just lost forty pounds and groans at managing sixty pushups and a mile run that afternoon-but beams at being with the leading tenor and soprano and food people of the day. Pavarotti retorts that he has lost sixty pounds since last fall. Before Miss Scotto presents her special walnut sauce with homemade tagliatelle (rolled like a strudel and cut by Pavarotti), she mentions still another favorite: tagliatelle with cream and a dried version of Italian mushroom called porcini, which she finds on Ninth Avenue. The dark-red walnut sauce is still another hit, as is Lang's mussel, cream and wine sauce, which follows. Heads are swimming, even though portions are kept small in the sampling. 

By now, recipe-trading is at its peak. Lang recalls a story of Rossini at dinner with a man who asked, 'Signor Rossini, do you recall a pasta dish I once made?" "I?" Rossini asks. "I cooked a fantastic dinner with macaroni." "Ah," the composer says, "I remember the macaroni but not you." After portions of fresh asparagus and the watercress-fennel salad have calmed the palate—Miss Scotto insists lemon juice is right after heavy pasta and rich sauces— a special strawberry-cassis sherbet appears. The piece de resistance is the Ilona Torte, served with whipped cream. Anselmi talks about a hotel he owns in the town of Sabbioneta, near Manuta and Gonzaga, where he and his wife live in Italy. Pavarotti exclaims over the cake: "Incredible! I am not a cake fan, but...," and his eyes roll in ecstasy. 

Having often sung in Budapest, Scotto reveals a love for Hungarian food, especially paprikas and palacsintas (crepes). Lang brings out his Cuisine of Hungary cookbook, and inevitably Solti's name comes up. Lang: "Do you want to know something about Solti?" and he launches into a story. "Yes, his wife," chimes the tenor in true form. Anselmi has drifted into the living room, examining Lang's collection of violins, though he hasn't played a note in ten years. Pavarotti: "Do you mind if I am drunk? If not—I am!" Lang: "We love you that way!" The tenor indicates his right eye is tearing: "I am crying in one eye for this food and company. I am 50 percent touched." More laughter, but he means it. 

Coffee and cognac are served in the spacious duplex living room, as some neighborhood guests drop by. Istomin is coaxed to the piano, and the two singers launch into the brindisi from Act 1 of La Traviata, Pavarotti urging the others to sing the chorus part and inspiring a rousing version. Anselmi has been fascinated with the violins, and others urge Beard, who sang lieder years ago, to sing. A fire is roaring in the fireplace. 

Amid conversation, the two singers and Anselmi disappear into the kitchen. Pavarotti returns to announce, "The man who plays now was a great concertista, and this is his first concert in public in ten years. We must all concentrate, so he can do as he did in the past." Anselmi emerges, dressed in Pavarotti's great coat, one arm hidden, the other with violin and bow, his hair brushed over his forehead, with an air of the surreal. Miss Scotto shouts, "Bravo, Maestro!" He plays some fancy exercises and exits amid laughter and cheers. He was concertmaster of La Scala, where he met the young soprano. Lang: "I've had too much wine to play, but even before I don't think I could." As a youngster he studied music in Budapest, before emigrating to America. With Istomin he runs through a songful, preclassic piece by Veracini, 'and Pavarotti sighs, "I am a big, romantic man, and the violin!" and his hands give a sign of helplessness. "When you are ubriaco, all seems beautiful.” Bouncing up to the piano, he tosses off the familiar Neapolitan song "'A Vucchella," easily, meltingly. He confesses, "To sing drunk is incredibly beautiful. You care for nothing. 

"It's so easy to sing with you," he tells Istomin, who returns the compliment: "It's so easy to play when you understand what one sings." Pressed to follow suit, Miss Scotto finds the music to "Send in the Clowns" from A Little Night Music, holding the gathering in rapt silence for a highly personal, Italianate reading. More 1846 cognac and coffee, with Amaretti and coffee beans covered with chocolate, after rounds of applause. Then the singers, who have' put in a long day, bid their "addios" and head home, with promises to reunite and trade more thoughts on food. 

As Lang points out to his departing Bohemians, in ancient Greece the significant meal was the evening dinner, mostly as a time for reunion, recreation and a place to exercise a passion for agreement. Some sang, others read their verses or prose, some enjoyed the food and each other's wit. "It really hasn't changed much since those days, and what we're into today is 'the art of good living,' where people cook, eat and enjoy life at home, rather than going to expensive restaurants." At one point Lang sums up: "One of my basic tenets is balance in wine, in life or in menus. Tonight, all these are conveniently forgotten.”

RECIPES, RECIPES  

Pennoni al Tonno alla Pavarotti
3 7-oz. cans imported tuna (Italian or Spanish, packed in olive oil)
1 2-oz. can anchovies, cut small
1 3-oz. can tomato paste
1 12-oz. can tomato juice
2 tablespoons corn oil
1/3 cup finely chopped onion
Garlic salt to taste
11/2 cups grated Parmesan cheese
Put corn oil and onion in sauce pan; cook until onion is transparent. Add tuna and anchovies, and stir for two to three minutes. Add tomato paste, juice and garlic salt. Stir well and allow to simmer for 15 minutes. Add to one pound of cooked pennoni (other pastas may be used). Stir well, adding grated cheese. Must be served and eaten immediately. Serves six people.

Tagliatelle with Walnut Sauce alla Scotto (Salsa con Noci)
1 cup shelled walnuts, crudely crushed
1/2 cup good homemade tomato sauce
1/2 cup clarified butter
1 cup strong, reduced chicken broth
1/4 cup olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Sauté walnuts and salt in olive oil over slow fire for two to three minutes. Add clarified butter, tomato sauce, salt and pepper. Mix well and bring to slow simmer. Immediately add chicken broth and cook over very low fire for fifteen minutes, or until sauce gets a good consistency. To serve, first mix cooked egg pasta (tagliatelle) with cheese, used generously. Mix with walnut sauce and serve grated cheese on the side.

Pasta alla Primavera
Peel ripe tomatoes after they have been immersed briefly in boiling water. Dice or chop. Chop sweet Bermuda onions or Italian purple onions, about one-half in proportion to amount of tomatoes. Finely chop same proportion of mixed Italian flat parsley and curly parsley. Take a handful of fresh basil (or dried, if fresh not available) and a pinch of oregano. Make a dressing of 5 parts olive oil, one part lemon juice, one part red-wine vinegar, a small amount of prepared mustard and a few drops of tabasco sauce- also a pinch of sugar, if tomatoes are sour (not the sun-dried Italian plum tomatoes). Cook the pasta - preferably combining green fettuccine and thin linguine- and mix it with cold salad that has been kept in the refrigerator. The quantities here are not given exactly, because this recipe works even if you use different proportions.

Poor Man's Spaghetti, or Fettuccine on the Cheap (made for James Beard)
Freshly cooked homemade pasta, or ready-made fettuccine
Whipped cream
Crudely chopped smoked Nova Scotia or Scotch salmon
Beluga caviar
Ingredients are mixed at table, amounts depending on one's taste. Malassol caviar has virtually no salt, as does good Scotch salmon. For normal use, add salt to taste and ground white pepper- even a couple of turns of freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

Pasta with Mussels in Cream Sauce
4 gallons fresh mussels
2 heaping tablespoons chopped shallots
2 cups dry white wine
Roux
Heavy cream
Salt and cayenne pepper
Cook the mussels over high heat in a large closed pot, shaking frequently until the shells pop open. Pour off the mussel liquor, strain carefully and reserve. Shell the mussels. Cook shallots in the wine, and reduce liquid to one half. Combine mussel liquor and cream, thicken with roux and simmer. Season and fold in mussels. For one serving, toss cooked pasta in butter in a skillet, add a large spoonful of mussel-and-cream sauce, toss and serve.

Chanfaina (Catalan Eggplant)
1 eggplant, medium sized
1 clove minced garlic
2 large onions, chopped
2 green peppers in pieces
1 large can Italian plum tomatoes
4 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon coriander
1 teaspoon cumin seed, or to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
Place eggplant in heavy casserole and bake in 350-degree oven uncovered for half an hour, or until tender. Cook, then skin and chop into 1/2" cubes and reserve. In a large skillet, sauté garlic in olive oil briefly, add onion and cook for 5 minutes on medium heat. Add green pepper and simmer 5 minutes. Add cumin seed and coriander, then tomatoes (drained and cut into thirds) and cook another 5 minutes. Add prepared eggplant and heat until bubbling. Add salt and pepper to taste, transfer to serving bowl and serve hot. Serves four.

Fennel and Watercress Salad
2 fennel bulbs, trimmed, thinly sliced

Leaves of one bunch watercress
1/2 cup olive oil
Salt
Freshly ground pepper
Place fennel in salad bowl, add all ingredients except watercress, mix well and let stand in refrigerator for two hours. Just before serving, mix in watercress. We served asparagus stalks at room temperature, first steamed in chicken broth. The salad and asparagus can be served together. Thinly sliced mushrooms can be added for a variation.

Ilona Torte
5 ounces semisweet chocolate
1 cup sugar
6 tablespoons sweet butter
8 eggs, separated
1/2 pound walnuts, ground
2 tablespoons white bread crumbs
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon ice water
Butter
Flour
Mocha filling (below)
2 tablespoons chopped walnuts
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Heat chocolate with sugar and 1/4 cup water. This will take 5 to 6 minutes, with constant stirring. Heat and stir till a smooth syrup is formed. In a mixing bowl, whip butter with egg yolks until light and foamy. Add the chocolate syrup, ground walnuts and bread crumbs. Adding salt and ice water, whip egg whites till so stiff a spoon will stand in them, then very gently fold them into the chocolate mixture. Butter a ten-inch torte pan three inches deep and sprinkle with flour. Shake out excess. Pour the batter into the pan and bake in the preheated oven for 20 to 25 minutes. Cook the cake completely. Make filling and cut the cooled torte into two layers. Fill the layers with two-thirds of the filling and use the rest as frosting. Finally, sprinkle with chopped walnuts and serve chilled.

Mocha Filling
1/4 pound semisweet chocolate
1/4 cup prepared very strong espresso coffee
1/2 teaspoon instant coffee
2 egg yolks
1/3 pound sweet butter
1/3 cup vanilla confectioners' sugar
Heat the chocolate and coffee together for a few minutes until chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth. Let it cool completely. In a mixing bowl whip the egg yolks with butter and sugar until light and foamy. Whip in the cooled chocolate-coffee mixture. Lang notes that this is perhaps the richest of all chocolate tortes and holds a special place for him, since it was named after his mother and daughter, Andrea Ilona. spacer 

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