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Thursday, 6 May 2010

Fly on the Wall

Flying Solo, Eating Molto
By Don Merlot
Junto Staff Writer
This was my first trip alone to New York without Ralph, my supervisor. I am in Manhattan on my first advertising mission and it is Spring 1969, and April showers are zipping up and down. Since joining the corporate world, I have passed my probation period; terminated our relationship with Kenyon and Eckhardt Advertising; appointed a new advertising agency, Gardner Advertising, based in St. Louis; and started a creative platform for our international ads. All of this in little under one year.


Being the "rookie" in the marketing department, Ralph and my superiors at corporate thought it was a good time to let me fly solo. Alone in New York –- hopefully I had learned to swim because my water wings were off.

The big test was getting the creative done. But the real test for me was surviving with the creative crew that was Italian and wanted to show me what real food is. In those days the account executives (business account managers) skipped town at 4:45 pm to catch the train home, leaving guys like me to the creative people working on the account.

Trust me when I say this: Ralph was well liked but he was too much a anglophile and francophile for the creative Italian artists and copy writers, who were the bread and butter of the advertising creative world. Vino, pasta, and panne.

My first big test came at lunch the first day when Giuseppe Lucci decided to take me to his favorite lunch trattoria. Lucci was a creative icon. He decided to take charge of my New York gastronomique development while I was a way from Ralph and his influence.

There were four of us: Elio Gonzalez, copy writer; Lucci, creative director; and Bruno Brugnatelli, VP creative services; and me.

We had caught a cab because rain was coming, and we had to make it to 8th Avenue before the rain hit. We just made it to "Nick and Guido's." And, Lucci is in charge, and Ralph was not there to interfere with the creative selection.

At center of my dilemma was still this callow yearning from graduate school that knew Mexican food, Spanish food, Midwestern food, southwest food, and some direction from Ralph on French food. Ralph's voice was whispering behind me, 'look for differences,' and I knew nothing of Italian food. 

"Nick and Guido" has been famous for its pesto alla Genovese pasta dish and grilled veal paillard which was Lucci's favorite meal. Nick waited on our table and Guido cooked. It was clear that there would not be a menu to select a dish; it was a prix fixe meal.

I was not asked if I liked anything or disliked anything in particular. It was ordered and there were two wines ordered. A white Pomino–Fresco Baldi and a red Chianti Riserva Fresco Baldi. This was ordered all in Italian, by Giuseppe. Some jocularity, but he was firm in what he wanted.

I knew nothing about Italian wine, red or white. I knew nothing of Pesto alla Genovese and only knew veal from my veal parmesean days with a college roommate.

Lessons from Ralph: Learn, and learn the differences: Lesson No. 1.

The pasta came out in individual servings -– linguine al pesto. Lucci added parmesean cheese; served with a white Pomino wine from Fresco Baldi. This was the first time I had ever had basil. Wow! I fell in love immediately. This dish has become my favorite pasta dish ever, made from pestle basil, with olive oil, pine nuts, garlic, and mixed with finely grated cheese. (Lucci liked Parmiggiano reggiano or pecorino).

What I learned that day is that in Italy you only order dishes native to the region you are exploring. In other words, if you are not in Rome do not order Saltimbocca alla Romana. Lucci was an epicurean. He defended Italian cuisine as without a peer. I learned right away that the perception that French cooking was the best was just "Madison Avenue." New York has the best "Italian restaurants," but Italy represents the best regional Italian cooking. Again, a learning experience.

The next dish was the piece de resistance. Vitello alla griglia with Spinach sautéed in olive oil and garlic served with the Chianti Riserva Fresco Baldi. Lucci caused a scene when Nick brought out the red wine because he wanted to see the bottle and when shown the bottle he felt he ordered the 1961 Riserva and the bottle served was the 1962. Nick apologized profusely, and grabbed the bottle, pulled out his pen and crossed out 1961 and wrote 1962. Ha, Ha!

Tense because it was an Italian drama breaking out with loud voices of anger and conciliation. Finally when Nick re-presented the 1962 bottle, Lucci said, 'Va bene….' All is well.

The sigh of relief and laughter. The whole place laughed. I realized that you should not take life too seriously. I saw the differences with how New Yorkers would have reacted.

Lucci told me an interesting story about spinach. When Catherine di Medici married a French king she arrived in Paris and found she disliked French cooking. She asked her brothers to send over the best family cooks. She showed the French how to cook. She loved spinach so much that most recipes that come out of France with the "Florentine connection" are driven by her insatiable desire to have spinach as often as possible.

Well, I made it through the first oenophile and gourmet test.

I was on my way to like more than French Bordeaux.

(Ronald Alonzo, who lives in Florida, writes under the name 'Don Merlot.')


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