LUCIANO COOKS PASTA
“There’s one thing I have to say about Luciano’s favorite foods—it’s all about Modena,” Nicoletta Pavarotti tells me on the phone from the very town of Modena, where she shared a home with her late husband and has lived since the great tenor passed away 12 years ago.
Best known to contemporary American audiences for being the set of Aziz Ansari’s Italian adventures in Netflix’s hit Master of None, the gorgeous town, set 26 miles from Bologna in the Emilian countryside, has given the world more than a few wonders: Enzo Ferrari, the founder of the eponymous race car company; chef Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana, one of the world’s best restaurants; balsamic vinegar, not the caramel-infused version but the real deal that takes a full 12 years to mature; and Luciano Pavarotti, arguably the greatest classical singer of the century.
Pavarotti Cooking Pasta
Remembered as the gentle giant of the opera world, Pavarotti was above all a prodigiously gifted musician with perfect pitch and a clear, voluptuously beautiful voice. He skyrocketed to stardom in the early 1970s and, soon afterwards began to advocate for many humanitarian causes.
Along with his friends José Carreras and Plácido Domingo, known as the Three Tenors, he sang in sold-out stadiums all over the world and turned the aria Nessun dorma from Puccini’s Turandot into the closest thing the opera world has had to a hit song in the 20th century.
A major star on all continents (he was the first classical singer to fill concert halls in China), Pavarotti was also a tabloid obsession, both for his love life (his relationship with future wife Nicoletta Mantovani, 34 years his junior, in the early 1990s while he was still married to his first wife was quite a scandal) as well as his remarkable girth and recurring efforts to lose weight.
At The Table with Pavarotti
“One must remember that Luciano went through World War II as a child,” explains Nicoletta Pavarotti. “He suffered from hunger and always remembered those painful years. His humanitarian action—when he was alive and to this day through the Pavarotti Foundation—focused on kids who are the victims of war. Undoubtedly, he kept an appetite and also the desire to welcome people with food, to share what he had. In our house, any guest would be immediately dragged into the kitchen for a bite. It was Luciano’s way to welcome people. And when he cooked, the message was I want to make you, all of you who are gathered around the table, happy.”
Born to a baker and a factory worker, the future tenor grew up nourished on some of the greatest Italian dishes, such as lasagna, tortelloni, and pasta al sugo (the true name of Bolognese sauce, never—locals will tell you with a death stare—to be eaten with spaghetti). The menu usually included Parmigiano cheese and prosciutto from nearby Parma, vegetables from the garden and pasta fresca made by hand every day, and some dishes reserved for special occasions, like tortellini in brodo (in broth) that is traditionally eaten on Christmas. His favorite wine, tasted in childhood as was the custom then since it was considered safer to drink than water, was Lambrusco.
The Pavarotti legend is rife with stories of how he remodeled the hotel suites he stayed in, requesting in advance for the minibar to be replaced with a large fridge and for a professional-grade kitchen to be set up.
His friends would often gift him food, knowing no better way to make him happy. According to a memoir by Pavarotti’s longtime assistant, Edwin Tinoco, pop star Sting once sent the tenor a giant Roquefort cheese. Tinoco also recounts how Pavarotti would travel with provisions, including several pounds of spaghetti and huge Parmigiano cheeses, Teflon pans and favorite wooden kitchen spoons.
Luciano Eats Pasta
As remembered in Ron Howard’s recent documentary about Pavarotti, the singer would cook himself wherever he was staying. “Pasta, always pasta, that was his favorite in any form,” says Nicoletta Pavarotti, adding she and her team “are working on a book of his recipes. He took notes in his agendas. He got very specific with the way he would cook some traditional Emilian dishes. It is extremely moving for me to see his writings, it brings back something of him. And it’s funny too, his playfulness appears clearly in those pages.”
A 1988 New York Times article recorded the maestro’s efforts to keep his weight under control. “‘At 11:45, I make a little veal with vegetables,’ said Pavarotti.‘Then at 3:45 I have a piece of prosciutto. Then at 4:45 a second prosciutto with bread; you need some sugar when you sing. You need the energy. Zap! You cannot be romantic on stage without some sugar.’”
Even on this 1,800 calorie-a-day diet, far from his more regular indulgent practices, Pavarotti sounds remarkably enthusiastic about food. Nicoletta Pavarotti remembers fondly her husband’s ability to find pleasure in every meal. “Luciano was a man of passion, for his art, for his friends, for life in general. He had a great appetite for life, and his love for food was just one side of that. His curiosity, his enthusiasm were that of a child. How wonderful to keep that quality all your life!”
SOMEWHERE 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 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.
PAVAROTTI COOKS PASTA with FRIENDS
LUCIANO LOVES a SIMPLE SPAGHETTI POMODORO
RECIPES FROM MY SICILIAN NONNA