I’d never been slapped in the face out of friendship before, but I liked it. Michael Pesce, who’s the presiding justice for the New York State appellate court that hears criminal and civil cases from Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island, smacked me after we had dinner at Tommaso. It was a very gentle slap, but it was a slap. It seemed oddly appropriate, too, and kind of nice — like he was saying, “your okay, kid.”
Mind you, I’m 42 years old, and thus not a kid. I’m certainly younger than Mike, though, who took on a de facto mantle of leadership during our recent trip to Puglia with the Gruppo Ristoratori Italiani. Tommaso's chef and owner, Tom Verdillo, was on the trip, too, and he’d had us over for dinner while trying to replicate some of the dishes we’d eaten on the trip.
Alan Schoenberg, whose family has been salt merchants in Brooklyn for three generations, was on the trip, too, and he has a car, so I rode with him and his wife Brenda. Also at dinner was food-writing couple Bob Lape, until very recently of Crain’s New York Business, and his wife Joanna Pruess, who has written many food books, most recently a bacon cookbook. She’s currently working on one on cast-iron pot cooking. Bob and Joanna weren’t in Italy with us, but they were invited to dinner anyway.
Mike Pesce was an enthusiastic senior aficionado on the trip. He’s a Barese, you see, a native of Bari, which is Puglia’s capital*.
Tom, being a chef, strayed a bit from his original plan, and served other dishes as well, including a sort of salt-cod pâté (not unlike a French brandade de morou, except that dish is made with potatoes, and Tom’s was all fish), and his own signature dish for the season, Nantucket Bay scallops, steamed with plenty of garlic.
Tom never fries garlic. The key, he says, is to cook it gently to tone down it’s bitter qualities.
Here’s another thing about Tom and his cooking: His family is from near Naples, in Campania — if Puglia is the heel and back ankle of the Italian boot, Campania is the lower shin — but he doesn’t like dried oregano, a key herb for the region’s food. “I prefer marjoram,” he says. And he also uses fresh oregano, from his own garden.
He served a traditional regional dish called fave e cicorie, which you'd think would mean fava beans and chicory, but in fact, it means basically any beans and any bitter green. Normally the beans are puréed, but Tom tracked down some beautiful gigante beans, which as you can imagine are gigantic (for a bean — let's say an inch and three quarters by two-thirds of an inch, or something like that) so it would have been silly to purée them. And he cooked them with dandelion greens. Then he veered away from Puglia with a Calabrese dish (Calabria is the front of the foot of the Italian boot — the part that’s kicking Sicily), because he’d procured some cod tripe from Chinese suppliers, and the Calabrese stuff that and braise it. It was very tender, and had the sort of unctuous quality that good tripe has.
I think Mike enjoyed it, but he also said that Calabrians and Sicilians aren’t really Italians, but something different, which is really what you’d expect a Barese to say.
Then we had orecchiette made with Primitivo wine (Primitivo is a grape native to southern Italy, and is in fact the same grape as Zinfandel) and a ragù of all sorts of meats, including lamb and rabbit and pork, and some veal sausages.
I ate too much of it, especially since it was followed by a black bass that had been caught the evening before. The people who caught it couldn't fit it into their fridge, because it was so big, so Mike had them call Tom and drop it off.
At that point we opened the bottle of wine that Alan had brought, a 1949 — yes, 1949 — Burgundy, a Volnay, that remained fully intact, robust and delicious.
You never know with wine that old.
And that was followed by a semifreddo topped with chocolate.
So then, full of food and wine, we slowly stood up, wandered outside into the great late-spring air and chatted a bit more, and that’s when Michael Pesce slapped me in the face before wandering off into the night with his girlfriend.
Mike moved to the U.S. as a teenager and did the typical American dream stuff, working his way through the ranks to become one of New York State’s top judges as well as a food and wine aficionado and by all accounts a respected member of the community, nice guy and all-around good person.
I couldn't decide whether it was more generational or Italian to slap someone in the face affectionately. It’s definitely an alpha male thing to do, and a product of a patron-client system: I don’t think you could slap someone who was both your social equal and of a similar age.
I imagined slapping my underlings. I don’t have any actual underlings, really, but I am the official mentor of my colleague Mike Dempsey, who likes to do food writing, and I encourage him, try to get him good assignments and give him advice when he asks for it. I think he might let me slap him, once, gently, the way Mike Pesce did, but I don’t know if I can reach that high: Mike Dempsey’s 6'5", making him 13-and-a-half inches taller than I am.
So I’ll probably never really know.
*Technically, Mike’s not from the city of Bari, but from the province of Bari, but provinces in Italy are really like U.S. counties. They’re small, and you can be counted as a Barese if you come from anywhere in the province.