Sunday, December 11, 2011

My dinner with Sinatra

A multi-course meal consisting of Frank's favorite foods, in honor of his birthday.

On the wall in front of me, just above the printer that hasn't worked since the day I plugged it in three years ago, hangs a framed Life magazine from June 25, 1971. "Sinatra Says Good-by and Amen: A farewell to 30 very good years," the headline reads. A silhouetted cover shot shows a fifty-fiveish Frank wearing a powder blue PGA golf cap, waving and looking just a little bit put upon by the camera's presence.

Next to this is another frame. It holds the program from the last time that I saw Sinatra perform, at Radio City Music Hall, in the fall of 1992. The ticket stub is pasted below it and next to that are four torn pieces of notepaper. Scribbled on the sheets, in very precise order, are the titles to each one of the 22 songs the man sang that evening, a thoughtful gesture from the fine woman who accompanied me.

I could go on this way for awhile, but you get the idea.

I liked the guy. Quite a lot.

When the news broke that he had died, in the spring of 1998, I was exactly where I am today. Sitting at my desk, transfixed by the magazine on my wall, the one that documented the (mercifully short-lived) retirement of the world's greatest-ever singer of popular song.

"Good-by and Amen" indeed.

I miss Frank. Not a day passes that I do not hear his voice, if only in my mind. It is a fine voice, at once confident and exposed, reckless and deliberate, bullying and good hearted. The world is better with such a voice echoing through it. I hope that I never stop hearing it.

I often wondered what it might be like to have shared a meal with the man, at a table filled with the foods that he most enjoyed. Such a meal may have taken place at Patsy's in midtown Manhattan. It is here, after all, where Frank and his many friends so often dined, at least at a point in his life. He had a lasting bond with the restaurant's founder, Pasquale "Patsy" Scognamillo, you see.

Why would he not? Once, in the early 1950s, during a dark and lonely time in his life and career, Sinatra found himself all alone and with noplace to spend Thanksgiving. Learning this, Scognamillo, whose restaurant was supposed to be closed for the holiday, decided to open it so that his best customer and friend would have a place to spend the holiday. To make certain that Frank would not be sitting alone in an empty restaurant, Scognamillo gathered the families of his relatives and all his workers, plus as many other people as he could corral, to celebrate Thanksgiving Day at Patsy's. All on just a day's notice, and without his friend's knowledge.

We should all be so lucky to acquire friendships such as this.

To honor Frank's birth, which occurred on December 12, 1915, I set about to uncover the man's favorite foods. The idea was to prepare the dishes in my own kitchen, and then serve them to my friends. I consulted (of course) the "Patsy's Cookbook," which clearly spells out what Sinatra's favorite foods were: Clams Posillipo, Stuffed Artichokes, Arugula Salad, Fusilli with Garlic and Anchovies, Veal Cutlets Milanese and, for dessert, Lemon Ricotta Torte.

I learned a few other things from reading the Patsy's cookbook. Sinatra liked meatballs but insisted (as do I) they be made with veal. He too used the tomato to gauge a kitchen's skill level: "When you go to a new Italian restaurant, you should always try pasta with tomato sauce first," he told his daughter Nancy. "If the sauce isn't good, the rest of the food won't be either." He liked his veal cutlets paper thin, a concept I strongly endorse, and preferred always a light touch of garlic, a notion that I cannot so much get behind. He enjoyed a good sfogliatelle and pasticiotti. You may already know how I feel about good sfogliatelle and good pasticiotti.

On the days leading up to our celebration I imposed upon my friends this question to ponder: If Sinatra were alive today, and you had an opportunity to sit down to a meal with him, what would be the one thing that you would ask him? I received quite an eclectic mix of responses:

JOE: Why did you really retire in '71?
JOAN: Don't you just want to slug the singers who channel your style and make like it's their own?
FRED: Did you really like the ribs at Twin Anchors in Chicago, or did you just stumble in drunk one night after a gig at the Pump Room?
SCOTT: Regrets? Only a few? Really?
JEFF: Would you honor this picker with a duet?
JOE: Why didn't you ever do the album with Ella?
LARRY: Hey Frank, Ava or Marilyn?
RICKLIE: Is it true that the best was yet to come? And if so, what's it like on the other side?
BILL: Did Momo give the order?
DANTE: Mia? Really?
KITTY: Why is it called a rubber tree plant?
MEATBALL: Before we crack open another bottle of Jack, would you mind singing "East of the Sun" for me — with the twice-repeated coda at the end?

Frank's birthday dinner took place last night, at my home here in Maine. So that the foods on our table could closely resemble the ones that Frank enjoyed at his old hangout, every dish was prepared using the recipes from Patsy's restaurant.

Clams Posillipo (basically steamed in a quick red sauce) is how our dinner began. It is said that Sinatra would often order two or even three plates of the clams at Patsy's.

I grew up on Stuffed Artichokes (though always at the end of the meal). Patsy's recipe includes chopped gaeta olives and capers, a nice addition to the usual breadcrumbs and cheese and herbs. I can see why Sinatra liked this so much.

Fusilli with Garlic and Anchovies. What is there to say? If a simpler vehicle for distributing such satisfying flavors exists I am not aware of it.

When I turned to the page in the Patsy's cookbook that marked Veal Cutlet Milanese as Sinatra's best-loved veal dish, I smiled for a very long time. Veal Milanese is a constant in my kitchen. If you have eaten at my home more than three or four times, the odds that I have not made a Milanese for you are approximately zero. You will notice that the Arugula Salad course is served alongside the veal. That's because, in my preparation, the arugula salad is normally served right on top of it.

Based on the rest of the meal its finishing touch, a Lemon Ricotta Torte, makes total sense to me. It is a classic, light, not terribly sweet ending to a pretty traditional and simple Italian-American dinner.

Sure, it would have been just swell to enjoy it sitting across the table from Frank. But a good time was had by all, I am pretty sure.

Oh, and the music playing away throughout the evening was not in any way dissatisfying either.


Velva said...

Sinatra would have been proud-he would have called you a friend. I can't think of a better way to honor someone that preparing the food that they enjoyed.

Looks like a fun evening. Thanks for sharing it with us.


Beth said...

If Frank had tried your veal milanese with the greens on top, he woulda been converted.


Fred said...

Nice piece. Great looking meal. I'm sure it tasted even better. Tell me about the length of your fusilli. And don't take that question to a place it oughtn't go. I'm serious; it looks like you buy them short or break them. Which is it?

Mister Meatball said...

Sorry to say that the fusilli broke up after cooking. So much going on that it was stirred too aggressively in the pan with the anchovies, garlic and breadcrumbs. Leave it to you to notice such detail, Fred.

Ciao Chow Linda said...

What a fun way to celebrate someone who is a legend. You may already have read it, but if you haven't, look up Gay Talese's essay "Frank Sinatra Has A Cold." It's a classic. And these dishes you made are too.

Mister Meatball said...

I know the Talese piece well, thanks.

Dan in Winter Harbor said...

Nice job Meatball! I was at the MSG event as well. When talking about Frank's NYC hangouts, don't forget Jilly's (East - as opposed to the Sands - "where the elete meet to eat").

Claudia said...

No wonder my relatives all had a crush on Frank - they wanted to cook for him! (yes, yes on the veal) I will now hear Sinatra's voice all day and that is a good place to be.

Gin said...

Dave would have loved this!

Jerseypaulie said...

I'm so glad I saw Frank in Vegas in 1981. When the news came of his death I called a buddy and we blew off work and met in the City and had an all day lunch (with stops at additional bars) to honor him. His music was played in every joint we went to. Maybe he wasn't a perfect human being, but he had the best voice of the 20th century.

Melissa M. said...

I'm pretty sure I'm a tad bit younger that you, but I can vividly remember my dad playing Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin records on the record player, and dancing around with me with my feet on his shoes. Some of the best memories I have of my dad. I knew when I looked at the calendar that it was Frank's birthday, so I was thrilled to see your post. Thanks for the info on the book - I just purchased it.

Anonymous said...

Hello Mister Meatball I found your article quite enjoyable. There's nothing I like more then putting a Frankie CD on the stereo,opening up a jug of red and entering the kitchen for prepping & cooking one of Ol'Blue Eyes favorite meals.
In addition to all the recipes you've mentioned ,Frank enjoyed Linguine & Clam Sauce that was specially prepared for him at The Sands in Las Vegas. This recipe has been recreated by Emeril Lagasse and can be found at The Food Network. Mister Meatball I'm sure you already know of this but some of your followers may not.
It's absolutely a must for your List.
"Chairman of the Board Linguine with Clam Sauce"
Buon Appetito

Catherine said...

I really enjoyed the article "Frank's favorite foods" I'll try the lemon ricotta torte.

David Truland said...

Less than 2 weeks to the 100th. Hope you're planning a big todo. Caught this page off a google search. Now I'll check out current entries. Cheeers.