La Cucina Italiana, the Villoresi Version

My friend, Rake Morgan, has had many tragedies in his life: the death of an abusive father who succumbed at an early age to the ravages of alcohol and cigarettes, a mother people politely called “cold and aloof” who also died young, a brother who was shot dead at age 37 by police in a cocaine bust in Westport, Connecticut, his flirtation as a starry-eyed college student with a woman who might become president of the United States. (The so-called romance ended in a sad farewell on a bridge in Boston just before she left for Yale Law School.)

Then there is Rake himself: four weeks in a coma following a plane crash in Kiana, Alaska. According to Rake, he was on a professional P.I. gig, investigating the disappearance of a female tourist from the native Arctic village. The Super Cub lost power over the Kobuk River. Rather than risk freezing to death in the water, he elected a “controlled crash” into the brush. He awoke four months later in a hospital in Fairbanks.

Perhaps his greatest emotional peril came from chasing the Two Larrys — Larry Case and Larry Nichols, who tried to blackmail the former First Lady. The details are not important now. What adds to Rake’s list of personal tragedies is the outcome of his work on Hillary’s behalf: banishment to Concord, New Hampshire. The First Lady was not displeased; nor was the president. Sometimes, as Rake puts it, you can lose by virtue of winning. He saved the Clintons but in the end knew too much to be left “unattended” in the nation’s capital. And that’s how he became a neighbor of mine.

I wish that was all I had to say about Rake’s tragedies, but there’s one more. The worst, I think.

Rake has no taste.

I don’t mean stylistically, though that might also be true. I mean he does not know a good meal from a great one, a meal that merely fills the stomach from one that leads the soul to heaven. Perhaps it is his background. He grew up in one of those snooty Ivy League families where they pretended to be English and ate even worse. Me, I have been very fortunate. Food was the centerpiece of the Italian family I grew up in. It might be fair to say that my mother’s cooking is what really bound us together as a family.

When I finished college I made it my mission to get all my mother’s and grandmother’s recipes. They are among my most cherished possessions. Over the years, I’ve made a few minor changes and omissions, mostly due to a late-life conversion to vegetarianism (one of the few “isms” that Rake and I share!).

About five years ago, in an effort to come up with some new menu ideas, I started subscribing to a magazine called La Cucina Italiana. I could not rave enough about it. In addition to great, authentic Italian recipes, it actually showed readers how to prepare them. For me, the magazine was a cooking school, a connection to Italian culture, and the inspiration for some of the best food I have ever tasted.

Here’s where the story turns sour.

The publisher of the magazine was a fatherly — and plump! — chef and entrepreneur, Paolo Villoresi. His love of Italian food and Italy infused every page of the magazine. Getting my hands on the newest issue was as fulfilling as the best recipe within its covers! From a business standpoint, Paolo had been licensing the rights to the name, La Cucina Italiana, from the original publishers in Milan, Italy. Several months ago, the publishers took back the rights to the American version of the magazine.

Paolo is now gone.

A few days ago I received my new, “improved” version of the magazine. Instead of the fatherly, rotund Paolo, our new publisher is an emaciated young woman named Laura Lazzaroni. Italian recipes are hard to find in the pages of the new version. Instead, the magazine has become a promotional brochure for the city of Milan. (I am thinking they should rename the magazine, La Cucina Milano, but the kitchen is missing, too!).

Then there are the tedious articles about Italian design. If you want an idea of what they are serving up in that area, think “Bond, James Bond.” It’s all old stuff being delivered to readers as something new, and it is hideous. I don’t know anyone besides James Bond who might appreciate such stereotypical, “modern” Italian design. Five years ago I subscribed to a magazine about Italian food. Thanks to the new publishers, I can now read about ugly foil lamps and crowded, Milanese department stores.

Actually, it is “no, thank you!” to the new publishers. My renewal is due but they will not be getting one from me. A great magazine has been ruined by its own pretentiousness. I thought of writing to Ms. Lazzaroni, but nowhere in her welcoming message did she even ask her readers for feedback. In fact, the entire magazine seems to exist solely for the pleasure of its editors and publishers, and we American readers and subscribers are just an afterthought.

I am hoping that Mr. Paolo Villoresi continues writing and publishing; he will always find an appreciative audience. I enjoyed reading about his love affair with Italy and Italian food. I only wish the story can continue.

— Frank