Now that I think of it, I realize it was my own poor mother who told me that there is much too much food in these letters. Listen my only begotten, she complained by telephone from New York, what with all your extravagant food descriptions, delightful food tropes, and revealing food analogies, you probably don’t even have half a minute to wolf down a ham sandwich leaning over the kitchen sink. She does not understand Italy, my mother. Here the sociology of food is sociology, and the New York equivalent of instructing the cook or choosing the restaurant is meeting with your banker or broker. After all, just because all those Americans talk about money incessantly does not mean they don’t make it hand over fist.
Consider Martin Frankel, the cybernetic master of disguise who seems to have disappeared from the face of the earth, to say nothing of Greenwich, Connecticut, with two billion dollars. Does anyone suppose he used to talk about money as if he didn’t have any? Well, I’m the Martin Frankel of spaghetti con astice alia catalana, nay, its Willi Münzenberg, its Kim Philby, and every half-decent cook within the 50-mile radius of Porto Ercole has come to beware my dangerous attentions. That’s just the way it is over here, in the hard, ruthless, man-eat-lobster world that is the Tuscan coast in summertime.
Even the Central Intelligence Agency, by far the world’s dimmest bunch of ruffians, is beginning to catch on to the fact that eating is more than the traditional Italian form of thinking: Increasingly, it is the fashionable European alternative to spying. Perhaps they are now even using James Jesus Angleton’s recipe archive from the time he was stationed here—not that they’d give him any credit, mind you—and then P2, of course, must have supplied them with some useful little menus, especially of Sicilian dishes. Whatever the reason, spook activity around Harry’s Bar in Venice, as well as around its Mark Birley namesake in London, is said to be at its highest in years, with types like Peter Jacobs and Thomas Corbally invariably getting the best tables. Chic restaurants, for the American spook community, are now what bookshops used to be for agents of the Comintern. Who can ever forget the Zeitgeist in Shanghai, where Richard Sorge used to buy his beach thrillers?
Anyway, Father Jacobs is described by the press here as “the strange priest tied to the fugitive financier Martin Frankel.” A Jewish convert to Catholicism and now un prete da jet-set with a parish in Rome’s Trastevere, Jacobs appears to have been in trouble before, with the archdiocese of New York, for opening a swanky restaurant of his own called The Palantine. Tom Corbally, a partner in Kroll Associates, who introduced history’s biggest thief to Jacobs in the first place—along with Tom Bolan, Robert Strauss, and a host of other political notables —is known in England as “the man who uncovered the Profumo scandal.” Having dined with Corbally a number of times, I can testify that he, too, knows a thing or two about linguine with clam sauce, and how to tuck in a well-starched napkin.
And speaking of dim, I simply cannot resist the following rosy reminiscence. Fifteen years ago, when I was courting a rich man’s daughter, Kroll Associates was paid a commensurately large amount of money to find out everything there was to know about me. An inconspicuous larrikin in a beige trench coat arrived to interview some people I knew, and before answering any of his questions, they naturally asked him what the whole thing was about. “Mr. Navrozov is applying for a job,” the spook ventured in his best tones of sweet dulcimer, “and we’re doing a check of his personal background.” Needless to say, no sooner was the three letter word out of his mouth than every member of the assembled company fell over laughing: “Navrozov applying for a job! Come on, own up, you’re a private investigator! And a lousy one at that!” The moral of the story, I suppose, is that while American spooks will not become more bright by eating in fancy restaurants, they may, given enough time and two billion dollars spending money, become a little more worldly.
But enough dark hints and playful imputations, Now begins the main strand of this troubled narrative, because Anna, our cook of the last three cloudless seasons here, has just got herself a regular job. This, you understand, is the kind of tragedy that can only happen in an Italian resort town, at the exact point of contact between the always undeserving rich, meaning the summer people, and the frequently idle poor, those who live here all year round. “Anna! How could she? After all we’ve done for her!” The reader can add whatever boilerplate cries of outraged virtue seem apposite. So, wiping off my man-eat-lobster smile and putting on the conspiratorial air of perfect nonchalance, I had to go out and investigate the surrounding countryside in search of a new cook. Even in flowered shorts tight around the belly, I’m sure I looked like the man from Kroll.
The first applicant, much recommended by the uncle of one friendly restaurant owner, displeased everybody by arriving at the house a good hour before the scheduled audition—yes, prova can thus be solemnly translated—and was without an apron. Even more alarmingly, she looked like a real witch. At first I tried to rationalize, of course, by recalling the perfectly charming sorceress from Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera who gathered wild herbs by the light of the moon and very probably had an excellent way with light summer soups, but was finally dissuaded when I overheard Giovanna muttering to herself what sounded like magic spells while being shown around the kitchen. Also, the contralto in Verdi was always young, raven-haired, and buxom, whereas the real witch was not. In fact, she was extremely thin, and I’m not so deracinated as to forget that in my native tongue the word “thin” also means “evil.”
Without so much as a fair trial, Giovanna was told a white lie. Our friendly restaurateur informed her that the rich Russian gentleman had found somebody else for the job, whereupon, having taken the usual precautions and reassuring himself all the while with one or another of the great honeyed mantras of meliorism, the man from Kroll went out again among the shadows of Mediterranean night. This time, the applicant was recommended, funnily enough, by the owner of a famous restaurant in nearby Ansedonia called La Strega, which means “The Witch.” Graziella, who came only 15 minutes late for her appointment and wore an apron, was a good deal more comely and not nearly as crazy as Giovanna, yet in some strange, intractable way she seemed to be the witch’s younger, healthier, and slightly less jaundiced sister. She was nonetheless given her prova, and I must honestly say that on the opening night the aubergines in our plates had been fried so delicately that the audience wept tears of contrition.
But then, like a summer storm out of a clear blue sky, an unexpected telephone call put an end to that bout of love and repentance. It was the witch Giovanna, shouting obscenities into the receiver, to the effect that she knew just what we’d been up to, that she wouldn’t let us get away with it, no, not for anything, that she’d given us the best years of her life, well, hours anyway, and gas for the car, and now we’re lying and saying we hired somebody else, when in fact we only found Graziella yesterday. I felt at once that all my conspiratorial techniques had failed me miserably, that I had been followed, observed, perhaps secretly taped. “But . . . how did you know? . . . ” I stammered out the pathetic plaint of every exposed spy in history. “Because Graziella is my sister, that’s how, you numbskull!” came the reply.
So Graziella had to be fired too, to avoid complications, and both had to be paid off in a rather generous way. Despite this act of largess, admittedly tainted by cowardice, a few days later a group of houseguests returning from the beach found two enormous black cats barring the front gate of the villa. They said they had never seen anything quite like it, and I understand exactly what that dark portent means.
It means, among other things, that my mother is right to worry about what her sole begotten is eating.
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