SLOW FOOD WORLD – Interview With Vincent Schiavelli

10 May 2002

Start spreadin’ the news,
I’m leavin’ today …

In the late 1890s, 16-year-old Andrea Coco walked the ten miles from his native village of Isnello, up in the Madonie mountains in northern Sicily, to look for a better life among what for him were the bright city lights of Polizzi Generosa (which in those days boasted a population of 20,000 against the current 4,300). Here, after months spent doing odd jobs, he began working as a monzù, or cook, under his father-in-law to be in the kitchens of the local baron, a member of the powerful Rampolla family.

These little town blues are melting away,
I’ll make a brand new start of it …

In the early 1900s, Andrea emigrated to the USA and settled in Brooklyn. Four years later, he was joined by his sweetheart from Polizzi, Carolina, and the two soon married.

I want to be a part of it,
New York, New York!

Andrea and Carolina were the maternal grandparents of Vincent Schiavelli, president of the jury at the Slow Food On Film Festival held a fortnight back in Bra, the home of Slow Food. Vincent is one of Hollywood’s most celebrated character actors, his unforgettable hangdog features familiar to movie-goers the world over for his roles as crazy man Fredrickson in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Salieri’s valet in Amadeus, the subway poltergeist in Ghost, Dr Kaufman in the James Bond movie Tomorrow Dies, and many others still. But speaking to him during the festival I found out that what he communicates most is an incredible passion for food, more specifically for the recipes of the Sicilian village of his forebears. Get Vincent going on the subject and he waxes lyrical about the crosticina, the crispy crust on arrancini al burru, fried rice balls, sets off on Pyndaric flights about the subtle Arab-derived sweet-and-sour flavor of purpetti cu auruduci, meatballs coated with chopped almonds, and speaks mellifluously about capunata ‘i meluni e mulinciani, stewed eggplant and melon (all dishes included among the sprogghia pitittu, or appetizers, in a special Polizzi Generosa dinner devised by the man himself in the course of the Bra festival). He also proves extremely erudite about food history, filling me in on the historical shift of coffee as it swept up in a wide arc from the Horn of Africa and across the Mediterranean. He also points out that, in ancient times, before changes in climate, Sicily used to be the ‘granary of Rome’.
Vincent is tied to his roots in Brooklyn – Bruculinu in the local Italo-American parlance. When he was growing up, his family moved from one area of the borough to another, and as a kid he soaked up the atmosphere. Hence his keen sense of place and dialect.
‘Growing up in this place was like having one foot in the mid-twentieth-century United States and the other in mid-sixteenth-century Sicily,’ he writes in his introduction to his book Bruculinu, America.

‘My father died when I was just three years old,’ Vincent told me, ‘And my grandfather just seemed to take his place.’ Nonno Andrea thus turned into papà Andrea overnight.
‘My grandfather did all the cooking at home, and I would watch him as I sat doing my homework, especially during ‘Coal Week’, a week in February when the local schools used to shut down to save on coal for heating.’ And that was how Vincent picked up nonno’s culinary skills.
‘My grandfather was very secretive about his recipes. One time he made a risotto. When it was ready, or so he said, he put a lid on the pan and hurried everyone out of the kitchen except myself. Then, when the two of us were alone, he lifted off the lid and furtively popped two egg yolks into the rice. He then turned to me and put a finger to his pursed lips, as if to say “Shhh, Vince, don’t tell anyone!”’
Vincent also remembers going down to the neighborhood poultry market with his grandfather. ‘He always used to buy chickens from the same guy. Every time they would haggle in dialect about the birds. “Take this one!” “No, it’s got no meat on it.” “This one?” ”No, it’s too fat”.’ He remembers looking on, fascinated, as the two men gesticulated. ‘I don’t know how much of that was just theater and how much for real, but I do remember that sometimes we wouldn’t eat chicken for months on end!’
If Schiavelli is in love with the Sicilian food of his mother’s family, he is less enamoured of the Calabrian cuisine of his father’s. He has never actually visited Corigliano Calabro, the village in the province of Cosenza where his father was born, but last year he found himself on a film-shoot in Pizzo in the province of Catanzaro.
‘Such greasy, stodgy food – and in such heat!’ he sighs.

I mention the late-nineteenth century English writers Norman Douglas and George Gissing, who both traveled down the Ionian coast of Calabria, and how they were anything but complimentary about the cooking there (‘ … the dishes were poor and monotonous and infamously cooked,’ wrote Gissing). ‘They were right!’ quips Vincent bluntly. No hard feelings though: the winning film (and Vincent’s favorite) at the Bra festival was Peperoni, directed by the young Calabrian director Giuseppe Gagliardi, dedicated to one of the staple ingredients of the region’s cuisine.
In 1968, like his grandfather before him, Vincent set out to make his fortune elsewhere. Only in his case the journey was much shorter. ‘Yeah, across the Williamsburg Bridge to Manhattan!’ He booms with laughter. He later moved to Los Angeles, where he developed his successful TV and movie career, but never lost his passion for food. It was in 1997, at a congress of IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals) that he found out about Slow Food. He was so struck with the philosophy that he decided to team up with Panos Nicolau (a Greek-Cypriot film and TV producer and no less a food lover than Vincent himself) to found the Slow Food Los Angeles Convivium. The inauguration dinner, held last year, attracted 130 people and the convivum now boasts over 60 members.
Vincent Schiavelli still loves to return to Polizzi Generosa, sometimes more than once a year. Speaking of the town’s demise in the twentieth century, he is very critical of the Italian government’s postwar agricultural policies in Sicily.

‘What they should have done was to nationalize the land and develop cooperatives. But that tainted of communism, and those were the years of the cold war.’
Vincent now intends to open a cookery school in Polizzi Generosa for foreign, especially American tourists, and may have found just the right property to launch the project. The curious thing is that the building used to belong to a family with a midget daughter and includes a kitchen made to measure for her – hence miniature pans, miniscule cooker, and tiny utensils! It goes without saying, of course, that Vincent intends to do things in a big way – he’s almost two meters tall after all!
Schiavelli has already written two books on Sicilian cooking (Papà Andrea’s Sicilian Table: Recipes from a Sicilian Chef as Remembered by His Grandson and Bruculini America), and a third is on the way. He’s now tampering with the idea of a novel set in his beloved Brooklyn – but that’s a different story.

John Irving is the editor of

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