Me and Frank. A page from my personal anecdotes: Frank Sinatra
During my long and pleasant experience of my life as a restaurateur and chef, sometimes, certain dishes remind me of events and also of people, some more than others. For example, “pasta e fagioli”, reminds me of the great Frank Sinatra and memories of wonderful evenings in our London restaurant, Giovanni’s of Covent Garden, the “hideout” as he called it, because of the difficulties to find it. The “hideout” for me, is a stage where I perform and try to maintain culinary traditions and protect the originality of them with the passion and love that I have inherited from my aristocrat ancestors. Frank Sinatra was a regular at Giovanni’s, and it was he who introduced Ava Gardner to our restaurant, she was his wife at the time. After the divorce, she chose London as her new home, and who knows, maybe because it still reminded her of him. She often came to us so much so that Giovanni’s became a second home to her… the usual table, the usual wine, for the rest she left it to us.
Sinatra knew about this, they remained friends, so much so that he often wrote to her, using our address, his “hideout” with the name “Alfredo” as the code. We knew it was from him and we gave to Miss Gardner. In the late ‘80s, Frank Sinatra was in London, staying at the nearby Savoy Hotel, as he often did. He was accompanied by other people including one of his managers, the young Gregg Field, now married to the great jazz singer Monica Mancini, still today they are both my dear friends.
My culinary engine was in gear and memories of past visits helped me to dress their table with sliced and grilled aubergine, seasoned with a clove of garlic, a pinch of salt, fresh basil leaves, and olive oil from our estates in Sicily, Pecorino cheese with black pepper corns, sun-dried tomatoes and oregano, meatballs with fresh mint, from my grandmother’s secret recipes… and of course homemade bread!
When the small group arrived, headed by Gregg Field, after a brief stop of greetings they were accompanied to their table. Sinatra sat first and after drinking some water, gazed with his blue eyes over the dishes that we had carefully prepared for them. He chose a meatball to begin with and said, «very good, young man!» (The young man would be me, thanks!) He asked me how they were made, I replied that I would only reveal the secret if he would help me sing better, no deal was struck!, luckily for him.He loved simple food, with only a few ingredients, but, he made sure that others would order different dishes as he liked to “steal” from other plates. This for me proved that he was true Sicilian, things that you do at the table that express love and friendship. He was a great connoisseur! Sinatra, to my sadness and others, did not speak Italian, only a few sentences, a little better coped with the Sicilian dialect, this was once confirmed to me by Sophia Loren, with whom he had worked in Hollywood in the past.
That evening, he was in great shape, he asked for a pen and paper, he wanted to draw the island of Sicily and show us where his Father was born. We allow him to do it on the tablecloth. It wasn’t the greatest of drawings, he made a big dot representing Palermo and a smaller dot for Palagonia where his Father was born. I added my own. His favourite Italian phrase was “pasta and fasole”, he used it often because it was a dish that was very close to his heart as his father Antonino, the family cook, and apparently, no one was able to make it as good as he did… until he, Frank Sinatra, met me, Pino Ragona.
We were both originally from the same area of Sicily. His father Antonino from Palagonia, his grandfather Francesco from Caltagirone and only a few kilometres away, San Michele di Ganzaria where I was born. Frank Sinatra was truly at home, in his “hideout”, eating my pasta e fagioli! At the end of it, he shook my hand and said «This is the best, but after my Father’s one!»… I was in heaven! This dish of peasant origins linked me to a star, a legend… Sometimes, it takes little to dream…
N.b.: Recently my wife Claire and I, visited the United States of America, we followed in Frank Sinatra’s footsteps, we visited many of the places he loved, New York, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Hollywood, thanks to his old friends and the ever young Gregg Field also Capitol Studios, where he recorded most of his famous hits. But of the pasta e fagioli… no trace!
According to Sinatra, Giovanni’s was his “hideout”
The Italians demand the best from their lovers,their football players and their chefs!
Pasta and fagioli is one of the most ancient recipes, loved by many, undoubtedly born simultaneously in different regions of Italy. This explains the many variations of it. I always recommend for my recipe using dried beans, Borlotti beans are my favourite.
Leave them in cold water overnight and drain in the morning. Bring the beans to the boil in a large saucepan with plenty of water. Drain them again. Put the beans back in the saucepan but this time add warm water as we do not want to shock them, bring to boil again and then turn down to simmer on a medium-low heat for at least 1 hour and a half.
Drain them once again and take one half and blend them into a purée. Put aside for later. In a deep saucepan add two tablespoons of olive oil on a low flame, add finely chopped onion, carrots, celery and 2 or 3 whole cloves of garlic still in their jackets, a sprig of rosemary that has been washed and dried.
Sauté gently in the pan to give colour and release the flavours. Add all of the whole beans to the pan then add the broth that you have prepared earlier by using 4 vegetable cubes, this is in absence of freshly made stock. Now you can add the purée of beans to the pan, and season with salt and pepper.
Let the whole thing simmer gently with a lid on for about 10 mins. Now add uncooked pasta of your choice, I suggest orecchiette, broken pappadelle or ditali. Leave to cook on a low heat for 7 to 8 minutes, mixing only sometimes using a wooden spoon. I recommend you do not overcook the pasta. Serve in soup bowls, add some toasted bread, parmesan cheese and a drizzle of olive oil.
Serves 4 people
400 grams of dried borlotti beans
2 sticks of celery, peeled and diced
1 medium onion, diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
3 cloves of garlic
250 grams of dried pasta
4 stock cubes dissolved in approx 1.5 litres boiled water
croûtons to garnish
sliced parmesan cheese to garnish