Review: Pino Luongo's Dirty Dishes

I closed the cover on Pino Luongo's Dirty Dishes: A Restaurateur's Story of Passion, Pain, and Pasta (buy at Amazon) about two weeks ago, and found myself at a loss. It felt wrong for me to review this book, since I've never been to one of Luongo's restaurants, or for that matter don't have any preconceived notions of what the New York food scene was like in the 80s and 90s. I worried that I wouldn't give Luongo his due.

That worry, it turns out, is a testament to Luongo (and Andrew Friedman, who co-authors). Dressed as it is in culinary finery, the book is, I suppose, subject to my usual reviewing tenets. The most important of these is that a gastronomic book should be capable of transporting the reader to a time or place that they otherwise might not have access to. The problem is that, as Pino's title implies, in his book there is dirt to be dished behind a public persona I knew nothing about. I was concerned that, without any additional context, I would buy his version of events without question.

In the end, although I know Luongo — an American Dream, "let my work speak for itself" kind of guy — would probably call bullshit on someone like me reviewing his book, the important thing is that I finished this book knowing that about him. This dilemma of authenticity makes a nice parallel to his restaurants, actually. Luongo aimed to introduce late 20th century New Yorkers to a new type of Italian: authentic Tuscan. Or at least, that was the goal, since most New Yorkers didn't know Tuscan from Adam.

So who is Pino Luongo? A legendary New York restaurateur whose authentic Tuscan eateries, in the 80s and 90s, were a breath of fresh air to a city used to heavily red-sauced Italian-American dishes. After emigrating from Italy in 1980 to escape the draft, Luongo found work as a busboy at the famous Da Silvano. He rapidly worked his way up to owning his own restaurants, including Centolire, Sapore di Mare on Long Island, and Cocco Pazzo. After a series of bad investments, including a failed gigantic retail/dining concept called Tuscan Square, Luongo narrowly averted hitting rock bottom.

It's a classic immigrant-who-achieved-the-dream tale, with an Italian flavor that rings false. Luongo's voice is part of his legend, and any editor who sat down with this book would be hesitant to distill it too much, but the whole thing reads a smidge like a drunk uncle regaling a possibly non-existent audience at a family get-together. I can't help but wonder how heavy co-author Andrew Friedman's hand is in it; his set-aside interludes seem to be there for the sole purpose of getting the reader to accept Luongo's narrative as wholly his own. But there's an air of revisionist history surrounding the book; celebrity gossip drips from every page, much of it parenthetical, and as with most tell-alls, its accuracy is up for grabs. Luongo treats a nice older gentleman with utmost respect in the early days of Il Cantinori, only to find out later that (tada!) the man is James Beard, there to magically whisk the restaurant to fame and fortune like a culinary fairy godfather. Frank Sinatra shows up, but he's a confused old man Luongo must assist to the bathroom—kind of an odd anecdote for a man who claims to treat his celebrity clients with the utmost respect. Oh, well, it is called Dirty Dishes, after all, and rumors and gossip are best taken lightly.

Outside of New York, Luongo is perhaps most recognizable as the character "Pino Noir," in Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential. Bourdain penned the foreword, and he lends his familiar voice to the cause of reinforcing that this book is both valuable and completely true. Unfortunately, his presence at the front of the volume serves less to that end, and more to remind us that we're not reading Bourdain's clear and funny writing the rest of the time. Using Bourdain's massive popularity to suck in readers outside the New York food world is a clever ploy. Better, perhaps, to consider it the story of one man's rather unique life, told through a series of American clichés.

This book is surely the best tribute to his work that Luongo could make; first introducing Tuscany to New Yorkers through his restaurants, then introducing his restaurants through this book. Buy it if you're already familiar with Luongo and are hungry for more. If you're not, skip it and go for his cookbooks instead.


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