When Carlo Middione and his wife, Lisa, opened Vivande in 1981, most Americans still thought that an Italian dinner consisted of spaghetti and meatballs. Middione never bowed to trends … he just kept making food the way his Sicilian immigrant parents taught him. Somewhere along the way, what he was doing became a trend – the olive-oil-and-seafood-based “Mediterranean Diet” caught on, as did restaurants that celebrated regional Italian cuisine like Delfina, Quince and A16.
– “Chefs of the Year”
Northside San Francisco, February 2008
This past New Year’s Eve, my favorite Italian restaurant, Vivande, closed its doors. Chef-owner Carlo Middione sustained damage to his senses of smell and taste in an auto accident and, while that is one of the reasons he decided to close, I know that business was tough also.
While the San Francisco Chronicle’s Michael Bauer and other critics were extolling the genius of Nate Appleman at A16, I was singing the praises of Middione’s rustic, deceptively simple cuisine at the venerable Vivande – and wondering why I was the only one. In 2006, we named him Northside S.F.’s “Pioneer Chef of the Year” in our annual “Best of Food & Wine” issue, and he was one of our “Independent Spirit” award winners in 2008.
Not to say that I didn’t like Appleman’s food – I reviewed his work favorably, and we featured him a number of times both in Northside S.F. and in the Marina Times. But I always found it strange that no one was giving credit where it was due; without Middione, there would be no A16, or any other regional Italian restaurants in San Francisco for that matter.
When Middione and his wife, Lisa, opened Vivande 30 years ago on Fillmore Street in Pacific Heights, people would look at the menu and leave because it didn’t contain spaghetti and meatballs. Vivande specialized in southern Italian cuisine, mostly Sicilian, the food I grew up with. After discovering Vivande through an Italian friend nearly a decade ago, it was thrilling to find the comfort food my grandfather and mother made – and that I still make – and it became my favorite restaurant. As I said many times, Vivande was my go-to spot; where I went most often when off the food-critic clock.
As trendy regional Italian restaurants began popping up across the City, trendsetter Middione continued to humbly and expertly turn out translucent ribbons of fresh fettuccine, the most fabulous fennel sausage from his family recipe, and one of my all-time favorite dishes, scrigno di venere (Venus’s jewel box), which came in the form of a beggar’s purse resembling a giant dim sum dumpling. A sheet of billowy pasta was nestled in a bed of creamy besciamella sauce and filled with delicate strands of spinach tagliolini, Parmesan cheese, peas, imported rosemary ham, and more besciamella, then tied at the top with strings of chive. The scrigno di venere is a true signature dish that you’re unlikely to find anywhere else – Middione created it over three decades ago after seeing something similar at a now-closed restaurant in Bologna called Il Pappagallo.
Many years after Middione pioneered regional Italian cuisine in the City, young Appleman had a brief stint as executive chef of critical darling A16, for which he won the James Beard Foundation’s Rising Star Chef award and let it promptly go to his shaved head. Appleman soon left his wife and baby behind to shack up with a publicist in New York City, where he appeared on the Food Network’s reality series The Next Iron Chef – representing New York. On the show he came across as conniving and cutthroat, desperate for TV stardom and willing to do anything to get it. While Appleman did not become the next Iron Chef, he did become a partner in the hotly anticipated Pulino’s Bar and Pizzeria, which, after numerous delays, is set to open in the Big Apple later this month.
I have no issue with chefs gaining stardom on TV shows – in fact, this month’s cover story is an interview with two Bay Area chefs who did just that – Guy Fieri and Ryan Scott. What I do take issue with is the Yelping, blogging “I have to be the first person to write about the new place” fever that has swept this town, inspired in part by the celebrity chef phenomenon.
Middione has had his fair share of recognition over the years nationally and internationally, if not locally. He is the author of a number of respected cookbooks, including The Food of Southern Italy. Published in 1987, it was the first American cookbook to focus on the regions south of Rome, and it won the prestigious Tastemaker Award, now known as the James Beard Award, in the international cooking category. He also hit the airwaves prior to the Bobby Flay generation – his reputation as an expert in Italian cookery led to a television show, Carlo Cooks Italian, which first aired on the Learning Channel in 1994. And the Italian government recognized Middione in 1998 with L’Insegna del Ristorante Italiano, an award for establishments abroad that demonstrate superior Italian culinary achievement – only 18 restaurants in the United States received the designation, and Vivande was the only one in San Francisco.
Despite his many achievements, Middione was just not flashy, new or cool enough to gain the huge following of Yelpers and hip hotspot hoppers that A16, SPQR, Delfina, and the latest critical darling, Flour + Water, have. I can understand nonprofessionals on blogs and on Yelp following trends, but don’t understand why the Chronicle’s Bauer chose to race them to the newest hotspot while ignoring the great old places like Vivande. It seems the top critic at the big daily newspaper should be reviewing what is best along with what is new. In many cases, his ink was wasted. Zinnia, the project from another critic’s darling, former Myth chef Sean O’Brien, barely made it a year (Bauer was there with bells on, right behind the Yelpers, just a few months after they opened).
Since its debut in April 2004, Bauer has reviewed A16 three times and heralded them on his “Top 100” restaurant list five years in a row. While 19 Italian restaurants, including A16, SPQR, Delfina, and Quince, graced Bauer’s “Top 100” restaurants of 2009, Vivande was conspicuously absent.
In another effort to keep up with the amateurs, Bauer started a blog called Between Meals, and in his January 5, 2010 entry, titled “Goodbye to an old friend,” he admits ignoring Vivande and finally credits Middione with blazing the trail for all those regional favorites he writes about over and over. “I felt guilty and saddened,” Bauer writes. “Guilty because like many others, I had abandoned this 29-year-old restaurant for other nearby Italian places such as SPQR and Pizzeria Delfina. We’re a fickle population, always in search of what’s new, and at times we forget the tried-and-true.”
Speak for yourself, Mr. Bauer.
I’d like to say that Vivande’s closing will slow the race to the next great place to allow for savoring some of those tried-and-true favorites, but that would ring as false as Bauer’s too-late tribute. As much as I love A16, SPQR and Delfina, I don’t dream about their food the way I dream about Vivande’s.
I ran into Lisa Middione, on Fillmore Street recently, and she invited me to their home for dinner, which I am looking very forward to. But I will miss those many lunches and dinners at Vivande, especially the ones where the Middiones would join me for a few bites and a glass of wine.
Goodbye to an old friend from the bottom of my Sicilian heart – I will miss Vivande’s groundbreaking, tried-and-true cuisine, Carlo, more than you know.