Left to right: Me (Marion Kane), Jenny Barato, Sophia Loren at Trattoria Giancarlo.
This appeared in the Toronto Star as a feature article with the title “Cooking with Amore” on February 10th, 1999. Sophia Loren was in Toronto promoting her new cookbook “Recipes and Memories.” Trattoria Giancarlo closed in 2020 after 30 years – a landmark in downtown Toronto’s Little Italy. In that year, a brilliant film “The Life Ahead” was released starring Sophia Loren as a Holocaust survivor.
By Marion Kane
“Cooking is an act of love, a gift, a way of sharing with others the little secrets – piccoli segreti – that are simmering on the burners.”
– from Sophia Loren’s cookbook “Recipes & Memories”
“This was our Big Night, ” exclaimed an exhausted but elated Jenny Barato as we all sat down for a much-needed glass of wine while Sophia Loren and her four-person entourage sailed off toward College St. in a silver limo.
“The difference is our star showed up!” added the jubilant Barato who, with husband Tony, son Jason and two other staff, had just prepared and served a luscious lunch for the legendary Loren and me at their small, elegantly low-key eatery.
Barato’s reference is to the movie Big Night: a brilliant, poignant 1996 film starring Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub about two brothers who own and operate an Italian restaurant in New Jersey in the 1950s.
Their “big night, ” the elaborate, much-hyped private dinner for special guest Louis Prima – a swanky soiree the pair hope will launch their struggling, fledgling eatery – sadly comes to naught when the famous jazz musician never arrives.
But last Tuesday afternoon, at Trattoria Giancarlo, in the heart of Toronto’s Little Italy, our star – Sophia Loren, in town to promote her new cookbook, Sophia Loren’s “Recipes & Memories” – not only arrived, she made everybody’s day by gracing us with her gorgeous, dignified, friendly presence for almost two hours.
During a leisurely midday meal – a rendezvous that was kept completely hush-hush until it became big news later that day – Loren and I shared wondrous food, lively conversation and a promise that, if she returns to Toronto, we’ll do it all again.
So what was Sophia Loren like, what did we eat and what was the gist of our lunchtime chat?
As she entered the hushed restaurant – located on an unobtrusive side- street and, by now, electric with anticipation of her arrival – Loren, dignified and walking tall at almost 5 foot 9, looked stunning in high heels, a beige Armani suit, ivory turtleneck and chunky gold necklace with matching earrings.
Even her oversized, trademark specs – a necessity, she explained, in order to see – didn’t look out of place on that big-boned, beautiful face.
As for Loren’s manner, she was warm, personable and confident – everything you might expect from a movie star who has made close to 90 films during a 40-year career, many of which, especially my favourite, the Oscar-winner Two Women, 1961, are classics.
But, seated next to her at a small, linen-covered table set with crusty bread and small bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, it didn’t take long for me to relax and forget all that. Soon, we were enjoying each other’s company like regular folk getting acquainted over good food.
Loren, 64, began by requesting a glass of water – “not too cold please, it bothers my digestion.”
Then, as each dainty portion of our meal – a sublime, seven-course menu of tiny dishes devised by Jenny Barato and inspired by Loren’s cookbook – was served, the conversation began to flow.
“I wrote another cookbook a long time ago, in the 1970s, ” Loren recalled as our first course of paper-thin, seared beef garnished with shaved parmesan was placed before us.
“I have always loved cooking, Italian food, of course, ” she continued, wiping her plate vigorously with a hunk of bread, “Oh, this so good. I love this truffle oil, ” she added, returning to her train of thought.
“I used to cook for the cast and crew on my movie sets – usually for about 70 people.”
Her repertoire, not surprisingly, featured staples of southern Italy where she grew up, in the small town of Pozzuoli not far from Naples – dishes inspired by her grandmother Nonna Luisa to whom Sophia Loren’s Recipes & Memories is lovingly dedicated.
This big, glossy tome is peppered with photos and anecdotes that accompany recipes associated with family, friends and famous co-stars like Cary Grant, Marcello Mastroianni and Richard Burton.
“During the war, and even after the war, we were very poor, ” Loren told me, digging into a mini-mound of creamy polenta topped with juicy, garlic-laced slices of wild mushrooms.
“We were often hungry. My grandmother cooked food that would fill the stomach. She used whatever little we had to make tasty meals: pasta e fagioli, simple pizza or a salad made with just a crumb of cheese.”
A wonderful cook who died at age 68, Loren’s grandmother “used fantasy, creativity to make our food. I always watched her cook and often helped by shelling peas or picking the stones from the dried beans.”
These days, with homes in Geneva and Los Angeles, Loren admits that she doesn’t do much cooking. However, meals are important and she usually has a substantial lunch with husband Carlo Ponti and their younger son Edoardo, 25, a writer/film director who still lives at home. Their elder son Carlo Jr., 29, a music conductor, visits whenever he can.
Loren decided to write her new cookbook when a friend advised her to compile “all the recipes I had collected in a drawer from family, friends and places I’ve visited over the years.”
Giving me a look of sheer pleasure as she nibbled on a delicate nest of tagliattele with a silky, rich lemon cream sauce, Loren explained, “I felt an ordinary collection of recipes would be a bit dry so my editor and I decided to add the pictures and anecdotes. It took seven or eight months in all.”
Next, having appreciatively devoured a small serving of lusciously creamy lobster risotto, Loren cleansed her palate with a few spoonfuls of refreshing blood orange sorbet and agreed with me that this was a meal to remember.
“I like you, ” she said with a wide grin. “You’re like me – you have a passion for food.”
And, as more proof of that statement, we then tucked into our last savoury course: a slice of grilled salt cod. “This is very, very good, ” Loren said of this salty, tasty tidbit, explaining how close she had been to her mother Romilda Villani. Villani, a Greta Garbo look-a-like and ambitious but loving “stage mother, ” raised Loren and her younger sister Maria alone and died in 1991.
“I still miss her, ” said Loren wistfully. “I used to go to her house in Rome and she’d cook my favourite things: involtini, rapini sauteed with olive oil and garlic, eggplant parmesan. We’d sit down together, the two of us, with candles and nice music and talk about our lives.”
Loren, who has no intention of retiring, has a plan in the works to make a movie directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. “My work is my life, ” she said with conviction. As for that movie, you’ll have to wait. “He (Antonioni) doesn’t want me to talk about it yet.”
Loren is happy to talk about “Recipes & Memories” – “The cookbook is my way of thanking my mother and grandmother.”
Photo of Sophia Loren in centre is from “The Life Ahead” (2020). The other two photos are from when she was younger.
This delicious dish was served as a small course at Trattoria Giancarlo. It’s inspired by Sophia’s recipe for Spaghetti al Limone. I usually use fresh store-bought pasta for it.
8 oz/250g long pasta (spaghetti, linguine or fettucine)
3 tbsp butter
3 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup whipping (35%) cream, divided
1 heaping tbsp lemon zest
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste
⅓ cup freshly grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese
¼ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
Cook the pasta in the big saucepan of salted water until al dente.
Meanwhile, melt the butter in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add the garlic; cook it until it is translucent, about 2 minutes. Add ¼ cup of the cream. Whisk until smooth.
When the pasta is finished cooking, transfer it with tongs to the skillet along with the remaining cream over low heat. Add the lemon zest and lemon juice. Toss well with tongs, making sure that all of the pasta is coated. Add Parmesan and parsley. Taste and add salt and pepper. Top with more lemon zest if desired.
Makes about 4 servings as a generous side dish.