I received sad news on Monday that my friend, teacher and favorite restaurateur Giorgio Baldi died over the weekend.
Giorgio, whose restaurant Il Ristorante di Giorgio Baldi is situated at the base of the Santa Monica Mountains next to the blue Pacific Ocean. It has been, for me, my family and all of my friends, some of whom I actually met while dining there, our first choice for dinners out in Los Angeles. Birthdays, Mother's Day, Father's Day, it didn't matter in my family; it was where we wanted to be. The lobster with cannellini beans, the penne semplice (Giorgio's secret tomato sauce), Dover sole and the chiachiere (fried dough biscotti) were my choices. My parents, knowing how much I detest dining out in LA, would use going there as a way to get me to spend an evening in a restaurant with them. It was our kitchen away from home. I even included it in the book Everybody Eats There that my co-author, Bill Stadiem, and I wrote about legendary restaurants around the world.
Giorgio was a "legendary" character. Born in the beautiful seaside town of Forte di Marmi, I first met him when I was managing a little Tuscan restaurant off the beaten track in Beverly Hills, Il Giardino. He was the restaurant's first chef. But I really got to know him when I dined for the first time at his own restaurant, many years later. I was sitting with a large group of Italian filmmakers and Giorgio kept coming over to the table to talk with them in his native tongue which he preferred to English even after all the years he lived in Los Angeles. Speaking Italian was the advantage I had over other customers. He loved talking with me, teaching me about Italian food and wine and recounting the occasional hilarious dirty joke, which he insisted I translate for my friends to whom I introduced him and who subsequently became loyal clients.
Giorgio was more than generous with me and his many illustrious customers. How many countless dinners he insisted on offering me, and all the exquisite wines he sent over with his compliments along with those scrumptious little fried squares of polenta smothered with a rich sauce of tomatoes and porcini mushrooms.
On the other hand, Giorgio had a temper, therefore, after experiencing it one too many times, I tried in the last number of years to behave myself so as not to get on his bad side. Yes, I know I have had a reputation as being a rather picky eater and drinker. This drove him crazy, and he made no attempt to hide his annoyance with me whenever I attempted to send anything back. I learned to be very precise when ordering, enabling me to avoid pissing him off.
I prayed that the first taste of a newly opened bottle of wine I chose would be perfect for fear of being scolded if it was not to my liking and I wanted to return it for another. Hey, he taught me about these wines and introduced me to many of Italy's most famous winemakers, having put together one of LA's best Italian wine lists. I thought I was just being the good pupil.
I remember one other occasion when I walked into the restaurant on the later side of a Sunday evening to meet a friend for dinner. As usual, there were quite a few boldfaced names. (On any given night one could spot Tom Cruise, Gwyneth Paltrow, Pierce Brosnan or Steven Spielberg, who are regulars, or newer devotees like Rihanna, Beyonce, and soccer star David Beckam. Politicians such as President Bill Clinton, and my friend David Obey, the former congressman and head of the powerful Appropriations Committee, made the trek whenever in LA). I stopped to say hello to a well-known Hollywood movie agent with whom I had once worked. He was dining with one of his famous clients. Giorgio saw me talking to the agent, and being unaware of my past connection with him, yelled at me in Italian from across the room to stop pestering the clients and go sit down at my table. I was, to say the least, mortified. I almost left the restaurant with tears in my eyes, but before I could, he came over to apologize, bearing a fabulous bottle of wine as an apology. He then explained to me that he wants his clients, no matter who they are, to feel they have privacy while dining with him. That is why photographers were never allowed near the restaurant.
I do know he was extremely fond of me and though he didn't often show it, had respect for me, especially after I spent a good deal of time interviewing him for my book and at a later date, a story for this online journal. I was flattered that he felt comfortable enough to express himself to me honestly. This honesty was something he only demonstrated to those to whom he cared for the most. His daughter Elena shrugged her shoulders and smiled when he raised his voice with her. She told me that after he lost his temper, he would quickly revert back to being her warm and loving dad.
He leaves behind his wife Roberta, who he always said was the one with the talent in the kitchen, his daughter Elena, who runs Giorgio, and his son Eduardo, who is carrying on the Baldi name with his terrific restaurant E Baldi in Beverly Hills.
Now as we did at the end of many an evening, I will make a final toast to you, Giorgio! You will be sorely missed. Who will scold me now when I send something back to the kitchen?