Like Roxanne Granville you too can enjoy Pierino’s in its heyday.
Pierino’s, the restaurant frequented by Roxanne Granville in The Great Pretenders, is well known to me. I invented it when characters from my novel American Cookery had lunch there in 1956. When I returned to Pierino’s for The Great Pretenders I added the flagstone drive and valet parking.
Joe Pierino, his brother Paul and their friend, Ernesto Marchiani all emigrated to Los Angeles from Poggibonsi, Italy in 1915, just before they would have been conscripted to fight in a capitalist war. By 1919 Ernesto Marchiani had become Ernest March, the broodingly handsome silent film star who was making $250 a week. Paul Pierino was a well regarded set decorator. Joe borrowed money from them and opened his restaurant in 1927. Prohibition required a back room which cost Joe plenty to maintain—to have alcohol there at all, and to be certain he wouldn’t be raided. He managed. His wife and sons did the cooking. The place prospered.
After Prohibition ended Joe struggled through the Depression. To his wife’s ire he traded a mural painted by a hungry Socialist artist for a free meal once a week. (This artist later became known as the Los Angeles Chagall.) During World War II any soldier in uniform got dessert and a liqueur on the house, a practice that cost Joe plenty.
But after the War, his old loyalties cost him more. In the post-war years if you had old country Socialist ties, or had once evinced a youthful enthusiasm for left wing politics, or had shouted anti-capitalist slogans with your comrades at strikes or marches (all of which Joe and Paul and Ernest had done), even if you betrayed a sneaking sympathy for any of the above, your life could be ruined.
Old Man Pierino’s old country ties, his loud loyalty to his old Socialist friends doomed him and doomed his brother. In 1950 Paul Pierino was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee where an actor, naming names, pointed the Red Finger at Paul, and insinuated sexual misdeeds as well. Publically accused of being a pinko-deviant, blacklisted, and at risk of being arrested for contempt of Congress, Paul fled, returned to Italy, to Rome. Later he worked on the films of Sergio Leone.
When the Committee was through disgracing Paul Pierino, people were afraid to be seen at Joe’s restaurant. Joe Pierino, for all his resilience and ingenuity, had no way to fight rumor, innuendo, fear of association with a Commie. His health faltered, his spirit sank.
But his son Frankie who had been cooking in the restaurant since he was ten, was smooth, shrewd, close-mouthed, all-American. Frankie closed the place down, got a loan, tore it apart, even the famous mural, and reopened in 1952 with mid-century chic decor: blonde wood paneling, blonde wood tables embraced by great rounded banquettes of red vinyl. The floors were a tough blue tile that could stand up to stiletto heels, where the crowded foyer rang with low, sophisticated voices, men in suits, women in hats and gloves, their cigarette smoke sinuous, and a jazz piano man playing standards. For twenty years Pierino’s was the sophisticated place to eat in Los Angeles, a landmark. Then, for ten years it was a cliché. The site is now a parking lot.
Like Roxanne Granville you too can enjoy Pierino’s in its heyday. Here is the recipe for their signature dish, Rigatoni with Seafood and Pepper Sauce, redolent with the smell of the sea, yellow lemons and red peppers. Joe’s wife wrote it down on a card.
Rigatoni with Seafood and Pepper Sauce
These proportions for one pound pasta
2 or 3 red bell peppers, perhaps four peeled garlic cloves, handful fresh basil, parsley, oregano, thyme, rosemary. Chop all. Should have some texture. Certainly not pureed. Heat olive oil in a cast iron fry pan and cook the above quickly on a high heat. Add (big can) of crushed tomatoes and some red wine, reduce heat and simmer. (Or half a dozen chopped fresh tomatoes. If this, use extra salt.) Sprinkle with a teaspoon of crushed dried red peppers if desired, salt, pepper. Simmer a bit, maybe twenty minutes, adding more vino if necessary. Cover.
Take 1 pound mixed seafood. You can find this at the fishmarket, usually frozen; mostly the rag ends of this and that, bits of scallop, octopus, squid, shrimp, clams, mussels, whatever seafood you have you can use. Thaw and rinse. You can add more of whatever you like, for color and texture, steamed mussels, clams, but this is a good basis, and not expensive.
In a broad fry pan put the juice of two lemons and perhaps half a cup of dry vermouth, one tablespoon. of olive oil. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and let cook down by perhaps a third. To this, add your seafood and toss, cooking only as long as necessary. The pieces in the seafood combination are always small bits, so not long. Remove from heat. Add to Pepper Sauce and mix well. Add to cooked rigatoni. Use your just-steamed mussels and clams, a bit of chopped Italian parsley for color.
Serve immediately. Excellent. A winter version without basil could use pizza seasoning or Italian seasoning, dry.
And, of course, don’t forget the music while you cook!
A customized playlist to accompany your meal.