And then there was Pasquale Carpino. The star of Discovery Channel's Pasquale's Kitchen Express, this singing, sautéing borderline stereotype spoke like a refugee from a bad propaganda film and promised to prepare four to five complete, homemade dishes in less than 22 minutes. Through a combination of corniness, choice chopping skills and a wounded way with an aria, this Italian scallion became the cable networks most popular show from 1990 to 1992. Now, thanks to MPI, we are treated to six sensationally silly and sublime episodes of this fraying pandemonium. And like a really delicious black and blue T-bone steak, this rabid, rapid roaster's broken English effervescence is just plain addictive.
Show 1: Rigatoni w/Belgian endive sauce; Chicken with mushrooms; Filet of Cod w/Tomato sauce; Salad w/white radishes
Show 2: Penne w/bacon and dandelion; Lamb Chops w/ orange barbeque sauce; Squid w/ crabmeat stuffing; Melon and vegetable salad
Show 3: Linguini w/ cream sauce; Stuffed mushrooms; White snapper; Veal Chops w/ lemon barbeque sauce
Show 4: Risotto w/Fresh tomato sauce; Fillet of Trout w/ tomato sauce; Chicken Cutlets w/ Rosemary in cream sauce
Show 5: Bowtie pasta w/ creamy mushroom sauce; Fresh sardine casserole; Pork and Chicken stew w/ vegetables; Salad w/ homemade dressing
Show 6: Orecchiette pasta w/ calamari and tomato sauce; Fillet of Cod in butter; T-bone steak; bananas w/ warm orange sauce
Like a demented magpie with an eating disorder, Pasquale Carpino was that rarity in television chefs: a genuine character derived from what seemed like a million other interpretations of the home style Italian cook. Part Chef Boy-ar-dee, part adenoidal Luciano Pavarotti, he wears the obvious ethnic stereotypes so easily that it's hard to know if it's a ruse or a reality. Someone like Nick Stellino, a bearded, pony-tailed take-off on the classical romanticism of the Roman ravioli-maker, can sell is heavily accented hokum to a nation that doesn't know any better, but Carpino is different. He mixes old world charm with just the slightest hint of professional smarm to concoct an entity that is equally engaging and elusive. Like his aspiration to whip up four or five courses in 22 minutes, his standard desert dynamic (in which he caramelizes sugar until it's practically carbon, then tosses in fruit juices) or the desire to drown everything in wine and/or brandy, Carpino makes a mockery of the basics of cooking. Dishes always look over or under done, and we never really witness an audience member taste test (the innocent victims sit in front of lavish platings of Pasquale's fodder, but few are lifting forkfuls). All of this, of course, went over like gangbusters in the early 90s, when gourmet was still a fancy (or frugal) terminology. Now, someone like Rachael Ray on the Food Network is celebrated for making her entire meal in 30 minutes. But Carpino was there first, tossing salads and using his patented 'steam-a-sauté' method for fixing his vittles.
Today, it's no longer the techniques or the temerity that matter when approaching Volume 1 of Pasquale's Kitchen Express. While the above-illustrated menus may sound incredibly appetizing, Carpino has a way of making everything look – and probably taste – the same. His love of stovetop cooking means nothing is baked, broiled, grilled or deep-fried, and his cornucopia approach to ingredients (even going so far as to toss the decorations in with the staples) indicates his 'catch-as-catch can' approach to preparation. From the over-reliance on sauces (everything is smothered or soaking in some style of gravy) to the mandate that only "100% duram semolina" pasta be used, there are lots of instructional issues with his show. Indeed, there is really no effort to teach or preach. Carpino, instead, is all about the connection. And he feels the best way to instigate the bond is to babble like a baboon. That's right, what makes Pasquale's Kitchen Express so entertaining now is the non-stop barrage of befuddling philosophies that pour from its host's mushy mouth. Like all his piazza paisans, Pasquale is a deep thinker – he just doesn't have the accompanying maxims to back up his brainstorms. Instead, we get strange sampler slogans, direct quotes from a decent, hardworking immigrant imagination. Just a few of Carpino's cavalcade of adages are:
"The best chef in the world? That's Mama!"
"Cooking is art, fantasy and vocation."
"The sauce can wait for the pasta. The pasta can't wait for the sauce."
"You know, we say 'Mama Mia'! But we should say 'Papa Mia' just to be fair"
. "The greatest restaurant in the world is...home."
"You don't accept me as a chef. You don't accept me as a singer. You accept me for myself"
It is also amazing to watch him create his potential persona from scratch, to try out different tricks with the audience hoping they react and interact with him. A good example is the way in which he adds extra cheese to his dishes. Carpino has a small silver container filled with grated Romano and Parmesan. He asks the crowd if they want him to add some of the savory sawdust to his concoction. Oh course, they bubble with gluttonous glee. He adds in a spoon. They cry for more. He looks perplexed and tosses in another helping. By now, the bloated braying pack demand that all the fromage meets the meal. And with a look of churlishness mixed with resolve, Pasquale tosses in the cheese (which always looks like JUST the right amount) and shouts "Bon Appetito". The fans go wild! Carpino does this constantly throughout his show, finding little ritualized ways to add wine, brandy, broth and hot pepper to his pots and pans. And each and every time, the crowd reacts like trained seals. You can sense when Carpino feels he has them eating out of his hands. He'll break into song (usually some hoary old standard that Vic Damone or Tony Martin still croon on tours of assisted living facilities) or drop one of the proverbial bombs. But if he's really feeling frisky, he'll ask if he can have some coffee. After the audience acquiesces, he moves over to the counter and sips his brew. His face grimaces – obviously the grind is not to his liking. So he sneaks over to the stack of carafes, pulls one out, and adds a splash of "inspiration" to his cup. Suddenly the cafe is just right, and the impish grin across his mug means Carpino has won them over, once again.
Though a great deal is made about his singing, there is little of the over-the-top caterwauling that would come to mar many of his later shows. Once he got the broadcast format down, Carpino had more time to kill and his limited vocalizing was dragged out like an angry feline at Dog Days. The notion that all Italian's are Neapolitan Sinatra's just waiting for a chance to show off their chops is just a bunch of ethnic nonsense. Most creators of Italian cuisine barely speak the language, let alone lament loudly in it for the sake of sound. Carpino's boastful blasts are an occasionally welcome diversion. But more times than not, the audience reacts like they're part of a command performance and the overt applause and praise is pandering at its worst. So one starts to wonder what makes this semi-stupid cooking demonstration so endearing, if it's not the consumables or the serenading. And the answer is interesting: it's a sense of genuineness. For all his stereotyping, hard selling and simpleton shtick, Pasquale Carpino comes across as the authentic article, a real life success story just brimming with happiness and brotherhood over the opportunity to fabricate a feast for you. Unlike other chefs who are obvious restaurateurs or snooty experts, Carpino claims that he is merely a rustic Everyman, capable of throwing together some simple cuisine for his friends and family. And since it comes from the heart, it has to be good, right?
Well, the reality is a little more muddled. Pasquale's Kitchen Express is a campy and clever creation, a cook's tour of unfathomable dishes rendered even more unrecognizable by all the spaghetti-spiel going on. Carpino doesn't provide recipes, avoids precise preparation times, and fiddles with his fire so often you're not sure if he's purposefully messing with the heat or just mechanically retarded. His creations can look mouth-watering as well as stomach churning, and he never apologizes or praises his own efforts. Indeed, what makes this early 90s food festival a highly recommended hoot is Pasquale's perky (and pesky) personality. This is a man in love with life and his position in it. He wants to share and to over-sentimentalize. His focus is on family – specifically children and the grandparents, both of whom he considers "sacred" – and on fraternity. He seems to possess all possibilities of the American Dream while clinging onto many of the ancient traditions of his heritage. His television show is superfluous to his mission: to connect with people and make them feel appreciated. While it's hard to tell sometimes if he's 100% legitimate or just putting on a ratings-ready Mediterranean Minstrel show, Pasquale Carpino, and Pasquale's Kitchen Express are charming and enjoyable. You may not learn how to whip up a quick frittata or prepare a salvia-starting lasagna, but you will always feel welcome at this man's dinner table. Just watch out – some of his dishes are a complete mystery.