Hollywood chef Giada De Laurentiis looks like a starlet, cooks like a nonna. She shows her passion for Italian food at a family lunch in honor of her grandfather, legendary movie producer Dino De Laurentiis.
The De Laurentiis family, its legacy already secure in film, is laying claim to a very different area: food. Movie producer Dino De Laurentiis grew up in Naples the son of a pasta-factory owner. Now his granddaughter Giada De Laurentiis has brought the family name full circle: A private chef in Los Angeles, she started GDL Foods in 1998 and keeps such Hollywood figures as Ron Howard well fed. When asked what he might possibly have passed along to account for such a granddaughter, Dino laughs and says, "I give her the DNA of quality in food."
Although Dino found movie-making success both in Italy (producing Federico Fellini's La Strada and The Nights of Cabiria) and then in Hollywood (producing King Kong, Ragtime, Blue Velvet and Hannibal, to name but a few), he turned for a time to the business of food. For about five years in the mid-'80s, he operated DDL Foodshow, a huge, upscale market and restaurant with branches in New York and Los Angeles.
Dino's passion for food has always run deep. Veronica De Laurentiis, Dino's daughter and Giada's mom, remembers that "he used to talk about what did you want for breakfast, what did you want for lunch, what did you want for dinner. Because when he was 18, 19, it was wartime, and there was no food in Italy. I think that's where his obsession comes from." DDL Foodshow was probably ahead of its time, and Dino lost a fortune on it. But the producer's showy emporiums made an impression on a lot of people, among them his young granddaughter.
"We had one here in Beverly Hills, and I would hang out there all the time," Giada says. "But it wasn't really accepted in my family for me to study food. I think they see the kitchen as a male-dominated place. It's hardcore. My grandfather said, 'What the hell do you want to do that for? You'll never fit in. And you're too little!' They didn't tell me not to do it, but they wanted me to go to college first. But I knew really early that for me, food was it."
Ironically, her grandfather himself had sparked that interest. "He made pasta all the time when I was a kid," Giada says. "All sorts of different red sauces. I learned to make dough from him and from my father." But although she might have known where she was headed, she acceded to the family's wishes and first earned an anthropology degree at the University of California at Los Angeles. Then it was off to Paris to study at Le Cordon Bleu. She returned to Los Angeles to pay her restaurant dues, working the line at the Ritz-Carlton Marina del Rey and in the pastry department at Spago Beverly Hills before going into business for herself.
Giada now makes American dishes like turkey meat loaf and chicken potpie for her clients, but for a lunch at her grandfather's house she turned to Italian recipes. The baked rigatoni, Giada says, "was my favorite as a child. We ate it every Sunday at my grandparents' house." The pork loin stuffed with spinach and ham was inspired by her aunt ("She and I test old family recipes together"). Desserts were almond-cornmeal cake and a ricotta tart called torta della nonna. "I remember watching my grandfather's sisters whipping those tarts out," Giada says. "I would eat the creamy filling till I was sick."
Because of the food she grew up around, she says, "I didn't think regular cooking was anything special." But as she now knows, she was wrong about that. Just ask her grandfather, who in this area remains rooted in his humble past--and who is clearly proud to see his granddaughter drawing upon it too.
"I say to Gigi, the Neapolitan cooks are some of the best in the world, because they come from poor people," he says. "Poor people have no money to spend for good material, but they use fantasy and imagination. And with fantasy and imagination you always find the best way to cook."
George Kalogerakis is a contributing writer at Talk and a contributing editor at New York.