On Grana, Reggiano and Rod Steiger

Nearly every time I slice Grana Padano or Parmigiano Reggiano into thin wedges to have with wine, I am reminded of Rod Steiger.

When I arrived in Los Angeles in 1979, I secured a job as a waiter at La Scala Malibu, in those days an iconic establishment with an elite clientele, many of whom lived close by in “The Colony” on Malibu Beach. On any given night I might have found any number of well-known faces in my section. It might have been Barbra Streisand and whomever having dinner with Neil Diamond and his spouse. Or Julie Andrews and Blake Edwards dining and seemingly hardly speaking during dinner.  Or an ever-so-elegant, Ascot-wearing, silver-haired Douglas Fairbanks Jr—What a Gent he was!  Same goes for Jeff Bridges…sans Ascot. Talk about chilled. He was well on his way to being ‘The Dude’.

And then there was Mr Steiger, who was also a regular.  Rod Steiger wasn’t “chilled”.  Far from it. He had the intensity one would expect of a hard-line high School director, one with disciplinarian proclivities. He lived in Malibu, however, and like many of the locals, he would pop in two or three times a week for dinner. He was usually seated in my section for he could be a bit difficult. I knew difficult well.  I had grown up with my father.  I also spoke Italian, and Mr Steiger had lived in Italy for a spell and loved the language.

To remind me and anyone who cared to pay attention to that fact, he took quiet delight in ordering his dinner en Italiano, with a bit of fanfare and just maybe a slightly overbearing punctiliousness as far as Italian language pronunciation was concerned.   At La Scala, Mr Steiger’s ordering of Ravioli was “Rrravioli…”  At the end of his meal Mr Steiger would catch my eye, wave his hand in the air motioning in a circular manner  and quietly but sternly announce, “Grana, per favore…”

And I knew it was time to go into the kitchen and yell, “Rudy, can I have some Grana for Mr Steiger?!” as I sliced more bread.  Rudy, the head chef, hailed from Argentina originally. His accent and demeanour were distinctly evocative of the Spanish actor Luis Alberni in the film “Easy Living”.

And so I would dutifully bring out a plate of thin wedges of Grana or Reggiano Parmigiano for Mr Steiger to nibble on and finish his wine whilst holding court with his dinner companion(s).  And I dare submit, if one is going to hold court at the dinner table after the victuals have been shared, Grana or Reggiano are a superlative choice.  

As cadenzas go, Parmigiano provides an immersive Largo… long, drawn-out satisfaction from a cheese that possesses a firm yet slightly creamy texture. When bitten into, a fine Parmigiano gives way to pieces that granulate into even smaller pieces, each one bursting into a mini-umami experience. The key is to chew slowly and savour the unfolding…the saltiness and brittle consistency tempered by the sweet notes of creamy-with-just-a-hint-of-sour… The interplay between these flavours provide a kind of tension and release, not unlike a good suspense plot. And then there’s the lingering finish, which makes one crave a sip of wine. Ok, maybe two sips.  And this is how the plot thickens, you see… And while the cheese isn’t planning to take over the world, for a few long, delectable moments, it takes over yours. Once you’ve been released from its thrall, you simply must have more. So you bite again. And you sip again… and so it continues.

Life has a funny way of informing and teaching us and providing mysterious forms of continuity.  I find sweet irony in that I regularly enjoy thin slices of fine Parmigiano at the end of a meal with the last of the wine. Every now and then I raise my glass to Mr Steiger and say, “Grana?”

—Raphael Antonio Nazario

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