Frank Bruni and I have at least two things in common: We’ve both hung up our professional feedbags and we’re both over the moon about the lardo lollipops at Salumi in Seattle.
I got to meet the author of Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater when he was in the city on a West Coast leg of his book tour. We had lunch at the renowned salumeria started by Armandino Batali and now run by his daughter, Gina Batali, and her husband, Brian D’Amato. But before he sat down at the head of the table for 10, my friend and former Seattle Post-Intelligencer colleague Rebekah Denn and I double-teamed the former New York Times restaurant critic, peppering him with questions.
Many queries were along the lines of, "What are you going to most miss/least miss about that very filling job?" Not surprisingly, he said he was going to miss the expense account, but not the relentless demands of eating out every night of the week. Still, that doesn’t mean he's staying in.
"I thought I would not want to go out, that I would stay at home a lot, but I do love restaurants," Bruni said. "Of course, I haven’t got my first post-critic credit card bill yet."
Ordering has become a lot less complicated, the freedom of choice a real thrill. "I can get whatever I want. I think I ordered chicken four times in a row, just because I loved the monochromatic nature of it," he said. "I’m free to enjoy each meal on its own terms without having to think about what I’m going to write."
Critic Dos and Don'ts
The former critics agreed the future of professional newspaper criticism looks pretty grim."The blogosphere has stepped in and it has become completely different," he said. Is that a good thing? Yes and no.
"When you read online reviews, you have no idea if these Yelpers are investors in the restaurant they’re writing about or if they're the chef's mother," he said.
The established M.O. of a professional critic is all about fiercely maintaining independence and, even if you’re not exactly anonymous ("How can you be in the digital age," Bruni wondered), having the intent to be under-the-radar is essential. Whether you agreed or disagreed with Bruni during his five-year tenure, you’ve got to respect the commitment he made to the job.
These days, he’s unbridled by the critic’s credo to play it cool while dining, allowing him to heap praise on Gina and her crew for the fantastic multi-course meal that included a divine stuffed pork belly and those lollipops, which Bruni later tweeted "are the free snacks on Heaven’s bar." Crunchy breadsticks wrapped in lardo and warmed slightly—hell yeah, they are.
I emerged from my post-lunch food coma long enough to put Mario's little sister on the spot on my way out the door: “Could I come to work here?”
“Sure!” she said. But I think she might have just been being polite. Stay tuned.
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