New York filmmaker Frank Vitale gives Flâneur Magazine an exclusive behind the scenes glimpse of filming No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain. Drawing from his travel diary, Mr. Vitale remembers a sun drenched week in Campania that would prove to be any food lover’s dream.
Darren Richard Carlaw: A behind the scenes glance of the filming of No Reservations is quite a privilege. How did you come to find yourself on the Naples/Amalfi shoot with Anthony Bourdain and his crew?
Frank Vitale: My son, Tom Vitale, is a long time producer on the show. For my birthday present he arranged to bring me along. (He is, of course, the greatest son in the world and now you know why.)
DC: What were your first impressions of Naples on arrival?
FV: Let me begin by stating an annoying Neapolitan principle: nothing ever goes according to plan. This is followed by the second Neapolitan principal: when a plan falls through, the new, hastily arranged substitute plan is always better.
DC: I’m guessing that your trip was punctuated by the unexpected. Tell me a little more about your first day in the city.
FV: The first day in Naples was billed as a travel rest day, but Tom went off with the fixers to survey locations. I spent the afternoon walking through the Centro Storico (historical center) and falling in love with the narrow stone paved streets crowded with shops, people, speeding scooters and small cars fighting their way through. Flying proudly from every balcony was the national flag of Naples: laundry. On many street corners was the national tragedy of Naples: a mountain of uncollected garbage. I took some narrow stepped passages, down dark alleys where I passed by open doors. Just a few feet away families were seated at kitchen tables, drinking coffee and chatting. It was strange to be so close, almost in their private lives. The clanging of pots and the smell of their dinner was too intimate. I felt I didn’t belong.
DC: How well did you fit in with Anthony, Tom and the crew?
FV: By the second day I felt as though I had become part of the crew, which was exactly what I wanted. However, we had to walk a fine line between being useful gophers and staying out of the way. It was tricky as scenes began without warning. One minute we were sitting around and the next minute the cameras were rolling and the scene was on. This crew was finally tuned and knew the routine so well it only took a nod to start a scene.
DC: What was the first scene you saw filmed?
FV: Our fixer Emanuella guided us to a religious procession. It was billed as a procession with a hundred people to be witnessed by crowds lining the streets. We found a sorry band of 15 or so barefoot young people carrying ancient banners and playing trumpets and drums. The procession was very charming and moved quickly through the streets. Cameramen Zack and Mo followed it like commandos darting around cars and through alleys stealing shots of the procession and of Tony who followed for a while. Tony had a microphone on him, which recorded his musings. That’s the wonderful thing about having a great writer as the host of the show. Everything he says is golden. The challenge is to keep him interested and stimulated. He is not a puppet you can turn on and off. If he ain’t having fun, nobody is.
DC: Chef Bourdain is famed for his no nonsense approach, one of his most famous quotes being: “I don’t have to agree with you, like you, or respect you”. How did you find him during the shoot?
FV: I remember shooting a lunch scene at a restaurant in Cetara. Afterwards, we went down to the seaside to do some b-roll of Tony sipping a drink and talking about his impressions of Naples and the coast. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but I did hear Tom pushing him to say more. Tony turned and addressed Tom. He used an orange as a metaphor, saying that when you first squeeze an orange you get sweet juice, but if you squeeze it too much you get bitterness. Tom was undeterred and gently pushed Tony some more. (As a producer you can never have too much material.) Tony responded by pulling Tom into the scene and interviewing him about what it takes to be a producer of a top television show, asking if Tom had any advice to give young NYU students. It was funny but Tom is not comfortable on camera and wisely knows that the show is about Tony, so he tried to get out of the shot. However, Tony pulled him back in, at one point putting his arm around Tom to keep him from escaping. The joke ran its course quickly. Tony let go of Tom and went back to sipping his drink and watching the Adriatic in fading light. I found Tony to be exactly who he is on TV, gracious, considerate but with an edge upon which you do not want to be impaled.
DC: It must be fascinating to watch your son work, doing what he does best.
FV: I had been admiring his production skills all along. He was patient even when it took hours to prepare to shoot a scene or eat lunch and he was good humored and joked with the crew and other production staff even when the delays were cutting into the time he had to shoot scenes.
DC: Was the crew ever tested?
FV: On Tony’s last day on the shoot we drove to Pizzeria Pellone on Via Nazionale in Naples. The crew took the usual two hours to set up cameras and to put up lighting in the restaurant. Outside on the street I watched people line up at this pizza hot spot to get margarita pizza, folded pizza and fried pizza. (At Pellone they cooked the pizza in a wood fired oven. The outer crust is scorched and a little bitter. But the inner part is fantastic with pools of tomato sauce and little plateaus of mozzarella. It was juicy and sweet, the best pizza I’ve ever had.) After lunch, I sat in the van while the crew packed in the equipment. I noticed that people on the crew started looking alarmed. “Where’s camera four?” I heard someone ask. I heard it over and over again, “Camera four, camera four, camera four.” I got out of the van and kicked a tire out of anger and frustration. A camera had been stolen and probably with it half the footage from the scene. Bad news. With only half the footage the scene would not be as good. It turned out that much of my fear and depression was unwarranted. It was not one of the cameras used that day and no footage was lost. So, Naples, the pickpocket capitol of the world had scored a $7000 camera.
DC: How did Tom react?
FV: I saw Tom at his best. Everyone felt very bad about losing the camera. Everyone, especially the camera crew, wondered if it was their fault, if they deserved some blame. But Tom laid no blame; rather he tried to buoy the crew up, telling them that the pain of the moment would soon be forgotten. Tom is a kind person, but also smart. He still had a day and a half to shoot and knew that people would do better work if they felt better.
DC: Besides pizza in Naples, you must have had some unforgettable culinary experiences during the shoot?
FV: When we were greeted by Pasquale Torrente, the owner of Al Convento in Cetara, we had no idea what we were in for. Pasquale sat at the head of the table and began dinner with le sabrage, that is, by nipping off the head of a bottle of prosecco with a sciabola, a special knife that cleanly cracks the glass so that the cork with the glass around it goes flying across the room. As he poured my wine, I studied the top of the bottle. The glass had indeed been cleanly severed. We began with an appetizer plate of oil soaked anchovies, smoked tuna and octopus. Then, when he spotted someone not fond of seafood, he brought out three kinds of prosciutto and two kinds of cheese. He sliced off big chunks and passed them around the table. Then came the sea urchin. It was cut in half and inside a star shaped pattern of orange roe. Then came a plate of three fried balls, all different but all with anchovies. The one drenched in tomato sauce was spectacular. The waiter opened the first bottle of red the old fashioned way: with a corkscrew. The wine was great, hearty and smooth. I had a few sips before the next dish came, chunks of tuna sprinkled over a bed of cherry tomato halves drenched in oil. Then came the calamari dish and finally Spaghetti con colatura di alici, spaghetti and anchovies. It was a spectacular three-hour meal that left us reeling.
DC: I also hear that as a result of the trip you’ve developed a penchant for the thinking man’s cocktail, the Negroni…
FV: We were sitting in a cafe in Piazza Carità. I ordered white wine, Josh a beer and Tony a Negroni. I was curious about his drink and asked him what a Negroni was. He said it was a drink invented by an Italian Count Camillo Negroni, that was one third sweet vermouth, one third Campari and one third gin. Tony said the drink could be your best friend or your worst enemy. He never has more than two and proved it by switching to wine. I ordered one, liked the taste and told Tony. Tony said “Uh oh! Watch out.” Negroni, according to Tony, embodies the Italian point of view on life, sweet and bitter combined. Americans, he said, “want sweet, sweet, sweet!” But, he said admiringly, “Italians know that you need the bitter to enjoy the sweet.” I liked the drink a lot and exceeded Tony’s limit the next night. On that occasion, I found it to be a very good friend.
Frank Vitale is a filmmaker in the complete sense of the word. He is a producer-writer-actor-editor-cinematographer. His latest project is entitled The Metropolis Organism, an EBook that examines cities as a form of organic matter. He lives and works in New York.