You may remember John Pankow from his role as Paul Reiser's everpresent cousin Ira Buchman on the '90s sitcom “Mad About You” or perhaps you've been watching him steal scenes as Merc Lapidus, the power-obsessed, manipulative and wholly oblivious television network head he plays on Showtime's new comedy series “Episodes.”
But our head-swiveling memory of him involves Taverna di Castelluccio, a thumb-sized restaurant famous for its organic lentils, black truffles and spectacular meats in the remote hilltop village of Castelluccio, the highest settlement in Italy's beautiful Apennines mountains. We were in the middle of a three hour lunch a few years ago when Pankow walked in, scanned the room for a moment, then exited so swiftly it was as if we'd just had a weird “Mad About You” flashback. Recently, Pankow spoke to Squid Ink about the upside of Umbrian bread, why his “Episodes” character wouldn't be caught dead at Nate 'n Al and, of course, what he was doing in a town, pop. 150, that's a 2 ½ hour drive from Rome.
Squid Ink: Taverna di Castelluccio. Unravel the mystery.
John Pankow: [My wife, daughter and I] have been staying right outside of Spoleto for about 20 years. Castelluccio is a place that we're familiar with. The whole region is famous for black truffles, olive oil and more or less, porcinis. Also meat: It's like one big salumeria. Wherever we go in Italy, people say to us, “Oh, man, you eat well, don't you? You're in UMBRIA.”
SI: Except for the salt-less Umbrian bread. Back in 1531, Pope Paul III decided to make salt a taxable item, so the citizens of Umbria rose up as one and said, “There's a simple solution to this…”
JP: Yeah. They went “Va fangul. We're taking the salt out of the bread. We don't need it.” And you know what? It makes sensational crostini because it's like a blank slate. Basically you drizzle some olive oil on it and sprinkle some sea salt and you're off to the races. And some grilled sausages? Fuggedaboutit.
SI: What's the nicest thing you've ever smuggled home from Italy?
JP: Guanciale, the prized Italian bacon from the cheek. Fantastic.
SI: When you stroll into Customs with a suitcase filled with unsmoked cured hog jowl are you mindful of the meat-sniffing beagles?
JP: Hell, yeah. We don't do it with regularity – only once or twice. I'm a little paranoid. Can you imagine [being in jail] and someone going, “What are you in for?” “Guanciale. What are you in for?” “I murdered three people” [laughs] What really happens probably is that they find it, confiscate it, and go, “Fabulous! Let's make some Amatriciana!”
SI: You live in New York. Why are you in Los Angeles?
JP: I'm hanging out in a friend's sublet. This is when all of the animals go to the Serengeti for the feeding season.
SI: You are referring to the time of year when actors come to Los Angeles hoping to get cast in a TV show?
JP: Yes. Pilot season.
SI: Where do you like to eat when in the Serengeti?
JP: There's a lot of good places. Mozza is fantastic. I love Tito's Tacos. Philippe's! I love Philippe's! I mean, you can get a beef dip sandwich anywhere. But how often do you get a sandwich where they're cutting the lamb off the leg? The dipped lamb sandwich with a little bit of that hot mustard! And the best cole slaw in the world! It's like OH MAN. Paul Reiser loves to eat. When we did “Mad About You,” sometimes he'd just look at me and go, “Philippe's?” and then we'd get on the I-10 and drive straight there.
SI: You seem very knowledgeable about food. Answer this: Why is it almost impossible to get good porchetta in the United States?
JP: Here's the deal: Here, pigs have been bred leaner and leaner because of people's obsession with fat, cholesterol and weight. In Italy, they let their piggies get fatter. Hence, more flavor and more moisture. I'm not saying that you can't find good pork here because you can. But I think over there it's a different animal in terms of how it's been bred.
SI: Let's talk about Merc Lapidus, the totally insane network executive you play on Showtime's “Episodes.”
JP: Merc is a man of big appetites, all big ones. He's just kind of a walking Id.
SI: What's his relationship to food?
JP: The same as his relationship to everything. He's not a guy who does things in half measures. I think there's an insatiable aspect to his character and his needs are vast. It's like the old Flash Gordon banquet days where a guy would have a big turkey leg and eat it like “ARGGGHHH.” When it comes to food, I don't know how discerning he is, but you would think he would be. He's a powerful guy. He's a man of means and I can imagine him having a table at his favorite restaurant and showing up and getting fed well.
SI: Where would we find Merc on a Sunday morning?
JP: Not Nate 'n Al. It's too low rent for him. Maybe Barney Greengrass. There's a vain side to the guy. Merc would be where the people beautiful are.
SI: You were in “To Live and Die In L.A.,” “Morning Glory,” “The Extra Man” and the list goes on. Tell us: Do powerful people in Hollywood care about what they're eating — or do they just want to be seen?
JP: What I've observed is that ten people in Merc's position are going to give you ten different relationships to food. I've worked with people who are showrunners and big producers who've said they wished there was a pill they could take so they didn't have to eat because they just don't have the time or the interest. Conversely, I've worked with people who were FANATICAL about where lunch was coming from. I've always wanted to do a movie with John Travolta. He has some fabulous chef who does all the catering for the movie, not just for John. It's important to him that everybody eats well. They have these wonderful meals and that's an important part of the day.
SI: Is this highly focused attention to mealtime exclusive to American film sets?
JP: My wife did a series of commercials for a food conglomerate in Italy called Star Foods.
SI: Your wife is an actress! This is the part where you tell us her name.
JP: Kristine Sutherland. She played Buffy's mother on “Buffy, The Vampire Slayer.” That's right: Joyce Summers and Merc Lapidus are an item.
SI: …So your wife did a series of commercials in Italy and…
JP: She did them over a course of two or three years. It was fascinating for her: In Italy, it's weird. You don't get a three hour lunch. It's an hour, maybe an hour and a half, but they have different courses and it's on plates, real plates and there's silverware and wine. When you finish the primi, you get a fresh plate for the secondi. We're talking about the normal crew, too. Like eighty people. It's that Italian relationship to food which is so different really. The American relationship to food is: Get 'em fed, get 'em back to work. If you're lucky, you have a really great caterer. I've had really great experiences and horrible ones as well. There, it was soooo important to them. It's a huge part of the culture and their lives.
SI: Which brings us back to “Episodes,” half of which was filmed in England. Did you eat well? Or were you almost poisoned on a daily basis?
JP: They had really good caterers! Do you know what I was addicted to? The freaking full English breakfasts, man. I'm telling you they did a killer fry-up.
SI: You are referring to the traditional British way of greeting the morning: Bacon, eggs fried sunnyside up, sausage, black pudding, baked beans…
JP: …The beans? HEAVEN. And the roasted tomatoes? The fried bread was amazing. The Irish bacon and the sausages? That was my only meal of the day. I was saving all my calories for that meal. I'd get to work and go, “Fry me up a brek, boys!” It was so good. A dream. Lovely, lovely, lovely.
SI: You're the sixth of nine children. How did your position in the lineup
affect what happened at the dinner table?
JP: It was perfect. My father really influenced all of us. We're a food-obsessed family. He was in advertising, but he loved cooking. He lived to eat. He made very simple things, but very experimental. I remember my mother making us crab en croûte and us going, [exasperated voice] “Can't we just have hot dogs?”
The great stereotype when you grow up with that many kids is that you eat really fast because there's not going to be enough. Even though it was a German-Irish home, it was very Italian or Jewish in that food was really important. There were not just seconds, there were thirds. You never didn't have tons of food. My mother would make 25 pork chops. The milk man came every other day with four gallons of milk. Monday, Wednesday, Friday, bang, bang, bang. We would have sold the family car to have food. It was insane how much food there was.