Submitted to: The New Yorker
Response: Kind. (“Nice story, well-written, but we have too big of a backlog …”)
When a bubbly, uncensored, bona fide Italian with a fake tan and frizzy black hair, espresso eyes, and a full, though fluctuating, figure (“just like Oprah’s!”), breezed into the “Beeg Apple” the other night to promote her first (self-published) cookbook, Mamma Agata: Simple and Genuine Family Recipes, her insta-success at Rizzoli Bookstore caught everyone by surprise.
Including Chiara Lima, herself. Here she was, “a girl from Ravello,” frantically signing copies and, gulp, looking like she might just be the next big food star.
Chiara’s mother and muse, Mamma Agata, had actually brushed with fame back in the day, as the private chef for American ex-pat publishing heiress Marajen Stevick Chinigo. She cooked her simple Spaghetti of the Farmer and signature Lemon Cake for Humphrey Bogart and Fred Astaire, Jackie O, even little John-John. But now, too claustrophobic to fly, the squat 70-year-old, who doesn’t speak a word of English, was home on the Amalfi Coast, shuffling around in her kitchen slippers and tending to the family’s 250-year-old lemon tree farm.
Could it be Chiara’s turn? Her students, from the Mamma Agata Cooking School, think so. Hundreds of who showed up to her signing on West 57th. They trekked in from Connecticut, Long Island, New Jersey (even if they’d been to the event in Bernardsville the day before). One woman with fluffy red hair flew up from Florida for the night, with her teenage son in tow. “We’re going out for Italian after this,” she said. (Not Chiara. “We eat thee same, 365 days a year — I want ethnic,” she grunted, pinching her thumb and fingers together for emphasis. Dinner that night? Benihana.)
The mostly middle-aged couples stood in line, eating cannolis from Veniero’s Pasticerria, reminiscing over the Macbook slideshow set to That’s Amore, and swapping “best day-ya my life!” tales from afternoons spent on Chiara’s cliff-top terrace overlooking the sea, eating eggplant parmigiana and oh-my-god-the-sausage-papperdelle, paired with wine made by her sommelier-husband Gennaro.
“I made the eggplant! I made the eggplant!” folks shouted in Chiara’s face, as cameras flashed. She gave everyone a college-reunion-kind-of-squeal and a pillowy hug. People pulled out photographs from Plexiglass frames for her to sign. Plus, stacks of cookbooks — three, four per person — at $45 apiece. “This one is for Gerard, he grows his own basil!” said a short Jewish woman buying Christmas gifts. “Write something about that!” She shoved another in front of her. “This is for my Florida house. I already have a copy in Boston.”
Lori Ferme, Chiara’s last-minute publicist, who replaced someone who’d flaked a few weeks earlier, was floored. “I always tell clients that unless you’re a celebrity, or a New York Times best seller, don’t expect crowds,” she said. “Well, it’s obvious. She’s a celebrity now.”
Chiara knows a couple, herself, she’s sure to tell you. Former students. And, no they don’t make her nervous. “Why? They are human. I am human.” But get her started on Pierce Brosnan and she’s breathless. “Pierce is amazing. Really.” (She has a flipbook of photos of “James Bond!” in his apron to prove it.) “His wife, Keely, is beeeaautiful. She used to be like this,” she said, holding up her pinky. “But now she’s like me, plump-ee. When I didn’t know how to dress for New York; I thought, What would Keely wear?” Woody Harrelson attended the cooking school, too, but Chiara was not as impressed. “He’s a fool,” she told a table of students last summer. “Vegan.” And rounding out the VIP list to-date: “Joanna Kerns! From Growing Pains!”
Food celebrities, however, make Chiara a little uncomfortable. “I have heard about Mario and Lidia. I’d love to meet them, but I don’t think they’d want to meet me. Competition, you know.”
Two days after her book signing, Chiara spent a morning browsing arguably the biggest food-star-backed project yet, Eataly. (“Wow. Wow. This is massive!”) She was on the hunt for Double 00 flour (“Yes! Batali has it!” she said, slapping her hands together). She popped a few cherry tomatoes to make sure they were sweet and sampled still-warm balls of mozzarella — unaware that Eataly is not really a free-tasters sort of place — when suddenly, there was Lidia Bastianich. The two women looked like old friends, dressed eerily alike in black slacks and long black cardigans, chatting in their native tongue as if in a centuries-old piazza, not a sparkling new 42,500 square-foot food emporium. “She just invited me to do a cooking class here, in November,” said Chiara, pushing past the plastic-wrapped prosciutto. “Eii, eii, eii …”
A little later, before a media lunch at Manzo, Chiara grew more anxious. “Remember, you’re from an ordinary Italian family,” prepped her U.S. book distributor, also a former Mamma Agata student. “You are not Rachael Ray.” Chiara darted to the ladies room to freshen up, and ran into Lidia again. As they stood before twin mirrors applying lipstick, Chiara rambled about how shocked she was by the turn out at Rizzoli.
“Americans are like that,” said Lidia, matter-of-factly. “Once they trust you, and love you, they are your followers.” And she walked out — with Chiara, in similar black flats, just a few steps behind.