One night back in 2000, a beleaguered author who was not so hot on the idea of any book tour, but was nevertheless on a book tour, appeared at my restaurant Babbo, in New York. Jim Harrison and I had written letters to each other, but had never met, and little did I know then how he would go on to become one of my closest friends. In tow were a few members of his publishing team, a book editor from the New York Times, and a handful of other lucky food lovers from New York City. Jim was hungry, thirsty, joyously friendly, and characteristically overeager for the first course to come out of the kitchen. Jim’s appetite was legendary, and nothing makes a cook quite so happy as someone who exists entirely to eat—and when not eating, to talk about eating, to hunt and fish for things to eat, or to spend time after eating talking about what we just ate.
That night we ate just about every non-grocery-store cut of every animal I served. The meal ran to fifteen courses: from one of Jim’s favorites, our Babbo-made testa, with my dad’s finocchiona and culatello, to lamb’s-tongue vinaigrette, tripe in the style of Parma, and both beef-cheek and calf’s-brains ravioli; from light love letters of goose liver, crispy sweetbreads dusted in fennel pollen and finished with duck bacon and membrillo vinaigrette, on to squab with barlotto, quail with salsify, and duck with brovada; finishing with a whole series of desserts. Jim relished in the unabashed frivolity of this meal; he would talk about “tripe,” sure enough, there it came, and a tale of hunting would beget the birds shot in the story. We drank ’82 and ’85 Barolos, both in magnum, then a double mag of Le Pergole Torte, then back to the north for some Gaja Barbaresco with which we ate a couple of robiolas and a mountain gorgonzola with housemade black-truffle honey.
Our friendship moved from pen pals to real pals that night, and I knew I had finally shaken hands, shared abrazos fuertes, and broken bread with not only an eternal friend but a mentor, a spiritual leader, a confidant, and a man who shared my passion for all things above and beyond the world of food, and who wrote sentences that stretched beyond the wildest poetry of my imagination, resonating with stories of the friends and associates who eat well, drink Lambrusco and vin de pays as well as Bordeaux from the fifties and sixties, work hard, play hard, and experience the natural world in full.
A couple of years later, after a mere ten-course meal celebrating the magnificent white truffle at Babbo, I walked Jim back to his hotel. He stayed regularly at the Inn at Irving Place, near Gramercy Park, a charming hotel that allowed smoking—a deal-breaker for Jim—and was close to the Spanish restaurant that our team opened in 2003, Casa Mono. It was after 11 p.m., closing time, and we had consumed as much food as was humanly possible. We discussed his obsession with Antonio Machado the entire walk home. As we turned the corner to his hotel, Jim peered into the candlelit Casa Mono and then leaned in. “Mario, do you think we could just get a little taste of those fabulous oxtails in piquillo peppers you do here on a little bread, just for the taste in my mouth, please? Just a taste,” he bashfully whispered, “it reminds me of Lorca.”
“You bet, Jimmy,” I said. And a quick little bottle of Priorat to wash it all down, five American Spirits on the stoop, and off to bed. I have never seen a man so happy in his pursuit of pleasure. And, from that moment on, we were friends for life.
Jim and I shared many qualities: an unending appetite, inhaling life to the full chorizo, finding hilarious and playful nuance in every breath and every moment, but I always was and remain the student. Jim was sharper, more in tune with the distant cry of the loon over the lake while fishing on a lazy Tuesday morning, more sensitive to the moonlight over Washington Square Park on a dusk walk toward the Babbo apartment, where he sometimes stayed. Jim lived art not as a method to distill his thoughts but as a categorical way of understanding life, a quest to quench an insatiable thirst for all it put before him. And to share that understanding with any and every person he met.
But Jim was not all Zen, and certainly not patient. We once shared a slightly overlong supper at the Michelin three-star restaurant Eleven Madison Park, in New York, where he fidgeted through most of the complex meal, announcing early on in his loud baritone to the entire dining room, “Maaaario, you know I am much more of a trattoria kind of guy,” and finally sending his chicken back to the kitchen, because the chef had somehow denied him “THE FUCKING LEGS . . . where are THE FUCKING LEGS . . . ?” When we cooked together he was often at my shoulder with cooking tips and timing questions. “Are you going to stir that?” or “Remember I like it medium rare, not a degree over, damn it,” while cooking a three-inch-thick ribeye from Carnevino on his parrilla in Arizona. By the time we were seated he grudgingly admitted to the deliciousness of the meal and to the success of yet another of our collaborations . . . It always gave me infinite joy.
Photo taken from Lion’s Roar magazine July, 2017.