From Pompeii to Salerno
By Steve Herte
This week I lost RoseAnn, a very dear friend of at least 38 years. I met her through the Barbershop Quartet I sang in with her husband in 1976 and the three of us became infamous. One year Tony bought the car of his dreams, a big silver Cadillac (not the ones they make now, this one was huge) and it was quartet competition time. Tony, RoseAnn and I decided to dress in black, white ties on the men, black hats and super dark sunglasses. At every stoplight we’d look suspiciously side-to-side and sometimes we were noticed by passers-by who quickly averted their gaze. When we arrived at the Sheraton Hotel in Washington, D.C., and slowly got out of the car we had to keep from laughing when the bus-boys nearly fell over each other to get our luggage and open the door for RoseAnn. At the time, Tony’s and my quartet was “Bound for Sound” and I was the only non-Italian with Jim Galima, Frank LaRosa and Tony Molaro - later, when Frank left to get married, Phil Provenzano joined and I was still the only German. We had a lot of fun and RoseAnn was always in on it. Boy, could she cook. I still remember her stuffed artichokes. No one made them comparably since. I know I have a photo of her someplace and will scan it onto my Facebook page as a memorial.
All this Italianissimo (yes, we dined at the restaurant of the same name on a pier off Brooklyn) brings me to this week’s selections, both Italian and both from the same location on the Italian boot, on the Gulf of Naples. I’ve been to Pompeii (with Tony and RoseAnn) and seen the plaster casts of the people who once were vibrant citizens of a thriving resort. It was a sobering experience and yet fascinating. See what you think. Enjoy!
Pompeii (Film District/Tri-Star, 2014) – Director: Paul W.S. Anderson. Writers: Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler & Michael Robert Johnson (s/p). Cast: Kit Harington, Emily Browning, Kiefer Sutherland, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Jessica Lucas, Jared Harris, Joe Pingue, Carrie-Anne Moss, Currie Graham, & Dylan Schombing. Color and 3D, 105 minutes.
Ever since Pliny the Younger reported his eye-witness account of the eruption of Vesuvius back in AD 79, the story of the total destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum has become legendary and told from several angles. But simply reading his impressions in high school Latin class does not prepare one for the eye-popping newest version directed by Paul W. S. Anderson. This edition begins with a quote from Pliny and views of the plaster casts made from the vaporized citizens of the doomed resort town. Then it opens onto a battle scene in Britannia during the “Celtic Rebellion” (for some strange reason the Germanic pronunciation with a hard “C” is used throughout the film). Actually it was more like the Celtic massacre, as the Romans on horseback and on foot under Senator Corvus (Sutherland) cut down every man, woman and child, heaping them into a death pile. Saved only by his instincts, young Milo (Schombing) plays dead, digs his way out from under the bodies, and somehow survives until being taken into slavery. However, he remembers Corvus slaying his entire family.
Milo grows to adulthood (Harrington) as a slave and is trained as a gladiator for the arena. His skills and his speed help him to survive all opponents no matter the size, and he is dubbed “The Celt.” His owner brings him to Pompeii for the spectacle of setting him against the reigning champion Atticus (Akinnouye-Agbaje), a mountain of a man who believes that with this victory he will gain his freedom from slavery (poor misguided soul).
Meanwhile in Pompeii, prominent citizen Severus (Harris) and his wife Aurelia (Moss) eagerly await the arrival of their beautiful daughter Cassia (Browning) from a stay in Rome. Along the road to Pompeii one of the horses pulling Cassia’s coach stumbles and breaks a leg just as they are passing the line of slaves being led on foot. She notices Milo immediately and he asks to help the horse, being from a tribe of horse-people. With Cassia’s insistence, he is allowed to put the horse out of its misery and Cassia is impressed. So is her handmaiden, Ariadne (Lucas), who sees the chemistry between these two from the start. The crowds arriving for the celebration of the Vulcanalia (appropriately) delay Cassia’s coach and, impatient to be home in her beloved Pompeii, Cassia drags Ariadne out of the coach. They take in the town before arriving at her parents’ villa on foot.
Severus has grand plans for Pompeii – a new chariot race arena, new bath houses, etc. (a real urban planner) – but needs funding from Rome to accomplish it. He invites Senator Corvus to a party at his villa along with his right-hand man Graecus (Pingue) to hopefully gain his backing on this huge enterprise. He doesn’t know Corvus has met Cassia in Rome and that he desires her in marriage but Cassia will have nothing of it. Another guest at the party, the slave owner, has brought his contestants as a kind of window dressing and sets them on pedestals in the main dining area with Milo facing Atticus. Ariadne sees Milo first and points him out to Cassia. Their eyes meet again and we in the audience immediately know where this is going.
Vesuvius and the god Vulcan have other plans, of course, and the volcano rumbles and shakes the town, momentarily interrupting the partying, but the Pompeiians shake it off. (“It always does that.”) The quaking ground terrifies Cassia’s horse and no one, except Milo, can calm it down. Again, under her insistence, he performs his horse-whispering talent and convinces Cassia to join him on the horse as they ride off to the slopes of Vesuvius chased by Roman soldiers. For this little adventure she gets a reprimand while he gets 50 lashes.
Milo and Atticus share a cell and though each knows he must kill the other they eventually become friends, especially when Corvus changes the order of events in the arena. The slaves are chained to a pylon in the center of the arena and set upon by Roman soldiers as a re-enactment of the “Celtic Rebellion.” It is then Atticus believes that he will never be set free, as he and Milo are the only ones left standing at the end of the battle. When Corvus orders another detachment of soldiers to slaughter them, Vesuvius blows an enormous cloud of black smoke and starts hurling lava bombs helter-skelter. The quake is destroying the arena and the audience is clearing out in terror. One lava bomb collapses the pillared viewing stand where Corvus, Severus and Aurelia sit, and all are knocked unconscious. Aurelia, knowing of Corvus’ designs on her daughter, begs the recovering Severus to kill the still-unconscious Corvus. However, he’s too slow on the uptake and Corvus kills him.
The volcano takes center stage for the rest of the movie as people try to get to the harbor only to find the seriously quaking ground has caused a tidal wave, sending one of the largest ships careening down a city street. A well-placed lava bomb hits and sinks the ship just recently boarded by the slave owner. Corvus has Cassia locked in a room in her villa. Atticus has a final battle with Graecus in the arena after Milo retrieves her. Corvus arrives and snatches Cassia, chaining her to his chariot, Milo chases after them on Cassia’s horse as lava bombs and pumice stones continue to rain down on the city.
If it’s action you want, Pompeii has got it. Forbidden romance? Check. Dazzling special effects? Double check. A great new way of telling a tale that already is universally known? Check. How about historic and scientific accuracy? Well, some license has been taken, but I was very much impressed by the design of the volcano and how they built up the cone at the beginning only to have it disintegrate into the final pyroclastic flow at the end. Pliny never mentioned a tidal wave but it probably happened (he was watching from the other side of the Gulf of Naples). And I loved the ending. Just when you think the two lovers would survive, they realize that the horse cannot outrun the pyroclastic flow carrying both of them. They dismount and embrace as the flow envelops them. Beautiful!
Pompeii is well-constructed, beautifully photographed (the aerial views were breath-taking), and with novel insight into occurrences that could have been on the August 24, AD 79 (or November 23, depending on who you believe). It is a serious film, no intentional comedy at all (except for two scenes when the volcano stops erupting for the lovers’ dialogues – twice), and definitely worth a second viewing.
Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 Martini glasses.
Trattoria Zero Otto Nove
15 West 21st Street (between 5th and 6th Avenues), New York
Chef Roberto Paciullo, a native of Salerno, Italy, opened the first Zero Otto Nove on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx in 2008. The newest venue in the Flatiron District of Manhattan opened in May 2011. The whitewashed exterior stands out on dark 21st Street and the vermillion banner sporting the seahorse logo announces the restaurant’s presence. Inside, the décor is all arches in shades of pale coral, sky blue and sea green constructed to look like a seaside trattoria complete with street lamps. The bar takes up the space in the front windows and the dining area is just beyond it. The young lady at the Captain’s Station led me to a table for four in a central location. Eventually it became a table for two, as they needed the chairs for another party.
My smiling waiter appeared soon after, noted my tap water preference and presented me with the menu. I saw several inventive cocktails on the last page along with the “wines by the glass” and beer menu. I chose the Zeal Martini, a bewitching mixture of Stolichnaya Oranj Vodka, Peach Schnapps, Triple Sec, Cranberry and Ruby Red Grapefruit juices, an intriguing start to Southern Italian feast.
When I mentioned I wanted to have an appetizer, pasta, and a main course my waiter didn’t flinch. I told him I like the exotic and unusual. He listed the specials of the day and got my attention with the Ravioli stuffed with Mortadella, Sopressato and other Italian cold cuts. But after a thorough read through 11 appetizers, 5 salads, 2 soups, 9 pastas, 14 main dishes, 3 sides, 14 pizzas and 2 calzones I chose the Zucca, Salsiccia e Gorgonzola – sautéed sweet sausage crumbled under butternut squash and crowned by Gorgonzola cheese – sizzling in its own little iron frying pan. The combinations of the sweet squash, the tangy cheese and the savory sausage made it a delightful experience. It was all I could do to eat it slowly. The breadbasket had both focaccia and large, tasty crusty bread slices to allow me to enjoy every last bit.
My waiter suggested the Super Tuscan – a 2008 Brunello di Montalcino from Centine vineyards – as a possible match for the flavors I chose and gave me a taste. It was a beautiful deep ruby red wine, fruity in flavor and light on the tannins – an excellent accompaniment to the meal.
The pasta I chose was the most exotic (for me) on the menu and also the most difficult to eat. It was Linguini al Nero di Seppi – fine linguini pasta with cuttlefish meat sautéed with garlic, oil and black squid ink (frankly, I don’t think it comes in any other colors). A server came over to my table offering fresh black pepper. Looking at the already black mass in front of me, I wondered if he could tell where he peppered it, but I let him do it anyway. The cuttlefish was tender and almost invisible in the black mass of linguini on the plate. The flavor was subtly fishy, delicately garlicky and another temptation to devour it too quickly. After the first few bites I wiped my chin and the black stains on the napkin reminded me to eat this dish carefully. Again, the bread helped clean the plate upon finishing it.
My main course has been a flagship dish on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx for the original Zero Otto Nove, but I didn’t know it at the time. The Coniglio Cacciatore (Rabbit - Hunter Style) was described on the menu as a rabbit stew in tomato sauce with fresh rosemary but it was more than that. The ample portion of tender, slightly dry rabbit meat, on the bone was cloaked in a rich tomato sauce with just the right hint of rosemary (I usually worry about rosemary as it is a very powerful herb) and sat there begging me to tear into it, which I did. The sauce made up for the dryness, as did the wine, and in time there was nothing left but bones. I guess my waiter never tired of saying it but for a third time he said, “Good job!”
Though I definitely had room for dessert and had read about Chef Robert’s famous cannoli, I took one look at the time and 10 o’clock was coming soon. Knowing the length of my commute home I ordered a Double Espresso and a glass of Berta Gavi di Gavi Grappa and called it a night. Many other dishes on the menu were still calling me to try them as well as some of the specials and of course, dessert. I will just have to find another occasion to return to Trattoria Zero Otto Nove. Maybe next time I’ll learn my waiter’s name and the meaning of Zero Otto Nove (089) – it sure isn’t the address either in Manhattan or the Bronx.
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