Dinner and a Movie
From Austria to Italy (On More Than $5 a Day)
From Austria to Italy (On More Than $5 a Day)
By Steve Herte
April is probably my busiest month. My social life picks up noticeably as well as my office work. This week I attended a members-only preview of a new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History. Next week I not only have a good friend coming up from North Carolina to sing karaoke with but there’s a chance of a reunion with my quartet. My dad’s 93rd birthday happens this month and his medical conditions have prompted me not to travel anywhere on vacation this year. Ah well, as Stephen King wrote, “Everything’s Eventual.” It’s a good thing I live in the city of endless possibilities. I will be writing about the exhibit (and the dining after it, of course) and I have a few other articles up my sleeve. But for now, here’s what happened on Good Friday. Enjoy!
Woman in Gold (Weinstein Co., 2015) – Director: Simon Curtis. Writer: Alexi Kaye Campbell (s/p). Based on the life story of Maria Altmann and E. Randal Schoenberg. Stars: Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Katie Holmes, Daniel Brühl, Antje Traue, Tatiana Maslany, & Max Irons. Color, 109 minutes.
My cousins in Dienheim told me that they’re too ashamed to talk about the era when an Austrian “paper-hanger” put an indelible stain on German history. I guess I don’t blame them. The horrific acts committed then and the malicious persecution eclipsed World War II itself. This movie is the tale of Maria Altmann (Mirren) who, with Randol Schoenberg (Reynolds), spent over 10 years battling the Austrian government to return precious artworks stolen by the Nazis.
Maria has found letters written by her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer (Traue), that she hopes will start a legal case to get the family’s treasures back. Adele herself was the model for the painting “Woman in Gold” by Gustav Klimt and a couple others of his paintings. At the time of the film – the 1990s – they were housed at the Belvedere Museum in Vienna. “Woman in Gold” had by then achieved as much fame as the “Mona Lisa” in Paris. She shows these letters to young Shoenberg, just asking him to determine if she indeed has a case.
Randol and his wife Pam (Holmes) are just getting their lives together with a young daughter and a baby on the way. Recently coming out of a failed private practice, he has just managed to obtain a job with a reputable law firm in Los Angeles when Maria brings him her letters. Being of Austrian descent and directly related to the famous composer helps in wooing him to Maria’s cause. He convinces his new boss to allow him a week’s trip to Vienna to pursue the case.
At first Maria refuses to go. Flashbacks to when she was a child and later a young woman (Maslany) trying to escape with her future husband Fritz (Irons) are such painful memories that she can’t even think of returning to Austria. But, Randol manages to convince her. With the help of a reporter friend (Brühl) who has connections in the Belvedere, they go through tons of records and find evidence that Adele’s will ceding the Klimt paintings to the museum was not only invalid, but not an official will at all. They present the case to the Restitution Bureau of Vienna. However, the government is adamant and they learn that the cost of a court case in Austria would be in the millions of dollars. They return, defeated, to L.A.
Randol does more research and discovers a way to sue Austria from United States’ soil. Again, Maria is reluctant to go through the embarrassment she suffered in Austria, but when she discovers that Randol quit his job at the firm (his boss would not grant him any more leeway) she accompanies him to court. A woman judge rules in their favor and the Austrian government appeals the decision. It is in the United States Supreme Court that the ruling comes down pronouncing the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act can be applied retroactively.
A victory? Yes. But now they have to return to Vienna to discuss terms. Once again, the museum officials and Austrian government tries to stonewall them. I’m frankly surprised that no one accuses them of acting like Nazis. When Randol suggests an Impartial Arbitration Committee, Maria thinks he’s crazy. But after he delivers beautiful and sensitive speech, the committee decides in her favor. It is an extremely moving moment in the film, and it would be wise to bring tissues or a handkerchief.
In the credits we learn that it was 68 years after the Nazis stole the paintings they were returned to their rightful owner and are now hanging in the Neue Galerie in New York City, owned by Ronald S. Lauder (played by Ben Miles). It was estimated that 100,000 works of art still have not been returned.
Frankly, Woman in Gold is one of the most powerful films I’ve ever seen. Helen Mirren is at her best, even if her Austrian accent deteriorates as the film progresses to finally become the way she spoke in Iron Lady. Ryan Reynolds gives an excellent performance as an impassioned modern-day hero (who, by the way has the one and only vulgarity in the entire movie). A spectacular bit of casting is Tatiana Maslany as the young Maria Altmann. Maslany not only looks like she could be Mirren in younger days, but she also convincingly acts like her. I’m sure she did a lot of studying for her part. And then there’s the perfection of Antje Traue, who definitely could have been the model for “Woman in Gold.” The resemblance is amazing. Katie Holmes is superb as the wife who wants her family to be well cared for and rails against her husband when he quits his lucrative job, but still loves and supports the man who she believes is doing the right thing.
Though, like my extended family in Germany, I’m not too keen about being constantly hit over the head by the atrocities of Nazi Germany. But I was totally moved to near exhaustion by the emotion and force of this movie. The musical soundtrack adds to the irresistible power of the acting. I can see several nominations in the future and some deserved wins. I came to see Mirren and she did not disappoint.
Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 Martini glasses.
69 MacDougal Street (Houston Street), New York
I knew when I made my reservation that the Villa Mosconi has been around a long time because I’ve had many opportunities to see its name in listings. In fact, this charming family-owned (Chef Pietro Mosconi still oversees the kitchen) has been serving moderately priced, hearty Northern Italian food for 39 years. They became the oldest Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village when the much older Caffe Dante (est. 1915) closed recently. However, if we’re talking age, Barbetta’s, on Restaurant Row (46th Street), is the oldest Italian restaurant in New York; still owned by the same family at 106 years.
But still there are older Italian eateries. John’s, on 12th Street in the East Village, is now 107, Lombardi’s, on Spring Street, is 118 and my favorite, Delmonico’s, on Beaver Street, is a whopping 178 years old.
Compared to these, Villa Mosconi is a baby, but she has a class act going. After passing under the forest green awning and entering the restaurant, I was greeted with “Buona Sera” (Good Evening) for the first time in my 361 previous Italian restaurants. I was charmed as soon as I entered: the cherry wood bar is classic décor and the walls are covered with framed photos of the family and past events. I was led into the main dining area and seated at a table of four in the middle of the room. I felt like a “Don” (not to mention I kind of looked the part, dressed all in black, shirt, slacks and tie).
The main room is lovely, with cream-colored walls hung with paintings in elaborate wood frames. The lighting is perfect, not too bright, and not too dim. Around the room people are enjoying their food and their company and one can hear Italian phrases from every corner. That is except for the two tables on either side of myself. On one side I had four large Asian men who each could have been a linebacker for a pro football team. One of them twirled and ate a forkful of spaghetti nearly the size of a tennis ball. On the other side were three adults (two women and a man), and a little girl who clearly ruled the other three. Whatever the child wanted she got. She watched videos on her smartphone most of the time.
Franco, a waiter of great experience (I could tell by his carriage and silver-streaked hair), took my water preference and presented me with the menu. Be ready to “mangia” when you come here; the menu has great variety and it all looks superb. It’s the reason I chose this place for Good Friday.
Franco reappeared and asked if I wanted a cocktail. Upon learning that they did indeed have Beefeater’s gin, I ordered my favorite martini and was surprised at how quickly it was prepared. It was just right.
After an appropriate amount of time studying the menu, I was convinced that three courses would not be enough. Four was perfect. And then Franco brought the specials-of-the-day menu. I told him he’s “gonna make-a me crazy,” and he laughed. But it did change my mind on choice of main course. Enjoining Franco to tell me if I’ve ordered too much food (like that’s possible in a good Italian restaurant), I made my selections.
A server brought out the breadbasket with several slices of crusty soft Italian bread and plastic-wrapped breadsticks (didn’t touch these, but finished the bread), along with a slice of Bruschetta as an amuse-bouche and a small dish with foil-wrapped pats of butter.
I asked Franco for the wine list and in no time I had chosen the 2011 Sangiovese, “Vigna della Capanna” Losi, Toscana, a lovely full-bodied red with fruity after tones. It was time for the appetizer. The Carciofo Al Forno – baked artichoke with cheese, bread crumbs, olives and garlic arrived splayed over an entire plate, and Franco brought a bowl for discarded leaves. Remembering fondly how my dear friend RoseAnn had made this dish, I virtually attacked it. And it was wonderful – not as great as RoseAnn’s, which had more cheese – and a nostalgic experience.
Having cleaned my plate (to Franco’s pleasure), it was soup time. Having seen the size of the bowls on other tables I felt confident that this dish would be easily doable. The Zuppa Di Spinaci – spinach soup in a chicken stock broth with grated cheese on top – was served in a larger bowl than the artichoke. OK. As someone told me to in a previous restaurant, I paced myself. It was delicious. I’m always amazed that something so simple as spinach soup can be so comforting. The bread assisted in again wiping the bowl clean. “Again?” said Franco smiling.
Usually I like to take pictures of my various dishes to help me remember them. My pasta course received no such photography. I had the Gnocchi Al Pesto – homemade potato pasta in basil/cheese sauce – and I was moaning with pleasure at every bite. It virtually melted in my mouth with creamy goodness and herbal aroma. Once again, I left a white plate.
Now, while some may think that I was rapidly becoming sated, I was actually ready for the main course. Franco, being the experienced server he is, allowed sufficient time between courses to let the previous one settle before the next one was served. This generally only happens in caring family-owned Italian restaurants and in Italian homes, and it again brought memories of Tony and RoseAnn and many meals with them.
The Tilapia Marechiara (clear sea) – Tilapia with clams and mussels in a tomato sauce made from both sweet and tart tomatoes, white wine and garlic – was as much a pleasing sight as it was to taste. The clams were a little on the tough side, the mussels were tender and sweet, and the fish was beyond tender, almost to the melting point, all in that wonderful, simple sauce. It was sided with a dish of broccoli, carrot fingers and roasted potatoes. That was the only dish I did not finish. I loved the crunchy broccoli and some of the potatoes, but I left the carrot fingers. (I don’t really like them to begin with, as they look unnatural.)
Was I full now? Well, surprisingly not. Especially when I discovered that my favorite Italian dessert was on the menu. Though not fresh and warm – as I’m used to – the cold Zabaglione with strawberries served in a parfait glass was just the thing to top off the meal. Franco said when I finished, “Now you’ve had all your favorites! Any after dinner drink?” “Do you have Strega?” “Si!” Then, with a double espresso, I indeed had had all my favorites. How did I ignore this restaurant for 39 years?
On leaving, when I learned about the restaurant history (and Caffe Dante’s passing) I thanked them all for a wonderful meal and especially the woman who greeted me with “Buona Sera.” She started a memory that continued through the evening and long into the night. Maybe next time I’ll dine in the brick-walled sky-lit patio, somewhat al fresco, area in back.
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