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Pizza and The Bear
Windfall, Leo Grande, Emmett's on Grove, no beef—just cakes upstate
Post-post-Golden Age TV shows are nearly interchangeable works of relatively high-production value that I don’t waste my time with (this is a movies newsletter), but I’d be remiss not to watch something so explicitly tied to food as The Bear. Plus, the irresistably seductive presence of Jeremy Allen White fiercely compelled me to.
I’ll be back next month with more movies, and if there’s something you think I should watch, let me know.
I. Short takes
II. The Bear
III. Tavern pizza and braciole (Emmet’s on Grove)
IV. Just desserts (Stissing House, Mountain Brauhaus, Mel’s, ACQ, Otway)
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Landline (Gillian Robespierre, 2017): A family portrait of dysfunction never goes the extra mile. There are light shadings of infidelity, coming of age, female arrested development, and lots of sex that just sits there. Jenny Slate’s real life divorce anticipates a sequel or at least an addendum to the film. Nearly worth it for seeing Carmela Soprano and Janice Soprano’s real life brother playing house on the Upper West Side.
Windfall (Charlie Macdowell, 2022): The film sounds promising on paper — Jason Segel robs a tech mogul played by Jesse Plemons and holds him hostage at his Ojai vacation home. But what could’ve been an unequivocal thrill transgresses into a languid chamber piece loaded with dramatic tedium and rote acting — an inevitable consequence of a pancaked script that superficially prods at class conflict, marital dysfunction, and regrets.
(MacDowell’s previous film, The One I Love, did a much better job at capturing an irritable couple (played by Elizabeth Moss and Mark Duplass, two of Hollywood’s most ornery personas) unmoored by a startling and bizarre situation.
Lily James purportedly spent days watching footage of rich people to properly capture their opaqueness, and she does convey an absence of feeling (whether or not that requires skill, I leave for you to judge). Going further, I’d say the film’s greatest feat is that it induces in the viewer the same insipid monotony of anticipation experienced by its characters as they wait for the ransom money — either that, or the shoes.
Plemons’ character stalks around in a pair of Yeezys, bulky appendages of his tech-bro try-hard greed, so I tried to mobilize my interest by guessing what the next sneaker trend would be, or who made the buttery flats James’ character wears. Segel, on the other hand, wears workman boots: a symbol of failed utilitarianism, which ultimately lead to his downfall. Hitchcock (whom the director cites as inspiration) had lighters and glasses; MacDowell has footwear, I guess.
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (Sophie Hyde, 2022): Also confined to a single setting, this Sundance hit is equally plodding. With a complete lack of visual spice, it might've been better as play. A septuagenerian’s (or is it sexagenarian) cautious reluctance to sleep with a hot young sex worker (Daryl McCormack) is both realistic and extremely enervating. Her aggressively wishy-washiness makes for irritable viewing. The entire situation is not unlike being trapped in a new restaurant with an elderly aunt as she waffles back and forth on what to order for 20 minutes. I dutifully applaud Emma Thompson’s willingness to bare it all before the camera, which deserves every bit of praise but does not make up for this otherwise formulaic script.
A fictional drama, The Bear follows Carmen Berzatto (played by White), a fancy Noma-trained, CIA-eduated, heavily accoladed chef who abandons his post at a posh nyc restaurant to run his dead brother’s gritty Chicago sandwich shop. While the place is beloved institution, dubbed “The Beef” by those in the know, everyone agrees it also kind of sucks.
For a show about a restaurant, there is a surprising lack of food footage — one overused close-up of searing beef not withstanding — and what we get is neither mouthwatering nor inspiring. Sydney’s risotto, Marcus’ cakes, family meal spaghetti, they all look delicious but de rigueur. (Similarly, despite the extreme lust-worthyness of White, the show is thoroughly devoid of sex.)
That’s not to say characters don’t enjoy eating — see hardass Trina, played by Liza Colón-Zayas savoring a taste of Carmen’s sandwich. But food’s potential for gustatory pleasure is largely peripheral to what it means as a vessel for family, relationships, and meaning. This isn’t a foodie show so much as a workplace drama.
The Bear zooms in on (often literally, which quaking camera) the disturbingly relentless blood-sweat-and-tears attitude that fuels the restaurant-kitchen and its manifold, toxic consequences, including trauma — the logical terminus of such an environ, well-documented by the media over the past few years. In that vein, the show felt overplayed, until I reminded myself that not everyone is as immersed or up to date with Eater updates and chef memoirs. This is somewhat new territory for stories on screen.
The primary vibe, if you will, of the series is one of merciless clamor and unadulterated chaos as chefs weave in and out of what feels like a compact kitchen, accentuated by the crowding camera. (It is still unclear to me what the restaurant looks like; i would not be able to draw you a floor plan.)
Kitchen hierarchies are based on the French brigade and unwavering obedience, so it makes sense that the characters howl as if they’re in a war zone, living and dying with every last order. To be clear, the yelling on The Bear isn’t the ridiculous shoutiness of Nic Cage; it’s the hellish exasperation of people with nothing else, whose pride and joy revolves around the place.
The Bear also suggests that such toxic workplace evolve in tandem with an ingrained masculinity and excessive bravado. (I laughed in jest as the credits rolled to John Mayer or Counting Crows or Radiohead, and then wondered if these were chosen tongue-in-cheek.) The show plants seeds of optimism through Sydney (played by Ayo Edibiri) a Black woman and skilled chef who takes on the part of sous, hoping to recharge the place. I’ll wait until season two to find out to see where she lands.
EMMET’S ON GROVE
The infernal soundscape of The Bear is matched by the punishingly loudness of Emmet’s on Grove, a supper-club/pizza restaurant. (**It would be too easy to talk about Italian Beef sandwiches, which I mentioned here and the NYTimes was covered here.) On my first visit, I’d enjoyed myself at the bar enough to return to the dining room and regretted it as soon as a fleet of men wearing various pieces of white linen waltzed in a few minutes later.
Emmett's on Grove specializes in a lesser known, but infinitely super, style of Chicago pizza: tavern-style thin crust, the antithesis of deep-dish (which, confusingly, is what's on the menu at just plain Emmett’s a few blocks away). The cracker-thin pie is cut into little squares for easy inhalation. The cheese and toppings are plied just as thin, making it eminently snackable.
The opposite can be said of the restaurant’s dessert version of a Grasshopper: a quart of ice cream blended and bathed in Fernet, which is poured tableside with confounding ceremony. It’s not like you’re going to light it on fire.
I don’t know how I first became aware of braciole — probably by way of Tony or Carmella Soprano — but I do know when it lodged itself in my brain, to remain there eternity: at first bite at Frankies Spuntino 457 maybe six years ago. Braciole, pronounced bra-zhoel by anyone with dignity, is a thin slab of meat rolled up with herbs, cheese, and breadcrumbs, and braised in tomato sauce.
The Franks, as the restaurateurs call themselves, have updated and simplified the nonna classic (no browning, it’s not worth it) to something better than any iteration I've eaten in restaurants both in the states and Italy. Their version is homey yet elevated, fork-tender, and addicting. When the restaurant took it off the menu, I almost cried. Thankfully they included a recipe in their cookbook. (Shoot me an email and I’ll send it to you.)
In The Bear, the Berzatto clan appears to use a leanish cut of beef, which I am against. You should skip beef entirely; pork will pay off dividends in flavor. The Franks opt for pork shoulder, which is available at butcher shop and some groceries, but if you can’t find it, pork butt has similar marbling and makes a fine substitute, though it may take a little longer to soften through.
Simmering the braciole is key, so this is a project best reserved for a Sunday afternoon. Just leave the stove on low, and there will be no risk of overcooking.
To balance the dish’s heartiness, I make an herby salad: in an ideal world fennel, but most likely arugula from a plastic clamshell drenched in more lemon than necessary and fresh olive oil. Make sure to have some crusty white bread on hand to sop up the glorious residue later.
NOT BETTER THAN A CLASSIC
The fior de latte sundae at Mel’s is a festive delight for the eyes, and just okay for the mouth. How they managed to shave the rainbow cookies into soft unbroken ribbons though remains a marvel. (The pizza here is pricey and not worth mentioning, so unless you live in Chelsea I wouldn’t recommend making the trek.)
BREAKFASTS, SWEET AND SAVORY
Kardemummabullar from Otway Bakery: A buttery Swedish bun studded with jagged shards of cardamom unleashes a zip of pine and spiced warmth with every bite. (If you’re in Manhattan, I hear La Cabra’s are just as good, if not better.)
Blueberry milk bread, a summer special from ACQ: Blueberry syrup tops this loaf, more sour than sweet, with modest swirls of fruit inside. I pan-toasted a thick slab in butter, then topped it with buffalo ricotta, whipped in the food processor with olive oil, black pepper, and a smattering of black currants from the Carroll Gardens greenmarket. They’re sweeter than the red ones, but not without a jolting tartness.
Cake textures fall somewhere in the spectrum of airy and dense. The sacher torte at Mountain Brauhaus lands towards the latter with some caveats. Biting into it feels falling onto tempur-pedic in slo-mo. It’s like an incremental descent into delicious chocolate quicksand, possibly achieved through temperature modulation (ie leaving it in the fridge and taking it back out) but it feels too consistent to rely on something imprecise. There’s a conservative trickle of apricots preserves, only a little sweet, wedged in between, and a puddle of syrup if it’s not enough.
Mollusc-like, a slump of whipped cream hangs over a mellow wedge of cake. Unlike the chocolate cake, the coconut slice from Stissing House lands squarely in the fluffy territory. It only whispers the faintest hint of the divisive, fibrous fruit, making it a cake that Coco nucifera-antagonists can withstand, even enjoy.
This is a masterfully humble cake and suitable representation of the restaurant’s Shaker sensibilities, which extend to the rustic interior, exposed beams, weathered wooden floors, iron candle holders and all. I’m so awed by the cake’s elegant plainness, though I wouldn’t be surprised if the simplicity is just the customary ruse of an accomplished baker, that I’m tempted to try and bake my own.