Backstage with Ron Onesti:
The power of pasta
If by chance I have made your acquaintance, or maybe we have crossed paths on Facebook or somewhere else, you would know I am an Italian-American. With red sauce running through my veins and olive oil on my skin, I love my pasta as much as anyone.
Through the years, as I grew my career in music, I took with me as much of the backstage “pasta and meatball” experience as I could. What started with my grandmother in Chicago’s Little Italy on Taylor Street where I was born, has turned into a part of my rock ‘n’ roll business model.
Ironically (and gravely unfortunately), I never met my grandparents. My Nonna Sabina came over from Naples in 1911 to start a new life in America. She died two weeks before I was born, trying so desperately to hang on just to see the first offspring of her son, my dad Alberto, who was the youngest of six kids.
But what she left behind were old-world culinary traditions, and hundreds of warm recollections shared with me from aunts, uncles, cousins and my own parents. So even though she passed on before I met her, I learned a great deal about my heritage and the passion surrounding it from her.
And who has benefitted? Rock stars including Uli Jon Roth of the Scorpions, Eddie Money, Burton Cummings of the Guess Who, Ted Nugent, Rick Springfield, Kevin Costner, and so many more who relish the fact that there is actually a home-cooked meal in the dressing rooms of a music venue!
On so many occasions, their backstage food is bland, cold and not presented in a way that is appetizing in any way, shape or form. But not at The Arcada!
My grandmother (Nonna) would start at the crack of dawn, blanching yard-grown tomatoes to get the skins off. Little by little the pot would fill, first with olive oil, white onion and whole cloves of garlic. Then red wine to burn off the alcohol. Next came the whole peeled tomatoes. After simmering a bit to loosen the water from the tomatoes, some sugar went in the pot to relieve their acidity. Add in some salt, pepper and ripped basil leaves. Then it simmers for about four hours, filling the neighborhood with a homestyle aroma that brings one back to the piazzas of Naples.
Then came the meatballs. Ground beef, pork and veal were mixed together with a bit of bread crumbs (made from the hardened crusty bread leftovers from the Sunday before), seasonings and spices and fresh parsley. She would bust out the black, cast-iron frying pan to sear the baseball-sized meatballs on all sides, adding that wonderful flavor. After quickly frying the outsides, they would be immersed in her sauce together with fresh Italian sausage and pork neck bones. (I know the neck bone thing seems weird, but you really need to be Italian to understand).
My cousins used to say the best part of the six-hour process was the amount of people from the neighborhood who would stop by just to rip off a hunk of crusty bread and dip it into the gravy when my Nonna wasn’t looking. They would just walk in because the doors were never locked!
But she just pretended not to see. She made extra gravy and about 200 meatballs just to make sure there was enough left by dinner time!
Between lasagna noodles drying on towels and bed sheets spread out everywhere, to freshly washed dandelion leaves and stems picked from the green area along the streets of our neighborhood, which were used to make soup, the cooking process took place in every room of the house.
Recently I had Eddie Money in for another fabulous night of “Take Me Home Tonight,” “Two Tickets To Paradise,” “Baby Hold On To Me” and his numerous other hits. Prior to the show, he came into the kitchen and we started talking food. Next thing I knew, we were making his favorite dish, lasagna, together! In honor of his wife, who is a vegetarian, we made a veggie lasagna together. It was amazing!
The same thing happened with two of my British buddies, Denny Laine of the Wings and Moody Blues, and Joey Molland from the band Badfinger. To make them feel at home, we all got together and made a beef roast with Yorkshire pudding. What a dish!
Making English-style potatoes for Carl Palmer of Emerson, Lake and Palmer was also a huge treat for him. “Just like my Mum makes,” he said.
Of course, more and more are the occasions when I need to prepare gluten free, vegan meals. Recently I used cauliflower-flour to make a pizza dough donned with fresh veggies and olive oil. The vegans LOVED it!
So if I have anything to celebrate as far as my career path goes, I must credit my Nonna as well as my mom. They taught me how to season and prepare “passion” and serve it up to celebs. With all things being equal, the bands love coming by me for “Ron’s meatballs!”
After all the years of preparing homemade, old-school-style dishes for my guests backstage, it has proved one thing. The secret to a great performance is a great, home-cooked meal before the show. Of course, the several glasses of red wine that goes with it could also have something to do with it!
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.