Chow Bella

64: Marianne Belardi

From now 'til we publish the 2012 edition of Best of Phoenix, New Times and Chow Bella present 100 Tastemakers -- Valley residents who make the cut in our culinary scene. Some you'll know; for others, it'll be a first introduction (but likely not the last). While you're here, check out our 100 Creatives on Jackalope Ranch.

Today: A woman who's not afraid to admit she'd eat leftover butterscotch pudding for breakfast.

Tastemaker 64: Marianne Belardi

Marianne Belardi spent 15 years with the Cowboy Ciao group, wearing every hat from cook to promoter, but has now begun to reinvent herself. Despite her passion and enthusiasm for the hospitality industry, for many years she secretly dreamed of working in hospice where she will help people eat, drink and enjoy life or help people stop eating, drinking, and process death. You can tweet with Marianne about living, dying, food, nature at @ciaomari and read more of her family's and other stories at her website.

I arrived in Phoenix (in November 1989) with... the intention to exchange a cold, New York winter for an enviable suntan and quality time with my sister, while I waited to join the Nassau County police force. Two days after arriving, I landed a position as a French technical translator. By the time I received the academy's call-up notice, I had been thoroughly seduced by the climate, lifestyle, and affordability of our beautiful Sonoran desert. When the project I was translating was scrapped, a restaurant job seemed ideal to support myself while writing the proverbial great American novel. Much of my family was horrified, having envisioned me segueing from college to being a diplomat, interpreter or teacher, if not a cop. The 'restaurant bug' bit me, and I spent the next 5 years wearing pillbox hats and fishnet stockings, serving burgers and sass at the late, great fifties diner tribute that was Ed Debevic's. I'm still having trouble removing that stinger.

If I were sitting down to dinner for six, my five dream dining companions would be... so difficult to choose, as I can imagine dozens of such tables. I have scribbled ideas for a book based on this, no joke. Each chapter would be a dinner party, detailing the menu, venue, guests, and ensuing conversation/shenanigans. I wouldn't sit with them; but I would join in the camaraderie and conversation while I cooked for, and served them, in a big, farm-style kitchen. Here's a sample:

Wisecracking sexpots: Anaïs Nin, Mae West, Dorothy Parker, Marilyn Monroe, Cher, Madonna. Spiritual philosophers: Carl Jung, Leo Buscaglia, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, Louise Hay, Marianne Williamson, Eckhart Tolle. Female writers: Jane Austen, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Agatha Christie, Erma Bombeck, M.F.K. Fisher. Gemini men: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Cole Porter, JFK, Andy Griffith, Maurice Sendak, Prince/Johnny Depp [they're so thin, they could share one chair]. But the dreamiest table of all would be one filled with family members who have passed on, who nourished me with a love of growing things and eating simple, seasonal food. And my mother would be by my side, advising and helping me cook.

My maternal grandparents, Sadie and Joe: Sicilian immigrants, they owned a Brooklyn produce store until 1955, then spent their golden years turning a bare suburban plot on Long Island into an oasis of fruit trees, grape vines, berry and rose bushes, vegetables, herbs, and flowers of every kind. They taught me to love figs, lamb, eggplant, Ritz crackers, Breyer's ice cream, éclairs and butterscotch pudding. I spent countless childhood afternoons with them and my aunt, playing Bingo and Canasta, and watching The Galloping Gourmet.

My cousin Little Nicki: Little, because she was the youngest of the three female Nicki cousins; ironically, she was the tallest, even without her ever-present high heels. Any meal at her home was an event, whether cold cuts [always Boar's Head], served on Melmac in the kitchen, or a sprawling Sunday dinner on cream and gold-rimmed Lenox china in the all-white dining room. Her New Jersey home included a peach orchard, garden rows as far as the eye could see, and a spit rotisserie for pig roasts. She owned a bridal gown boutique, looked like a movie star, and I wanted to be her when I grew up.

My Auntie Anne: Dad's youngest sister, who became a nurse, joined the army, and caused a stir by marrying a Jewish man considerably older than she. She was also Mom's cousin, childhood playmate, and best friend. They died only 2 months apart. Memorable meals at her home often included a walk to the garden to help fill the gigantic wooden salad bowl, and berry cobbler or pie from berries picked in the woods around her home. She had the coolest cat. Gordo ate by scooping up canned food with a paw and licking it off, much to my Dad's disgust, since his bowl sat on top of the dishwasher.

My Great Aunt Rose & Great Uncle Russell: From a tiny patch of dirt behind their Niagara Falls home, he filled enough cellar shelves with glass jars of canned and pickled vegetables to last all winter. For nearly 60 years, if he shot it, she cooked it, until she was nearly blind. Although I was a small child, the way they spoke to one another, with a combination of respect and playfulness, seemed so rare and made quite an impression on me. I cherish the handful of times I visited their home, or they came to stay at the farm [he was my grandma Carmela's half-brother]. And yes, squirrel does taste like chicken.

Sebastian and Carmela, the paternal grandparents I never knew: They emigrated from the same small village as Sadie and Joe, and grew Concord grapes on a 70 acre farm in Chautauqua County, New York, near Lake Erie. When she died at 38, giving birth to their 13th child, he became a widower with six kids aged 2 to 14. The Great Depression began one year later, but Carmela's preserved food stockpiled in the root cellar lasted a full three years, said my aunts. Skeleton in family closet: Grandpa Sebastian's sister Antoinette, was Grandpa Joe's mother, making my maternal grandfather my Dad's uncle, and my parents second cousins. Heh-heh-heh [in my best Sling Blade voice].

Oops, that's eight... two more chairs please. Then again, since they're an ethereal bunch, there should be plenty of room.

One place everyone who comes to Phoenix must eat is... Restaurant FnB. Team Charleen feeds your face, Team Pavle fills your glass, and everyone "fusses all over you." Arizona wines and local ingredients with stellar pedigrees are fantastic in their own rights, but FnB operates with a level of integrity, detail, and caring that takes the term "labor of love" to new heights. You see and taste it on the plate, in the glass; but you feel it in your soul. And that my friends, makes all the difference. FnB dazzles, and does Arizona mighty proud.

One menu item this town could do without is... attitude. No surprise, one of my all-time favorite books/movies is Laura Esquivel's Like Water For Chocolate. Kitchen glitches, tableside faux pas? I'm patient and forgiving to the max. But try serving me your apathy, negativity, or hostility along with my meal, and I will not return for seconds. All too often, service with a snarl is not only tolerated but rewarded, with appropriate, or even generous tipping. I bristle when someone says service is the least important part of the dining equation. It's an insult to those who choose to make a career in hospitality, who provide it genuinely, and find themselves "all charmed out" at the end of a busy evening, from having anticipated guests' desires, and gone above and beyond to thrill. Rant over. But if you'd like more, with a side of nostalgia, I waxed poetic about service in my TEDx salon presentation last December.

My last meal in Phoenix would be...

Kai for a 'Petite Food Art' sampler [I have not yet been, but I stalk their Facebook page];

the Bay to Breakers cocktail at Cowboy Ciao [Hendrick's, St Germain, fresh grapefruit...oh yeah];

Citizen Public House for a wildly creative Bernie Kantak salad [with Dos Cabezas Meskeoli];

Rancho Pinot for Nonni's Sunday Chicken [with Callaghan Buena Suerte];

Butterscotch Pudding at FnB [getting full, might need this to-go... yay, breakfast!];

The Last Drop Bar at Hermosa Inn, for a Negroni [to sip on the patio, while drinking in the night sky]

A ride home and tuck me in! With a gallon of water and maybe just a little nip of Amaro Montenegro on my bedside table? With any luck, my travels would take me somewhere with a food scene as eclectic and dynamic as the Valley's, but just in case, on the way out of town, I'd stop at my neighbor Tracy Dempsey's house for some fresh marshmallows, and then swing by Nobuo at Teeter House to pick up a cooler filled with tuna tataki & beet purée, hamachi & grapefruit, tako & tomato, and whatever other 9 or 12 items are on the current hassun plate.

Hope I'm heading Southeast the next day, because after that night of indulgence, my tummy will be craving a Coconut-Hemp Latte from The Pomegranate Cafe.

The Tastemakers so far: 100: Tracy Dempsey 99: Craig DeMarco 98: Lara Mulchay 97: M.J. Coe 96: Betty Alatorre de Hong 95: Eric Schaefer 94: Hanna Gabrielsson 93: Shinji Kurita 92: Silvana Salcido Esparza 91: Mike Pitt 90: Christina Barrueta 89: Christopher Gross 88: Jan Wichayanuparp and Helen Yung 87: DJ Fernandes 86: Cullen Campbell 85: Chris Lee 84. Gwen Ashley Walters 83: Tony Morales 82: Lylah Ledner 81: Andrea White 80: Lori Hashimoto 79. Mrs. White 78: Eugenia Theodosopolous 77: Lou & Lovey Borenstein 76: Anthony Patafio 75: Carl Seacat 74: Sacha Levine 73: Sharon Salomon 72: Johnny Chu 71: Susie Timm 70: Jason Silberschlag 69: Gina Miller 68: Cindy Gentry 67: Amy Binkley 66: Dave Anderson 65: Mark Tarbell

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