We go way back, me and Joe.
There are a handful of moments in my life that could be described as “smooth.” When playing Trivial Pursuit once, I was asked, “Who was the Duke of Flatbush?” and without missing a beat I replied, “Levi Strauss?” My sister actually shot Mountain Dew out her nose. And in Las Vegas once, I winked at a man before he shot dice at the craps table and he won an enormous pile of money. These are the moments we cling to when we realize we’ve had a shred of Kleenex hanging out our nose for the better part of the afternoon.
Well, I was real smooth last night. With a celebrity.
I was walking to dinner with Yuri. We were on Michigan Avenue and turned onto Ohio, where I noticed the banners for Eataly. Eataly is chef Mario Batali’s death star, an enormous, multi-level Italian restaurant/marketplace that first opened in New York City. At Eataly, you can have a fishbowl-size glass of wine, buy imported salami, sit down to dinner, and then be rolled out the door by attractive young people in chic aprons who will give you a cannoli for the road. And we’re getting an Eataly here, on Ohio and Michigan, and ours will actually be bigger than New York’s, coming in at 63,000 square feet to Union Square’s runty 50,000. Doors open next week.
Yuri and I were arm-in-arm (it was freezing) and I see the Eataly banners; as we pass the first bank of papered-up windows, I see standing under the entrance a man I recognize to be Joe Bastianich. I recognize him because Joe Bastianich is famous. He owns vineyards and produces fine wines; he is one of three celebrity judges on popular television program Master Chef; and he’s a restauranteur titan who aside from having his own 3- and 4-star joints scattered ’round the globe, works closely with chefs — such as Mario Batali of Eataly. Joe Bastianich was standing under the eaves of his new restaurant, presumably waiting to meet someone. Maybe his wife, maybe his buddy, maybe God. He’s a very important guy.
I see him, he sees me see him. With nary a pause in my gait (and without breaking from Yuri), I glance up at the Eataly banner above us and go, “How’s it goin’ in there?” And Joe Bastianch looks a little surprised, like maybe he should know me, and he goes, ”It’s good.” He looked at me again, closer, but he can’t place me.
I was like, so cool at that moment I felt I could speak for the entire city of Chicago, so as I pass him, like over my shoulder, I go, “We’re looking forward to it.”
“Me, too,” says Joe Bastianich, and Yuri and I just keep on a’walkin.
“Who was that?” Yuri asked me. Yuri doesn’t watch Master Chef.
“That was a famous man,” I said with a tiny little bunny hop, allowing myself to finally geek out. Being smooth with a celebrity is tough for one simple reason: broad exposure in television, print, and film makes a human being seem like an alien life-form that can eternally replicate itself. We would all act a little weird around a replicating alien if we met one, so that’s why it’s weird to see Madonna hailing a taxi, or Igor Stravinsky eating at Jimmy John’s. Or Joe Bastianich checking his text messages on Ohio Street.
Mr. Bastianich, you don’t know me. And I am not nearly as cool as I may have appeared last night. But Chicago is looking forward to Eataly and I can speak for the city when I say welcome, sir.*
*Mary Fons may be reached for gift cards, exclusive wine tastings, and general VIP treatment at Eataly via the contact form on this website. Thank you. — The Management