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Mauro Vincenti: A Remembrance

August 15, 1996|DAVID SHAW

Eight years ago, I was planning my proposal of marriage. I was going to take my intended to Rex, the beautiful Italian restaurant in downtown Los Angeles, and hide the engagement ring in the bread basket. Then--at some point between the pasta and the main course, I figured--I'd watch Lucy's reaction when she found the ring instead of a dinner roll. If she didn't look horrified, I'd pop the question.

But business was slow at Rex that night, as it often has been midweek, and the proprietor, Mauro Vincenti, strolled over to chat several times before we'd even had our appetizer.

I'd first met Mauro when he opened his eponymous restaurant in Glendale, less than 10 minutes from my house, in 1977. We often joked about my having sent back a pasta dish on my first visit to Mauro's, complaining then and in a subsequent letter that the dish wasn't properly prepared.

I didn't realize it at the time, but Mauro--who died Wednesday of cancer--may have known more about Italian food than virtually anyone else in America; my comments to him were a little like some first-year art student questioning Picasso's choice of colors.

Fortunately, Mauro had an enormously generous spirit, and he never told me what an ignorant jerk I had been. Indeed, we became quite friendly over the years, and when Lucy came to Los Angeles to visit me early in our cross-country courtship, Rex was one of the first restaurants I took her to.

After Lucy moved here, Mauro immediately recognized their shared sense of the aesthetic, their mutual passion for the perfect, tiny espresso, so he often spoke more to her than he did to me--especially at the end of the meal.

"Espresso is just one swallow, one hit of pure caffeine," Mauro used to say. "Anything more than that is coffee--a beverage. Espresso is not a beverage."

Mauro loved his espressos. He drank them all day, one after the other, and in the final months of his life, when he was unable to eat or keep anything in his stomach--even espresso--he would several times a day just sniff a fresh espresso or swish it around in his mouth and spit it out.

On the night of my planned proposal, Mauro--normally ebullient and gregarious--seemed lonely and a little downcast, so after his fourth visit to our table, we invited him to sit down with us.

He didn't get up until we'd paid our check more than three hours later. Meanwhile, the busboy--giving us excruciatingly attentive service--kept bringing new baskets of fresh bread, and I kept having to think up ruses to surreptitiously retrieve the diamond ring from each about-to-disappear basket.

I didn't get to propose until we got home that night. But I wasn't the least bit unhappy. Quite the contrary. Mauro had kept us entertained with stories of the chefs, farmers, provisioners and producers of food he'd encountered on his various trips back to his native Italy. Like almost every conversation with Mauro, it was informative and amusing.

I'll miss him. So will many, many other people who knew him far better than I did.

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