YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Kitchen Table | Real Cooks

A Tough Act to Follow


Actor Frank Sivero has this terrific idea for a situation comedy. He calls it "The Neighborhood." See, there's this one guy, a rough-and-tumble ex-con who has inherited the family's Brooklyn pizza parlor, Nino's. Actually, he's half-owner with his cousin, a "four-star" chef.

Sivero already has the chef cast: It'll be his pal Vincent Schiavelli, an actor-cookbook writer. And the ex-con? That'll be Sivero himself.

"Vincent's like this four-star chef who can't hold a job because of his temper. He has to do things his own way," Sivero says. "Me, I'm like a guy who, you know, deals with people from all walks of life."

Of course, to get the full impact of the idea, you've gotta hear Sivero explain it himself. A short, muscular guy with jet black hair like steel wool, Sivero is definitive Brooklyn Italian. Look up "red sauce" in the dictionary, and there's his picture.

He's parlayed those dems and doses into a solid acting career with more than 27 film and 100 television credits. He was--of course--in "GoodFellas" and "The Godfather, Part II." In neither did he play a Presbyterian minister.

And when he cooks, as he frequently does, it's definitive Brooklyn Italian food.

"Take a look at what I found here," he says as he pops open a cabinet door. It's jam-packed with Italian canned tomatoes. He opens the cabinet next to it. Same thing. The next two are similarly packed with boxes of dried spaghetti.

"It was a sale," he says. "What am I gonna do? You don't understand: I'm going to be selling these on the street. I got a whole trunk full of this stuff."

Someone jokes that his stash is just his equivalent of a Brooklyn fallout shelter. But how long would it last him? "About 30 days," he says, perhaps in jest.

Actually, that's probably only if he went out to eat a couple of nights. Sivero's cooking is built on red sauce. In fact, for this dinner, he makes three kinds: one with meat sauce, one with meat sauce and ricotta, and a meatless one he serves with sauteed eggplant. All are wonderful.

Although he lived for years in Brooklyn, Sivero was born in Sicily and lived there until he was 11.

"I grew up in a town called Siculiana, in the province of Agrigento," he says. "My family were farmers; they had a lot of people working for them. My dad owned about 750 sheep. He had cows. He used to make his own wine, olive oil.

"What happened, without getting too involved, he had a difficult time living over there. . . . There were things he didn't want his kids exposed to. So in July 1963, my father, myself and my two older brothers came here. My mom and six other kids came in December.

"My dad went to work for a dye factory. That lasted about five or six months. He had never worked for anyone before in his life. Then he decided to open his own business. My older brother was a hairdresser, so he opened up a beauty shop. Then he bought a house. From the beauty shop, he ended up getting himself involved in a pizza place. One pizza place became four pizza places. One was called Gaitano's, one was called Nino's, one was called Villa, the other one was called Nino's, again."

Sivero didn't start cooking until years later, but it was those early years in Brooklyn that marked his style. "There was always food, always extra food," he says. "My mom never cooked for one or two people; it was always 10, 20, 30. There were always leftovers. And the dogs ate pretty good, by the way. The cats ate pretty good. The neighbors ate pretty good."

Sivero got the acting bug early. In his teens he started pumping iron and worked out at the gym with a relative of the actor Vince Edwards (born Vincent Edward Zoino and most famous for being "Ben Casey").

"It was his nephew, Terry. He was a big gorilla," Sivero says. "I was like 14 years old. Somehow I had this idea about going to Rome and doing Hercules movies. So I says to him, 'Do you know your uncle, what school he went to?' And he says to me, 'I don't know but I could ask him.' "

Edwards pointed Sivero toward the drama workshops on 42nd Street in Manhattan. Before he could start actually learning about acting, he says, his coach insisted on giving him three months of speech lessons. "Like I can't talk," he protests, "you know what I mean?

"But I swear, when I was done, I really lost the accent. From 1967 to '75, I had no accent whatsoever. I was doing plays in toilets, churches, garages, everywhere. Off-Off-Broadway. I was doing everything and nobody knew where I was from."

Finally in 1977, he got a part in the Martin Scorsese-Robert DeNiro film "New York, New York" and really connected with a character--Brooklyn-born, of course. "It was great," Sivero says. "I became so loose. It was all 'Hey, ova deah or ova heah?' I was into dis ting. Knowhadimean?"

Los Angeles Times Articles