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Nick Grippo, 64; Was Caterer to Stars After Film Career Flopped

May 15, 2003|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Nick Grippo, a Hollywood caterer who made Thanksgiving dinners for Elizabeth Taylor and birthday suppers for Harrison Ford and fed 300 guests at Cindy Williams' wedding, died Friday. Grippo, who had been hospitalized at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Los Angeles, died of kidney failure. He was 64.

His interest in the food business began in his father's Chicago sandwich shop, where he worked from the time he was 11, but he said that his mother taught him to make his most popular recipes, particularly lasagna.

"She was afraid I might starve to death if I didn't know how to make pasta," he once told an interviewer.

His closest brush with cooking school came when, after high school, he enlisted in the Army in 1962 and served as a cook for a special services unit in Germany.

With his no-frills credentials and a down-home manner (he often announced dinner with a hearty, "Come and get it!"), Grippo built a catering business with a celebrity client list.

After many years in the business, he wrote a book (with Jane C. Russo) about the stars and their favorite foods, "Hollywood Dish: Recipes, Tips and Tales of a Hollywood Caterer" (1998).

Taylor's affection for Southern fried chicken; Carrie Fisher's love of sweets, particularly lemon crisps; and Ted Danson's commitment to spinach risotto all were mentioned, along with Williams' preference for Grippo's chicken piccata.

"When Nick walked into a room, it became a festive occasion," Williams told The Times on Wednesday. "It was more than the food. He loved people, and that made them love him."

She met Grippo in 1964 when he came to Los Angeles after his military service and they were both students of Milton Katselas, a popular acting coach. Grippo, who had dreams of a movie career, went on to graduate from UCLA film school.

Williams said that as a student, one of the few healthful dinners she recalls eating was Grippo's homemade meatloaf. It remained a standard item in his repertoire, although he was best-known for his Italian recipes.

As he made friends with his acting classmates -- besides Williams, he got to know Danson and others -- he invited them home to his Hollywood apartment for dinner.

"We'd cheer each other when we were out of work -- often -- and toast our successes," he said.

During the 1970s, his struggles to break into movies were "more anxiety-ridden than rewarding," he later wrote in the introduction to his book. "I appeared in many plays and produced and directed some very forgettable films!"

"Looking back now," he added, "I know what I liked best about those days. It was cooking for my friends."

By the early 1980s, he gave up his dream of a movie career. The actors he knew helped get him started in a different direction.

"When I couldn't get arrested in Hollywood, friends said, 'Cater my wrap party, or my birthday party,' " Grippo told USA Today in 1999. "The next thing I knew, I was a caterer."

A number of his clients were regulars, including Taylor, whom he met in 1973 on a trip to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. She later wrote the introduction to his book.

"Nick and I have spent a lot of time together over the years, and a lot of that time was spent eating ... and eating," Taylor wrote. "I'm especially fond of his 'Caesar Salad with Homemade Parmesan Croutons.' "

For a Fourth of July barbecue that Grippo catered for Taylor in the mid-1980s, then-First Lady Nancy Reagan was a guest. He planned a home-style menu of hot dogs, fried chicken and baked beans, and promised to call his mother in Chicago right after the party to report on what Reagan chose from his menu.

"I was so excited to feed the first lady, and so anxious to tell my mom what she ate," he said in an interview with Copley News Service in 1999.

As it turned out, there was not much to tell. "All I could report was one little hot dog," he said, noting that Mrs. Reagan avoided the bun and the trimmings. "I guess that's why she weighs 12 pounds," he said.

Fisher had dinner parties that began with a cooking lesson for her guests. One night when Barbra Streisand was in the kitchen, Grippo tried to teach her a fast way to chop cilantro.

"Barbra was handling every little leaf," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1999. "I showed her how to fan the blade back and forth to hurry up the process. When I walked away she went right back to chopping it her way, one leaf at a time."

Friends were surprised to discover that his own North Hollywood kitchen was small. It was packed with professional equipment, catering supplies and photographs from parties.

When he tested recipes for his book, he invited his publisher, Paddy Calistro of Angel City Press, to try them. On the rare occasions when he served her spicy gossip with dinner, he added a warning: "If you tell anyone, I'll have to poison your lasagna."

Grippo, who was divorced, is survived by his son, Kenneth; a brother; a niece; and three nephews.

A memorial service will be held at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at the Old North Church at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park, Hollywood Hills, 6300 Forest Lawn Drive, Los Angeles. The family has requested that donations be made to the Multiple Sclerosis Society of America.

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