Q & A With John Pankow: Showtime's "Episodes," Illicit Guanciale and A Proper English Fry-Up
You may remember John Pankow from his role as Paul Reiser's everpresent cousin Ira Buchman on the '90s sitcom "Mad About You" or perhaps you've been watching him steal scenes as Merc Lapidus, the power-obsessed, manipulative and wholly oblivious television network head he plays on Showtime's new comedy series "Episodes."
But our head-swiveling memory of him involves Taverna di Castelluccio, a thumb-sized restaurant famous for its organic lentils, black truffles and spectacular meats in the remote hilltop village of Castelluccio, the highest settlement in Italy's beautiful Apennines mountains. We were in the middle of a three hour lunch a few years ago when Pankow walked in, scanned the room for a moment, then exited so swiftly it was as if we'd just had a weird "Mad About You" flashback. Recently, Pankow spoke to Squid Ink about the upside of Umbrian bread, why his "Episodes" character wouldn't be caught dead at Nate 'n Al and, of course, what he was doing in a town, pop. 150, that's a 2 ½ hour drive from Rome.
Squid Ink: Taverna di Castelluccio. Unravel the mystery.
John Pankow: [My wife, daughter and I] have been staying right outside of Spoleto for about 20 years. Castelluccio is a place that we're familiar with. The whole region is famous for black truffles, olive oil and more or less, porcinis. Also meat: It's like one big salumeria. Wherever we go in Italy, people say to us, "Oh, man, you eat well, don't you? You're in UMBRIA."
SI: Except for the salt-less Umbrian bread. Back in 1531, Pope Paul III decided to make salt a taxable item, so the citizens of Umbria rose up as one and said, "There's a simple solution to this..."
JP: Yeah. They went "Va fangul. We're taking the salt out of the bread. We don't need it." And you know what? It makes sensational crostini because it's like a blank slate. Basically you drizzle some olive oil on it and sprinkle some sea salt and you're off to the races. And some grilled sausages? Fuggedaboutit.
SI: What's the nicest thing you've ever smuggled home from Italy?
JP: Guanciale, the prized Italian bacon from the cheek. Fantastic.
SI: When you stroll into Customs with a suitcase filled with unsmoked cured hog jowl are you mindful of the meat-sniffing beagles?
JP: Hell, yeah. We don't do it with regularity - only once or twice. I'm a little paranoid. Can you imagine [being in jail] and someone going, "What are you in for?" "Guanciale. What are you in for?" "I murdered three people" [laughs] What really happens probably is that they find it, confiscate it, and go, "Fabulous! Let's make some Amatriciana!"
SI: You live in New York. Why are you in Los Angeles?
JP: I'm hanging out in a friend's sublet. This is when all of the animals go to the Serengeti for the feeding season.
SI: You are referring to the time of year when actors come to Los Angeles hoping to get cast in a TV show?
JP: Yes. Pilot season.
SI: Where do you like to eat when in the Serengeti?
JP: There's a lot of good places. Mozza is fantastic. I love Tito's Tacos. Philippe's! I love Philippe's! I mean, you can get a beef dip sandwich anywhere. But how often do you get a sandwich where they're cutting the lamb off the leg? The dipped lamb sandwich with a little bit of that hot mustard! And the best cole slaw in the world! It's like OH MAN. Paul Reiser loves to eat. When we did "Mad About You," sometimes he'd just look at me and go, "Philippe's?" and then we'd get on the I-10 and drive straight there.
SI: You seem very knowledgeable about food. Answer this: Why is it almost impossible to get good porchetta in the United States?
JP: Here's the deal: Here, pigs have been bred leaner and leaner because of people's obsession with fat, cholesterol and weight. In Italy, they let their piggies get fatter. Hence, more flavor and more moisture. I'm not saying that you can't find good pork here because you can. But I think over there it's a different animal in terms of how it's been bred.
SI: Let's talk about Merc Lapidus, the totally insane network executive you play on Showtime's "Episodes."
JP: Merc is a man of big appetites, all big ones. He's just kind of a walking Id.
SI: What's his relationship to food?