When Frankie Avalon goes home to Philadelphia, the working class neighborhood in which he grew up, checking into a four-star hotel ahead of that evening’s supper club performance of signature hits like “Why,” “Venus,” and “Beauty School Dropout,” he dons no disguises, hides behind no thousand-dollar shades, carries his own bags to his room after checking in not as Walter Blunt, Chandler Bing, or Mr. Stench (pseudonyms of traveling celebrities like Sir Patrick Stewart, Justin Bieber, and Johnny Depp, respectively), but as, you know, Frankie Avalon.
No, when Frankie Avalon’s in Philly, he’s Frankie Avalon. By the time he hits the stage that night, the audience, their emotions, and their profound nostalgic urgings stirred to vivid, transcendent life with every note he croons, he’s not just Frankie Avalon; he becomes, with a cool, deep inhale and the vibrations of his gilded vocal cords, Frankie Avalon, multi-platinum recording artist, star of dozens of films (including Beach Blanket Bingo, The Alamo, and Grease), perennial Vegas headliner and nightclub superstar even at the age of 75 and, of course, Teen Angel.
The delights Avalon proffers are simple, the lessons available from even a cursory review of his storied career many. By his own admission, Avalon is not the greatest singer who ever lived, or the finest actor, nor the most handsome man to walk the Earth, but by applying an unwavering, immigrant work ethic and a steadfast joie de vivre, he has secured his place in the pop firmament, maximizing utterly through blood, sweat, and tears the gifts with which he was born. Avalon, in addition to being charming, quick-witted, and (as all the cool kids are saying) dreamy, is also the living embodiment of an American Dream in dire need of defibrillation. Avalon, who lives in Los Angeles with Kay, his wife of 53 years, near to his eight children and 10 grandchildren, is testament to the unrivaled power of combining one’s passion, sheer determination, and indefatigable effort to ascend, to overcome, to become – and he does it all without breaking a sweat or missing a step.
Avalon is like that, too, in the kitchen, the stage of his latest act, celebrity cookbook author. Drawing on four generations of Avalon victuals and grub, Italian fare keyed (like the superstar’s music) to pleasure and community, Avalon has penned Frankie Avalon’s Italian Family Cookbook: From Mom’s Kitchen to Mine and Yours, just published by St. Martin’s Griffin. The book, cowritten with veteran, award-winning foodie Rick Rodgers, serves up both traditional Bel Paese cuisine (lasagnas, three-meat pastas with gravy) and mouth-watering originals (pork Milanese on kale salad, roast pork with fig sauce), along with other regional staples like Roman lamb sauté with white wine and herbs, Clams Fra Diavolo, stuffed artichokes with Romano crumbs, and banana pudding cake.
The old show business maxim insists that performers should always leave their audiences wanting more. Frankie Avalon, with some six decades in the public eye, knows a thing or two about working that saw from curtain rise to curtain fall, but you will never, ever leave his dinner table hungry. Once you try your hand at preparing some of Avalon’s delectables, you may never leave your kitchen, unless its because the cumulative impact of the crooner’s calamari meatballs and crab gravy is so sublime you feel you’ve died and gone to heaven. Which is apropos, no? He may check in to hotels as Frankie Avalon, but he’ll always be our one and only Teen Angel.
With your cookbook, you finally solve a 50-year old mystery: How do you stuff a wild bikini?
Very carefully. (Laughs) I'll tell you what’s great about the book: you know, it's a family cookbook and as a kid growing up in Philadelphia and being of Italian descent, you know, my mom was the best cook in the neighborhood. Maybe the world. Of course, all Italian guys say their mom is the best cook, but I would say my mom was the better, better, better, best cook. The recipes in this book, they’re the foods I grew up with, the meals she made, the dishes that nourished me through the years. And they’re more delicious than you can imagine. Through the years, I’d come back from traveling or touring or whatever, and I’d join my mom in the kitchen and I’d just hit her with all of these questions: How do you this? How do you do that? What’s that flavor? Finally, not too long ago, I got her to write down a lot of her recipes and then we put them all together in this book and added a few of our own things.
Why do you think food – the preparation and the enjoyment of a meal – is so important to us? There is, as you just alluded to, a vital community element, yes?
Yes! I think it's the way of life to be so close to one another – brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and aunts and uncles and friends and their friends. Whenever you're invited to someone’s house, I don't care what heritage you are, you wind up in the kitchen, because that’s where someone is cooking. And then you've got wine, you've got the appetizers, you got hors d'oeuvres, and you sit around and you talk. You enjoy one another. Food is the way we gather today. It’s the way we’ve always gathered I think. It’s where you get closer to the people you love.
Why is this the right time to share your family’s culinary traditions?
Well, you know I have a large family. I've got 8 children and 10 grandkids, and I still keep the tradition of that Sunday dinner with the family and friends. Every Sunday. That’s the thing. It’s a tradition, so we honor it. Through the years, my friends and my kids would say every once in a while, “Why don’t you write a cookbook? We love your food; other people will love it too.” So I got together with a friend of mine and we started talking and he introduced me to Rick Rodgers, who’s been around, knows a thing or two about food, and we hit it off, and we got down to business. I’ve read a lot of cookbooks. I’ve tried a lot of recipes. None of them are about family as much as my book is.
And, unlike a lot of 21st century cookbooks, there’s no quinoa in Frankie Avalon’s Italian Family Cookbook!
(Laughs) Right! Everything is quinoa these days! Quinoa this and quinoa that. (Laughs) Something that really irks me is how so many amazing meals are considered by some “experts” as unhealthy – “No, you can’t eat carbs!” or “Oh, no! You can’t eat that!” That’s not true. It’s all portion control. I eat pasta everyday. It gives me energy. I love the taste. But I eat it in the afternoon, when I’ve still got work to do, and I’ll eat just enough, not too much. That’s how I do it anyway.
What criteria did you use when selecting the recipes for this book? Were there some fondly remembered dishes that, when you took them to the kitchen, failed to turn out the way your mother prepared them?
Yeah, definitely, and of course that was one of the things, you know: “Hey, mom, when you were telling me this recipe, did you leave out anything?” (Laughs) She swore she didn’t, so then I’d go stand next to her in the kitchen and watch her make it and see exactly what she was doing, and that usually solved my problem.
There are some absolutely exquisite dishes in this book, things we’ve never seen on a restaurant menu before.
Yeah, these are authentic dishes. These are what people in the neighborhood really eat. These are the things I ate growing up and I eat them still. There are a lot of things in the book that are unique. Have you ever seen calamari meatballs in a restaurant? No? Neither have I. But it’s one of the greatest foods I’ve ever had in my life – and it’s really simple to make. It’s just the ingredients of your basic meatball, but instead of using beef or pork, you substitute calamari. You get it fresh. You grind it up. You make it up likes it’s a meat. You make your meatballs, throw them into the sauce and bake it or fry it, and then – the best part of a cookbook – you get to eat it.
Do you have a favorite recipe in the book?
When I was a kid, we’d go crabbing, as a lot of folks do on the East Coast, and we’d catch some fresh crabs and take it home and mom would turn it into this unbelievable crab gravy – or, as they say, sauce. I’ve never seen that in a restaurant either, but it’s just unbelievable. And it couldn’t be easier to make. Just go into your supermarket today, they’ve all got pretty good seafood departments now, and tell your guy, “I need some crabs.” Most of the guys, they’ll give you some Dungeness or something good like that, they’ll clean it up for you, wrap it, you take it home. From there, it’s just pure simplicity: take the crabs, throw them into some olive oil, a bit of garlic powder, salt, pepper, a bottle of clam juice. Then you pour that over the crabs, let it simmer a while, throw in a couple of cans of crushed tomatoes, and you have something absolutely sensational. It goes on whatever kind of pasta you want.
As you’re talking about the meaning of food in your life and the ways that you prepare meals, it occurs to me: cooking, at least cooking the Frankie Avalon way, is akin to storytelling. It’s similar, in some ways, to the work you’ve done your entire life: telling stories through songs, films, live performances.
Yeah, I think they go hand in hand. I think you hit it on the head there. Some of that’s probably because of the community part of making and eating food in my family. Everything we ate came with a story. Every time we’d sit down at the table, there would be stories. Now I’m telling you those stories, and if you were sitting at my table, you’d get to be a part of that story. Your mouth is probably watering now!
You’ve enjoyed some very fine company through the years, notably on the professional front. Have you shared memorable meals with any of your costars through the years?
Oh yeah. You hit it on the head again. There have been a lot of memorable meals in my life and in my career. I definitely remember doing The Alamo with John Wayne and Lawrence Harvey and Linda Cristal. We’d work six days a week and then John Wayne would invite us down to a little place in Texas called Del Rio and we would break bread and have some wine and tell stories. It really is the storytelling that makes a meal special. I don’t know if I’d ever put it in exactly those words before, but it’s true.
Do you see similarities between working in the kitchen and the work you do as a performer?
That’s a really good question. I’ve never thought about that before. You're creating something where there was nothing before, and you're doing it not just for yourself, but to please other people, and hopefully the combination of the dishes you serve and the stories you tell are entertaining to your guests, sort of like a song you might sing for them. So yeah, I guess it all goes hand in hand.
Hitting the time machine for a moment, you began playing trumpet when you were very young, landing a spot on “The Jackie Gleason Show” when you were 11. What inspired you to pick up the horn?
You know in Philadelphia, my neighborhood where I grew up, on Saturdays as a young boy, we would all go to the movies for a dime and our moms would pack a little lunch for us with a sandwich or whatever and we would stay and watch all the cartoons and in the middle of the cartoons was the picture, the main attraction. My buddies and me, we did that pretty much every Saturday. Well, one week, I happened to be in this theater where they were showing a picture with Kirk Douglas called Young Man With A Horn, and for some reason I really identified with that character and I loved the sound of the trumpet.
So Spartacus is to blame!
(Laughs) Exactly. I came home after seeing the movie, probably like six or seven times, and I said to my dad, "Dad, I'd like to maybe try to play the trumpet.” Now, my father was very musical — not anything professional, he never studied or anything, but he was extremely talented — and so he was thrilled that I wanted to try making some music. He went right out to a pawnshop and spent a minimal amount of money and brought the horn home and I went into my room and I closed the door and I didn’t come out until I could play a song. It was called “Music, Music, Music” – “put another nickel in, in the nickelodeon, all I want is having you, and music, music, music…” I was so dedicated. I had such passion for it. I’d practice, like, 3, 4, 5 hours a day. I’d drive the neighborhood crazy. In the summertime, when it was just so hot, I’d fill up the bathtub with cold water and just lay in there all day long and play.
It wasn’t too many years later that you were thrust into the national limelight. You became an enormous celebrity, a teen icon. This was pre-TMZ, of course, but that’s still a series of pretty extreme adjustments, right?
Right, yes. You know, you just do something that you love and you don't do it to get the recognition. That’s true for some of us at least. I know I never did it for the recognition and my friends didn’t either. You do it because you love it. That’s the only reason, really, to do it because, you know, you just never know what’s going to happen. You don’t know if the public’s going to take to you or if your record’s going to be a hit. If you like it and you do it your best and with passion, from the heart, then hopefully it goes out into the world and it connects with other people. That’s a great feeling, having someone appreciate your love and your hard work. But the business of being a celebrity can be tricky sometimes. I can’t even imagine what it’s like being a kid coming up in show biz today!
In such a storied career, is there a single moment that really stands out in your memory?
Oh, yeah, sure. It’s the closing ceremonies of the Miss Liberty contest in the Meadowlands. There are 75,000 people in this stadium, watching this show, and at least 100-million people watching on TV around the world, and I sang my song and I know I did a great job and I walk off stage and they put me in this car and they drove me around the stadium a couple of times, in front of the crowd, and I was waving and the crowd was just so loving, so amazing. I just took it all in. So wonderful. My eyes filled up with tears. But then I got out of the car and grabbed my stuff and I’m heading out of the stadium, and we go through these gates, go out into the parking lot, and there is absolutely nothing there but silence and darkness. The show was inside. And now I was outside. The show’s over for me. It goes to show you: you can have all of this adulation, but your show’s over at some point. Hopefully you get the kind of love I’ve gotten through the years. Those are nice memories to go to sleep to.