What's Danny Aiello's Secret Recipe?

Vin Fraioli

The STIFFS star reveals this and more during an interview for IMAGINE

I'm sitting at Tecce's restaurant on the North End of Boston. It's cold outside and I'm dressed in somber, dark colors sitting among other mourners now at the post funeral gathering. The trays of cold cuts, salads, and pasta are set up, warm and inviting. But the camera crews scurry around them, setting up lights, the Assistant Director directs extras where to stand as a young make-up woman darts from face to face making shine dull. This is not a funeral, but a shoot of the film, STIFFS by the Ciota brothers, director, Frank and writer, Joe starring Danny Aiello with Roger Marino as the Executive Producer. And there he is, sitting next to me. He plops down on the bench. He looks tired. He's sniffing.

"I've got this damn cold," he says.

STIFFS, is a black comedy about the funeral business in the North End of Boston. The synopsis is simple: the death business is getting bad for the Ragucci Funeral Parlor thanks to the decrease in the older population in the neighborhood and the influx of younger, healthier, less likely- to- croak-soon professionals. Frankie Tramontana (Danny Aiello) drives a hearse for the Ragucci family. He falls in love with a much younger woman and undergoes personal and social challenges thanks to the instigation of two wiseguys, John (Jon Polito) and Nino (Louis Vanaria) who move to help the flagging Raguccis find new business - and corpses.

Actors Danny Aiello and Jon Polito on a North End Street at the start of the STIFFS shoot. Photo by Claire Folger.

One of the extras playing a waiter comes over to me. He tells me he's in the funeral business and explains to me that the ideas giving inspiration to this black comedy came from the owners of a real funeral parlor, those guys sitting over there at that table with actor, Jon Polito.

"I can't seem to shake this cold," Danny Aiello says.

I introduce myself. He leans over and shakes my hand.

"Please, do me a favor," I say. "This is supposed to be a restaurant. Please don't get down on your knees and propose in front of me in front of everybody like you did in MOONSTRUCK."

He gives me that look, of Don't Bust my XXXX and says without missing a beat,

"Oh, no. I won't do that. That guy was a wimp. And the guy I'm playing in this movie is no wimp."

He sits back. More makeup. More instructions from the DP.

Minutes go by. Now I hear Danny talking to somebody about food. I jump in.

"I make an incredible tomato sauce," I tell him.

from top down [1] Danny Aiello and Frank Bongiorno in a scene at the financially ailing Ragucci’s Funeral Home. [2] Danny Aiello embraces Heather Tom who plays Danny’s character’s mistress “Lauren.” [3] Danny Aiello seen here after a fight scene in the movie STIFFS, written by Joe Ciota and directed by Frank Ciota. [4] Executive Producer of STIFFS, Roger Marino plays his role in a funeral scene. Photos by Claire Folger

"Oh, yeah?"

 "Yeah, I learned it in a small Italian town where I used to live. You take these fresh tomatoes..."

"Oh! Stop right there," he says. "I hate tomatoes in the sauce. I can't stand anything chunky. And no onions! My mother made me a sauce, the best, it was smooth. It had the consistency of ketchup."

"My uncle's the same way," I say. "He doesn't like seeds. Do you?"

"No. I hate anything that looks solid in the sauce. No chunks." 

"How would you like to give me an interview for IMAGINE?" I ask. "You can tell me how to make a sauce."

"No, not me," he says. "I'm no expert."

But he does grant me an interview. I'm on my way to see Danny Aiello right now and I'm in the taxi thinking about this red sauce thing. I can see it: a vat of red liquid, a cauldron bubbling with red life. My uncle Anthony hated seeds or skins in his sauce. My aunt Anna dutifully took the seeds from the tomatoes for him. What is this, I think, with these guys?Is it just Italian guys who get that way with food.

Is it a fear of the unknown? Of nature? Of the liquid of the unconscious, of water and seed? Or is it just an ineluctable male complex, the fear of the feminine? I will find out soon enough because there he is, Danny Aiello, sitting in a café with fellow actors Jon Polito and Frank Bongiorno.

He spots me. He greets me with a big smile of an old friend and the first thing he says is...

"Sit down, have something to eat!"

Jon Polito turns around to shake my hand. "Oh, you're doing an interview," he says.  "Let me get out of here."

"No, stick around," I say.

"Hey, it's my interview," Danny jokes, "and you're telling him to stick around? I'm just kidding. Sit down."

We sit and talk a bit, as guys would around a morning cup of coffee. Suddenly, Danny modulates. He clears the air with a swipe of his long arms.  

"Okay, we should get started," he says. "Do you have a tape recorder?"

"No, just my big yellow legal pad and this souvenir pen from Fort Lauderdale."

Danny leans forward.

"Okay. This is a terrific, fulsome movie!" he says. "I have never been so enamored of a film and I've done so many, many movies. This one is a black comedy, dark on so many levels, but showing the gamut between stupidity and intelligence. Now, I'm talking specifically about my character, Frank. He's so full, so complicated. As an actor, you dream of playing guys like this. 

The title, though, STIFFS belies the story. It's not just about corpses. It's also about...you know..."

"Mookaloons," I say. (note: "guys who aren't too smart")

"Yes," he says. "Exactly. It runs the gamut," he says. "When I first read the script, I loved it. The boys, Frank and Joe Ciota (the director and writer) and Roger Marino (the executive producer), flew to New York where we met for an hour and a half. After speaking with them, I just had to do it. I just had to work with these guys. You know, there are some scripts that you'd love to do, but then find out the people aren't the ones you want to work with."

"I do," I say. "Now, I have to ask you. All of us, as single human beings are tanks of the collective consciousness and experience. I think that within us, we contain the whole stew of human experience, the good and the bad. For instance, one reads about some hideous murderer and is shocked, but, the rule is, that in each and every one of us, there is a part of that person in us. An actor somehow pinpoints that connection within himself. In saying that, which part of this character did you find a part of yourself, did you identify with?" 

He looks me straight in the eye. 

"I'll tell you," he says. "The part of him that gets to the lowest point of his life. And there, he finds joy. This guy was a successful administrator, a master of PR, an Emcee, a Vice-President...a real gadabout. And with all of this success, there comes this complexity. It's problematic. As a result of an accident (he becomes deaf), he resorts to doing menial jobs. Yet he finds that some of his happiest moments are when he enjoys doing the everyday, simple things. A man able to go back to a time long ago. When he was sufficient. With less complexity. That's what I love about the character."

"Now, what is it about tomato sauce?" I ask. "Why don't you like anything solid in it?"

"I don't know," he says. "When I was growing up, I used to skeeve (note - "be disgusted by") anything I didn't like the looks of. And I didn't eat it. Maybe because I had allergies. I had eczema and I wasn't permitted to eat certain food. I outgrew the allergy, but the dislike stayed with me."

"You told me you hate chunks," I say.

top: A STIFFS trio: Louis Vanaria, Jon Polito, Danny Aiello on Charles Street plotting the solution to no new corpses. bottom row: left to right [1] Lesley Ann Warren with Danny Aiello in their fictional apartment during a confrontational scene for the movie STIFFS shot in Boston’s North End; [2] Actor Jon Polito stands front and center with his fellow “mourners” including local actor Richard D’Agazio on the left for a scene in STIFFS. Photos by Claire Folger

"I can't stand anything with chunks in it."

"Chunks?" asks Frank. Now Frank's drawn into this curiosity. He sits up. 

Danny turns to Frank. "Yes," Danny says. "No chunks. And no lumps. My mother used to make me a sauce. I don't know how she did it, but she would fold in the meat into the sauce, no lumps, no onions, no nothing. If I saw anything that looked like a plum tomato I'd throw up." 

Now Frank looks concerned. He has the look as if his old friend of thirty years has just confessed to being a soviet spy.

"You don't eat tomatoes?" Franks says. 

"Yes, I do," says Danny.  "But I have to see tomatoes that look like tomatoes. Then I can eat them. Even with meatballs. I like them with pignoli, or stale bread a day old in the sauce. My mother used to fry them first...no onions!"

"Speaking about sauces," I say, "do you know where your family came from in Italy?"

"Sorrento, I'm told. But I have no connections there, though. And I've done five films in Italy. At Cinecitta. Maybe in another life I did live there. But, it's strange, whenever I go to Piazza Navona in Rome, I feel as if I've been there before. One time, a palm reader came up to me there. She said that in another life I was royalty. A bishop, or a pope. I don't know if it's true, but it made me feel good for a half an hour."

I'm jotting down rows of scribble. I eye my bagel with two clumps of cream cheese. I'm starving.   

"Do you mind?" I say.

"No Go ahead. Eat!"

A chew and a gulp of coffee and I'm ready.

"Tell me about growing up," I say.

"We grew up, all seven of us, in a single household. My father left us when I was a baby (I'm named after him, Daniel). Well, I guess you can say he was nomadic. I really never saw him. We were on Home Relief, which was Welfare of that time. My father would come home once a year, have a steak (where my mother got it, I don't know) and then leave again. We had no relationship with him. It was sad, but, no, I'm not sad about it. Hey, it is what it is.... Yes, there were seven of us. My brother, Ralphie, died when he was two. I had four sisters. Imagine, I grew up in a house with five woman. How I turned out straight I don't know, but it certainly has given me a sensitivity towards women and made me a better person, I think."

"How long have you been married?" 

"I've been with one woman all of my life. We will be married fifty, no, fifty-one years. We have four kids and nine grandchildren." 

"What was your mother's name?"

"My mom's name was Frances. She was legally blind. She was the hero of the world, she was. She always used to tell me, "You're a star." She always wanted me to sing and I'm singing now. I've been singing professionally for a year and a half. I've done an album, live, at the Sands Hotel in Atlantic City. I started about eight years ago. Jazz, mostly. I'm sedate when I do. Subdued..."

"Another beginning, at this stage. That's amazing," I say.

"Yes. I didn't start acting until I was thirty-six, and I did my first movie when I was going on forty. I looked younger than I was."

"You still do."

"Thanks. So do you..." 

I put down my yellow legal pad. My souvenir pen, thick and toylike, rests on the yellow pad. Now, we can talk off the record. He has a sincerity and an ease which makes him a warm host at that table. I'm not talking to a character, or a movie star. I'm talking to a man named Danny. And, off the record, we let loose opinions, some passions about politics, about being Italian American, the state of affairs in XYZ, the Korean war. He tells me how he enlisted at seventeen years old and how two times when bound for Korea on a ship, his name was pulled out of a hat, and he, out of thousands of guys headed for war, got sent back.

"I guess it wasn't meant to be," he says.

The few dishes on the table get moved to a couple of neat heaps. I keep moving his water glass from the edge of the table, to get it out of range of his long arms which wave and reach to touch my shoulder to emphasize some thought or to soften a disagreement. But he keeps moving the glass back to the edge of the table. I bring up a sore spot of mine, about how Italians are viewed in this country and how we are depicted. I say things to him which I won't say in public in a society which sings so loudly to allow and then barks quickly to condemn. I mention his role in DO THE RIGHT THING and how Spike Lee chose Italo-Americans in his movie as a kind of bridge between the races.

Danny sighs. He looks at me and puts up both hands.

"Italians," he says, "are men of the earth. They work with their hands. When I worked with Spike Lee on DO THE RIGHT THING I wrote those things that the character, Sal, says. When he says, after they burn down his pizzeria, 'this isn't about money. I built this with my own hands,' I wrote that. And, to Spike's credit, he allowed it in the script."

We move to ethics, to Tony Soprano. We talk freely, but softly.

"I would love to see a Tony Soprano in the senate," I say.

We all laugh a big one at that.

After a while, I say, "Don't you have to get going?"

"Yes. You're right," he says. "We have to be on the set."

We shake hands. I get up to leave.

"Thanks for breakfast," I say.

"You're welcome. Hey," he says. "Wait. I'll walk you out."

In the taxi, I feel this sense of well being, of good energy. Danny Aiello is a generous host. He also seems to be an exception in the Land of Make Believe as a star who stays grounded- a man of the earth - I think about it, here's a guy who's been with one woman all of his life, who started acting at the age of thirty-six, who has brought characters alive onto the screen such as MOONSTRUCK and RUBY and then goes home to his family with nine grandchildren who is now singing at this stage of his career. He's a guy who loves his country, who is passionate and direct, yet still excuses himself politely for disagreeing with someone in the heat of a table debate.

I love it when I'm inspired because that's what I am, inspired.

Oh, yes, about the tomato sauce...

I was wrong about my first impressions. Serves me right. It was his childhood allergy which created the aversion. Yet, I know other guys, too, other than my uncle Anthony, who hates seeds, skins, or things lumpy in their sauce.

Maybe there is this archetypal thing after all...

Vin Fraioli, born in Providence, is an author of numerous articles and the book, "Change of View." He still lives in Rhode Island with his wife and two kids when not traveling around the world giving lectures and concerts as a classical guitarist. He is also a sometimes actor.