In this era of food as art and the chef as star, the late Franco Vasaio was a tonic. He loved to cook and, more to the point, he loved it when people ate and enjoyed what he cooked. His style was unabashedly Southern Italian, and so was his personality.
During the 28 years that he presided over the kitchen at AV Ristorante, countless fans and friends made the pilgrimage into his kitchen to greet Franco and ask, "What's good today?" After a smile of welcome and a handshake (unless his hands were covered with flour, in which case you still got the smile and a wave of the hand), he told you. For example, he offered this pearl of culinary wisdom one evening when asked by a customer whether to order shellfish in a red sauce or a white sauce: "When it's real fresh," Franco responded, "take the white."
"Should we order white sauce?" "Tonight? Sure!"
AV, owned by Franco's older brother Augusto, has long been one of this city's most controversial restaurants. It may be understatement to concede that neither the decor nor the serving staff always sparkled.
But to those who loved it, and they are many, the sunshine of AV was in the kitchen. Family style servings of pasta, fish or game birds pleased the eye and could stimulate the appetite wonderfully. If more cooks had used such basic weapons as olive oil, tomatoes and garlic as well as Franco Vasaio did, Italy's culinary reputation in this country would have remained unsullied. He had no single masterpiece, but those who knew his white pizza will will be using it as a benchmark years from now. Vasaio retired in 1978, but he couldn't really retire. Until illness forced him from the kitchen, he was helping his son, Fiorenzo, in a new restaurant venture called Fio's.
The best food is made with love, it is said, and using that as his only secret ingredient, Franco Vasaio served up large portions of pleasure and joy over the years. He was, as his daughter said recently after his death, "a special human being."