In 1897, when an Australian opera singer became ill, Auguste Escoffier, her chef and fan, created a dry thin toast to settle her stomach. Her name was Dame Nellie Melba. The culinary landscape is a buffet of recipes with such stories behind their names: Beef Stroganoff, Beef Wellington, Lobster Newberg, Bananas Foster, and the Arnold Palmer to name a few.
In 1907, another opera singer became an international success at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden in London. She went on to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House and the Chicago Opera. Her name? Louisa Tetrazzini, also known as the Florentine Nightingale, born in Florence, Italy, in 1871.
My grandfather, Nicholas Sabatini, was a fan of this coloratura soprano. And so it was, in the late twenties at New York’s Delmonico’s restaurant, he created Chicken Tetrazzini.
Regarding culinary namesakes, Sabatini explained, “We don’t name things after royalty half so much anymore, for kings and queens are a little out of fashion. Instead of saying ‘a la Reine’ we come right out with it in understandable English and say ‘with cream sauce.’ Of course, you know how Lobster Newburg got its name? The method of preparing the lobster was suggested to Delmonico by one of his patrons, a military gentleman named Wenburg. In order to honor the inventor of the dish it bore the name Lobster Wenburg; that was in the early days downtown, in what is now the financial district. Later, Captain Wenburg and Delmonico were not such good friends, on account of some misunderstanding or other, and the name of the dish was changed to Newburg.”
In 1959, Chicken Tetrazzini was the main course of President and Mrs. Eisenhower’s luncheon served for the president of the Council of Ministers of Italy. “Since Sabatini whipped the dish together in the early 1900s, it has become famous ’round the world and is even claimed as ‘native’ by some Italians,” writes Winzola McLendon, who covered the event in the Washington Post on October 1st, 1959. Not so coincidentally, “A consommé Julianne was served with Melba toast,” writes McLendon. “The original recipe, which is still in family hands, is very rich,” says my aunt, Bianco Sabatini Bozio, the youngest of the twelve Sabatini children. “It uses lots of butter and fine, fine noodles.”
“It was at the silver wedding anniversary celebration of King Humbert I, and Queen Margherita [yes, the pizza!] that Mr. Sabatini first served in the royal kitchens where his father was a chef. Later he was chef at the famous old Molaro Hotel in Rome, patronized chiefly by royalty. After serving in hotels in Paris, London, Cairo, and Lucerne, he entered the service of Princess Catauzene in St. Petersburg and then became chef for the Grand Duke Stroganoff. Subsequently, he was with Cropensky, Russian ambassador to Rome, and with Von Myer, then United States ambassador to Rome,” reads his obituary in The New York Times, August 22nd, 1936.
“The roster of notables for whom Sabatini has plied his delectable art contains practically all the great American and visiting foreign celebrities of the last two decades,” says Brooklyn Eagle Magazine, Sunday, November 24, 1929. “Theodore Roosevelt praised Sabatini’s cooking and President Taft often ate of his fare. Taft says Sabatini is a real epicure. He has a connoisseur’s appreciation of an exquisite sauce, a delicate flavor. Most of the stars of the Metropolitan Opera House have met and appreciated Sabatini in his role of master chef. Among them, Caruso, Tetrazzini, and Scotti are those whom Sabatini most enjoyed serving.”
Article written by Jim Alabiso