Thanks to the generosity of Susan LaRosa, the first three of my dinners with Antonio Carmena based on Tanaquil Le Clercq’s 1966 Ballet Cook Book have taken place at Susan’s brownstone in Brooklyn, which is equipped with an unusually large kitchen and adjacent dining room. This month, for the first time, the weather allowed us to make use of another invaluable space at her home: the backyard patio and garden.
It seemed fitting, at this candlelit, midsummer night’s dinner party on June 2 that we were feasting on the dishes of Edward Villella, the iconic New York City Ballet principal dancer (and eventual founder of Miami City Ballet) who originated the role of Oberon, king of the fairies, in George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1962). We didn’t spot any fairies in the garden that evening, but a large frog did join us briefly.
In the sixties and seventies, when he was in his prime, Villella was considered by many to be the world’s best danseur. Balanchine wasn’t known to fix his attention on the men in his company, but Villella was a unique case. For Villella, Balanchine created enduring roles that were uniquely suited to the dancer’s high energy, including the male leads in Rubies (1967) and Tarantella (1964).
For a number of balletomanes, Villella was also the definitive interpreter of Prodigal Son, a Balanchine work first presented in 1929 by the Ballets Russes. One can even find parallels with the Biblical tale in Villella’s dancing career. Convinced by his family that ballet might not be a viable profession, Villella abandoned his studies at the School of American Ballet after finishing high school and enrolled at the New York State Maritime College. He emerged from the college four years later with a degree that’s surely uncommon among ballet dancers: bachelor of marine transportation. Soon enough, though, the prodigal son had returned to the open arms of SAB and shortly thereafter joined the ranks New York City Ballet, where he quickly proved himself to be a “bachelor of aerial transportation,” to quote Le Clercq.
As usual, Antonio and Susan handled the cooking and presentation while I limited myself to less risky work, such as the grating of lemon rinds and portioning of butter. Two of our guests — Jeff Gageby, a regular attendee who has become the resident bartender, and Oliver Swan-Jackson, a dancer who performs with the Suzanne Farrell Ballet — arrived early to help as well. And for this dinner, we were joined by a guest of special significance: Gonzalo Garcia, a New York City Ballet principal dancer who has inherited several of Villella’s roles, including those in Rubies and Midsummer. I asked Garcia what it was like to dance these parts. “Challenging,” he replied without hesitation. “They were really made for him, and he was such a great dancer.”
We were most worried about the first course, a beer soup. Cheese and potatoes temper many versions of beer soup found today, but Villella’s recipe calls only for dark beer, flour, sugar, butter, cinnamon, eggs, and lemon juice and rind. Our fears were well founded: The soup was never much more than its ingredients, tasting mostly like warm beer. (Gonzalo, delayed by problems with the subway to Brooklyn, had the good fortune to miss this course entirely.) Having sampled the soup, Antonio knew full well how ghastly it was couldn’t resist capturing our first spoonfuls (and the sour faces that accompanied them) on film. If you dare to attempt this recipe, we urge you to purchase a beer less bitter than Guinness, the brand we used. [Download the recipe for "beer soup."]
Our palates were cleansed, fortunately, by the main course, the anchor of which was Villella’s Indian chicken. The sautéed dish, made with ginger, chili powder, tomatoes, and sour cream, didn’t strike us as authentically Indian (the spice content was surprisingly low), but it was tasty nonetheless. More than one guest attributed its success to the half-cup of chopped almonds in the pan sauce, but I was more impressed by how well Antonio had cooked the chicken. [Download the recipe for "Indian chicken."]
The side dish for the dinner course, eggplant and macaroni, was another unanimous favorite. Villella’s combination of pasta, eggplant, stewed tomatoes, green peppers, and cheddar cheese is prepared in a casserole dish and layered like lasagna. With this course, we also served a basket of wheat germ muffins. (The recipe was passed down by Villella’s mother, a health food fanatic who made a habit of driving several miles to shop at a store that sold only organically grown vegetables.) The ingredients include raisins and orange rind, and the fruity flavor would make them an appealing side dish for breakfast as well as dinner. [Download the recipes for "eggplant and macaroni" and "wheat germ muffins."]
Given Villella’s Italian heritage, the dessert, an Italian rice cake, must also have been a family recipe. Susan, a baking expert, said the cake was similar to those found at Italian bakeries in Brooklyn and Little Italy at Eastertime. Its texture was light and creamy, and hints of citrus complemented the cheese perfectly. We were glad to have purchased two pounds of fresh ricotta from Saxelby Cheesemongers (an excellent shop at the Essex Street Market) instead of the grocery store variety. [Download the recipe for "Italian rice cake."]
On Tuesday, just three days after the dinner, I saw Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the first time at New York City Ballet. In her book Balanchine Variations, Nancy Goldner describes Oberon (Joaquin De Luz at this performance) as one of the most challenging roles in the company’s male repertory, but I was astounded nonetheless by the speed, stamina, and control the part requires (particularly the solo set to the Mendelssohn’s scherzo). It’s a testament to Villella’s skill that Balanchine would craft such a role for him. Villella’s recipes, we can happily report after the dinner, are also first-rate. And fortunately for Antonio and Susan, their execution isn’t nearly so tricky.
Watch a video of the dinner preparation (and our initial reactions to the beer soup):