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Tiny Hot Dogs
A Memoir in Small Bites
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Mary’s utterly unremarkable childhood was everything she didn’t want: hailing from a deeply loving yet overprotective Italian family in an all-Jewish enclave on Long Island. All she wanted was to fit in (be Jewish) and become famous (specifically a cast member on Saturday Night Live). With an easy, natural storytelling sensibility, Mary shares her journey from a cosseted childhood home to the stage and finally to the party, accidentally landing what she now refers to as “the breakthrough role of a lifetime” catering to a glittery list of stars she once hoped to be part of herself.
Fresh, personal, and full of Mary’s humorous, self-deprecating, and can-do attitude against all odds, you’ll want to see where each shiny silver tray of hors d’oeuvres takes her next. You never know when the humble hot dog will be a crucial ingredient in the recipe for success, in building a business or simply making life more delicious.
TINY HOT DOGS
The term pigs in a blanket often refers to hot dogs or Vienna, cocktail, or breakfast/link sausages wrapped in biscuit, pancake, or croissant dough and then baked. The first written record of pigs in a blanket occurs in Betty Crocker’s Cookbook for Boys and Girls in 1957. For a small kid, they can be a full meal. Most adults do not admit to enjoying them as much as they do.
When I was eight years old, my father came home with a VCR—which, if you don’t remember, was the size of a Cadillac—and a VHS tape of Carl Reiner’s film The Jerk.
I’m crossing my fingers that most of you have seen The Jerk. If not, I beg you to drop this book (please not in the store but preferably at home after you’ve made your purchase) and watch this cinematic masterpiece. Or here’s a quick synopsis: In The Jerk, Navin Johnson (played by Steve Martin) is a hugely delusional optimist who believes he was born a poor black child in Mississippi. He was not; he is actually white. Upon hearing a song on the radio, he is inspired to leave his loving and overprotective family and head out on an adventure to “be somebody.” Shortly into his journey, he lands a job at a gas station in St. Louis and is thrilled to discover his name printed in the new phone book. This is a watershed moment for him—a defining point in his existence, if you will—and gives him the courage to embark on one misadventure to another as he dodges gunfire, joins the carnival, invents gadgets, becomes a millionaire, and finds love in the arms of his beautiful girlfriend, Marie, played by the great Bernadette Peters.
Why is this important? Because Navin Johnson is my hero. While my other friends at the time were listening to Wham! and waking up before they go-go’d, I was watching The Jerk—every night. This went on for an entire year. I became the sole student in the Academy of Navin Johnson. I chose at a very early age to be, like Navin, optimistically delusional.
Navin was also the first person to properly encapsulate exactly how I felt growing up in that I deeply loved my family and the town in which I grew up but felt an enormous disconnect from both. Like Navin, who was white and wanted to be black, I was Italian and wanted to be Jewish. I grew up in Great Neck, Long Island, a suburb located about eighteen miles from New York City. Population breakdown when I was growing up: 99 percent Jewish. Exceptions to that demographic: my Jesus-loving, al-dente-spaghetti-eating Italian family.
Pause. I think I need to explain the kind of Italians my family—which included my mom, my dad, my perfectly styled for the 1980s older sister, and an assortment of grandparents—was. We were not the second-generation kind that speaks Italian beautifully, cans their own sauce in the garage, or visits cousins in Tuscany every summer. No, we’re third-generation Italian. We quote Goodfellas like scripture, we call tomato sauce “the sauce,” we speak Godfather I and II Italian, we enjoy white leather in the summer, and we are most comfortable when the bride and groom enter their wedding reception via a fog pit with the theme from Rocky playing.
To add insult to injury, puberty was not my friend. In those formative years, the nickname bestowed upon me by my “friends” was Macchio Kahlo. Macchio, because I resembled Ralph Macchio in his breakaway role in the smash film Karate Kid, which was the number-one movie around the world for eighteen months. And Kahlo, because I had one eyebrow, and, lucky for me, there was a kid in my class who took an early interest in art history.
Note: I know some of you (my mother) are thinking that I was unique and special in a darling way. That I was kooky and lovable. Wrong. This was pre–Lena Dunham. Unique and special weren’t celebrated back then. This was 1985, and I was just the weird girl who sang “The Thermos Song” from The Jerk aloud to no audience.
Second note: when I say “no audience,” I mean that literally. I had very few friends, unless of course you count my hero, my Papa Charlie, a.k.a. my best friend, who loved four things equally: cocktails, cigarettes, Carvel ice cream, and me. His wife, my Grandma Mary (my namesake), had Alzheimer’s disease, so while Papa and I were dressing up as a cadre of aging 1970s TV stars (we loved watching The Love Boat and Fantasy Island in costume), Grandma could often be found vacuuming our front lawn in her nightgown or attempting to cook the Thanksgiving turkey in our linen closet.
So here I am: friendless, hairy, deeply uncool. And not Jewish—so not Jewish. And I really tried. I wanted to be Jewish so badly that I electively went to Hebrew school with my best friend, Lauren. I attended so often that I can recite the entire hoftorah, and I’m fairly certain I was the only Italian eight-year-old who looked into the Shabbos Goy program at the nearby Long Island Jewish Hospital. When my father asked me what that was and I replied, “You know. Shabbos Goy… I’m going to push the elevator buttons for the Orthodox Jews at the hospital on Saturdays,” I was met with a double helping of that look parents reserve for their most worrisome child, the one about whom they’re just not sure.
On the rare days the kids called me by my real name, Mary, I almost longed for the moniker Macchio Kahlo because the name Mary was yet one more reminder of just how far from Jewish I was. (Sidebar: I would gladly accept being called Macchio these days instead of the man I am mistaken for on a daily basis: former Mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani! For the record, It’s Mary not Mayor!
Back to my one eyebrow. I was so uncool that other people’s parents took pity on me and forced their kids to invite me to all the parties. So in 1986, I attended 178 bar/bat mitzvahs. Picture, if you will, a unibrowed Ralph Macchio dressed in a poufy pink dress attending two or three of these soirees a weekend.
Where was Macchio Kahlo during these extravagant rites of passage? Not being pursued by a cute boy name Seth from Syosett. Not holding hands with Ali Cohen and all the cool girls during the Horah circle. Nope. Macchio Kahlo could be found, Sabbath after Sabbath, parked outside the door to the caterer’s kitchen, waiting for the silver tray of those shiny, buttery, salty, perfect little tiny hot dogs also known as pigs in a blanket. I guess you could say, this is where the love affair began.
Fast-forward to 1997. Macchio Kahlo graduated Georgetown University (another place I didn’t really belong) and arrived in New York to pursue another highly unattainable dream: an acting career. Yes, I was going to be an actress. I was going to make it in the city that never sleeps. How did it go? Put it this way… I had a better chance of being Jewish. The closest I ever got to stardom was hanging Lorne Michael’s coat while working at celebrity mecca Nobu during a short stint as a coat check attendant. But I approached every small gig or audition as my next big break, blindly and happily guided by my wildly unrealistic optimism until it ran dry.
Defeated and broke, I answered an ad in the New York Times for a sales position at a catering company that boasted clients in the arts, fashion, and entertainment. Little did I know that this job, which I took with no greater aspiration than to no longer bounce checks at Blockbuster Video, would end up being my greatest role.
Here I was reunited with that silver tray containing my salty, buttery, glistening little friends… those tiny hot dogs. Very quickly I decided to trade in one dream for another and follow that tray, maybe not literally, like I did when I was thirteen around bedazzled event spaces, but in a real way. Real for me, at least. I stopped worrying about when I’d get my big break on Broadway. I stopped worrying about being/looking/acting like everyone else. I stopped worrying about what I had to do with my big fancy degree.
And oh, the places we would go, me and those tiny hot dogs on a silver tray. This tray took me to parties where I would meet Sophia Loren, Jay-Z, and Beyoncé, onto billionaires’ yachts, into Kevin Klein’s living room (while he was preparing for the role of Cole Porter), and even into Carolina Herrera’s kitchen behind her kitchen. (Yes, that’s a real thing.)
Ultimately, my “Navintude,” as I’ve come to call it, and those tiny hot dogs gave me the chutzpah to create my business, cook grilled cheese with the Barefoot Contessa, dine on a Caesar salad with Robert De Niro, and cause Jimmy Fallon to laugh so hard that he spit out his wine. It also helped me become a mom (after eleven doctors told me I couldn’t) and laugh in the face of that William Morris agent who said I didn’t have “a face for TV” every time I’m on The Rachael Ray Show.
Listen, it has not been as easy as it sounds. Like Navin, I stumbled over obstacles—both in my personal and professional life—that even my sunny optimism couldn’t clear. But also like Navin, I saw adventures even in my misadventures and came out on top—or at least I came out laughing.
To all of this, I smile and keep on moving, but, just between you and me, occasionally I do sit and ponder, Am I talented, am I lucky, or am I just The Jerk?
THE WONDER YEARS
Pizza in a Cup
I first watched Carl Reiner’s film, The Jerk, starring Steve Martin, when I was eight years old, and it changed nearly everything about my sweet suburban life (let’s go with “for the better,” although I suppose you should read this and decide for yourself).
As I was watching The Jerk nearly nightly and well past my bedtime, mornings were rough. They would usually begin with my mother shaking me violently, pulling off the covers, and yelling at me to brush my hair and teeth, get dressed, and come to breakfast.
Eventually I would make it to the breakfast table, where my sister, Nanette—whose perfect barrettes matched her perfect dress (perfectly)—would be finishing the last few bites of her cereal while quietly reading another American classic (electively). Nanette my mother understood, whereas she often looked at me with love, yes, mixed with something mystified, like “Really? This came out of me?” as she shook her head and prodded me to finish my pancakes. A honk in the driveway, and there was Bus 24 idling by our house, waiting to take us on our long journey, forty-five minutes away, to the next town and to school.
We lived in Great Neck, Long Island, a predominately Jewish neighborhood, and we couldn’t be more Italian if we tried. My father had a moustache (as did my sister and I). Since neither yeshiva nor the public school down the street was an option, my parents sent my sister and me to the Catholic school in a neighboring town, where we were the only students from Great Neck and were thus quickly labeled “those weird girls.”
I dreaded every minute of that forty-five-minute bus ride. My sister would always get on the bus before me, take the first seat to the right, and bury her face back in her book. I would follow behind, with my crazy hair, half dressed in a dirty uniform with pancake syrup on the side of my face. But unlike Nanette, I opted for the back of the bus. Since we were the only students on the entire bus who came from another town, we were mysterious, and with mystery came a lot of whispers, stares, and speculation. We were teased and made fun of relentlessly, until one day I realized that since there was already a big mystery surrounding who we were, it was my obligation to fill in the gaps. If we were going to be the talk of the bus, I was going to give them something to talk about.
My exaggerations (okay, lies) were easy to get away with, as my sister had mastered the art of ignoring me and mostly stuck to her studies. So while I held court in the back of the bus “big fishing” it, my sister was conveniently too far away to interfere. The film The Jerk served as the inspiration for my tall tales.
Me: “Yes, Anna Maria Russo, we have a bathtub shaped like a clam and a red billiards room.”
“What’s a billiards room?” a boy named Tom would ask.
“It’s a place to play pool and where you display your stuffed camel collection.”
As “wows” and “ahs” and “what elses” were thrown my way, I was loving the attention.
“Mary, do you really have a tennis court and a pool?”
“I have three pools, Vinny, and a water cooler that dispenses red and white wine, and sometimes I sneak a little vino.”
This went on for weeks, the crowd on the bus growing larger each day. At one point, I had the entire bus believing that I had a disco in my basement, that my father drove a yellow Lamborghini, and that I had a dog named Shithead who could smell danger from miles away.
And then one day, the unthinkable happened: a girl at school actually wanted to have a playdate with me! Me, the girl with one eyebrow from a faraway town who smelled like pancake syrup. I remember being excited and terrified at the same time. I quickly told her yes, and a date was set.
In the days leading up to her arrival, I did my best to fill in the gaps between my boasting and reality. I put two blow-up pools next to our existing in-ground pool (I never told them what kind). I begged my cousin Scott to bring over his mini pool table and created a makeshift billiards room in my basement. I put a blinking flashlight in our spare “junk” room, stuck a tape in my boom box, and poof! I had a disco.
My mother asked what I was doing as I moved a fern from the living room into my bedroom to create a jungle for my “pet monkey.” I told her I was setting up for my friend Anne Marie’s arrival.
“Mom, please please please please serve us our pizza in a cup like in The Jerk!” I pleaded. The Look, a muttered response, and she returned to the kitchen.
When Anne Marie arrived for our playdate, I was panicked. I took her quickly on a tour of the house to see all the things I had fabricated, making excuses for why Iron Balls McGinty (my bodyguard and another character from my beloved film) wasn’t there to play with us and how the arcade I’d boasted about having, with its very own Ms. Pac-Man machine, had been destroyed in “the flood.”
“It was just terrible, Anne Marie, just terrible. Our giraffe drowned in that flood, too.”
Slowly Anne Marie started to realize that the only thing drowning was me in my sea of lies. In the nick of time, my mother called us upstairs for lunch. She had cut up our pizza and put the pieces into little cups with forks, just as I had described. Anne Marie smiled, sat down, and began to eat her lunch.
I sat there waiting for her to get mad or angry, to call me a liar, to tell me that she was going to expose me to the entire school. I waited and waited as, piece by piece, Anne Marie quietly noshed each bite of her pizza in a cup.
When she was done she placed the empty cup down, looked at me, and said, “Mary, this pizza is really good. Can I come back tomorrow?”
My lucky break with Anne Marie created a monster; because from then on I was deeply wedded to the idea that my fantasy life would always trounce the real world. I’ve continued to believe this theory to this day, which explains why I’ve made a pretty nice living creating unique party experiences for clients who have seen it all. I encourage those on the fence, whose imagination is perhaps… lacking… that turning their garage into a disco is always a great idea, or I encourage them to take a chance by serving only hot dogs and martinis at their next soiree, and when I suggest that we try to contact the real Elton John to play at the end of their event for the ultimate party Wow!, I really do believe I can make that happen. Point is, nothing is impossible. If you can dream it, you can do it (or at least some variation of it, like my makeshift billiards room).
Many years later, at the moment I felt I had finally “made it,” I went on eBay and purchased my very own Ms. Pac-Man machine. Anne Marie, feel free to stop on by anytime and take me up on that game I promised you thirty-five years ago.
Deconstructed Pizza Skewers with Roasted Tomato, Fried Mozzarella, and Basil Aioli
MAKES 24 PIECES
As good as I am, it’s quite hard to convince my clients to eat pizza out of a cup, so here is how I pay homage to my favorite childhood meal.
¾ cup light mayonnaise
⅓ cup basil leaves
¼ cup baby arugula leaves
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1½ teaspoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon grated Parmesan
Salt and pepper to taste
1 half-pint container red or yellow grape tomatoes
1 package small mozzarella bocconcini (24 pieces)
½ cup breadcrumbs
For the aioli, blend mayonnaise, basil, arugula, lemon juice, garlic, Parmesan, salt, and pepper in a food processor until completely smooth.
In a pan, warm a teaspoon of olive oil on medium heat.
Add the tomatoes and stir to lightly cook and slightly blister their skins. Remove and cool.
In a separate bowl, beat the egg. Dredge the mozzarella in the egg and then in breadcrumbs. Fill the frying pan with olive oil, heat until 400 to 450 degrees, and fry the mozzarella balls approximately 30 seconds each or until golden brown on all sides. Set aside on a paper towel to cool.
Once the mozzarella is at room temperature, use a toothpick or skewer and poke through one tomato then one mozzarella ball, dotting the tops with the basil aioli. Repeat.
My Bat Mitzvah
Though I was born into a devout Catholic family, I have always been deeply drawn to the Jewish faith. As a kid, I loved how the rabbis spoke to their congregations frankly, without the pomp and frills of the Catholic Church. I loved that there was no such thing as heaven and hell, and I truly enjoyed Jewish music—so much so that I made a mix tape that included both klezmer hits and the entire Yentl soundtrack for my Walkman.
Growing up on Long Island, the bar and bat mitzvahs I attended were no ordinary events; these rites of passage were celebrated with an extravagance that befitted the time and place. A few highlights:
• Jimmy Connors sitting at a table signing tennis balls as party favors at one.
• Keith Haring spray-painted Keds sneakers at another.
• The entire Broadway cast of Phantom of the Opera performed “Music of the Night” at Lauren Kaplan’s bat mitzvah.
• Someone even had Mindy Cohn—Natalie from The Facts of Life—as a surprise guest.
Some of the soirees were black-tie, and some went until 1 a.m. For those, you were gifted the Sunday New York Times with fresh bagels and lox on your way out the door. There were Academy Award–caliber montages of the b’nai mitzvahs’ life, always with the soundtrack of Kenny Roger’s “Through the Years” or Paul Anka’s “Times of Your Life” playing while pictures of my friends at tennis camp or breakdancing flashed on a screen big enough to light up Times Square.
I had my face painted and my caricature drawn. Videos exist of me singing Samantha Fox’s “Naughty Girls Need Love Too,” and I amassed enough T-shirts reading, “I Partied at [Insert Name]’s Bat/Bar Mitzvah,” to clothe an entire kibbutz.
I’d listen to my friends’ mothers fret for months about the big party, how the flowers were being flown in from Holland or the elaborate diets they were following to fit into dresses purchased in New York City on the fifth floor of Bergdorf. I think Seth Cohen’s mother existed solely on grapes and water for eight whole months before his Starlight Express– themed extravaganza. Often an elaborate fireworks show would signal the dessert buffet. One time, a rogue firework blew up the entire challah table, and we had to wait to do the candle-lighting ceremony until the replacement challah arrived. I think you get the point: these folks were not messing around.
One night, I came home from Hebrew school (again, I went by my own desperate choice) really proud that I could recite the entire hoftorah from start to finish—and if I may say, perfectly—with no tutor or rabbi by my side, which most of my friends needed. After my family fell asleep, I remember going into the kitchen and grabbing one pink birthday candle from the drawer in which my mother kept blank greeting cards and odds and ends.
I lit the small pink candle, held it in my hand, and alone, in the middle of our 1980s Formica kitchen, recited the entire hoftorah from start to finish, even closing my eyes at the important parts. When I was done, I blew out the candle and went to bed. The next day was Sunday, and we’d have to get up early for church.
Mini Italian Challah Grilled Cheese
MAKES 1 SANDWICH
One of my favorite recipes in which all my worlds collide.
2 slices challah bread
Pinch of salt, pepper, and oregano
½ cup shaved Parmesan
2 slices fontina cheese
2 slices mozzarella
4 tablespoons olive oil
Heat skillet with olive oil.
Beat egg and add Parmesan cheese with the salt, pepper, and oregano. Coat the two pieces of challah with the egg-cheese wash.
Grill both sides until brown, then add fontina and mozzarella and grill again until melted.
Cut sandwich into 8 individual squares and serve as small bites.
Playing “Johnny Carson”
One of my favorite games to play with my Papa Charlie was “Johnny Carson.”1 We would take turns being Johnny and the guest. I was usually the guest. More specifically, I was always Charo,2 and I would stuff my T-shirt with tennis balls and put on my mom’s fancy red-sequined bolero jacket, which she wore only once to my cousin’s wedding. A tennis racket would serve as my guitar.
My Papa would sit at the elevated counter on our very Long Island kitchen island, light a cigarette, pour himself a J&B scotch and soda with one sugar cube, and announce, “Ladies and gentlemen, my next guest is an exciting young lady who is as uninhibited as she is beautiful! Would you please welcome… Charo!” I was ten years old.
On the odd occasion I wasn’t Charo or my other favorite character, Liza Minnelli, I was just me, and my Papa would say, “Ladies and gentlemen, introducing one of the pickiest eaters but most adorably foul-mouthed little girls on the planet… my Mary.” Naturally, I was the only guest he stood up from his desk to greet. Before sitting down, I would address the fake audience first, which consisted of my Grandmother Mary with “the Alzheimer’s,” who might at that moment be vacuuming the living room rug with her hair dryer. She’d wave to me and then go back to her housework. Before taking a seat, I’d pull the cigarette from my Papa’s hand and pretend to take a drag.
- "No one tells a story like Mary Giuliani and she does it with great recipes, too! To read her deeply personal memoir is to feel that you've connected with a dear friend who's thoughtful, funny, and truly unique. I love this book!"—-Ina Garten
- "Mary Giuliani is not a name: it is a promise. Like a guarantee on the box, her name attached to an event, a book, a menu, a meal, is a golden ticket to good times. Mary makes me smile, laugh, cry happy tears, and she always leaves me hungry for more of her wisdom, her humor, and her stories. I raise my glass in a toast to the hostess with the mostest to celebrate this, her most personal, touching, and delicious work yet!"—-Rachael Ray
- "Giuliani (The Cocktail Party) hilariously recounts her evolution from a girl with 'one eyebrow' in a Long Island household that 'couldn't be more Italian if we tried' into a successful caterer to the stars who appears on television with Rachael Ray and Ina Garten.... Giuliani's entertaining memoir is packed with satisfying stories and recipes that readers will guiltily enjoy."—Publishers Weekly
- "Giuliani has chutzpah to spare in these life-filled, rib-sticking (and-tickling) stories."—Booklist
- "What makes 'Tiny Hot Dogs' a fun read is her down-to-earth, pinch-me mindset as she brushes shoulders with the rich and famous while feeding them her beloved pigs in a blanket, aka Tiny Hot Dogs."—The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
- "'Tiny Hot Dogs: A Memoir in Small Bites' is told with genuine humor and storytelling reminiscent of Nora Ephron....offers the kind of moments that make readers smile, laugh, and most of all, remember what it's like trying to make your way in the world."—Sweet Paul
- "Celebrity caterer and writer Mary Guiliani's 'memoir in small bites' delivers heartwarming moments and some serious laughs with endearing anecdotes from her life. After reading Guiliani's entire journey, you'll feel like you've made a hilarious new friend-and you'll find yourself craving some of the recipes inside."—-Maggie Maloney, Associate Digital Editor, Town & Country
- How many culinary memoirs - heck, how many memoirs - frame their narrative through the lens of Steve Martin's The Jerk? If that weren't enough, the rest of Tiny Hot Dogs proves celebrity caterer Mary Giuliani is truly one of a kind... Tiny Hot Dogs is infused with Giuliani's quirky style and humor, as are the recipes peppered throughout.—-Tyler Aquilina, for Entertainment Weekly
- On Sale
- Apr 9, 2019
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Running Press