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Smokin' Joe

Joe Bastianich has built an enviable empire around the art of fine dining
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
David Caruso, Jan/Feb 2007

(continued from page 2)

"I like full-bodied cigars, and I like bigger gauge cigars. I like robustos a lot. I like the whole process of the smoke, and the various nuances that a cigar has as it burns down," Bastianich says. He also hates to be caught short: "I'll have six to ten boxes on hand at any time, in various sizes. And I'll reorder every three to four months, depending on what's out there, kind of keep the rotation going. The general rule of thumb for me [when going out] is to bring twice what you're going to need."

For him, smoking is a daily ritual. He often lights up in his car for the 40-minute drive between work and his Connecticut home with its specially outfitted smoking room. A special air system creates negative air pressure to keep smoke from the living quarters of the house. Bastianich's attention to detail accounts for the reduced air flow in the room. "For me, I hate to smoke when there's so much air moving. It's just not as enjoyable. It's windy. I do enough of that in my car." He mentions the importance of savoring the aroma of a good cigar, then laughs. "I have the bad habit of rolling up all the windows in the car when I smoke, which I wouldn't advise."

Bastianich started smoking cigars about a decade ago, when he stopped smoking cigarettes. His favorites include Montecristos, Bolivars, Partagas Lusitanias and Diplomaticos No. 2s. He eschews thin cigars such as panetelas and doesn't bother with petit coronas, preferring sizable smokes. He also prefers to work a bit for his draw rather than to have it be on the looser side, and counts rapper Jay-Z as a cigar-smoking buddy. "I always tell people the perfect smoke is more elusive than wine in some ways," he says. "It's a very elusive thing, that perfect smoking experience."

If restaurants are in Bastianich's blood, and cigars are his passion, wine is his soul. In 1998, he and his mother bought a winery in Friuli-Venezia Guilia in northeastern Italy, not far from Istria, and since 1999 they have used its grapes to make Bastianich brand wines. In 2001, the Bastianichs joined with Batali to create a Tuscan wine label called La Mozza. Bastianich calls it a Super Med. Next up is a joint venture in Argentina to create an old vine Malbec from the Mendoza region, called Tritino. The first vintage is set to debut as this issue goes to press. "One lifetime is not enough to understand wine," says Bastianich. It's "something not so immediate in this world of ultimate immediacy."

It's the perfect antidote to his hectic lifestyle. His phone rings every few minutes and his e-mails seldom stop. He tries to visit each of his 13 restaurants frequently, even on Saturday nights. ("No one expects you to come out," he says.) There's always a new restaurant, such as the two that he and Batali are opening in Las Vegas, in the huge Venetian hotel. When he's not checking on his restaurants or his wineries, he's probably making an appearance on his mother's cooking show as a wine expert. What little free time he has is spent enjoying cigars and opera, sometimes in Del Posto on a Friday night. His long days typically end with him rolling home to Connecticut around midnight, and they start the next day, when his kids wake him up at dawn.

Bastianich also sees wine as his legacy, making him think of his children every time he does a tasting. "You're not the pilot of the ship [with wine]—you're a passenger. I'm humbled by it—I'm in awe of it. I don't know what my life would be without wine."

Despite his nearly unparalleled success in the restaurant business, Bastianich knows that even the greatest restaurant has a limited life span. "These restaurants may or may not be here," he says. He's amazed at the relative longevity of his mother's Felidia, which is still going strong after 26 years, ancient for a Manhattan restaurant, while a winery that old is still a babe.

One of the few times Bastianich doesn't enjoy wine is when he smokes, feeling that wine doesn't pair well with cigars. He prefers aged rums, and Del Posto stocks 50 varieties. He also isn't a fan of cigar dinners, preferring to eat his food and then to smoke, rather than to puff while eating. "It's ultimately wrong," he says with a chuckle. "Not the way it's supposed to be."

Taking a rare moment of total relaxation, puffing a cloud of rich smoke into the air while sipping a sweet rum from the Caribbean, Joe Bastianich seems to have a handle on the way things are supposed to be.

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