John Axelrod

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29 Mar 2009
Authentic Italian
Style Magazine, Corrierre della Sera

At the age of 16, when the schoolmates were studying to get a driving licence, John Axelrod was already a child prodigy at the piano, chosen by Leonard Bernstein as disciple for "lectures for music and for life", three hours a day for four months in a row. After graduating from Harvard, the classical music seemed him too elitist so he went for rock music (he worked in a multinational label for Billy Corgan from Smashing Pumpkins, Tori Amos e Ax Rose from Guns N'Roses). But while accompanying these rockers, he got fascinated by wines (and gastronomy) that he became a sommelier in one of the best wine bars in Napa Valley, la Mondavi. Then he came back to classical music, first as assistant to Christoph Eschenbach at the Bayrouth Festival then as music director at the Luzern Opera.

Now, at the age of 41, he is one of the most requested of Bernstein's students in the world. He conducted in first representation of Candide at La Scala di Milano and at the Opera in Paris, (sometimes during rehearsals he wears a leather trousers in memory of the past) and he recorded Kaddish in remembrance of the victim in Shoah. The passion for the Italian cuisine and great wines have been kept alive and he is writing a guide to the Italian restaurants in the world: ones to avoid and others that deserve approvals. Antentico Italiano is to be published next year in the United States. Curious life of John Axelrod, from Houston, Texas, a conductor who eats out 300 days a year, father of a girl, so in love with Italy that he wants to include in his will to let his ash scattered from a gondola into Gran Canal.

"The passion for Italian food literary landed on my head when I was still a kid" smiles Axelrod. "I was with my parents at Antonio's Flying Pizza in Houston where the pizza dough really flew onto my head. And from that very day I feel at home in the Italian kitchen." Later In Venice: "I convinced a gondolier to give me lessons. He took me to Dorsoduro, in the small fabric of gondolas and I had an intensive course, first with a simulator and then with a real gondola. He rent me a shirt, a hat and a scarf and I became Giovanni from John. German and Japanese tourist: I sung 'O Sole Mio, and they ware taking a video".

After passing 15 years in vagabondage with the baton in the luggage, he became a friend of many famous chefs (Nobu Matsuhisa, Joachim Splichal, Wolfgang Puck) and he qualified himself as gourmet. His favourite wines? Brunello di Montalcino and Amarone, Barolo and Barbaresco, then Nero d'Avola. He dreams of a vertical collection of Sassicaia. "Some wines, like Cote du Rhone are the classics, but generally French wines, with the exception of Chateau Margaux e Latour, are for me in the second place". The newcomers like the Australian Shiraz and some Chilean Cabernet compete with the French technique, but the Italian flavour you really cannot copy. Amongst American wines? There are Zinfandel reds which are excellent; but my favourite is Cabernet Caymus Special Selection. Mondavi Cabernet Reserve and Russian River Valley Pinot Noir are great, too. The best? Navarro's Pinot Noir".

The idea of writing an actual guide to Italian restaurants was born while I was eating at hundreds of restaurants: "once I got ketchup on my plate instead of tomato sauce. It's complicated and expensive abroad to access to the right ingredient: if they compromise on that, it isn't Italian cooking any more". The taste of Axelrod is though simple: "I tagliolini al nero di seppia at Harry's Bar; Cutlet alla milanese. Lamb chops of San Gimignano and the Neapolitan pizza. A plate of prosciutto San Daniele and fresh burrata cheese make me really emotional". The most authentic Italian restaurant? Classico in Leipzig, Fausto in Budapest, Da Marco in Houston. To a groumet from Texas, you cannot help asking for an opinion on the best BBQ in the world: "Goode Company BBQ a Houston".

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