Surrealist artist Mark Kostabi, who is famous for being famous and his paintings of faceless figures, was born in California to Estonian parents who came here for the American Dream.
Professionally, he floats in a constant swirl of controversy—which he is quick to fan if it ever looks in danger of dying down—that mostly surrounds his factory of talented artists and “idea generators” who actually paint the vast majority of his canvases from the detailed sketches he provides.
Accurately, he points out, that throughout history many great artists have used assistants, or even students, to paint or sculpt their work. And this practice certainly continues today. But Kostabi has disproportionately drawn ire for this process, which has only made him more renowned, and his paintings, which I love, more valuable. I once asked Kostabi what was the most important thing to succeed as an artist, and he answered, without irony and then with irritation when I pressed him on it, “being a part of the art scene!”
Nowadays, he lives in Rome and New York, speaks Italian fluently and counts among his many commissions one from the Vatican.
I’ve known him for 35 years. We met when I licensed one of his paintings as an illustration for my music magazine SPIN, it was the first time he’d been published that way. For all his public bravado and his seemingly perpetual flame in the media, he’s actually a humble, gentle and relentlessly curious guy, who is also, I think, a bit shy. He is also an accomplished classical composer who has released several albums.
Knowing his reputation as a workaholic, I asked how important—and pleasurable—is food for him? “When I’m in Rome,” he said, “food has an extra special intoxicating seduction. Especially in great restaurants, like Trattoria Monti, Il Pagliaccio, Antica Pesa and my new discovery, Mimesi. But there’s nothing like a home cooked meal in Rome by an Italian who knows what they’re doing. When I eat my own simple meals in front of my computer while working, my concentration is enhanced, the ideas flow better and that leads to great spiritual and financial profits.”
What is more interesting to Mr. On the Scene, I wondered: the grandness of a great restaurant, the electricity of a trendy place or the simple way of eating in most of Italy?
“It’s all almost equally interesting, but the simplicity, discovering incredibly great roadside restaurants while traveling, like Le Sequoie in Carsoli, which I religiously stop by for lunch when returning from Abruzzo to Rome, is probably the best thing.”
And where can you get good Estonian food in New York? “At the Estonian House, 243 East 34th Street.”
These are his five most memorable meals.
I’ve had my large paintings in this celebrity magnet, Trastevere restaurant for years. Known for Rome’s best Cacio e Pepe, Antica Pesa also happens to be Sophia Loren’s favorite restaurant.
One evening the co-owner, Francesco Panella, told me that I could meet Sophia in their back dining room, which one enters through the maze of the kitchen. I was seated at the corner, next to Sophia and she could see how nervous and star struck I was, so she held my hand for around 15 minutes while we enjoyed dessert and fascinating conversation. Seated to my left was a high-level Vatican cardinal (Sophia is very religious and frequently dines with Vatican luminaries) and her niece, Alessandra Mussolini, with her wild hair, was seated across from me. How could one forget being in such epic, historic company?
On a hot summer night in Montalcino, Tuscany, during an outdoor dinner with world-famous artist and award-winning wine producer Sandro Chia. After staying as a guest in his to-die-for refurbished medieval castle, Sandro (who won an award for producing the world’s best Brunello di Montalcino) explained to me that it’s totally okay to put ice in a glass of red wine in the summer. I also learned that contrary to snobbish popular belief, true Italians have no problem drinking cappuccino in the afternoon and evening.
I had the honor of being close friends with legendary jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman during the last five years of his life. After jam sessions, Ornette and I would often go to his favorite soul food restaurant in his midtown New York neighborhood, Soul Kitchen, or to Arby’s. But whenever possible, I would insist on taking Ornette to New York’s fanciest restaurants. One evening at a posh Upper East Side restaurant, Ornette insisted that we eat our salads with our fingers. He insisted it tasted better that way, getting the fingers all oily. Ornette said he didn’t really drink but tasted a glass of wine. After the first taste, a few glasses got him so drunk that he asked the waitress if she was a singer and before she could answer, he offered her a singing job in his band.
In the early 1980s, I was invited to the White House to be part of a documentary about the famous reporter Sarah McClendon, known for asking tough questions to politicians. After I met then Vice President George Herbert Walker Bush in the Oval Office and witnessed a Ronald Reagan press conference, we went for lunch at Sarah McClendon’s house. While strawberries were being served, Sarah explained to me that strawberries should be eaten with their green leaf crowns attached. That was unforgettable and to this day I try to follow her advice.
I had the art historical honor of visiting Beatrice Wood, the famous ceramicist and “Mama of Dada,” in her home/studio in Ojai, California. She was Marcel Duchamp’s girlfriend around 1917 and designed the first major Dada exhibition poster. She was also the inspiration for the Rose character in her Ojai neighbor/friend James Cameron’s epic Titanic. Beatrice lived to be 105 and whenever asked said her secret to longevity was “young boys and chocolate.” I was a relatively young boy and I brought her the best deluxe chocolates that money could buy and we were photographed eating them together. A truly memorable meal of the absolute best, expensive chocolates. She was so gracious to eat them with me because later I found out her favorites were actually basic Hershey’s from 7-Eleven.
My Five Favorite Meals features the most cherished dining experiences of bartenders, chefs, restaurateurs and celebrities.
Interview has been condensed and edited.