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From Sun Magazine: Chazz Palminteri brings rustic Italian style to suburban New York

Tough-guy actor, now a Baltimore restaurateur, wanted to create a weathered, welcoming space, especially in the kitchen

By Jill Rosen, The Baltimore Sun

November 27, 2011

BEDFORD, N.Y.

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As a young man living in the Bronx, Chazz Palminteri would escape the city on long drives into the Westchester County countryside where he'd tool along curving, forested roads, staring at the set-back mansions. To a guy with empty pockets, the gated lawns and gabled rooflines looked like money, like class — like success.

"Oh my God," he'd say to himself. "I want to be up here one day."

It may have taken decades, but Palminteri finally scored that Bedford, N.Y., address. These days, when Palminteri heads home, he drives along one of those woodsy roads, through one of those exclusive gates, and right up to his very own set-back mansion — a distinguished Georgian of rugged stone and stately gables.

With more than 50 movies on his resume, plus stage work, directorial credits, an Academy Award nomination and now a restaurant in Baltimore with his name on it in lights, Chazz Palminteri has earned the exclusivity. It's only a little ironic that to reach it, he often played the streetwise tough, the very essence of what he was working to flee.

The actor, almost 60, and his wife, Gianna, built the 7,000-square-foot house on seven acres 10 years ago. The couple insisted on a home that was big, warm and unambiguously Italian, not only to raise their two children with a sense of comfort and heritage but also to be able to welcome family and friends without hesitation.

On a brisk morning earlier this month, actor Robert Davi was padding around the kitchen in his pajamas, looking for coffee. Another guest, actor Billy Baldwin, had gotten an earlier start. The Palminteris' housekeeper rushed about, dismantling evidence of a big Halloween party earlier in the week — cobwebs here, giant bats there.

Everything and everyone buzzed around the sun-filled kitchen, which the couple wanted to be "pure Tuscany," as Gianna says. "It took us a long time to get it just right."

They painted grapevine trails onto the walls and chose sturdy French floor tiles and cream-colored cabinetry — complete with glass-fronted drawers they filled with dried beans and pastas. The granite on the counters and expansive island is the color of wet sand, the backsplash made of Italian limestone and the appliances installed in doubles to accommodate frequent parties.

It was over the brass-accented Viking range that Sergio Vitale, one of Chazz's restaurant partners, taught the Palminteri family how to make a proper risotto.

"You can have the biggest house in the world, and everyone ends up in the kitchen," Palminteri says. "That's what we wanted for Chazz in Baltimore, for it to feel like a big, family kitchen."

Palminteri gets down to Baltimore once a month, eager to hold court at the restaurant in Harbor East that he calls Chazz: A Bronx Original. He'll tell you that in an Italian family, the table is "sacred space." So he enjoys sitting down at them with his guests, happy to sign autographs and pose for pictures.

He's also proud of the food.

"If my name's on the food, it has to be good," he says, allowing his Bronx affect to playfully flare. If the food didn't pass muster, he says his Italian buddies would be happy to call him on it. "They'd say, 'Chazz. What's the deal? What kind of pizza is this?'"

The Palminteris' Bedford home blends Chazz's insistence on new with his wife's love of old. A perfectionist, he didn't want to be slave to the neediness of a historic home. But she wanted the character.

"I love that warm, weathered feeling," Gianna says. "Like an old Italian estate. As soon as we moved in, I started to age it."

She did so with walls faux-finished to resemble aged plaster, with arched doorways, with an old-world courtyard fountain and with a sweeping entryway that boasts the drama of an Italian palazzo.

That foyer, with its soaring ceilings, cinematic curved staircase and tile from Italy, is Gianna's favorite spot in the house.

Just steps off it is the living room, a space inspired by the couple's favorite hotel, the Peninsula in Beverly Hills.

The room draws from the hotel's elegant Renaissance look rendered in creams and golds. They chose twin sofas upholstered in blush velvet, a leopard-print rug and gilded accessories. It's not a lonely room. The children practice the "Twilight" score and numbers from "Annie" at the piano in the corner. On any given weeknight they'll light dozens of candles, pour something from the bar hidden in an armoire, pull up a microphone stand and stage impromptu family performances.

Both Palminteri children seem headed for show business. Dante, 16, sings in a rock band. His sister Gabriella, 9, sings and dances and is auditioning for a role in "Annie." Gianna, too, is an actress and producer.

The formal dining room, on the opposite side of the entryway, is also a well-used room. Family and friends regularly gather around the glossy walnut table to clink glasses under the glow of a crystal chandelier from Italy.

In nearly every room are mementos the couple brought home from locations Palminteri's work has taken them.

They found their aged, wood entryway table in Paris while Chazz was filming "Excellent Cadavers." The ceramic cat statues in the dining room also came from France, when "Bullets Over Broadway" opened in Paris.

It's hard to miss the towering Jackson Pollock painting that hangs along the stairway. It's not a real piece by the artist, but one painstakingly reproduced for a scene in the movie "Pollock." It was a housewarming gift from the movie's producer, the couple's good friend Peter Brant.

Chazz, a wine lover and casual collector, built a rustic wine cellar in the basement. He commissioned a mural for its wall, an image that depicts Palminteri, his wife, his dog and his cat wandering along a Sicilian dirt road.

The Palminteris have thrown open their doors to animals — currently three dogs, a cat, a gerbil and a guinea pig. In a family that is willing to rescue everything from retired race horses to hermit crabs, Chazz is partial to the dogs, in particular to two purebred German shepherds — one named Caymus after his favorite vineyard, the other named Kai, after Keyser Soze, the pivotal character in one of his best-known movies, "The Usual Suspects."

With such a lively home, Palminteri needed a quiet space for himself, a place to think, write, rehearse and create.

His second-floor office is masculine and refined, with plush burgundy carpet, hunter-green walls, wood paneling and exposed beams. There he broods over his computer in a leather zero-gravity chair.

He writes in the mornings, when the light is soft and the house hushed. He writes in silence.

"I spend hours up here," he says. "I spend days."

Lately, he's working on a play about wounded soldiers who return home from war. He's doing research, including a recent visit with wounded soldiers in Washington.

More than any place in the house, the room underscores the actor's success. There are the clippings, the scripts in progress, the caricature of him that hangs in Sardi's. The photos of the famous faces he calls his friends — Billy Joel, Cher, Elton John, an old shot of Robert DeNiro cradling Palminteri's then-baby son. The posters that advertised his movies nearly cover the walls — and he's only hung the big hits. "Analyze This." "Bullets Over Broadway." "A Bronx Tale." "The Usual Suspects." "Mulholland Falls."

In that room, a space that could swallow his old fifth-floor Bronx walk-up, he feels grateful. When he stops to think about it.

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

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