Danny DeVito has undeniable flair, even outside of his acting career — from chillin in a rainbow boa on the “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” float during the LA Pride parade to taking photos of his #trollfoot, DeVito’s got a gift for holding our attention. His relationship to food is no exception.
When I reached DeVito over the phone, we chatted about his macrobiotic stint in the ’60s, his Italian culinary roots, and, of course, his limoncello brand inspired by a night out with George Clooney.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
Juliette Luini: Hey Danny, you there?
Danny DeVito: Yeah. I’m here. You don’t mind if I eat an avocado while I talk to you, do ya?
Go for it. So you probably don’t get asked about food that often, but I’d like to talk about food.
Good. Let’s talk about it. I like food.
What have you been eating these days?
Well, last night I had a couple of guys over, and we cooked New York steak and some salmon. It was really good. There’s a really good place out here in Los Feliz that has a good butcher. So I go there and get my stuff.
What’s the butcher shop called?
Have you always been a meat and fish lover?
Well, ya know, I started out as a hippie vegetarian years ago in the ’60s, but then I moved back toward the protein. A couple of my kids don’t eat meat, but now I do.
What were your reasons behind trying out vegetarianism?
I didn’t really decide. Years ago I did a play in Philadelphia at the Theatre of Living Arts. It’s all based on what I do as an actor. Everyone was living together in Philadelphia in 1968. Ya know, it was a commune kinda thing. No one had any money. Everybody would chip in in the kitchen when their salary came. We did it for a couple months. Basically everybody chipped in to do stuff. I was living with real serious, ya know, brown rice and George Ohsawa people. Ya know George Ohsawa?
No, who’s that?
George Ohsawa wrote a book years ago about macrobiotics.
So there were these devotees of, ya know, the balance of rice and beans and certain kinds of yin and yang stuff that they would pick. So I did that for a couple months. I got into it. It was less expensive because you would buy short grain brown rice, wash it up, add a little salt and stuff to it.
Compared to a juicy New York steak, was the macrobiotic diet satiating enough for you?
Oh yeah! It was good. Because you load it up with vegetables. Chop up onions, carrots, greens, anything you have. We used to use tahini. Tahini was the big thing.
Yeah. We mixed that in. Then, we’d get an umeboshi plum. You know what an umeboshi plum is?
I’ve gotta be honest: Nope, I do not know what an umeboshi plum is.
You look that one up. It’s a kind of yang plum that we’d chop up and put in there. Umeboshi. It was always good.
So when did you migrate back toward animal products?
As I got out of there, I started moving back into fish. See, I’m from New Jersey, so we fished all the time. My father would go out to the river or stand on the jetty to the Atlantic Ocean down in Asbury to catch all kinds of cool fish. He’d bring it right home. My mother would clean it and cook it right there at night.
How would your mother prepare the fish?
It was simple, which I carry over in how I cook now. I do a little olive oil. I’ll chop up some garlic, put it on the fish. Maybe sometimes I’d bury it in the fish, ya know, to stick it around. Get some salt and pepper. A lot of pepper. And just grill it or broil it.
Do you still have time to cook like that? Or are you more of a restaurant person now?
I go to restaurants a lot, but I do always keep stuff in the house. Like I said how last night I cooked for my friends. I threw some asparagus in the grill, just put a little olive oil and salt on it. It’s amazing and really quick. You get the arugula and throw it together with a little balsamic and olive oil.
I’m wondering in all the roles that you’ve played, if you’ve had a most memorable scene of you eating?
In “Batman Returns,” I actually ate raw fish in the Penguin scene where I was standing on the spiral staircase.
That wasn’t fake?
No, no, no. I eat sushi and stuff like that. It was really fresh, it might’ve been salmon. I can’t remember what it was. But I just ate it.
Well, when you weren’t being forced to eat things while you were acting, what did you eat on set?
You know, during “Batman Returns” I had a stove, charcoal broiler, and all types of stuff outside my trailer. I had a friend who passed away, Vincent Schiavelli, who was in the movie. We would cook together. Vinnie was a great cook. He’s written a couple of cookbooks if you look him up. His grandfather is from Sicily. He’s an actor that you’ll remember from “Cuckoo’s Nest.” He was one of the patients with me.
It sounds like you are true to your Italian roots.
I eat everything. But, I do like to eat good garlic pasta with anchovies and bread crumbs.
I mean, you also started your own limoncello brand.
Yes, I did.
What made you decide to delve into the alcohol industry and start your own brand of limoncello, of all things?
This is the whole truth and nothing but the truth: I was out one night with George Clooney and my publicist. We were at a great Italian restaurant and we were drinking like everything. Forget about it. We moved on to the limoncello; we drank one after the other after the other. I later on found out that Clooney was ditching his. But I was getting sooo drunk. It was, like, hysterical.
Sounds ridiculous. What next?
By the time I got home, it was like 4 o’clock in the morning. The next day, I’m doing this show, “Fox and Friends,” which don’t really care much for because they are on Fox. I was like, what the hell, “Fox and Friends” is at 7 o’clock in the morning. I’m going to stay up. So I stayed up and went to “Fox and Friends.”
Then, I was going to do “The View.” I did all the stuff I did: You know, I made fun of George Bush, I was the Three Stooges, all this type of shit. Then, the headlines were all over the world: I was drunk on “The View.” It was really great. I got home and I realized: Guys, it was all about limoncello. You couldn’t go to a newspaper without finding my name with limoncello.
How did you go from being drunk on limoncello to building a business around the drink?
I had this friend who had a relationship with some people up in Sorrento. So I went to Sorrento. I looked at all their lemons because I was, like, what the hell, it’s all over the news! So I designed this bottle with a friend of mine. It’s a great bottle. It’s got a lemon on it. You can scratch it and it smells like lemon.
Scratch and sniff, I see.
It was really cool! It’s a classic bottle if you ever get to see it. It’s black and it has a lemon on it.
Anyways. Long story short, I started making and importing limoncello. I was promoting it on all the shows. But I decided at some point to sever my relationship with the company.
It sounds like you really loved the experience of bringing limoncello to the States though.
Honest to God I had the most fun doing that. And by the way, the great thing about it is — you’ll appreciate this — you get to go to the place where they make the limoncello. So I went to Sorrento. I saw three co-ops full of giant lemons. The lemons are big because of the volcanic ash.
Huh, that’s so strange.
Yeah, Mount Vesuvius.
So do you see yourself getting back into the beverage business?
I would do that again. Well, I was kinda naive when I went into it the first time. But it didn’t cost me any money. It was a lot of fun. So yes, I would do that again. The weird thing about it is, you know now I’m a gym person…
A gym person?
Ohhh, I thought you said gym!
No, no, no, a gin person. I’m not a gym person at all. I’m a gin person.
What’s your favorite way to drink your gin?
I start with my favorite brand, Sipsmith. Then, I take a cucumber and dissect it. Not short ways, but long ways — horizontally, like cutting the cucumber right down the middle. And I take a cheese grater, you know, one of those little pear shape things where you take a little slice of cheese. I cut a nice looong piece of cucumber really thin so you can see the seeds. Then, I curl that in my glass with Sipsmith gin. No vermouth, just gin. And pour it into a martini glass with the cucumber.
Your attention to detail is impressive.
Well, thank you.
Juliette Luini is a writer, researcher, and independent podcast producer. She attends Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine.