At the height of his fame and influence, Rossini moved to Paris, then the musical capital of Europe, with his former leading lady and wife, Isabella Colbran. Sleek and fat, he caroused with Balzac and became the toast of Bourbon society. Food, not music, had become his guiding passion. “I know of no more admirable occupation than eating,” the Maestro declared. “Appetite is for the stomach what love is for the heart. The stomach is the conductor, who rules the grand orchestra of our passion. The bassoon or the piccolo, grumbling its discontent or shrilling its longing, personify the empty stomach. Eating, loving, singing, and digesting are, in truth, the four acts of the comic opera known as life.”
A buona forchetta, a hearty eater, Rossini shined in the kitchen. He wrote “Di tanti palpiti,” the showstopper from Tancredi, while cooking risotto. His pantry at 10 Boulevard Montmarte was crammed with olives from Ascoli, truffles from Parma, panettone from Milan, stracchini from Lombardy, zamponi and cappelli del prete from Modena, mortadella from Bologna, ham from Seville, cheeses from Stilton, nougat from Marseille, sardines from Lisbon, and herring from Oslo. “Your cold cuts,” he told Giuseppe Bellentani, Modena’s famous delicatessen owner, “mean more to me than all the decorations, orders, and crosses in Europe!” If possible, he would have immortalized himself in cheese. When Pesaro offered to erect a statue in his honor, Rossini suggested carving it out of fontina.
Paris’s best restaurants competed for his patronage. The Tour d’Argent, Bonfinger, the Café des Anglais, Maison Doree, Lucas, and Marguery reserved a table for his exclusive use. On entering, Rossini would shake hands with the maitre d’, the wine steward, and the waiters and visit the cooks in the kitchen. Only then would he ceremoniously take his place and order dinner. Chefs adored him because he was a true gourmet. The great Antonin Carême claimed, “Rossini is the only one who truly understands me.” The two men exchanged tokens of respect for each other’s art. Rossini composed two piano collections dealing with food: The Four Hors D'oeuvres (subtitled Radishes, Anchovies, Gherkins and Butter) and The Four Beggars, the name of a Provencal cake (subtitled Dry Figs, Almonds, Raisins, and Nuts). Carême reciprocated by creating dishes in Rossini’s honor, usually involving truffles and pâté de foie gras: Stuffed Turkey a la Rossini; Fillet of Sole a la Rossini; Eggs a la Rossini; and, most notably, Tournedos a la Rossini. The Maestro could devour twenty of these cutlets at one sitting.
Rossini’s binges reminded onlookers of the Pappataci scene in The Italian Girl in Algiers. Inducted into a secret society, Bey Mustafà is instructed by his Italian slaves to eat till he bursts. But the jollity seemed forced and sad. Buoyant in his youth, Rossini had become water-logged in middle age. Gluttony was a refuge from stress and depression. Music critics noticed the overpaid composer wrote less and less. “Rossini used to be stuffed with music,” snapped one gazette. “Now he’s stuffed with prosciutto.” Jaded and tired, he toyed with retirement. “Notes are like women,” he sighed. “When they come looking for you, well and good. When you start looking for them, it’s time to quit.”