Things of Latvia: Roberto Meloni

Journalists passing through Latvia occasionally ask me who is the most influential person in the country. I have little hesitation in replying: "Roberto Meloni."

"Who's he?" they say, "The EU representative? A political adviser? An artist?"

"All that and more," I reply, "He is also a TV chef, a singer of Dean Martin songs and at one time was captain of a pirate ship."

At this point the journalists generally remember they are late for an urgent appointment and leave me to myself. But I was only half-joking. Roberto Meloni is a fully-fledged cross-cultural phenomenon, a sort of variety show Renaissance man and he really is influential.  

Roberto has represented Latvia at Eurovision twice, once in a group that attempted to cash in on the popularity of the group Il Divo in 2007, and once in a group that attempted to cash in on the popularity of the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise in 2008. He popped up a third time in 2009 reading the scores from the Latvian jury.

He can also dance a bit and frequently be spotted in the pages of the gossip magazines. He might crop up on a chat show or radio show just as easily or, as in the video below, be plugging his latest national tour. I have talked with people who have booked him to be master of ceremonies at public events and they speak very highly of his professionalism.

But his real power base is his daily lunchtime TV cookery show La Dolce Vita... ar Roberto! (and its identical predecessor Labs Ēdiens Labiem Draugiem... ar Roberto!). I guarantee anything he cooks will be served to me by my mother-in-law within days. She sits in front of the television with pen and paper noting down Roberto's recipes, and I am sure she is not alone. Across Latvia there must be hundreds, perhaps thousands of mothers-in-law writing down his every suggestion about salt and pepper with the fanatical dedication one would expect from those generals who follow Kim Jong-Un around missile bases.

She must have been making the Latvian staple Skābeņu zupa, a green spring soup for at least 60 years. It is good. But this week a steaming bowl arrived on the table which tasted slightly different.

"Very tasty," I commented.

"Yes, it's Roberto's Skābeņu zupa!" she enthused, "He made it on Monday."

It seemed to be almost identical to her usual soup, but with the addition of tomatoes. This is a familiar trick of Roberto's: add tomatoes. He's Italian.

Roberto's appeal lies not only in his dedication to adding tomatoes to dishes. It comes from a combination of being slightly exotic, and at the same time having a truly impressive command of the Latvian language, which he speaks with a unique, very enjoyable and over-the-top Italian accent. 

Combined with this, he has a clever trick of seeming at one moment slightly camp and at another moment quite macho, plus a relentless charm and cheer expressed through frequent explosions of decidedly un-Latvian, unrestrained laughter.

Politicians, actors, musicians, artists and others line up to appear on La Dolce Vita... ar Roberto!, aware that the votes and purses of his viewers are well worth having. But it is a trial by fire, for not only do they have to convince the hawk-eyed public, pens and pads poised, that they know how to cook, but they also have to wear a silly apron and cope with Roberto's scatter-gun approach to actually doing recipes in the correct order and his frequent outbursts of hysterical laughter and Mamma mia! hand gestures.

I admire Roberto, and not just for his language skills. I like all-rounders and if he is anything, he is that. I once saw him sitting in a cafe and, I am embarrassed to admit it, was genuinely star struck for a few moments. There he was just two tables away, nursing a coffee, with a bright scarf wrapped around his neck in the operatic mode to protect his vocal cords. He looked a bit tired, as if he had just been to the gym. But then his cellphone rang and he instantly clicked into character and started shouting flattering comments down the line, leaving me to regret the dearth of tomatoes on my plate.

But my most enduring and endearing memory of him dates from several years ago, on Museum Night when Latvia's museums stay open for free into the early hours of the morning. I had traipsed around a few different places and was thinking about going home when around midnight I slid into Rīga Castle and descended the steps into the freezing basement. At the time, it housed a collection of not particularly good but full-sized reproductions of Greek and Roman statuary and there, right in the middle of the columns, the muses and the triumphant heroes was Roberto Meloni, immaculate in tuxedo and bow tie, a spotlight upon him, banging out Volare to a backing track for all he was worth.

On one level it was cheesy, but to me the moment was strangely touching. How many entertainers would be prepared to stand in a dingy castle basement at midnight to put a smile on the faces of crowds of people randomly wandering through? Roberto may not be Latvian, but he's definitely a Thing of Latvia. What a trooper. 

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