Author and caterer Mary Giuliani has often felt like an outsider. Growing up in Great Neck, she loved her “very Italian” family, but always wanted to be Jewish. Later, as she worked to become an actress, a bend in the road led her into catering, particularly for A-listers such as Elizabeth Taylor and Bradley Cooper, exposing her to a world “I could only dream about when growing up on Long Island,” she says.
Giuliani came to focus on playfulness and comfort food, such as pigs in a blanket. Television appearances with the likes of Ina Garten and Rachael Ray followed, and now, as head of Mary Giuliani Catering & Events, Giuliani oversees hundreds of events per year.
Along the way, she has written down stories — lots of them. This month saw the publication of “Tiny Hot Dogs: A Memoir in Small Bites” (Running Press, 232 pp., $24). Told in vignettes and infused with salty humor, the book moves between encountering celebrity crushes such as Alec Baldwin to weightier subjects, such as her struggle with infertility. Petite and ebullient, Giuliani, 43, took time out to meet at one of her favorite places, Kensington Kosher Delicatessen in Great Neck to talk about food and writing over (what else?) hot dogs. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you want to meet here?
It’s been a constant since I was a child. Every time I come I’ve had the same order — a hot dog, a square knish and a Coke. Growing up Italian in a Jewish neighborhood, I embraced everything about Jewish food and culture, so I grew up always feeling on the outside. I wanted to be like my friends, and they were all having these elaborate bar mitzvahs. I went to like 178, and I would wait near the kitchen, where they’d come out with pigs in a blanket. That was the highlight of my Saturdays.
Fast forward to my current career, and I’m the girl holding the tray of hot dogs. That’s why the book is called “Tiny Hot Dogs.” I am grateful for my outsider journey.
You set out wanting to become an actress, but life seemed to have other plans.
After college [at Georgetown University], I headed straight to New York City. I tried to be an actress, and it wasn’t easy, so I took a job in a catering office to pay the bills. It took about a month for me to realize I had accidentally slid into what I was supposed to be. Catering combined theatrics, food and hospitality.
You write that you are not a foodie. How is that possible?
I love food, but I grew up in the house where food was like air. We cooked all day Saturday for Sunday. It wasn’t a trend, it was what we did to show love. I’m not a foodie in that nothing I eat is fancy or fussy or hard to make.
When you decided to dispatch with so-called “fancier” foods, did it feel radical?
At these parties [I catered], one day I said, “They must be really sick of eating sea bass and drinking lavender lemonade.” I was like, they have everything in the world we could ever dream of — I’m sure they just want a hot dog once in awhile. Thankfully, it worked.
In the book you talk about how Steve Martin impacted your life.
I approach everything, ever since my childhood, from the movie “The Jerk.” I loved that [Martin's character] Navin Johnson was a delusional optimist. I literally approach every single day like that — I choose to be delusionally optimistic. Sometimes it works out, and sometimes it doesn’t. I’ve had horrible failures. Twice, I almost had to shut the door on my catering company.
In my book, I also talk in depth about my struggle with infertility. I could create these amazing environments, but I couldn’t create one thing I was longing for, which was a child. You feel like you’re the only person hurting that badly. One of the reasons I speak frankly about this is that I want fellow women suffering through this together to know they are not alone.
Where do you like to eat when you’re on Long Island?
This deli is a staple. If I’ve had a good week, Peter Luger [Steakhouse]. I think the one in Great Neck is better than the one in Brooklyn, and you can quote me on that.