MANGIA TO THE MUSIC
A Q&A with Steep Canyon Rangers’ Mike Guggino, who serves up an inviting blend of Italian folk music and food
BY BROOK BOLEN
Brevard resident Mike Guggino is a member of the Grammy Award–winning bluegrass band Steep Canyon Rangers. When the group is not on the road, he and fellow bandmate Barrett Smith host “Italian Night” events at restaurants, music halls and other venues across Western North Carolina, playing traditional Italian folk music on the guitar and mandolin—often alongside the creation of creative Italian dishes.
Edible Asheville: This is such a unique tradition you’ve started. How did this all begin?
Mike Guggino: Barrett and I started hosting Italian Night shows at Jordan Street Café in Brevard about 20 years ago. I know the owners of the restaurant really well and I approached them about the concept. They would prepare an entire menu of Italian food and wine specials, and we would play a set of all Italian folk music.
We basically turned the restaurant into a dinner theater. We did it several times a year, usually in the fall and winter when the Steep Canyon Rangers had some time off. It became so popular that we started having two shows per night. About 10 years later, we took the concept to [the erstwhile] Isis Restaurant and Music Hall in Asheville.
We also host an Italian Night Concert at the Brevard Music Center every December where we bring in a special guest artist.
How have the events changed or evolved since you began?
I would say the biggest evolution over the years has been the shift from playing background dinner music at restaurants to giving full-on concert performances for captivated audiences. We even recorded our first album in 2020.
Your family roots are in Italy. Are any of the meals served during these events based on family recipes?
My grandfather loved to cook, as did my father. They both definitely inspired me to learn to cook. They both made homemade pasta and sauces. I can remember many Sundays as a kid rolling out fettuccine with my dad while eating the leftover raw dough ends. My nonno made the best salad dressing I’ve ever had, too. It’s basically red wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, fresh lemon juice and parmesan cheese. It seems highly inspired by [my grandfather’s] Sicilian heritage.
Your grandfather was a classical violinist, and your recent album of instrumental Italian folk music, Mia Dolce Farfalla, was inspired by a melody your grandfather played for you. You’ve said it also helped to launch this Italian musical journey. Can you tell us more about the music you were exposed to?
The song he played for me is called “Delirio D’Amore” and was written and published by Onofrio di Bella in 1917, the same year my grandfather was born. He couldn’t remember the name of the tune when he played it for me. He told me he remembered musicians in his Italian neighborhood in Tampa (where he grew up) playing songs like that on mandolins, guitars and accordions. He may have also heard it on Italian-language radio shows broadcasting from places like Philadelphia and New York.
I learned what the name of the tune was from Sheri Mignano Crawford. Sheri is an accordian player, historian and author living in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has published several books on Italian mandolin music and composers and has become quite a resource for Barrett and me learning this music. We now play “Delirio D’Amore” in our shows in honor of my grandfather.
Are there any similarities between traditional Italian folk music and the type of American bluegrass music you’re known for with your work with Steep Canyon Rangers?
There are actually more similarities in the music than differences. In both cases, the music was written and performed largely by extremely talented and often poorer musicians. Bluegrass and Italian music both require a high level of technical prowess. Both styles are known for their clean, fast picking and a lot of musical intensity. I find that playing one only helps the other.
When you host Italian Nights, how do you decide which music you will play? And do the dishes inspire the music, or vice versa?
We have always had the creative freedom to play the songs we want at our shows. Thankfully, our audience has always trusted us to both put on a show that will entertain and to create an atmosphere that puts the listener right in the “Italian” frame of mind.
Barrett and I talk a lot about how our music can really take people to another place. Some folks have been to Italy and our music takes them back. Others have never been, and Italian Night gives them a glimpse of what it might be like to visit. All of the places that we have hosted our shows have had excellent chefs. We give them the same creative freedom we have to come up with a menu that our audiences will enjoy. So far, it’s really worked out.
As the holidays approach, are there any Italian dishes your family enjoys preparing and serving?
My parents’ neighbor always brings them pizzelles for Christmas and we love them. I’ve always wanted to do a Feast of the Seven Fishes Christmas dinner.
How can folks keep up with you and catch a future Italian Night show?
Our main form of advertising for these shows is our email list. You can visit our website, mikegugginoandbarrettsmith.com, to join our email list and buy our music. We are also on Instagram and Facebook.
Mike Guggino (left) and bandmate Barrett Smith of the Steep Canyon Rangers