Fred Ferretti, Reporter Turned Writer on Food, Dies at 90

Fred Ferretti, who covered a panoply of breaking news events for New York City newspapers before becoming best known for his prolific writing on cuisine, comestibles and cooking for The New York Times and then Gourmet magazine, died on Monday at his home in Montclair, N.J. He was 90.

His death was confirmed by his son Stephen.

After a newspaper career that began with The New York Herald Tribune and ended with The Times in 1986, Mr. Ferretti became a contributing editor at Gourmet and wrote a column called Gourmet at Large.

He delved into every aspect of eating, profiling up and coming restaurateurs and chefs, offering tips on dieting while dining out (by his account he once lost 50 pounds from healthy eating), assaying emerging products and delicacies, and writing reviews of sumptuous eateries so undiscovered that it was still possible to book a table (though possibly not for long if his review was a rave).

His curiosity, if not his appetite, was insatiable. He wrote about the origin of the Girl Scout cookie, how the Army was transforming mess halls from gaggy to gourmet, the impact of gamma rays on meat, and the emergence of a gastronomical paradise in the growing Chinese immigrant enclave in Flushing, Queens.

He revealed a prodigious variety of potato dishes being served in Ireland, why Hawaiians liked Spam and how ancient Egyptians made pasta. He took a behind-the-scenes look at airline food (which one reader called an oxymoron), interviewed the chief bartender at Harry’s in Venice and profiled Joseph Baum, the World Trade Center consultant responsible for feeding a potential daily customer base that equaled the population of Albany, N.Y.

Reviewing several London restaurant guidebooks that offered conflicting advice, he recommended buying all three so that “you’ll never again have to agree with Somerset Maugham, who once wrote, ‘If you want to eat well in England, have breakfast three times a day.’”

Mr. Ferretti was the author of several books, including the lavishly illustrated “Cafe des Artistes: An Insider’s Look at the Famed Restaurant and Its Cuisine” (2000), which evoked the charming Manhattan bistro — murals of naked nymphs and all — that George Lang presided over at One West 67th Street until 2009.

Earlier, he drew on his shoe-leather newspaper reporting to analyze one of the major stories he covered for The Times, New York City’s mid-1970s fiscal crisis, in his book “The Year the Big Apple Went Bust,” published in 1976.

The year before, he came out with “The Great American Book of Sidewalk, Stoop, Dirt, Curb and Alley Games” (1975), a guide, written with Jerry Darvin, to the street sports — many of them long forgotten — that he played growing up in New York City.

“In my day, all it took for kids to amuse themselves was a Spaldeen and a broom handle,” he told The Times in 1996.

Armand John Ferretti, the grandson of Italian immigrants, was born on March 3, 1932, in Manhattan to Herman Ferretti, a master carpenter, and Theresa (Rossi) Ferretti, a homemaker, and spent some of his boyhood years in Queens.

He was attending Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School in Brooklyn when he began working as a messenger for The Herald Tribune. That stint, in the late 1950s, was interrupted by two years of Army service in Japan. Returning to The Trib as a copy boy, he adopted the name Fred.

In 1959, he married Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, who became an authority on Chinese cuisine in America. They reviewed restaurants together for the New Jersey weekly section of The Times. She survives him along with their sons, Stephen and Christopher, and a granddaughter.

As a rewrite man at The Trib, Mr. Ferretti wrote about Lee Harvey Oswald’s last day at large and his capture after assassinating President John F. Kennedy in 1963. He headed the newspaper’s 1964-65 World’s Fair coverage and served as City Hall bureau chief in 1965-66.

When the paper ceased publication in 1966, he wrote for New York magazine. He also worked as a writer, editor and producer for NBC News.

After he joined The Times in 1969, Mr. Ferretti earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Columbia University. He was named City Hall bureau chief and covered a wide range of events, including the bloody prison riot in upstate Attica, N.Y.; the nation’s Bicentennial celebration and the introduction of legalized gambling to Atlantic City.

In 1971, when Norman Lear’s “All in the Family” premiered, Mr. Ferretti, briefly in the role of TV critic, wrote: “Tonight the Columbia Broadcasting System Television Network will find out if Americans think bigotry and racism, as the prime elements of a situation comedy, are funny.” He didn’t. The racial and ethnic epithets spouted by Carroll O’Connor’s Archie Bunker, he wrote, “don’t make one laugh so much as they force self‐conscious, semi‐amused gasps.”

In addition to Gourmet, he wrote for Travel & Leisure, Food & Wine and Food Arts magazines and a weekly column called “Travels with Fred” for the Copley News Service.

In 1989, members of Entrée, a travel and food newsletter, voted Mr. Ferretti “Best Food Writer in America.”

For all the serious subjects he covered, he could at times betray an irrepressible puckishness.

In 1972, when New York courts were considering banning the film “Deep Throat” as obscene, Arthur Gelb, The Times’s metropolitan editor at the time, assembled a select, if slightly sheepish, group of reporters to go to a nearby Times Square pornographic theater to judge the film for themselves.

“Less than halfway through the film,” Mr. Gelb recalled in his book “City Room” (2003), “the theater’s loudspeaker blared out, ‘Mr. Arthur Gelb, metropolitan editor of The New York Times, is wanted back at his office.’ I learned later that it was Fred Ferretti who impishly had called the movie theater’s manager. ‘Mr. Gelb is hard of hearing,’ Fred told him, ‘so be sure and page him nice and loud.’”

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