by Steve Wilson • Photography by Kate LeSueur
“I had to drunk-dial my mom for the ratio of shell to filling on these things,” says Austin comic Danny Palumbo as he sips wine from a Jesus coffee mug. The 30-year-old is talking about his family’s manicotti recipe while he thunks thick clumps of the cheese and meat mixture into shells he made from scratch. He rolls them with the cool and steady hand of someone comfortable in the kitchen—someone comfortable enough to ignore the grease marks on the wall from a recent Cuisinart explosion. Funny thing about this recipe: His Italian grandmother always made it for Thanksgiving, but she actually got it from Palumbo’s other grandmother, who was mostly Polish. “My mom told me that the other day,” he says, “and I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me? It didn’t even come from an Italian?’”
Palumbo has seen the humor in food since he jumped from dishwasher to cook at a “sloppy red-sauce joint” when he was 15. “It was the kind of place where the placemat is a map of Italy and hey, there’s Frank Sinatra’s headshot,” he says. Some of his earliest material doing stand-up in his native Pittsburgh revolved around food. “People ask me how to make risotto. I say be yourself.” By the time he made an impulse move to Austin for its comedy scene four years ago, some of his best routines delved into the mysteries of restaurant chains: “Every time I go into a Subway I ask myself, ‘Why is this sandwich wet?’”
The line between food and comedy in Palumbo’s life is as thin as the window between a setup and a punch line. He spends his days doing a little of this and a little of that at Quality Seafood and his nights doing stand-up. He’s known to rush home after one of his regular hosting gigs at “Live at ColdTowne” and Spider House Ballroom’s “Jazz Cigarette” to check on a beef stock he’s left on the stove all day. In May, he won the grueling stand-up marathon that is the “Funniest Person in Austin” contest and spent the prize money on tortellini. And he sounds just as excited about making an eventual comedy album as he does about creating his own pork-fat tomato roux. “Food is my life experience, and I have a natural passion for it,” he says as he replaces the wine in the Jesus mug with coffee. “It’s also ripe for comedy.”
On a lark last year, he and his chef brother, Anthony (“He turned me on to parsley stems,” Palumbo confides), created a parody website for Lil’ Buco, a pretentious pretend restaurant for kids with fare such as “SpaghettiO’s gazpacho, rustic cracker.” They followed with Abbrev’s—another fictitious gastrophenom specializing in portions so small that it serves micro-entrees of tuna on quarter teaspoons and tacos on toothpick skewers. They’re planning another eatery that lampoons fusion cuisine. (“We’re white chefs co-opting your culture’s food.”) So far, the sites have hit more than a million views, and the brothers have been approached to host a potential food travel show.
But for all that, Palumbo doesn’t want to be known as “the food guy.” At the same time, he doesn’t mind his growing reputation as the comic who makes early dinner for other Austin comics every Sunday night. They show up at 5 p.m. and leave by 8 p.m. to hit the stage at places like Cap City Comedy Club. Palumbo sees his get-togethers as a way to do his part for the stand-up community, which has given him much support and inspiration. Granted, he’d never get sappy enough to admit that in front of them when they show up for the manicotti. Comedian Eric Krug walks in and Palumbo immediately lays into him for bringing his own bag of ice. “Eric, you’re the goddamn worst.” “You always run out,” Krug responds, taking it in stride. “Danny’s the hot kid in town right now,” he adds, “but he’ll get his.” Then he retires to a whiteboard hung in the dining room where he draws a butt blowing a fart cloud.
The comics pile the food onto mismatched plates and grab seats. Naturally, everybody starts doing scenes from “Goodfellas” and other mob movies. Then, they break into the magnificent apple pie brought by Aaron Brooks, Palumbo’s “Jazz Cigarette” co-host. Normally, the group would leave by 8 p.m. to perform at any club willing to have them on a Sunday night, but because the May rainstorms have shut down most places, they’re stuck here together. Palumbo’s fine with that. “All my friends are comedians now,” he says. “I don’t know anybody else.”