"Italians don't supersize things, they don't have Big Gulps," he said. "They don't do Value Packs. They eat in moderation. They care a lot about food, but they care about the quality of it and not the quantity. And I felt I'd absorbed all of that, and I made the bet that it was going to be OK."
Bruni described the day-to-day work of a restaurant critic.
"Um, eat," he said. "I'm in restaurants pretty much every night of the week. Sometimes six or seven nights. But almost always that much. When I go into a restaurant, I have to sort of look at the menu as this sort of vast terrain to be conquered. I have to go to a restaurant repeated times so that I and the people working with me can go across the menu, judge the restaurant's consistency through time. And I also have to keep a kind of curious, sort of low public profile, in which I fly under the radar so that I'm not drawing attention to myself when I walk into restaurants."
Restaurants every night, for someone with such a problematic relationship with food? Isn't that kind of like an alcoholic working at a liquor store?
"I mean I was always looking for a magic bullet," said Bruni. "I wanted a shortcut. I wanted a cheat. And one of the things I learned over time, one of the things that allows me to sit here not as a big fat person, is because I stopped looking for shortcuts, for magic bullets, for cheats. All you can really do that's going to be successful in the long run is keep control of your portions, watch what you eat, and exercise a lot."
The job itself is the stuff of New York legend -- part journalist, part CIA operative, as Bruni puts it. As a critic for the massively influential New York Times, Bruni tried to remain anonymous, to avoid special treatment. He made reservations under fake names.
"I would use names from the reference books within reach as I'm on the phone making reservations," said Bruni. "So I dined out as Mr. Webster, Mr. Fodor, Mr. Strunk, Mr. White. I mean look around at the textbooks on your desk, every one of those surnames has been one of my pseudonyms."
He even, occasionally, wore disguises.
"One of the times I had to, I was wearing an enormous puffy wig, because I myself wear my hair close-cut and don't have as much of it as I wish I did," Bruni said. "Um, so I had this big mane of hair that was this strange light brown, and I looked like Farrah Fawcett and Andy Warhol's love child.
"The few times I had to dress up like a circus character was when I was trying not to get thrown out of a restaurant."
Thrown out, because one restaurateur, Jeffrey Chodorow, threatened to toss Bruni if he ever caught him in one of his restaurants. This after a ZERO-star review of Kobe Club, with the damning line, "It presents too many insipid or insulting dishes at prices that draw blood from anyone without a trust fund or an expense account." Chodorow even took out a full-page ad in the Times attacking Bruni.
"Having Frank Bruni in your restaurant is one of the most nerve-wracking experiences you could have as a cook," said Boqueria's Mullen.
Starr had a different take.
"Frank Bruni is the smartest, handsomest, most wonderful human being in the world," said Starr. "I have to say that. I am still afraid he is going to come get me."
Bruni said the job of the critic is to tell the truth about food, good or bad.