Just Like Nonna’s House

Has the pandemic not affected you, either physically or mentally?

If so, then you are on a very short list.

COVID hasn’t wrecked you physically, you say? You can be sure it’s taken some measure of psychological toll.

Businesses that eventually went dark during the pandemic – whether because of state mandated shut downs, staffing shortages, or supply chain issues – made some suffering worse: as if the threat of physical or mental illness wasn’t intimidating enough.

One such business was one of our favorite restaurants, a place called Sam’s Italian American, located in Albany.

I could tell you it was a favorite because of the menu, the staff, the simple “old school” decor: it was all that and much more. Whether you ordered a plate of braciole, vodka sauce, or clams and linguine, you could be sure your plate overflowed with the flavors of your past, the aromas of childhood.

One reason it was such a favorite of ours stands out: either our son or daughter (I forget which, although my wife claims it was the latter) walked through the wall papered entrance of the restaurant, immediately proclaiming “it smells just like Nonna’s house in here.”

Just Like It Used to Be

I’m not sure if that moment cemented my fondness for Sam’s right there: I do know that, as I’ve recalled it repeatedly, I took my child’s proclamation as a way to knock the momentum from any pandemic related funk – vowing to continually search for the simple and the satisfying, that way of life that reminds me of just like Nonna’s house.

Nonna Rosina, next to my grandfather with his fork

With the help of my wife, I tend to pay more attention to my natural surroundings – animals, trees, flowers, the sky – just like we used to at Nonna’s house.

Play is becoming a bigger part of life. Just like I used to with the brick facade of Nonna’s house, bouncing a rubber ball, watching it explode off the brick and into my baseball glove for hours on end.

The social scene was big at Nonna’s house. Friends, family, neighbors would all stop by (remember the “drop in”?), eventually sitting at table for coffee, and what comedian Sebastian Maniscalco refers to in his memories as “company cake.”

Whether sitting for a coffee with my 100 year old great aunt (shout out to Zia Maria) or a post-mass Sunday brunch with a bunch of my cousins, the replication of that decades ago social life isn’t just necessary now: it’s critical.

When you look at the post pandemic landscape, it’s a horrendously ugly map: inflation, shootings, a senseless war wrought by a douchebag dictator, a general disrespect towards other humans, and the very sanctity of human life.

The concept of faith, family, and meals shared together, whether on a Sunday or any other day, is a dying breed here in America.

We need to do what we can to keep it on life support.

It’s not just an Italian American thing either. I believe that, once upon a time, most of us shared these common and important values.

A place like Sam’s was always a respite from the craziness, the confusion that permeates the outside world – bringing back the memories and emotions, the way of life that seems long past, that felt just like Nonna’s house.

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In Defense of “Remember When”

Remember when is the lowest form of conversation.”

The above is a favorite quote from television’s The Sopranos, delivered and made famous by the late great actor James Gandolfini.

I used to be able to see that point of view: to express boredom with individuals that spoke of nothing but the past.

My belief is when Soprano said this, he pictured the clichéd form of Remember When: the heroics of a high school playoff game, first loves, snapshots in time where the hair is less gray (or there at all!).

I’ve come to disagree with this nugget of Soprano life advice. Navigation of the late fifties age will do that to a guy.

If Tony were able to fast forward to this era of unrest (I’ll refer again to what Eagles founding member Don Henley might call “a graceless age”), he’d agree with me: Remember When is an elevated, and necessary, form of conversation.

In post election, post social rage, (hopefully soon) post covid – why wouldn’t you want to reach back into your archives for golden moments with more frequency?

When the future may be less bright than imagined, why not temper approaching clouds with images from your past?

In the fragmented remnants of years 2020-21, why wouldn’t I want to drift back in time to my grandmother’s kitchen, to when my kids were young, or back behind the mahogany bar at my family’s restaurant?

In Remember When, I recognize legacy. When you acknowledge or explore your roots, there is no possible way (for me, anyway) to celebrate success without giving credit to the tables that were set so neatly for me before any opportunities came along.

Remember When is remembering where you came from, and ensuring that remains the spotlight on your life.

Remember When helps you keep loved ones close. The ones we’ve lost. The mentors, the teachers, the rule breakers.

I often return to the idea that a man, or woman, passes away twice: first, the physical death, and then when no one speaks their name again.

Remember When is helpful to keep them alive and vibrant, even if only in a symbolic sense.

It was, and is, the vision of my grandparents still vibrant in their sixties, seventies, and beyond.

Not just them, but the vision of their house as well. The house they had built, paid cash for (against all odds). It would serve as the backdrop of my life for over 40 years.

Remembering the massive vegetable gardens that my cousins tended. That grapevine that my great uncle Mariano pruned with painstaking care. The fig tree, homemade wine, wooden arbors with roses draped over the sides.

Remember When is the Sunday dinner: time spent with cousins, aunts, uncles et al around a crowded table, made even more crowded by the plates and platters of food that my grandmother had spent the better part of two days in preparation.

In 2022, of course, everything is different. The gardens provide no food, the shrubs I used to trim are overgrown, and the grape vine is a skeleton shadow of the past.

I would always see my grandparents, spending time most days at that house. Now, I occasionally visit them at the cemetery, just a few miles away.

I’ll tell you, however, that doesn’t make me sad. It makes me grateful. For the good times had, the memories that can never fade, my “lightning strikes” luck of being born into the family that I was.

Those memories are most meaningful in the sense that they began the final chapters: a conduit to the beginnings of the next, the new generation.

Even though I’m older now, I still consider myself part of that new generation.

A new generation that can reflect, looking back, as well as towards the future with the words remember when.

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On Pandemic Fatigue, and the Power of Ritual

On Palm Sunday morning, I did what I’ve done most Sundays during the past year: sat in front of a television, watching a Roman Catholic mass, drinking coffee. The pandemic, having shut down churches previously, now allowed for limited seating if you wanted to attend in person, but I hadn’t taken the leap yet.

I wondered whether my attempt at community contribution (protecting others from an improbable but possible COVID infection) had turned into inaction, based in fear.

Others, some much older than myself, had no problem with live attendance. I still sat in my living room.

Not a good look at all for someone that likes to preach “go for it!”

Pandemic weariness, for me, had reached its peak. With cases in New York, especially upstate, on a steady decline I decided enough was enough. On Easter Sunday, I would make the short drive downtown and set foot in St. Anthony’s Church for the first time in over a year.

Media has beat the drum ad nauseum on pandemic fatigue, and its effect on you psychologically. My fatigue was slightly different. I told my wife early last year I had no problem going into “monk mode” for six months, if necessary. We adapted well to enjoying just spending time with each other with very limited outside interaction.

Much had changed in the past year: my wife was no longer working, I transitioned to working from home, and worked in an office space that I now shared with my son. College campuses were off limits, and Zoom became his lifeline.

Although new rituals were born after March 2020 to preserve sanity for many of us (running outdoors was my lifeline), we were able to maintain some of the ones we loved most.

No, there was no live music. No trips to baseball stadiums. No trips, or travel, period (and in early 2020, we had our bags packed before canceling).

It was a “back to basics” scenario, no question. But having being brought up the way I was, with frequent reminders to enjoy life as it came, I was taught to embrace the simple pleasures.

Although I’m “American made” in the purest sense, my roots run deep in Sicily, and southern Italy. The simple things, the fundamentals, stay with me always and were strengthened during the past year.

Faith, tradition, food & wine, community, gratitude: not necessarily in that order.

Related reading: 8 Happiness Rules (That You Can Use) From My Italian Grandmother

We thought we had nailed the gratitude thing long before COVID-19. But the realization set in that we had new things to be happy about. No more commutes or compressed schedules, more time together.

Our coffee ritual just got better with the increased time. The grinding of the beans, scooping of the grounds into the espresso pot (no Keurig here, kids), the anticipation of the boiling sound, preceded by that steamy hiss. To be poured out, cup with cream and cinnamon, and enjoyed on the back deck even in slightly frigid early spring temperatures.

Yes, I’m very grateful for coffee.

As you might expect, we cooked at home more than ever before. Although I perceive myself as some kind of meatball wizard (nod to the Who’s “Pinball Wizard” here), my wife is the true kitchen maven in this house, seemingly becoming more creative with each passing week.

As before, she is the true glue that holds this family together.

The majority of our meals came from our kitchen. Small businesses, especially restaurants, suffered mightily during this craziness and are just starting now to mount a furious comeback (labor shortage not withstanding). We hope we did enough to support some of our local small businesses even if we couldn’t, or chose not to, sit in their dining rooms.

Related reading: A Former Bartender’s Ask of You

With the three of us in our household choosing to vaccinate, we have sat in those dining rooms recently. Our experiences from these dedicated food service workers were nothing less than extraordinary. Attendance at Easter mass led to more of the same, leading to small dinner parties, to reuniting with my cousins at my favorite coffee hangout on the Sundays after mass.

I hadn’t seen some of them in over a year. I was thankful to have another opportunity.

In the end, I had the feeling we made a narrow escape: coming out the other side with health, life, and the important things within fairly intact. This life is brief, however, so I want more, of course.

I look forward to a concert hall guitar solo, the swelling roar of a baseball stadium, or crossing the Atlantic on a jet plane when those opportunities happen.

It’s the same for all of us: this life ain’t no dress rehearsal.

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Lessons From the Past: An Immigrant Work Ritual

hard work ethic
Manning the restaurant meat slicer during one of her chaotic mornings

Like many other young people of my generation, I was taught to go to work at an early age. My indoctrination to the world of work wasn’t really difficult: a very part time gig in my family’s restaurant, manning the dishwasher during a slower period in the mid afternoon.

Not being sure in the beginning as to why I was being put to work in the first place (I had school work to do, you know), I slowly got into a rhythm of what the business was like, even for just a few hours a week in the “back of the house.”

It was here that I learned respect for those that lived and breathed hospitality, and the nature of the chores they had to do. While many of the restaurant’s customers came in from their office jobs in pressed suits and ties, I more identified with the working style of my family, and the restaurant’s other employees: grinding out physical labor, at times on the run, for shifts of varying lengths.

It was an ordinary day for my father to spend 12 hours in a hot kitchen, on his feet, attempting to coordinate dozens of different entrees out to the dining room at the proper time.

Dad was a younger guy back then, and could easily handle the workload. The real respect was formed for my grandparents, especially my grandmother, who continued with this type of physical labor into their seventies and eighties.

Nonna’s schedule, at that age, bordered on the ridiculous. Her typical day went like this:

5:30 AM – awake time.

6:00 AM – hop into a cab, or take the bus (she never drove a car) to the restaurant to prepare for the day.

6:15 AM – fire up the ovens, stove top, grill, etc. When the oven was preheated, in would go a whole turkey. For the purpose of making turkey sandwiches, mostly. She did this just about every day.

6:30 AM – once the turkey was in, prep would start for various soups, sauces, salads. To the right of the stove was a steam table that would hold vats of soup that she prepared every day. Deli meats were readied on a meat slicer, and she would respond to calls from early morning vendors who knew she was there.

8:00 AM – time to unlock the front door, to receive her “fans” – mainly older, retired gentlemen who liked an early morning cocktail or two. Now, she would start tending bar for customers, pivoting back and forth from the bar to the kitchen to make sure all systems were go with the oven and stove.

There were times, when I was the restaurant’s main bartender, I would come in the morning to find an already full bar. I had mixed feelings about that, as now I had to juggle serving customers and prepping my space for the day. But my grandmother’s fan club was always a priority for her: so I had to keep my lip zipped.

11:00 AM – when I came in around 10 o’clock, she was free to focus on just her kitchen duties. The turkey was cooled and ready for slicing, soups just about done, grill clean and ready to go. Sandwich and salad area prepped and pristine, soon to be enveloped by the lunch hour chaos.

Photo courtesy Pexels.com

At this point, I was to drive her home for job number two: prepping even more food for the restaurant at the house, as well as a different dish or two for dinner for my grandfather, when I dropped him off that night. It wasn’t unusual for her to receive visitors during the day, entertaining them while making a cauldron of lentil soup that I would pick up later on.

From the early morning hours to the evening, she was all about the work: interrupted only by the occasional prayer or counting of rosary beads. She embraced the simplicity of her life, and when all was said and done, the work – the feeding and nurturing of family and customer alike, with the adoration of the “fan club” (men I came to know, respect, and share a few laughs with myself) – was what made her happiest.

I can’t come close to matching the work ethic of these amazing people: but on days when I think of them and attempt to model their way of getting after it, it’s those days where I wind up feeling my best. I believe that, no matter the circumstance, they were proud of their family. Although they’ve departed, I’d like to think I’m doing all I can to make them proud still.

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Why I Love That Chip on Tom Brady’s Shoulder

Featured photo by amny.com

As a fan of the New York football Giants, my opinions of Tom Brady ran the gamut from mild distaste to unwavering suspicion (think: Deflategate).

Brady, even with his success, could be viewed (albeit rarely) as an unfortunate figure: with two crushing Super Bowl losses to New York, fueled by game saving Eli Manning passes that could be described as nothing less than miraculous (check out the freakishly accurate throw to Mario Manningham in Super Bowl XLVI).

Even with those two unlikely defeats, last week Brady secured his seventh Super Bowl win in 10 attempts. To label him the greatest of all time is making an understatement.

With his successes comes my growing admiration: even as a Giants fan, I recognize Brady’s humility and praise of his team’s efforts to buoy that success. Even better, he knows he’s an older guy that needs to work even harder to sustain the levels he’s reached.

Photo: foxnews.com

At 43 years old, he is the oldest quarterback to start a Super Bowl game.

That’s the reason I’m now fond of Brady: not much younger than myself, he lives and plays with a certain fire. Never satisfied, and still with a gigantic chip on his shoulder.

If you’re a man, in your 40s or 50s, and not inspired by Brady’s exploits, you should see your doctor and have your testosterone checked.

The chip on his shoulder, formed by being drafted out of college in the sixth round (even now, it sounds ridiculous), has never been worn down by the swells of his success. Even behind that smiling face and “aw, shucks” demeanor, you know his attitude is to burn the most competitive foe.

As someone that has experience with chip on shoulder syndrome, I can relate. The chip on me formed as a middle schooler, overweight and an easy target, and segued into a Stallone inspired workout regimen and steely resolve into fighting shape. That chip has never wavered, and into my late 50s, I still pursue the ideal of what will be the best physical shape of my life.

There is no other alternative than to go down fighting. With Brady, you can just sense his never quit mentality.

With as much as I hold my example close to heart, to be fair, it’s a small one. I have family, relatives who were crucial in setting the table of prosperity that we sit at now, to give the most credit.

Picture this: your father, a successful businessman, and your mother, a healer, pull you from your home because of outside criminal threats. Mayhem and violence.

You leave your home country, landing by boat to the bleak skies and bitter winds of New York City. We’re not in sunny Sicily anymore.

In your previous life, you had relative luxury – even with staff to help you keep house. In the new land, you are nothing: in some eyes, less than nothing. You now have nothing. The tables have turned. You are now the servants.

That’s how, as a child, my grandmother’s story started. The nucleus of my grandfather’s story isn’t vastly different. For them to survive – to hell with the concept of succeeding – they needed a chip the size of a boulder to plant on their already weary shoulders.

They had them. And they made it. Through sheer force of will, with the strength of their backs and resolve, they built lives, businesses, communities, and a deeply appreciative family.

To say my grandmother and grandfather were ferocious competitors in the game of life would be yet another understatement, on the same level of calling Brady a decent quarterback.

No matter what type of shit storm they had to persevere through – and there were plenty of them – they never stopped moving forward. They were, as I’ve often said, relentless.

Watching Brady meticulously call audibles and throw passes last Sunday, to keep a lightning fast Chiefs defense on its heels, I didn’t think of comparing future fortunes of two unrelated, underrated underdogs: whether a late blooming college player, or the immigrants that spent so many years working to shape our own destinations.

The conclusion I came to draw is undeniable: with the team I always had around me, I was set up to win big games my entire life.

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