A Former Bartender’s Ask of You

Without the restaurant business, I’m not sure exactly how my life may have turned out.

My family’s restaurant helped shape my work ethic, starting at a young age, and instilled the concept of a labor of love. When I graduated high school, I graduated to the big time and left behind the dishrack for tending bar (“mahogany ridge,” as my father in law would call it) and front of the house management.

It was a sweet gig, and I was proud to do it. With all due respect to the sales jobs that have provided my living for the last couple of decades, restaurant involvement was the most fulfilling, maddening, hysterically fun line of work I could have ever found.

Life Gets Transformed

Without the restaurant, I’m not sure if my relationships with my grandmother and grandfather would have been as deep as they were. I got the chance to work with them every day there, drive them home (neither had a license), and assist them perform the minutiae of a service life. Nonna loved the fact that I would peel and devein shrimp, without complaint.

Without it, I wouldn’t have met my wife. Although we had several opportunities to meet previously, I captured lightning in a bottle one night when I left the restaurant a little too late, and went home a little too late.

Without that restaurant, do I meet my best friend, who was a food service guy himself? We formed a strong bond that lasted three decades, until his passing several years ago. I’m not sure if we even cross paths without the serendipity of late night haunts and a shared love for all things Sinatra.

Having been a restaurant mainstay for as long as I was, I hold tremendous respect for the individuals that operate them, staff them, and keep them afloat; and that was my pre-pandemic opinion.

I once wrote, when I was trying to climb out of debt, that restaurant meals were a luxury that bordered on the frivolous and unnecessary – even though restaurants were a part of me for so many years.

I have since changed my tune; these meals can be a welcome social distraction, and here in the grips of 2020, a contribution to your community at large. When it’s financially feasible, do it.

Please support your local eateries as much as you can.

A Different World

Ideally for us, the way we’ve done this is to order takeout, also planning to show future support with the purchase of gift cards. My wife and I are like many others; only having been on the inside of a restaurant a handful of times since early March, and defaulting to curbside takeout the majority of the time.

There’s a right way and a wrong way to do it, however. Take it from this former bartender; show some class and respect and do it the right way.

Tip accordingly and generously – before the pandemic my wife was also a hospitality worker, front of the house in a Greek diner. She was always astounded at the number of people who couldn’t calculate a gratuity, which is basically simple math.

Folks, that’s what that calculator on your iPhone is for; to help you through such difficult challenges. Adding 20% to a check should be well within everyone’s wheelhouse, calculator or no. So, just do it – at least that much, or greater if you really appreciated the service, and want to lend an even bigger helping hand.

Be polite – I had high hopes for humankind the last several months, since we’re all pretty much in the same outlandish bubble of a boat; that we would be kinder, less confrontational, and do our part(s) to help each other out.

Alas, we’ve been privy to stories that, in some cases, restaurant customers are more ornery and demanding than ever – even as restaurants scramble to pivot to another normal in their now topsy turvy world. Friends, hospitality workers have it hard enough. They, and we as a whole, don’t need the scattershot, mean spirited takes reflecting the American entitlement mentality that so many display.

Be nice, be polite, follow the state mandated rules. Keep your table clean if dining in, or pick up your package, say thank you, and get the hell out. Be human.

Praise quickly, criticize slowly – a couple of our favorite places make chicken wings so good they make you want to cry. In the case of the take out orders, we couldn’t wait to call, and offer our praise.

When we’ve sat in a restaurant before, we loved seeking out the chef to relay how fantastic our meal was. It’s my opinion they probably don’t hear this enough. The same goes for if you receive stellar service from the waitstaff. Let them know how good they are.

On the other hand, if your vegetables were a tad undercooked, or your toast “not dark enough” (this is an inside joke I share with my wife, with a backstory you wouldn’t believe if I told you), please don’t run home and bad mouth the establishment on social media; or, worse yet, yelp yourself into a ten page online diatribe about how the salmon sucked and you’ll never darken their door again.

If that’s what you’re doing, you need to reflect on your own life.

Remember we’re all going through our own struggles, and that second chances are at times the right thing to do.

Do your part to protect – please spare me the nonsense about rights being violated and freedoms being taken away; restaurant staff, if they’re fortunate, come into contact with dozens, even hundreds, of individuals every day. Additional assists to jeopardize their health and well being are not required.

Distance as necessary, wear a mask, and make these people feel as comfortable as possible that you are in their place of business, acting like a mature adult and responsible citizen. Don’t add another challenge to an already incomprehensible list.

Display patience – restaurant staff are there to serve, but they are not your servants. When busy or overwhelmed, waitstaff may take an extra five minutes to get to your table. The kitchen can get backed up to the point where dishes may not appear as quickly as you’re accustomed to. Freshly prepared food or cocktails are, at their best, an art form that take time to create.

Experience working in a restaurant setting, which I had for so long, makes you acutely aware of the complication and time sensitivity of just about every task. If you don’t have such experience, just remember this; we’re all human, with the same flaws. We all now have the same short attention spans, for better or worse. But, our community partners that specialize in service will do their best to help you navigate the hazards and hiccups of pandemic era dining, all with a smile and warm greeting.

Reason enough to show all the support that you can.

1980’s image – my Dad, behind the bar we worked together in the family business. Good times.

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Up With the Birds: Nature Appreciation, and My Growing Sicilian Tendencies

When I was a younger man, things were pretty straightforward, without much confusion.

You were expected to act a certain way. Dress a certain way. Treat your elders with respect. Show up to the dinner table most nights, but especially on Sunday afternoon. That was a non negotiable.

Once I turned 12, it was time to stop slacking and help out in the family business, albeit on a very part time basis. Household chores were a necessity as well, whether in my parents’ house, or the modest brick ranch where my grandparents’ lived.

When my cousin Anthony got too busy with life to mow my grandparents’ half acre of land with the smallish 20″ cut push mower, and trimming hedges that covered the entire fence line, he handed the reigns to me.

I always wondered why he would perspire so much, in the summer heat, doing that job. It didn’t take me long to find out.

Between navigating tree trunks, pushing up inclines, and squeezing through shrubs with their sharp, pointed branches, being my grandparents’ personal landscaper turned out to be an intense job, manual labor that I couldn’t outsource to other relatives even if I tried (and I did try).

When the chore was done, mower and trimmer put away, t-shirt wrung out from two plus hours of sweat accumulation, I was hoping to go into the house to an offer of a couple of gallons of cold water.

The refrain remained the same: “How about a nice, hot cup of coffee?”

Nonna Rosina’s Wild Kingdom

That yard, with its plentiful gardens, grape vines, and fruit trees was the source of some confusion during my teenage years.

I had never seen animals quite like the ones in that yard. Birds were bloated, squirrels had the shape of Sherman tanks, and chipmunks ran wild in numbers that I had never quite seen on my own property.

Nonna, who always indulged in recycling before it became cool, didn’t waste a morsel of food. If it wasn’t eaten at the family table, it made its way to the patio or the grass, for the birds and animals to enjoy.

Obviously, this wasn’t regular bird food. If there was leftover spaghetti, that went out. Snack food that didn’t get eaten? Out the door.

When she was done making her 20 pounds of homemade bread crumbs with whatever stale bread she had lying around the house, she was more than happy to spread the scraps around for the squirrels hiding in the bushes, waiting for the latest bounty to drop.

The only thing that wasn’t offered was the obligatory cup of coffee. These animals probably had a no caffeine rule for their diet.

Any confusion ended there. My grandmother willingly put them on the high carb plan, probably admonishing them for being “too skinny” and “not eating enough.” Like all good Sicilian grandmothers do.

Nowhere to Be But Home

Since we were all encouraged to spend the majority of time at home these last few months, venturing elsewhere only when necessary, the three of us (including my son) took advantage of nicer early season weather, with a lot of that time spent on our back deck.

My wife planted her usual number of herbs and flowers, with some pots added later. We noticed, during morning coffee sessions on the deck, the birds and animals in the yard seemed more prevalent.

Maybe it was just the fact that I was no longer commuting to an office and developed more of an appreciation, but the yard seemed more alive than ever.

The bird species we observed each day were plentiful: cardinals, blue jays, sparrows, cedar waxwings, finches of different colors, robins, orioles, doves, and a coopers hawk or two that used our property for his personal hunting ground.

And, of course, we had squirrels take over the land in large numbers.

My wife had always tossed out bread and other items for the birds to enjoy if we weren’t going to use it. Now, as I began spending more time than ever on our deck, I started doing the same: lining small pieces of bread along the wooden rails, then flinging some to the ground below, waiting for the bird buffet line to form.

Just like any good Italian grandmother.

It didn’t stop there, however. When we did have a couple of guests this summer on our deck, or a nice socially distanced dinner party, I found myself defaulting to the same type of service standards that Nonna made obligatory:

“Want some coffee?”

“A little more on that plate? I’m going in the kitchen…”

You’re finished?? We still have some left on the stove!”

You might think I (or my wife, for that matter) do it just for the guests. That wouldn’t be the case. Whenever I offer coffee, or espouse my love for what we just put on a guest’s plate, or compliment them on their eating prowess, I’m staying true to my genetic code. In a small way, keeping a flame of tradition still flickering; even if it is getting more difficult to do these days.

The guests are the recipients, but there’s no mistake I’m doing strictly for myself.

My grandmother gave, nurtured, and cherished her closest relationships with symbols of unerring hospitality. As I grow older (but not old; let’s get that straight right now!), those symbols that I recognize as part of my bloodline are my obligation to move forward.

Fine feathered photos by Gabrielle DeGiorgio

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In Times of Anxiety and Stress, a Grandmother’s Comfort Food Solution

Whether it was for a happy celebration, or aid to get through a painstaking ordeal, comfort food has always been there for me. We have a long, storied history together.

When I was younger, my side of the relationship was just a little too dependent: to the point where I needed to call on outside resources to help me do some damage to existing fat cells, improve my long term outlook, and lose weight.

Both my grandmother and her sisters were partners in keeping me a well fed boy throughout most of my life. To this day, I still enjoy many of those dishes with a familiar gusto and passion: albeit in smaller portions.

As we move through what looks like the “middle chapters” of an incredibly stress inducing time for many people, to stay mentally healthy and engaged we will all be searching for comfort – as much as we can in a state of self imposed isolation.

My wife and I are not “social isolation” types. But we are managing quite well through her working hours being slashed (like all restaurant workers), my son about to partake in distance learning for his college courses, and my own acclimation to a makeshift office with laptop and mobile phone that will, most likely, now be headquartered at our dining room table.

Gratefully, we are all healthy. Although we know people have the virus, COVID-19 has not darkened our door.

There are Students, There are Masters

img_0995When Rosina and Nicolina were alive, my wife paid attention: their kitchen tips, tricks, and habits were absorbed by the student, and now she has become the master. We, even in what we would call “normal” times, have always reached to the unwritten recipes and generational traditions that these women shared with us. We don’t want to forget, and they need to stay alive in spirit: My godmother has been gone for several years, and my Nonna passed away 10 years ago, this past January.

Their gifts to us, whether gastronomical or inspirational through their fascinating stories, keep on giving: and they will be well appreciated in this challenging time period that is to come.

One lesson my wife learned well is that of La Cucina Povera, or Kitchen of the Poor. The skill proved to be important when our kids were young and we had little money, and it will more than likely prove to be effective now that we are certain to face roadblocks in this uncertain year.

The Kitchen of the Poor for me, however, reads more like a menu of luxury items: the ultimate in my grandmother’s comfort food arsenal. The list might include a silky vegetable minestrone, greens and beans spiced appropriately with hot pepper, an egg frittata, or as pictured above, a simple dish of pasta with tomato, onions, and peas.

They’re inherently easy dishes to prepare, and would include ingredients you would probably already find in your fridge or pantry: no need to visit a store with your mask and tape measure, to ensure you are six feet from the closest fellow human.

My wife and I have recently broken our longstanding commitment to any broadcast news exposure to stay informed here – and as you might expect, our anxiety levels increased dramatically with that exposure. Aside from staying home and in isolation in the attempt to stay healthy, the comfort foods from the past provide much needed respites from the effects of your local/national talking heads.

There is much more to Sicilian comfort/ resilience than what you can eat, as you might imagine. Nonna could very well, as you were eating, tell you not to worry: that dark clouds will disperse (she knew that better than anybody), ask you to express gratitude, work through the challenges that you face, and create some happiness in others by making them smile.

By the time I would have reached the bottom of the bowl, I would have absorbed at least a few lessons in good living.

And in this house, that’s why it’s called “comfort food.”

To make your own delectable entree like the one pictured here, see below: F25BD020-CCE7-460B-B44A-5044CFEA1D12

“Can’t get much simpler” Easy, peasy pasta with peas

Simple, simple, simple: that’s what our menu reflects. You’re stressed enough – who needs complications? First, grab a box of dried pasta. If the market still isn’t sold out. Thin spaghetti or Angel Hair. Barilla brand is fine, or better yet, DeCecco.

You’ll need a tomato sauce. I’m usually against sauce in jars, but we’re trying to keep stress at bay here. Just buy a quality/local brand: no Ragu or Prego, please. For a simple sauce recipe you can prepare, use this easy one made famous by chef Marcella Hazan:

Find a large white onion. Cut it in half. Put the one half flat side down in a deep pan. Heat the pan, adding butter (I use a little olive oil in the pan, as well). Half stick, whole stick, depending on how decadent you feel or how much comfort you need. Take a can of San Marzano tomatoes, crush them with your hands, and once butter is melted, throw them in the pan. Bring it to a boil, then let it roll on simmer for a half hour.

That’s it. Your sauce is done.

While the sauce is cooking, boil a pot of water, salting it liberally once heated. Cook your macaroni according to the directions.

Take that other onion half, and dice it. Add that to a smaller pan with a little olive oil, and throw some frozen peas in. Let them roll until they shrink up a bit and start to caramelize. Add the pasta to the pan with some of the sauce, and sprinkle grated cheese on top.

You’re done. Dinner is served!

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