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.
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.
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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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.
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Although the exact quote escapes my memory, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni referenced a colleague or friend who said something along the line of “feeling silly about past complaints of waiting in a crowd, for an exorbitant amount of time, for a table at a busy New York City restaurant.”
The reference went on to mention that, in these strange times, what a pleasure it would be to waste your time waiting like that once again.
It’s funny how all of us have taken for granted the mundane moments of perceived inconvenience: a long grocery line, or a crowded restaurant.
Or even worse, taking for granted the good stuff: a hug from a friend or loved one. That meal out, once the wait was over. The anticipatory buzz of the crowd right before a concert or performance.
With a viral pandemic has come a lot less of what we had, but perhaps more of what we need. As the curve flattens, and cases keep declining, the new anticipation and buzz will be looking to the future, how we should navigate it, what some are calling a “new normal.”
To me, that normal could look a lot like the mid 70’s, seguing into the decade of the ’80s: what I perceive to be simpler times, less convoluted lives, and the return to focus on what’s important, rather than the unessential.
A Better Life with Less?
If you’re like me, you’ve been driving less. No commute, and making trips that are only absolutely necessary.
Speaking of trips, there may be less travel overall. Although my wife and I had targeted 2020 for an initial trip to Italy, and canceled a March trip to the west coast of Florida, I wonder aloud: will we stay closer to home now?
Less car travel should mean less traffic. Less road induced stress. Easier trips when taken. Less pollution, with cleaner skies. A renewed appreciation for the road trip, as it’s being taken less frequently .
There should be less brick and mortar recreational shopping. More thought put into what we do buy. Less consumer consumption, and jostling hostility during silly holiday sales.
I know this may be just a crazy dream, but how about a little less political strife? Maybe a little more listening to your fellow human being without judgment and angry rebuttal.
While we’re on the subject of more, what could we expect more of?
Much of it, as far as I can see, looks like a throwback to a well spent youth.
What There Should Be More Of
There should be more gratitude. If virus related death or illness has not yet invaded your inner circle, praise your good fortune. Praise the fact that when your feet touch the floor in the morning, you will have another day.
If prayer is your thing, participate in more of that. It can only help.
When there is a return to normal, if it’s possible, I predict more heart, more affection. As an Italian American, it destroys me to not be able to hug family and close friends. Kiss them on one cheek, or both.
I’m not wired this way, and my guess is you’re not either. I can’t wait for my first rib crushing hug from a friend when it can happen.
There’s going to be more genuine communication. Maybe this is showing my age, but I find myself picking up the phone more to talk, rather than just shooting over a text or a social media update.
In the same vein, more neighborhood socializing is becoming prevalent, as we go outside with any opportunity to leave the house, weather permitting.
We’ve been sitting on a neighbor’s concrete backyard patio recently – properly distanced, imbibing in a drink or two, sharing recent family news or well recalled memories.
If there is a throwback to the old days, this point would be it. In a neighborhood rife with Italian immigrants, the tight knit social network was the end all, be all of their American lives.
On a sunny morning or afternoon (yes, here in the Northeast, they are becoming more frequent!), my wife and I will spend time on our back deck. Thank God for the deck, and the music that accompanies it. Music lovers to begin with, we’re listening much more than we used to, complimenting the isolation situation.
Music is the language of sanity during times of strife and stress. Enjoy more, more, more of it, absolutely guilt free.
More time outside equals more movement: whether you prefer a walk around the neighborhood, running, yoga, or simple play, it’s all good. If music is the language of sanity, movement and exercise is the translation.
There is a trend already burgeoning toward growing more of your own food. As an article at reuters.com recently noted:
People around the world are turning to gardening as a soothing, family friendly hobby that also eases concerns over food security as lockdowns slow the harvesting and distribution of some crops. Fruit and vegetable seed sales are jumping worldwide.
Watering and mowing the area around the numerous fruit trees and vegetable gardens at my grandparents’ house is a cherished memory. If growing food is a trend, well, the Italian immigrants were the original trendsetters. Pears, cherries, corn, peaches, zucchini, tomatoes, beans, basil – back in the day, we had it all.
Apparently, this way of life is making a long overdue comeback.
Where some of us may be looking to grow our own food, the concrete trend we can point to is everyone is now, for better or worse, cooking their own food.
Restaurants, surviving on a pivot to providing optimum curbside take out and delivery service, may finally open soon. But a 25% occupancy may be all that’s allowed at first, to enhance social distancing and safety protocols.
I wonder aloud, yet again: when the openings happen, how many of us will show up?
Do you really want to sit at a table, being approached by a waiter who needs to pull down his N95 mask to say “May I take your order?”
I don’t know about you, but I may be waiting awhile to inhabit my favorite restaurants.
We’ll basically keep doing what we’ve always done: cook the majority of our meals ourselves, in our own kitchen.
While no slouches in the kitchen to begin with, we’ve taken our normal cadence of food prep to another level – especially my wife, whose furlough from her job has given her an abundance of time to take it there.
The constant activity in the kitchen is the thing that most reminds me of my childhood: one Sicilian or another would always be in the kitchen cranking out dishes that would provide calories, sustenance, and most importantly, the comfort and connection we craved.
That sense of connection is needed more now, to carry us through uncertainty that we face.
When we’re in the kitchen together, the outside world is banished.
Aromas permeate the house that bring back the cooking sessions of my childhood, where I was just an observer.
They bring back the conversations with my grandmother, memories of great aunts and uncles now gone. The stories told, lessons learned.
It’s relaxing, energizing, comforting. Just the tonic we need to bring us through the pandemic age.
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It’s how one of my most popular posts starts – with a greeting to my Nonna, from my Aunt Maria, as she barreled her frame through the front door of the house where I spent most of my childhood.
That’s the way many of my summer mornings began, especially on the weekends. She would always make a point of coming over early, never knowing or intending to disturb the slumber of a growing boy. Not that I should have slept through the sunshine streaming through the windows to begin with.
If the loud greetings or sunlight couldn’t wake me up, there was no doubt that the smell of the pan fried meatballs that were soon to follow would do the job.
Once downstairs from the bedroom, I would stand in the kitchen (in super hero pajamas, no doubt) and dutifully wait until the offering was made to indulge in a before breakfast snack. A great way to start a Saturday.
The decades have passed. But the memories linger. The song remains the same.
There are certain aspects of summer life from my past that I miss more than others. My grandmother and her sisters used to have picnics in the backyard of her house, both well planned and impromptu, under the shade of grape vines and large trees in that expansive yard.
If you’ve been anywhere near an Italian American family, you know that everyone was there – aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, select friends, maybe a familiar straggler from down the street – to eat and celebrate.
The generous inventory of food spilled over plates and serving bowls. Homemade wine flowed. The combination of broken English and regional Italian dialects echoed through the street and the alleyway, as the parties rolled on.
I rarely hear the language anymore. The echoes have fallen silent.
There were reserved moments, as well. My grandfather and I, as a rule during the summer, would sip espresso on the patio, listening to Yankee games on an old transistor radio, propped into the screen of the kitchen window for easy listening.
The evening sunset would fade into night, with us still sitting there.
My grandfather was a quiet guy. Not too many words were exchanged. We just understood the importance of ritual, as it played out. I wish I knew, looking back, how rare and important those moments were.
My wife and I try our best to replicate what we can. If there’s one thing we’re good at, it’s the impromptu party or gathering. And the majority of our coffee will be had on our back deck – even at times when the weather might be deemed miserably cold.
Our little way of keeping good things going.
After my grandmother passed away several years ago, we drove down the hill through the old neighborhood, on the way to her church services. We were stopped at a red light just across the street from the old brick two family where my grandparents once lived, where my father was a teenager.
As we sat at the traffic light, the Italian language version of the song Volare pumped through the car speakers. I turned to my wife, just as she was forming an expression on her face that said – “Are you kidding me??”
If you’re unfamiliar with the nuance of commercial radio, la versione italiana is not the popular rendition of that song. Not even close. English speaking Dean Martin had a hit record that was more preferred for the airwaves.
I believed then, and believe today, that it was Nonna’s little way of saying:
“Yes, I’m gone. But don’t you forget about me.”
“Life is precious” was one of her many sayings, and perhaps her most common. As if trying to impart the wisdom that each second that passed was one you were never getting back, and that the clock of your life kept ticking.
She would often group that one saying with nuggets like “It’s later than you think” and “Life is a-worth living.” She had a subtle way of keeping her theme consistent.
I would like to think I take her words to heart on a daily basis. Our time here, this one ticket that we have punched, is indeed limited and precious. So much of it gets wasted on what I’ve heard called “the 99% that doesn’t matter.”
What does matter is included in a small circle. Family, friends, and the labor and activities that make you feel alive.
Although dipping my toe into the ocean of tradition has been kind of my thing, there is always room for more: more impromptu gatherings with family and friends, more additional star lit nights on the deck with a coffee.
As Nonna said, life is precious. If I do my best to remember, maybe I won’t waste another minute.
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There are many reasons to want to lose weight, get healthier, and change our physical appearance. I remember one of mine like it was yesterday – it went something like this:
“Man, look at you. You need a bra.”
The above is one of the many comments and observations endured while I made my way through elementary, middle, and eventually high school. Several of my tormentors attended the military academy where I spent my school years, but it seemed the words could come from anywhere. Or out of nowhere.
I was a well fed Italian American boy, who showed no signs of stopping the culinary carnage as I ate my way through the kitchens of my mother, grandmother, and assorted relatives.
There was always a plentiful bounty of food – especially on a Sunday. Unending pasta choices, sauced with my grandmother’s jarred tomatoes, complimented by stacks of braciole (beef roll ups) and meatballs. Chicken cutlets, glistening with oil straight from the oven. The Sicilian street food arancine, a family favorite.
I was always instructed to eat more, to stave off the impending malnourishment that would be encountered once I ventured into the outside world. Of course, there would never be any of that.
To say I packed away a little extra weight would have been putting it nicely.
Eventually, the school yard taunting fueled a fire to get better, and – with the help of one Sly Stallone and the movie icon that would bring him his first taste of fame – I managed to shed the majority of the excess to resemble a fit, healthy teenager.
I ran laps around the suburban neighborhood of my younger years like my life depended on it – because in truth, it did.
Supplemented with grueling abdominal work and the release of my teen rage upon a canvas heavy bag (cue the Rocky theme), the damage to each and every one of my fat cells was unmistakable.
The fat dude in the school boy uniform, with pale blue shirt and dress grays, was gone. In all, 40 to 50 pounds just melted away. More than likely for good.
And more than 35 years later, I’ve managed to keep the weight off. To be transparent, I’ve had other issues to address – higher than normal blood pressure, ever increasing glucose levels, a self imposed lower back problem (all of these on the mend) – but even with that, the bathroom scales have never been tipped again in favor of a sneaky path to obesity.
“There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.” – Beverly Sills
The secret to taking off weight and keeping it off is simple, but it’s never easy. This time of year, it’s a focus and a question mark for many. There’s plenty of misinformation, and ideas that may have worked for someone else – but might not be your cup of tea.
This post is not the product of a health and wellness expert – but if there is one thing I can lay claim to being expert at, it’s moving through struggles with weight and trying to focus on a better way, within this balancing act called life.
There’s a plethora of information out there, which seems to reach critical mass the first couple of months of every year – but the most “back to basics” tips you can use will, in the long run, be the most helpful. Here’s a few of my favorites:
Remember that the word “diet” should not be part of your vocabulary – what you’re shooting for is lifestyle change. Albeit one small step at a time.
Eat healthy foods that you actually enjoy eating. For me, this includes fruits like apples and bananas, eggs, chicken breast, turkey, and green veggies cooked with garlic and olive oil.
Go for natural foods every time, not stuff in a box. Just because the box has words like “lean” and “healthy” on it doesn’t make it so. In other words, be wary of food marketing. Educate yourself.
Eat only pastas that end in the letter “i” – just my humorous way of saying it’s not necessary to give up foods you love. Not even close. Just use common sense, smaller portions, and leave the gluttony behind. I still enjoy my pasta – but I eat the portion size now that you might see in an Italian trattoria, not an American restaurant.
Exercise. Your first move: push the plate away.
And please don’t use the “got no time or money” excuse concerning exercise – you can do it all with 15 minutes of calisthenics, right in your living room, basement, or garage. Everybody’s got time for that.
Avoid drive-through windows like the poison center they are. If you must do the drive-through, get the salad.
Salads don’t mean boring eating, either. You can add to them with lean proteins, nuts, and berries to make them filling and tasty. Just limit your intake of fatty dressings (I like olive oil, sea salt, and lemon).
Track your meals for a week. You might be surprised what you put in your body.
If you decide to go the route of a stricter eating plan, pick a “cheat day.” Mine is Sunday. On that day, have yourself some pizza and ice cream. Just don’t eat a whole pizza and a gallon of ice cream.
Use the stairs. Please. Leave the elevators for the elderly and the handicapped.
Exercise. Try walking. You have all the equipment you need. My wife is going with me to the gym, and she started out just walking on a treadmill. Then she started walking fast. Then walking fast up inclines. Then she started lifting. See? Baby steps.
Eat sweet potatoes instead of white.
By the way, have I mentioned fruits and veggies?
Sugar has been just about eliminated from my diet. There are some things I will not give up – I need sugar and cream in my delicious, home brewed coffee. But that’s about it. You can reduce it too.
That means limited, or no, soft drinks. Total sugar bombs. You’d be surprised at the caloric content here.
Ask yourself: Would a caveman have eaten this? Cavemen ate meat they killed and plants that grew on trees or in the ground. They didn’t have Pringles and Doritos back then.
Consume alcohol moderately, or not at all. Red wine (my favorite) is a good choice if you must.
Exercise. You should, without question, pay attention to what you put into your mouth. Intense, frequent exercise can cover a multitude of sins if you fall off the wagon of the particular eating plan that you’ve put into place.
Having said that, I remember a quote that sticks with me: “90% of the fitness battle is fought – and won – in the kitchen.”
I like this one as well – “It’s not what you eat between Christmas Day and New Years. It’s what you eat between New Years and Christmas Day that counts.”
Bonus Tip: Exercise some more. Make it fun! Outside of the gym, I’ve walked, jogged, sprinted with my dog (he’s 16 now – he can’t sprint anymore), played touch football with my son and his friend, did jumping jacks, and calisthenics. I jumped rope recently for the first time in years. Wanna sweat? Try jumping rope for 5 or 10 minutes.
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