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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The Family Ties That Bind, and the Greatest Grilled Cheese Ever

 

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Aunt Carmel, center, with my great grandmother Maria, and family friend Maria Commis

If you’ve been with me on this journey somewhere over these 130+ blog posts, you’re intimately familiar with my thoughts, and the specific love and admiration I have for all things family.

You’ve met the individuals who I consider the titans of our little tribe, many of them more than once: my Nonna, who arguably is the reason I started putting my fingers to a keyboard. My great aunt, also my godmother, dubbed the “Last Sicilian.” You’ve met Dominick a number of times, as well as Mariano and Antonio.

All amazing people, with equally amazing stories, that I feel compelled to share with you.

But there is one glaring omission: one that has gone for far too long and needs to be rectified.

This sin of omission happens, perhaps, for the lack of key memories. This family figure passed away when I was just a boy, not even yet a teenager.

I called her Aunt Carmel, but Carmela Tagliarini Prezio was my great aunt, my grandmother’s sister, who came here with her sisters as part of the immigration wave of Southern Italians and Sicilians to this country.

Between around 1880 and 1924, more than four million Italians immigrated to the United States, half of them between 1900 and 1910 alone—the majority fleeing grinding rural poverty in Southern Italy and Sicily.

My “Aunt Carmel” had such a giant personality and family care taking instincts that she had a chance to supplant her sisters, my grandmother and godmother, as being my favorite. She just left us a little too soon to find out.2386CD98-AD99-461C-8DB6-E6ED78E53819

Her story (and their story) emigrating to the wintry slop of New York from sunny Sicily, is a dramatic one. Although I believe the connection between Italians and organized crime is an overblown stereotype perpetuated by Hollywood cinema, a true crime story was happening in Sicily to drive my grandmother’s family out.

My great-grandfather, Calogero, was running a warehouse for the government in Sicily. The local branch of organized crime targeted him as a revenue source, which he had no interest in complying with. The situation became more extreme with a warning gunshot to my great grandfather’s foot, and the future decision was made to flee Sicily when they could.

Aunt Carmel was like many other Sicilian immigrants: hard working, entrenched in her faith, and centered around family. There were mighty struggles, and good times, throughout her life. Her husband, Anthony Prezio, carved his path as one of our family’s first entrepreneurs (and restaurant owners) after holding a series of jobs.

If you’re familiar with immigration history, many of those that came to America (Irish and Italians included) were offered only the most menial, sometimes dangerous, manual labor jobs.

For some Italians, the only way for upward mobility was to start a business, in an attempt to control their own destiny.

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Celebrating life and love with family

My connection with Aunt Carmel was a close one, as the family was tight knit, living on the same block on the same street, as many immigrants were to do. My grandmother lived directly across the street, so us kids would bounce back and forth between houses as necessary.

The most consistent memory of my aunt was as I was coming home from elementary school for lunch, stopping at her house to be fed. Since my parents and grandparents were working outside the home, Carmela invited me into her’s for many wonderful meals.

Her specialty  was a toasted cheese sandwich: not a grilled cheese, mind you, but a cheese sandwich made crunchy and melty within an actual toaster oven. Fantastic.

Being the spoiled child that I was (remember, I had more than a couple of Sicilians to provide meals, making sure I was well fed) I remember asking her if we could have something else after a long succession of lunch time toasted cheese.

Looking back on my adolescent complaint of “toasted cheese, again?”, I would love to travel back in time, just to have one more of those sandwiches.

But the sandwich is only symbolic, wouldn’t you say?

To my younger self, that sandwich meant comfort, safety, security. A place to turn where there was nowhere else to go, however temporarily.

Carmela, along with her sisters Rose and Nicolina, represented all that was right with the world. Whatever trivial matters could go wrong in the life of an adolescent me, they were the port of refuge that provided that comfort and security.

And that was the ladies. The men, once they came home, reinforced it all.

It’s said we are a country divided, here in 2020. It’s thought very few of us can be trusted, and we’ll need those sources of comfort and security to believe that, as in the early 70’s at Carmela Prezio’s kitchen table, “all is right with the world.”

More than that, reflection on the generosity, faith, and kindness they all displayed instill in me the belief that we aren’t really divided at all: just a little lost, and trying to find our way.

Aunt Carmel passed away when I was only 12 years old, so our relationship never really had a chance to blossom fully, but we are kindred spirits even now as she enjoyed writing her thoughts down as much as I do. And her sisters were the gift to me that kept on giving.

It’s with the memory of their guidance that I use to find myself, each and every day.

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Life is Precious, Summer Redux

“Rosina! Rosina! Rosina!”

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 time.

(Exciting update: The above mentioned post made even more popular recently by being featured on the website for the Italian Sons & Daughters of America )

That’s the way many of my summer mornings began, especially on the weekends. She would always make a point of coming over early, not 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.picnic

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.IMG_4293

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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A Craving For More Tradition, Sunday Style

Take an informal poll of people that you know, and ask them what their favorite day of the week is, the answer would almost always be Friday. The start of the weekend, you get a break from your job for at least two days, with the opportunity to hang with family or friends.

In an Italian American household, however, you may be surprised to hear a different answer. Our favorite day of the week is rarely Friday. The chosen day for many families around the country is Sunday.

These days, my Sunday routine revolves around going to an early Mass at St. Anthony’s Church with my Dad, and then making a quick trip to my cousin’s apartment to attend what we commonly refer to as “The Breakfast Bunch.”

Weekly attendance includes mainly cousins from my Grandmother’s side of the family, and it’s an informal gathering where we’ll have toast, coffee, baked goods, and shoot the breeze. Sometimes there will be an egg casserole or two.

It’s one of the best parts of my week not only because of the social aspect, but also for the memories it triggers of days gone by – of the fantastic Sundays of my youth.

Keeping Tradition Alive

My Godmother passed away a couple of years ago, and my Nonna has been gone for four years this January. Both being in deteriorating health the last few years of their lives, it’s been a struggle to keep the fire of Sunday dinner traditions burning.

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Centerpiece of the day – Sunday Sauce

I still make a pot of Sunday Sauce at least every couple of weeks, and I’ll have a dinner with my wife and kids featuring the same food I had as a child. It’s just minus the massive crowds, and the jostling around the 14th Street dining room table that we used to gather around.

When I was young, I was at my Grandparent’s house for the entire weekend. Sunday was the fantastic finish. I would be there long before the aunts, uncles, and cousins showed up. Not only would I get a sneak peek at what was going to be served, I might also get a freshly pan fried meatball, or a piece of Italian bread dunked into the tomato sauce that was simmering all day.

More or less, it was the same menu every Sunday with a twist here and there. If it was Easter Sunday – well, that was the day the gigantic pan of homemade lasagna was broken out. If manicotti was made at my family’s restaurant that week (and didn’t sell out), that may have spilled into Sunday as well.

Regardless of what was featured on the table, it was always delicious, and there was always plenty to go around. My little Sicilians were expert cooks, and their Sunday Sauce was second to none.

The preparation of dinner was a process as well. Timing needed to be considered, as we usually sat at table in the early afternoon. Prepping was done as early as the day before, and Nonna would be in the kitchen for hours on Sunday.

Sunday’s Menu of Decadence

There’s a right way to do Sunday, and each menu item has the proper order in which it’s served. My grandparents’ end of the week dinners were always old-school, but just for kicks we like to take things to a modern level on certain Sundays.

Both ways are eminently enjoyable, and you can be as formal or informal as you like. But as far as the old-school way is concerned, there was nothing better. In my house, we’re pretty good cooks – but those Sundays from twenty or even thirty years ago provide a boatload of cherished memories.

Want to try it yourself? Here’s the balanced approach, whether you like it modern or old-school style:

Appetizers

Old School: Appetizers? Really? With the tonnage of food that hit the table for dinner when I was a kid, appetizers were not required. We would have more than enough, believe me. But I was always an expert at sneaking the aforementioned meatball before dinner, so that could count as an app. Score.

Modern Take: We can get really fancy here; we’ve done calamari, stuffed mushrooms, clams casino, mussels in broth, meat and cheese antipasto platter. No pun intended, but the world is your oyster when it comes to appetizers.

Pasta

Old School: In my world, the pasta course is ubiquitous. My Grandmother’s choice was almost always a spaghetti or ziti, dressed with a tomato sauce that had been cooking for hours. Special occasions brought out the 10,000 calorie baked pasta dishes. Unbelievable.

Modern Take: We’ll still take it old school style here, but we often change the shape; ravioli, rigatoni, tagliatelle, among others. The sauces can change, too, although the Sunday variety is still my favorite. Oil and garlic, bolognese, and a variety of light cream sauces are new traditions that have hit our table.

Meat

Meatballs on my stove - like Nonna used to make
Meatballs on my stove – like Nonna used to make

Old School: In those days, the meat was meatballs front and center, and sausage or braciole. That’s it. And in the end, that’s all we needed.

Modern Take: We’re not doing quail or Cornish game hen here (that’s really fancy), but in my house we like chicken cutlets, braised short ribs, and my wife loves to roast a whole chicken on any given Sunday. Osso Bucco is something on my radar to try soon, as well.

Salad

Old School: The salad was always eaten last at the table on 14th Street, used as a palate cleanser. It was iceberg lettuce, dressed with olive oil and red wine vinegar. Very simple, and although it may not sound good to you, I thought it was excellent.

Modern Take: Like the apps, you can go many different ways here, and we have; Caesar salad, salads with walnuts and cranberries, avocado, with chick peas and beans, with balsamic glaze and other fancy dressings. And we rarely use iceberg for anything; it’s romaine, spinach, or mixed greens. Again, unnecessarily fancy. But so very good.

Desserts and Beverages

Old School: With the calorie meter obliterated already, dessert was still on the way, but here’s where the Sicilians threw their twist in and decided now we should eat healthy – by giving us nuts and fruit. My Grandmother would roast chestnuts or crack walnuts, and my Grandfather would peel and eat multiple pears, his favorite. I also remember Italian cookies, and the ladies were fond of sponge cake. Drinks included water, soda, and a simple red table wine. Espresso at the end.

Modern Take: I’m already thinking about grabbing tiramisu from the local bakery for the next Sunday dinner. My wife will bake cakes and make other desserts (we call one of our favorites “chocolate crack” for its addictive qualities), and her mother is a great pie maker. Drinks have run the gamut- mixed cocktails, sparkling water, red wine, white, craft beers. Very fancy.

Find Your Way Back

As my Grandmother’s age crept into her 90’s, she couldn’t host the big dinners anymore, on Sunday or any other night. I took over the meatball making chores for her on Saturdays, and on the following Sundays a smaller group of our family would show up for a little brunch.

Nothing too over the top. Scrambled eggs, some meatballs with sauce, Italian bread. Strong, stove brewed coffee. Sponge cake. Seated in the kitchen instead of the vast dining room table.

Those Sundays were special, too. My kids grew up around that kitchen table, having their first servings of spaghetti in their high chairs, in the house on the street that I grew up on.

Those days are sorely missed. And with our “Breakfast Bunch” gatherings now, we try to recreate that special feeling of family ties that were their strongest, so many years ago.

When Sunday was, without question, the favorite day of the week.

What’s your story? Have a favorite day? Or tradition that you’d like to share? Leave your comment below.