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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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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