Monday, August 19, 2013

HAPPY BIRTHDAY MOM...THANKS FOR TEACHING ME THE FINE ART OF RESTAURANTING

AUGUST 22nd WOULD HAVE BEEN MY MOTHER'S 83rd BIRTHDAY. PLEASE HELP ME CELEBRATE HER GREATNESS BY ENJOYING THIS COLUMN.

MOM ON VACATION IN RIMOUSKI, QUEBEC, CANADA...SEPTEMBER - 1971


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A few years back, I was eating with my mouth full.  When some of it went down the wrong pipe, my mother smiled, "You're just like me...even when you're choking, you keep chewing."  Her point was, we both enjoy eating so much that an idle death threat won't force us to spit anything out. 

If mom was young today, she'd be a foodie.  She had an appreciation for good eats especially the exotic, (Indian food, Thai, Turkish, Moroccan and sushi).  Me, I'm far less discerning.  I can't even spell cuisine without a dictionary.  So, I let my sister take mom to the fancy places she referred to as, Ipsy-Pipsy.  That means, don't waste your time, energy and money on me, I don't need gourmet specialties...just give me what I like.

But just because you give me what I like, doesn't mean it's good.  The perfect example of this would be the original Ray's Pizza in Manhattan.  Some how...since the 70's...the world's greatest slice has gone in the toilet.  While you'd be hard pressed to find an Italian person working in the kitchen today...the recipe should be the same?  That means you can't blame the waitress, the counter man or the chef...all the accountability lies in the dirty hands of the penny-pincher who buys the ingredients.

In regard to cutting corners, one of my new readers, VJV shocked me by ragging on restaurant management, "I don't like to eat out...especially Italian food."  VJV was born in Italy and has owned restaurants.  The ultimate host, when you go to his house, you eat like royalty.  So much is homemade and even his store-bought items are so fresh, tasty and beautifully prepared, you'd think they were made from scratch too. 

During his rare trips to restaurants, VJV's family is sometimes embarrassed because he'd nitpick seemingly trivial matters like covering the ice reservoir, regular vacuuming and the necessity of pristine restrooms. When he was really riled-up, he'd confront in the manager/owner.  If the owner blamed an unmotivated staff VJV would blast, "No, you're cheap, lazy or both!  If they were trained well, this, that and the other wouldn't happen."

I believed everything VJV said until he added, "But I do like eating at the Olive Garden." 
SINCE 1982, THE OLIVE GARDEN, SPECIALIZING IN ITALIAN-AMERICAN COOKING,  IS A CASUAL, FAMILY-STYLE RESTAURANT CHAIN.  THEY NOW BOAST 800+ LOCATIONS WORLDWIDE.

I arched one eyebrow in disbelief until he added, "If you stick with soup, salad and breadsticks...that's one place that you know exactly what you're getting.  Besides, the only reason why you're there to begin with...is to socialize."



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My dad passed away in 1995.  In his absence, mom and I arranged around ten visits a year, (a combination of her taking a casino bus to Atlantic City and me driving into Canarsie, Brooklyn).  When her mobility failed, the amount of visits stayed the same...with me exclusively driving to her.

The early part of my visits were dedicated to sorting out mom's personal affairs and running errands.  This was a time when my mom relied on Meals on Wheels or microwavable delights for many of her suppers.  So my visits were highlighted by early evening outings, usually to diners, (which in New York...is a good thing). 

My adventurous parents were always willing to travel to new places or return to far-off restaurants.  So once I put the bug in my mother's ear that I was getting tired of the same local hot-spots, she amazed me with a vast knowledge of eateries throughout Brooklyn and into Queens, (today we rely on computers. But the old-school word-of-mouth network the ladies at mom's senior center used...NEVER failed, (she once hinted that the famous rooftop carrier pigeons of Canarsie were part of their information sharing equation but I'm fairly certain she was kidding).
AT BROOKLYN COLLEGE, ONE OF MY PROFESSORS, NICK PINGATORE SAID, "I'M EXCUSING CLASS EARLY IN HONOR OF THANKSGIVING.  PLEASE, EVERYBODY ENJOY YOUR TURKEY...AND THOSE OF YOU FROM CANARSIE...ENJOY YOUR PIGEON."

Mom's connections gave her insights to where to find valuable coupons and the best daily menu specials.  She knew who served lobster, Hungarian goulash, brolied fish, Romanian steak, lamb stew etc. But mom's health continued to deteriorate.

They say; when life serves you lemons...make lemonade.  So, I made more trips to Brooklyn.

Mom was bogged down with emphysema.  That meant we had to incorporate her oxygen tanks and a walker to our travels.  Luckily mom's personality always remained sharp so the new reality of her physical shortcomings were minimized by great conversations.

On my end, I started to do research into better restaurants for us to try.  By working in a casino and having a strong customer following (primarily in roulette), I had a wealth Brooklynites to ask for suggestions.  A man I called "Z" because he was from Avenue Z, told me about Maria's Restaurante on Emmons Avenue in Sheepshead Bay.  Mom and I loved it and the owner/manager sitting with us for a short while was a memorable touch.

(M and R) A cigar chomping jerk with an extremely pleasant wife hooked me up with Gargiulio's in Coney Island.  Mom had mixed feelings about that place.  Everything was great, except her condition made the one giant step-up into the dining room...like Mount Kilimanjaro.
IN EARLIER DAYS, MOM'S FAVORITE WAS FLORENTINO'S, IN GRAVESEND, ON AVENUE U.  WE HAD SEVERAL BIRTHDAYS FOR HER THERE, AS WELL AS  (LATE DECEMBER 1999), I THREW HER A MILLENIUM PARTY, (above).  WE ONLY STOPPED GOING BECAUSE THE LADIES ROOM WAS DOWN A FLIGHT OF STAIRS.

Another of my regulars, Adam, a thirty-ish jet-setter surprised me by saying, "I don't eat out much in Brooklyn because I go to my mother's apartment every Sunday."  But he did add that Jordan's Seafood Shack off Knapp Street had a top-notch reputation.  And he wound-up being right. 

Tony Baloney, (the self-proclaimed Emperor of Kensington) recommended Thursday's International Cafe.  It was the remodeled coffee shop in one of those hourly-rate motels near Kennedy Airport.  Through mom's connections at the senior center, she found a grand opening, two-for-one, seven-course meal, earlybird special coupon. I don't know if it was the hideous orange and white decor leftover from the 70's, the musty stink that was covered by the thick stench of pine cleaner, the poor service or the fact that they were out of the glamorous items that lured us in...Thursday's was a dud.  But as VJV would say...we were there to socialize.  Plus we had the added bonus of being able to poke fun at the place for a long time.

One year, when mom's birthday rolled around, my sister and her family came in.  Mom heard through the grapevine that Ember's Steakhouse in Bay Ridge was the top-of-line and it lived up to its high expectations.  That day also started my son Andrew as a bon vivant.  Thus following in the footsteps of his connoisseur grandma and meat-n-potatoes dad.  It started when I ordered scungilli and calamari salad as my appetizer.
SCUNGILLI SALAD, MY MOUTH IS WATERING JUST THINKING OF IT...TO COMPLETE THIS PERFECT PICTURE, I'D WASH IT DOWN WITH A DR. BROWN'S CEL-RAY SODA.

Ten-year old Andrew looked at my plate, pointed at some tentacles and said, "Yuck!  What is that?"  I said, "Scungilli and calamari are the Italian words for octopus and a shellfish called conch."  He distorted his face and shook his head.  I said, "If you try it, you may like it."  He's an infintely braver soul than I'll ever be.  He ate some, liked it and still loves it.

At his age (hell, even now), if something doesn't strike my fancy, NOTHING on this earth can get me to try it...even mom.  Looking back, in situations involving me turning down such delicacies as; borscht, gefilte fish, cooked fruit or Brussel sprouts mom would smirk, "Good, that means more for me."
NO PHOTO ON THE INTERNET SHOWS JUST HOW DISGUSTING GEFILTE FISH LOOKS.  FAR WORSE THAN RESEMBLING BRAINS, THIS ETHNIC TREAT OF MY ANCESTORS IS COVERED WITH A SLIMY GEL WHICH MAY HAVE PROMPTED THE SAYING, "I WOULDN'T EAT THAT WITH YOUR MOUTH."  P.S. BORSCHT IS FAR MORE GHASTLY AND SOME PUTRID THING CALLED SCHAV IS A GAZILLION TIMES WORSE. 

About a week after the party at Embers, the casino had a restaurant owner convention.  I saw a delegate's nametag from West Virginia.  Her first and last name were Italian, as was the name of her restaurant.  I told her a fast version of Andrew's introduction to scungilli and calamari and she said, "What is scungilli and calamari?"

Most of mom's last two years were spent in a rehabilitation center.  Towards the end, I needed help getting her in and out of my car, causing our excursions to become far less frequent.  Her 78th birthday party was at Lenny's Clam Bar in Howard Beach Queens. My sister and my cousins Vicki and Sonny attended.
WHILE ANDREW WAS OFF PLAYING ANGRY BIRDS, SONNY THE PHOTOGRAPHER FORGOT TO SAY CHEESE

Mom's last birthday was at Brooklyn's Outback Steakhouse in Dyker Heights.
MOM WAS FRAIL BY THIS TIME . THE REHAB CENTER RECOMMENDED THAT WE DON'T TAKE HER OUT.  WHEN WE GOT TO THE OUTBACK, MOM COULDN'T MANEUVER HERSELF, TO HELP US GET HER OUT OF MY CAR.  HEROIC COUSIN SONNY (far right) STEPPED-IN AND LIFTED MY MOM OUT LIKE A FIREMAN.  I COULD NEVER DO THAT AND IF I TRIED,  I'D RIP THE VERTEBRAE OUT OF MY BACK   I RECENTLY REMINDED HIM OF HIS GREAT ACT AND MR. MODESTY SAID, "IT WAS NOTHING."

All these restaurant trips came to mind two weeks ago when Sue and I met our life long friends the Zymbiodelic's, ( ZYMBOT and FLOWGLO), for dinner.  It's unfortunate how infrequently we get together.  This time we met halfway between their mountain chateau in Central Jersey and our old homestead.  The place we decided on was the Artisan Grill, in Toms River.  To justify the beautiful Tuscan theme and a warm, comfortable micro-brewery, the menu was quite pricey.

Our conversation, as if we were with them the day before, never wavered.  We were so chatty that the waitresses was turned away twice because we hadn't scoured the menu.  When we did make our selections, everyone chose something different.  I picked last because I was blabbing so much that I still hadn't decided.  Everyone was waiting.  I felt rushed.   But I didn't have my glasses.  So I squinted well enough to see my old standard, veal parmigiana.  I should have seen this as an omen when the waitress said, "We don't have that on the menu.  We have chicken and eggplant parm but no veal."  Upon harder squinting, she was right.  Some Italian restaurant.  On impulse, I went with the eggplant...and it was awful.  Later, I commented that it was like eating an On-Cor frozen dinner. 

ACTOR AL MOLINARO WAS THE FACE (AND NOSE) OF ON-COR's TV COMMERCIALS.  HE WAS BEST KNOWN AS MURRAY THE COP ON TV'S, "ODD COUPLE" and AL DELVECHHIO, THE OWNER OF ARNOLD'S DRIVE-IN RESTAURANT ON "HAPPY DAYS."  CLICK ON THE LINK BELOW TO SEE HIM STAR IN AN ON-COR AD.
http://search.mywebsearch.com/mywebsearch/redirect.jhtml?searchfor=Al+Molinaro&cb=CD&p2=%5ECD%5Exdm003%5ES04317%5Eus&qid=d8d773761e884b31b324f701f1a0cb06&n=77fc41c7&ptb=D6B92608-79BD-4909-92A0-160CFD832118&si=CKuH4unForUCFQPd4AodLCEADg&pg=GGmain&action=pick&pn=1&ss=sub&st=bar&qs=&pr=GG&tpr=sbt&redirect=mPWsrdz9heamc8iHEhldEcgdjfjqpMajKYmz288FhTKQMkoOrq6%2BR%2Fz7%2FzOO9S3WrH4ww5G5oc7Wmk7aNOyGZw%3D%3D&ord=5&ct=AR&

Unfortunately everyone in our party was also disappointed in the Artisan Grill.  Like my mom and VJV like to say...we were there to socialize so in this case...the company was great and the expensive food was secondary.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY MOM!  Thanks for teaching me the fine art of restauranting. And if restauranting isn't a real word, I say let's make it one and credit you with its discovery.  Then while we're at it, let's also give my mother the proper footnote every time we use it.

More importantly, I hope the food in heaven is better than Thursday's !

Next time we hang with the Zymbiodelics, we'll see if Tom's River has an Olive Garden.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

To my dear aunt, Happy Birthday in heaven. --- VICSON

Anonymous said...

Nice blog story. Happy Birthday. --- GG

Charlieopera said...

GREAT piece, Steve ... loved it.

I dread the day Momma Stella can't give me the business ...

A little trick I played on my sons when they were first confronted with fried calamari and the tentacles freaked them out was ... They're Italian French fries!

It worked until they learned what it really was ...

So it goes.

Buon Compleanno to Momma E ... she done good ... very good.

Anonymous said...

Me, I love gefilte fish with liberal amounts of horseradish. I tell people that I used to eat raw clams every Friday night and wash them down with beers. When I say the phrase ‘raw clams’ I see their gag reflex working. But as you pointed out the food didn’t matter, it was the company.

Great memory and even better story telling. Well done. --- SLW