There was a restaurant in the Bronx. It was a small, red sauce Italian joint that didn’t take reservations. You couldn’t pay with a credit card either. And there was no menu. When seats opened up, you squeezed into a table, oftentimes sharing with an extended family from Jersey who remembered the place from the “old days.” One of the two waiters would come over. Usually it was the one who was missing a thumb. “Whaddya want?” He would brusquely ask before you were even settled.
“Whaddya got?” was the usual response.
“We got baked clams, stuffed artichoke, veal marsala, veal francese, chicken scarpariello. We got steak, linguini and calamari. We got mussels, ziti marinara, rigatoni with sausage and broccoli rabe. We got zuppa di pesce. We got steak…” And it went on and on. The menu recited.
“Do you have veal chops.”
“Veal chops? The waiter who was missing a thumb stared dully. “Lemme check.”
He would disappear into the kitchen.
A few moments later he would reappear. “Yeah, we got ‘em. You start with a salad?”
Of course we would.
Wine was served in juice glasses poured from an over sized jug behind the small bar.
The salad came. Our group shared the large platter of iceberg lettuce redolent with red wine vinegar, speckled with onions, out of season tomatoes, and a smattering of provolone cheese.
The place was filling up. It was cold outside and no one wanted to wait in the cold. The bar area was packed. There were people overhanging our table. Our stuffed artichokes came. The eyes of those waiting were upon us…and the artichokes. We didn’t care. Let them wait.
“Hey, can we get a piece of your bread while we wait?” a wise guy snickered, his hand moving to our bread basket.
“Don’t be an idiot, Ralph,” the woman with him with the big hair and overpowering perfume spat back at him.
“Hey, this is a family place. We’re all family. What’s wrong with breaking bread with brothers?”
“Jerk off,” she muttered, rolling her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she said sympathetically to us while her companion continued to grin like an idiot.
We polished off the artichokes easily, soaking up the olive oil dampened breadcrumbs with the crusty bread from the aforementioned bread basket. Butter never accompanied it—unless someone with no class or dignity stooped so low as to request it.
An enormous platter of linguini with calamari in a rich red sauce came next along with two dinosaur-sized veal chops with grilled onions and peppers. The calamari was fork tender; the sauce tangy with tomato and red wine. The veal chop was cooked to medium rare perfection; a slight char on the outside; the juices running from it with every forkful.
We finished everything.
The waiter minus one thumb returned. “Anything else? Some espresso?”
We needed the espresso to revive us after all that food. Clear glasses with stove-top espresso appeared along with a bottle of sambuca. The coffee and the liqueur combining to act as a jolting digestif.
“We’ll take the check,” we said to our waiter the next time he scurried past.
I would watch as he conferred with the bartender who wrote down something on a small scratch pad and handed it back to the waiter.
“$65,” the waiter said, not showing us what he held in his hand. There were no words on the piece of paper from what I could see; just check marks and cross outs, like a sloppy tic tac toe game.
We had no complaints. We paid and left a generous tip. Gathering our stuff we pushed through the overflowing crowd that was now ready to pounce on the seats we just deserted.
That was a long time ago. During the restaurant’s glory years. But nothing stays the same. The crowds got more unruly. One time a strange hand even reached into the bread basket. They soon opened up another room upstairs to handle the overflow. The platters got a little smaller, the calamari was not as tender, the red sauce not so special, and the number barked by a waiter—the one missing a thumb retired to the Jersey shore — kept going up. And up. It was time to say goodbye. Or at least take a leave of absence.
The divorce lasted almost twenty years. But I was ready to reunite. To make amends. To give Dominick’s, the red sauce joint in the Bronx, another chance. And what better way to experience nostalgia than with two old friends who I spent many an evening with at the same tables over twenty years ago.
But before entering, I noticed something unusual, at least for Dominick’s. It was a menu. A big one. And it was on prominent display right next to the entrance. I scanned it. There were even prices attached to the Italian-American classics I was very familiar with.
I was a few minutes early. I ordered a drink at the bar and marveled at how deserted the small dining room was. Only a couple of the tables were occupied.
I sipped my drink and tried to recall if I was with Gerry or Paulie D, the two friends I was waiting for, the time Mayor Ed Koch and his entourage were hustled immediately to a large table. There was no waiting for hizzoner.
And, on this day, when my friends arrived there was no wait for the three of us either. Maybe change is good, I thought.
Paulie D, who I hadn’t seen for probably as long as it had been since I had been to Dominick’s, was the impetus for this reunion. He, also after a long hiatus, had returned to Dominick’s recently and relayed to Gerry that it was as good as ever. Gerry, a founding member of the Chow City group, whose adventures have been and continue to be chronicled on Fried Neck Bones…and Some Home Fries, passed the word to me and our dinner was arranged. Not only could I catch up with Paulie D, but I would also see if my youthful infatuation with Bronx red sauce stood the test of time.
A waiter approached us at the bar. Despite his complete lack of hair and that he was now wearing glasses, I recognized him from the “old days.” He had both thumbs and unlike his former colleague, did more than grunt when taking our orders. He shook my hand. “Good to see you again,” the waiter, whose name was Patsy, said as he looked into my eyes as if I were a still a regular.
We shared a long table and ordered more drinks. Wine, I was surprised to see, was served now in a stemmed glass. I handled it gingerly.
“So what are we gonna have?” Patsy asked, leaning over the table. There might have been a menu on display outside the restaurant, but we weren’t getting any table side. That was encouraging.
No one said anything. But I, for one, had to hear it. So I opened my mouth. “Whaddya got?” I asked.
And then the recitation began: “We got mussels, baked clams, calamari. We got veal marsala, veal francese. We got chicken scarpariello. We got steak…”
“What about stuffed peppers?” Paulie D inquired.
“Chicken francese?” Gerry asked.
“Sure, we can make it.”
“And ziti marinara,” Paulie D added.
I looked at Gerry and then at Paulie D.
“Let’s get the mussels,” Gerry said.
I thanked Gerry for not neglecting them.
“You gonna start with a salad?” Patsy asked, but he really didn’t have to.
And then Patsy, who wrote none of our order down, departed.
Bread was brought to the table; crusty pane di casa, probably from Addeo’s bakery across the street. I noticed that along with the bread, there was a small plate with individual plastic packets of butter. And we didn’t even have to ask for it. I had to rethink my earlier belief about change. Maybe it wasn’t as good as I originally thought.
The salad was as I remembered it: iceberg lettuce, onions, a few unripe tomatoes, and slices of provolone all in a vinegary dressing. The platter was just enough for the three of us.
Next to arrive were the peppers. On the plate were two extra large bell peppers stuffed with seasoned ground beef and smothered with a chunky tomato sauce.
Paulie D, who, before we ordered, reminded us that he was a “picky eater.” In Paulie D’s case, that meant no seafood, no chicken on the bone, not even steak. But stuffed peppers were fair game and knowing Gerry and I would be eating the mussels, we left most of the peppers to him. Paulie D did himself proud; devouring one of the monsters effortlessly.
The big platter of mussels took up most of the room at our table. Gerry and I worked methodically through the mound, plucking the sweet tiny bodies from their shells and swirling them in the garlicky, wine infused marinara sauce.
When the ziti arrived, penne on this nigh, I piled a few of the mussels on top of it, creating my own makeshift “ziti” and mussels.
Even the lemon-tinged chicken francese was soon swimming in red sauce, but I didn’t’ care.
There was bread left over. I broke off a piece and soaked it the soup of sauce that remained on my plate. And then I did it again — until all the sauce on my plate was gone.
Patsy returned. “You want espresso? Coffee?”
I thought for a moment. In the “old days” I could still fall asleep after a late night espresso. No more. And I wasn’t alone. None of us needed coffee.
Patsy conferred with the bartender and returned with the scratch pad scribbled with the unintelligible tic tac toe scrawl.
“$120,” he said to us.
I quickly tried to calculate what the rate of inflation of Italian red sauce joints in the Bronx might be since Ed Koch was the Mayor. The challenge being too much for my red sauce inebriated brain, I gave up that idea quickly and just decided to pay my share without thinking any more on it.
We rose and headed for the exit. The busboys quickly cleared our mess, but there was no urgent demand for our table.
Patsy waited by the door. “Hope to see you soon, gentlemen,” he said, seemingly looking me in the eye. There were no questions asked about my long absence. Even if I was totally wrong, and Patsy’s heartfelt greeting and hand shake were all just an act to suck me back to Dominick’s and its addictive red sauce, which I noticed was now sold in local grocery stores by the jar, I tried not to believe it. In my somewhat twisted, ego maniacal mind, I sensed that maybe my presence was missed at this place.
Outside, Arthur Avenue was as quiet as Dominick’s was inside.
“It’s Monday,” Paulie D said. “That’s the secret. Come on a Monday and you’ll have the place to yourself.”
I’d have to remember that, I told myself.