Scenes from an Italian Restaurant

December 31, 2009

A bottle of white, a bottle of red,
Perhaps a bottle of rosé instead.
We’ll get a table near the street
In our old familiar place . . .

— Billy Joel, b. 1949
American singer-songwriter
“Scenes from an Italian Restaurant”

holi09-badge-jbThe moon rising above us tonight was a blue moon, the second one in a calendar month, but we didn’t see it. The sky was cloud-covered and a chilly rain on the cusp of freezing was falling as Ron and I set out for our New Year’s Eve dinner.

Ron and I met on December 30, 1982, after a phone call he made the day before at the behest of his daughter, then 17, who thought he should meet her English teacher. Her object was to arrange companionship for two lonely people in their first post-divorce holiday. Ron had not approached a woman for a date since sometime in 1960. I wasn’t actually divorced, only unofficially separated, but I had come to understand in the two months since my spouse had declared he could no longer tolerate life with me (he said “you think too much” and believed I lacked the capacity to have fun) that his leaving was a liberating event, an opening of a door, an escape hatch, even.

We went out for a drink at a nearby bar attached to a restaurant, an odd choice for getting acquainted for two people who hate noisy crowded places and whose relational pattern is to have a few close friendships that develop and deepen over time rather than superficial encounters in which perceptions colored by alcohol can be faulty. It didn’t take long to determine that we had a lot in common, and we came back to my house and talked late into the night. And although one of the things we had in common is that we were both recovering from broken marriages, we hardly talked about those things at all.

At Ron’s suggestion, we continued the conversation the next night, without the stop at the bar. I got cheese and crackers and he brought wine and we turned on the television to watch the ball drop and played Name That Tune with Hooked on Classics, snippets of orchestral standards set to a disco beat. We were married less than eight months later. And when the next New Year’s Eve came around, he leveraged the memory of our first such event together into a tradition of staying home with cheese and wine, a rented movie, and the ball drop at midnight.

About ten years ago we started going out to dinner with Lynn and then dropping her off at whatever well-supervised teen New Year’s Eve party she’d been invited to. That first year it was a last-minute decision, and the only time-slot we could get was 4:30. That suited us perfectly, and started another tradition. We’re in and out at some elegant place before the band sets up, before the drink prices rise, before the staff becomes weary, and before the revelers who are on their way to way too many parties arrive with their too-bright eyes and their too-desperate hopes.

Lynn has her own life and her own transportation now, and it’s just the two of us again. This year we decided, for entertainment, a Godfather marathon and, to get ourselves in the mood, dinner at an Italian restaurant. I got out the phone book restaurant guide, paged through. “Look,” I said. “Fenicci’s still uses the DeAngelis name.”

deasignWhen I met Ron, I already knew who he was, sort of, besides the father of one of my students. He was the son of one of the dozen children of Dominic and Genoeffa DeAngelis, who had operated the most popular family restaurant in Hershey since 1935. That was the year before Ron’s parents were married, two years before he was born.

I remember going to DeAngelis once or twice a year from the time I was six or so. Hershey’s ice arena hosted the Ice Capades and the Ice Follies every year, and in those days hired local musicians to provide the orchestra. Each was a ten-day gig that provided welcome supplemental income to my violin-playing parents, especially when both of them were hired. On Saturdays there were three shows, 1:00, 3:00, and 8:00. Someone – my uncle Jim or a neighbor or some other friend – would take me and my sister down to Hershey for the 3:00 show, and then my parents would take us to dinner at DeAngelis.

From the time I was in sixth grade until I finished eighth grade, I sang in the girls’ choir at Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament parish. Father Mammarella, who had begun his ministry at St. Joan’s in Hershey, would treat the altar boys and the choir girls of Our Lady’s to an afternoon at Hershey Park every August, with a stop first at DeAngelis for a spaghetti lunch. Thus it would seem that on those days, while I was a giggly twelve- or-thirteen-old changing from skirt to shorts in the ladies’ room (Father insisted that the girls wear skirts in the restaurant), Ron the college boy on vacation was working in some capacity there behind the scenes, perhaps helping his father man the pasta pots. And definitely in 1961, my eighth grade year, my fourteen-year-old self sat at a table above the sauce room downstairs, where Ron and his cousin Fred had gone into the business of bottling the restaurant’s signature sauce and distributing it to local grocery stores.

In the early years of my life as a DeAngelis, I enjoyed big family get-togethers at the restaurant on Christmas Day. One year there were 65 people in attendance. In 1988, with the youngest of Dominic and Genoeffa’s children ready to retire and no one in Ron’s generation nor in the next interested in continuing in the business, the family sold the restaurant. It became known as Fennici-DeAngelis, and in my travels here and there I saw the sign change every six months or so, the DeAngelis name growing smaller and the Fennici name growing larger. About three years ago the family that bought it sold it again. There was some remodeling, some tinkering with the menu, and gradually it came to pass that more people now know this dining destination as Fennici’s than as DeAngelis.

Nevertheless, the establishment remains true to the somewhat amusing slogan that appeared on the menu and in ads during the 1950s: “The quality of the food is always higher than the price.” Ron’s been there recently for his monthly breakfast with old friends. When I called his attention to the phone book ad, he said, “Let’s go there,” and I made the reservation.

dearadioWe were welcomed almost like visiting royalty. Now that I am out of the classroom and we don’t see Lynn’s friends as much as we used to, I don’t get called “Mrs. DeAngelis” very often. The new owner, Phil, greeted us personally and treated us with a deference that you just don’t get much anymore. He is sensitive to the history of the place. The original door is on display, and there is a “history room” at the back with a board that many of our family members have signed, and framed menus and old pictures on the walls. A radio like the one at left stands near the servers’ station. Phil said he found it in the basement. Ron thinks it belonged to his paternal grandparents, but it is identical to the one in his maternal grandparents’ home, the one they gathered around to hear the news about Pearl Harbor. Ron’s mother translated for her parents, and Nonna put her head in her hands and murmured Oh Dio, Dio, Dio.

The radio stands beside a table that stands beside the alcove where the restrooms are. It’s at the top of the ramp that leads up from the street-level entrance door, and as soon as I laid eyes on it I was taken back 48 years. Maybe it’s because I was with some of those people just yesterday. I stopped for a moment at the table and clearly saw myself as I was that August day the summer after eighth grade. I am wearing shorts and a blouse the color of which I don’t remember, although I do recall the kelly green skirt with an elastic waist that I will remove in the ladies’ room and leave on the bus while we ride the Comet and the Mill Chute. I am sitting with Bob, and Phil, who greeted me so lovingly yesterday, and a girl named Filomena whom no one has seen since we graduated.

Later Phil and Bob will invite us to go boating on the creek that wends through the park, and I will pretend that the whole thing is a date, although the restaurant seating is probably caused by Father’s direction to just fill in the chairs as we come to them (“This is lunch, not a wedding ceremony!”), and the boys need Filomena and me to act as ballast more than they want our company. And downstairs, measuring sauce and filling bottles and keeping after the complicated paperwork of commercial food preparation and distribution, is the man I will marry twenty-two years later.

We had a table near the street tonight, in a section of the place that used to be a jewelry store. I had shrimp scampi, and Ron had the seafood fra diablo. I went out in the snow this morning for cannoli, to have during the scene in The Godfather where Paulie Gatto, Don Corleone’s disloyal chauffeur, has revenge visited upon him. (“Leave the gun, take the cannoli.”)

It’s the mood we’re in tonight. Hello 2010.

From the Archives
December 31, 2004 —
Fast Away the Old Year Passes: A man I taught with for many years kept commonplace books. He was a sweet, gentle soul who never called much attention to himself, lived alone, and attended the same men’s bible study every week for more than fifty years. At his funeral his sisters displayed some of the notebooks he’d kept, each a commonplace with the day and date noted and one or two passages copied out in his spidery hand each day. I was familiar with that hand from the notes he’d sent me from time to time after his retirement, and seeing his books made me feel close to him again

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