Tuesday, June 3, 2014

In Pursuit of the Past and Pasta

We’d not timed our search for dinner well.  It was 8:45 when Dave and I left the Holiday Inn, and my husband, in his joy at returning to his childhood town, waived aside the receptionist’s offer of directions and suggestions.  It had been five years since we’d been to Worcester, and we both envisioned a steaming bowl of pasta at the Italian Kitchen.

When Dave’s Aunty Cam was alive, we rarely ate out.  Why would we?  Her tomato sauce topped with crushed nuts was heavenly, and her stuffed peppers, with their filling of capers, garlic, black olives, and breadcrumbs, were similarly divine.  Somehow, when Cam was the cook, simple as it was, fresh lettuce dressed only with olive oil and lemon juice was the perfect accompaniment.  Still, sometimes for lunch, we’d head down to Shrewsbury Street, which, conveniently for us this evening, was just down the road from the Holiday Inn.

We'd come to town for Dave’s cousin Peggy's interment.  In November, we'd heard from her daughters  that she was not doing well, so we went to visit.  She was couch-bound, thin, and tired, but her dark eyes still flashed with spirit as she joined in telling tales about the family, or softened while looking through old photo albums.  I like to picture her in some ethereal kitchen, chatting with Cam as they make that heavenly sauce together.  

Dave has been nostalgic about his native city lately, perhaps because of Peggy's passing and that visit to the past through stories and photos.  When we made plans for the trip North, he said, "Let's go a day early and spend a little time there." So we arrived Sunday afternoon, took our time getting settled, and then realized we were starving.

In our search for food, we passed a low structure on the curve to Shrewsbury Street. Dave said, “Used to be D’Elriccos.”  He gave a hoot of satisfaction when the sign in the window still had the same name.  Up ahead, we spotted the red brick building that had housed the Italian Kitchen, noted the new name, “Piccolo,” but figured it still sounded like a place to get pasta.  So we parked the car at the side of the road, climbed out, and fighting quiet discouragement at the lack of activity, tried the door.  Locked.  We cupped our eyes with our hands and peered in the window to see a young woman piling wooden chairs on empty tables.

“Oh well.  No problem.  Let’s hit the Parkway.”

We wanted to eat someplace where Dave had a sense of connection, of history.  I could easily picture Dave’s dad, Colombo, seated at one of the stools at the Parkway Diner, digging into a plate of sausage n’ peppers.  And for me, having grown up believing I didn’t like eggplant because my mother didn’t, the Parkway was a culinary education.  There was nothing like their eggplant parmigiana sandwich with its generous sliced eggplant, tangy red sauce, and melted mozzarella on thick slabs of Italian bread.

We drove down the block, took a U-Turn, and pulled up to the curb outside the diner.  Again, we parked, dismounted, and tried the latch.  Success!  The door opened to the raucous laughter of a crowd of young people in jeans, sweatshirts, and Red Sox caps.

“You want food or drink?”  asked the cute bartender with a flip of her ponytail.

“Food!  A bowl of pasta! And drink!” we crowed.

The girl cocked her head and bit her lower lip in apology.  “Mmmm.  Sorry.  Kitchen just closed.”

“Noooo…” Dave and I wailed in mock despair.  Dave checked his watch: 9:02.  Wow.  Prompt group.

With a sigh, Dave asked for recommendations, which set off a flurry of discussion between the bartender and her pleasant, but scruffy, patrons. 

“Vita’s,” said one.

“No.  No way.  Not Vita’s,” the bartender was adamant.

“Why not?”

“Not my favorite.”
“Hah!  You’re Irish!  What do you know about Italian food?”  retorted a man, puffing his chest at the approving guffaws of those around him.

The bartender leaned from the waist, arms flung wide, eyes sparking in mock fury, “I WORK in an Italian place!”  She did not say, “so stuff it,” but that was implied.  She turned to us and said, “Try Jimmy’s Tavern.  Up at White City.  Know where it is?”

“Shame on me if I don’t,” said Dave.  It was clear by his bright grin that he was tempted to stay, pleased with the atmosphere, the camaraderie, and the boisterous exchange, food or not.  “How ‘bout one drink?” he said to me.

“Hon, we have to eat…” Okay, so maybe I was a little whiny.

 Dave nodded, but called over his shoulder, “Save us a seat!  We’ll be back!”

Time was passing as we drove down Shrewsbury Street.  It was 9:15.  “This mall we’re going to – White City?  Used to be an amusement Park,” Dave said. 

I knew this.  Dave and I have been together for forty years, so I have a vague sense of the fields where he played Little League, the fields where he knew baseball glory, and yes, even landmarks that were not part of his baseball career.

Dave took the right into White City and we circled and circled and circled the sprawling parking lot encircled with the same stores that encircle most every sprawling parking lot in the country.  Finally we spotted Jimmy’s prominent sign, right next to the entrance we’d come in at the start of our circling.  We were hungry…and  getting tired.

Inside Jimmy’s, servers were straightening up and most of the tables were empty.  Still, a gangly youth greeted us cheerfully and, preparing to seat us, picked up two menus.  Dave apologized for the late hour and said we’d be quick; we just wanted a bowl of pasta.  The man’s eyes shadowed a touch.  “Well.  We have several varieties of mac n’ cheese…?” he offered hopefully.

Dave cannot eat mac n’ cheese.

“If you want pasta, your best bet would be Buca di Beppo, just down the way.”  We’d actually passed it, noted the very obvious Italian name, but in our fatigue and focus on Jimmy’s, had driven on. 

It was really late now:  9:30.  Back on the road, we drove the brief distance to Buca, parked in the lot, and noted the marble statue of a maiden by the front door, the festive strings of lights, and the lake behind the building. 

But again, the door was locked.  A couple came out, clutching a white plastic parcel of leftovers and before it closed, Dave ducked in the door behind them.

“Honey….” I whined again, exasperated, but he was out of sight.  I stood, waiting, the maiden at my side. 

Almost immediately, the door re-opened and a thin young man in a black tee-shirt emerged to trot across the parking lot in pursuit of the departing couple.  “Excuse me!  Your leftovers….” He said, and gave the man yet another container of food. 

The server walked back toward the building, the maiden, and me, and tried the door.  “Locked myself out,” he said with a shrug.  “I can get in through the back.”

“You’re a good soul to go to that trouble with the leftovers,” I said as he turned to walk around the restaurant.

“Well thanks,” he said, smiling.  “‘A good soul.’  I like that.”

Just then, Dave poked his head out the front door.  “Come on in.  They said they’d feed us.”

“Oh Honey.  They’re cleaning up. They want to go home.”  I felt sheepish, a little annoyed. 

“Really.  I didn’t ask.  They offered.”

“Still, we shouldn’t do this.  We’ll feel rushed and have to eat fast…”

I expected tension when we entered the main dining room, but no.  The staff was bustling about rolling napkins and utensils for the following day, nudging chairs back in place, and eating their own meals, but everyone smiled at us.  A hostess armed with menus appeared, and beaming welcome, led us to a table covered with a brown and white checked cloth. 

I blathered apologies and regrets, but she assured me, “Really, it’s no problem.  Your server will be with you shortly.  Enjoy your dinner.”

We were the only customers in an extraordinary, spacious, two-tiered space. Three arches spanned the room, each decorated with paintings of lemons and pears.  Photographs crammed every inch of the cranberry colored walls: Frank Sinatra, the Pope, and JFK side by side with someone’s grandmother, nuns riding Dodgem cars, the Colosseum, the Forum, and St. Peter’s Cathedral.  Jimmy Durante chuckled and crooned in the background when Sinatra took a break, and the young man I met in the parking lot came to take our orders. 

“I didn’t catch your name,” Dave said.

The man pointed to a nametag on his shirt, “Donnie.”  He chuckled.  “I covered the word ‘meat’ with the tag…See? ‘Balls as big as your head.” The three of us laughed, and he added, “They’re really good.  The meatballs.  Chef just made ‘em.”

I said they sounded great, but explained we don’t eat meat. Promising we’d eat quickly, we ordered our long-awaited bowls of pasta, a beer, and a glass of Chianti.  

“No rush,” said Donnie.  “We have things to do to get ready for tomorrow anyway.  Besides, tonight I feel like a good soul,” and he smiled at me. 

Shortly, huge bowls, HUGE bowls, of steaming pasta were placed before us, along with a basket of thick-sliced bread and olive oil for dipping.  Dave and I touched our glasses, toasted Donnie, and grinned. 

Ram Dass said, “We are all here to walk each other home.”  It is my new favorite quote, a “Do Unto Others” without the wag of the finger. A reminder that kindness serves all.  When we were tired and hungry, Donnie and the other good souls of Buca di Beppo  - who were, no doubt, more tired and hungry than we were – took us in, welcomed and fed us.  And we were warmed and filled by far more than pasta.



your Weekapaug friend, David said...

So nice to be reading your blog again. I missed it. You've such a gift at storytelling.

Check out my blog at:

Anonymous said...

Makes me want to go to Worcester - and no offense, Dave, that's a first!
You should send them this post. (and the bar!)
They'd be thrilled, I'm sure - especially Donnie-good-soul.
Lovely piece, as always.

Anonymous said...

How exciting to google lea sylvester and find Lea Sylvestro! What a happy happy find. It was a bit like finding pretty stone while on a hike, stuffing it in my pocket to look at later and then discover it is really a 20 karat diamond. Whomever you are Ms Sylvestro, you are one terrific writer. You take us with you on your adventures (ok...I did read other posts...you are like potato chips, one post is not enough). How sweet that you and your husband can return to his hometown and even you know the landmarks of his youth. How dear that, without even trying you made Donnie feel good about himself. Apparently that is what you do, either with your writing or your presence, you make people feel good. Now that is a skill lea sylvester does not have. At least not as near as developed as you. Thank you for a wonderful discovery. I will be sharing you with other friends who may not be so lucky as to find you by accident.

Joanie said...

Such a Sylvestro adventure! "In pursuit"! Love this....I found myself hungry as well, as you weave this tale of tortellini. The emotional moments were sprinkled throughout for me....Dave's satisfaction at knowing names of establishments from his youth....you, Lea, for knowing some of Dave's 'ol familiar places, your affirmation to Donnie of his kindness, the waitstaff assuring you it was no problem to extend themselves to you, and, finally, the Ram Dass quote (one I had not heard before, but will carry with me from this day on). We do have the opportunity to see each other home.

Thank you for this gift, my friend.