Scenes from an Italian Restaurant by
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Billy Joel probably never ate at the Italian restaurant my family favored when I was young, since he grew up in New York, not New Jersey, but he must have had a similar place in mind when he wrote the song “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.” Don’s 21 was located on McCarter Highway in Newark, which was also known as Route 21, and I assume that’s where the “21” in the name came from. The featured photo is of Al Martino, a popular Italian singer of the ’50s and ’60s, performing at Don’s. The picture, which I found online, was taken in 1979, after my family had left the Newark area, and when Al’s career was on a downward trajectory**, but it gives a sense of what Don’s looked like, with the white tablecloths, low ceilings, and tables crowded close together.

The food there was good, but what I remember most was the clientele. Everyone was Italian, and they were always dressed up, the men in suits and ties, the women in dresses and high heels. Flashy jewelry on both women and men. The men generally sported diamond pinky rings. That fascinated me, since the men I encountered in my daily life generally didn’t wear any jewelry at all, and certainly not diamond pinky rings. Almost all the cars in the parking lot were big black Cadillacs. (We had a Cadillac too, but it wasn’t black, it was pale green. later replaced by a white Chrysler Imperial.) These guys were Mafiosi, there was no doubt in my mind. We eavesdropped shamelessly on their conversations — my mother was known to say “shush” if one of us started to talk when the neighboring table was saying something interesting. We never heard any Mafia hits being planned, but I’m sure it happened there.

Before we started going to Don’s 21, my family had two favorite eateries that we patronized, the Claremont Diner in Verona, New Jersey, and the Arlington Diner in North Arlington. The Claremont Diner has been beautifully described by Marian in Hot turkey sandwiches at the Claremont Diner. While I vividly remember going there, the only food memory I have is of their incredible cheesecake. It was the best anywhere around, so creamy and delicious. I’m sure my parents made us eat “sensible” food before we got the cheesecake, but what that might have been, I can no longer recall.

The Arlington Diner is still in existence, I discovered by googling it, so I will have to make a trip there if I ever go back to New Jersey. It was there that I discovered the delights of veal parmigiana, and then later fried oysters. Thinking of both of those dishes makes my mouth water even now. My middle sister loved the shrimp cocktail appetizer, so my parents actually let her order two shrimp cocktails and no entree, which was unusual for those times. The waitresses, who were all middle-aged, wore hairnets, and called everybody “Hon,” didn’t know what to make of her lack of an entree the first few times she gave that order.

We knew the importance of not ordering more than we could eat. Since there was no concept of a “doggy bag” yet, anything you didn’t eat got thrown away, and my father would get furious if we didn’t finish our meals. “Looks like your eyes were bigger than your stomach,” was the worst possible condemnation.

In my adult life, there have been two restaurant experiences that stand out, although in neither case can I remember any specifics of what I ate. The first was at Lutèce in New York, an icon on East 50th Street from its opening in 1961 until it closed in 2004. It was proclaimed the best restaurant in the US by Julia Child and other food critics for many years. My oldest sister and I took my parents there for a milestone anniversary, 30th or 35th, so it must have been either 1973 or 1978. We ordered the food ahead of time so that our parents would not have a chance to look at the menu, because we knew they would be horrified by the prices. I remember thinking at the time that it was the best food I had ever eaten in my life. I think the bill for four people came to $150.00. That doesn’t seem like much for an elegant dinner now, but according to the inflation calculator I consulted, this would be about $800 in 2018 dollars. It was worth every penny though, because my parents were so delighted.

The second experience was The French Laundry in Yountville on my 50th birthday. I actually saved the menu from that meal, and if I were more organized I could post it here. If I find it, I will add it to the story. Eight of us enjoyed this fabulous dinner, which was paid for by my beloved mother, who was more relaxed about spending money by then. This meal has made an appearance in two other stories of mine, They Say It’s Your Birthday and The End of the World.

All of these establishments, the lowly diners as well as the Michelin extravagances, were one-of-a-kind places. There is no way you can get the same kind of quality dining experience from a chain restaurant, and yet nowadays that is what they mostly seem to be.


**Al’s career got a small boost in 1972, when he played the role of singer Johnny Fontane in The Godfather. Johnny is most memorable for being the reason that the horse’s head winds up in somebody’s bed.

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Characterizations: been there, right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Loved this gastronomic account of diverse eateries. I especially liked the recollection of Don’s 21, the Italian restaurant in your childhood world, with its crooners and pinky rings. Your description reminds me of two of my favorite films, “Broadway Danny Rose,” about a love/hate relationship with a cheap suit talent agent and a failing lounge star, and “Big Night,” set in the late 1950s, a bittersweet tale of two brothers whose fledgling restaurant patiently awaits a visit by the great singer, bandleader Louis Prima. You captured a remarkable time with your sketch.

    We might have well crossed paths at Napa’s French Laundry, where, as I recall, one needed to make a reservation months in advance.
    I think lots of people forget what they ate at memorable eateries. After all, isn’t it usually about the people and the conversations. You got a laugh from me with your observations about bigger eyes than stomachs. And what? No doggie bags? Horror!

  2. John Shutkin says:

    Yummy stories, Suzy! And I liked the way that you teased out your knowledge that Don’s 21 was a mob restaurant. I was almost afraid that, in the naiveté of the times, that might have escaped you or your family. Clearly not! By the way, was there an owner named Don or do you think it was just the obvious title (as in “Dapper…”)? And even in Connecticut we knew of Al Martino.
    Also loved how you covered the full spectrum of restaurant joys, and appreciate how much a diner cheesecake could be as delightful as the haute cuisine at French Laundry. I am willing to bet that the cheesecake was displayed in a revolving case.

    • Suzy says:

      Thank you, John. Good question about whether the owner of Don’s was named Don or if it was a title. (I just learned, because of your comment, that John Gotti was called The Dapper Don.) We weren’t on a first-name basis with him, unfortunately. And I have to admit I don’t remember if the Claremont’s cheesecake was in a revolving case, maybe Marian would know 🙂 .

  3. Marian says:

    Suzy, this is great. I love your description of the mob vibe of Don’s 21 (being a Jersey girl, I was aware of many restaurants of this type) and Al Martino, and your sister ordering two shrimp cocktails. Definitely miss those waitresses with hairnets. So glad that the Arlington Diner survives! The father of one of my grade-school classmates owned the tavern where The Four Seasons got their start, but I was too young to have gone there.

    • Suzy says:

      Marian, I just referred to you in my reply to John’s comment about the Claremont cheesecake. We may have both been writing at the same time! What was the name of the tavern where the Four Seasons got their start? They are near and dear to me, since one of them was from my home town of Belleville.

  4. Risa Nye says:

    Loved reading about this restaurant! Such good eavesdropping, and the very idea of who could be planning what at the next table—as tantalizing as those shrimp cocktails. Have never been to the French Laundry, even though I live not too far from it. (And I’m glad we didn’t dovetail on titles, but I thought of you when I picked mine!)

    • Suzy says:

      Risa, thanks for reading, and I’m glad you loved it. You should definitely go to the French Laundry some time when you are in the mood to spend A LOT of money, or if someone else is paying for it.

  5. Marian says:

    Wow, Suzy, I really don’t remember if the cheesecake was in a revolving case or not, and my partner’s daughters might be too young to have experienced it, but I’ll have to check. Alas, I don’t remember the name of the tavern but I think it was in Newark. This might be worth a Google search, and I’ll follow up. Also, I lived in Belleville when I was an infant, but we moved to Verona when I was three months old!

  6. John Zussman says:

    I love this tour of memorable restaurants, from diners to haute. Your description and photo of Don’s 21 are a good match to so many mob movies. But I disagree with Charles about restaurants being about people and conversations rather than the food. After all, if it’s a truly wonderful restaurant, isn’t it the amazing food that the people are conversing about?

    • Suzy says:

      Well, I agree with both of you to some extent. The people you went with tend to be what sticks with you (or at least with me) after many years have passed. Even if we were talking about the food at Lutece (we probably were), I can’t remember that conversation or that food 40 years later.

  7. Betsy Pfau says:

    Suzy, another memorable story. I love the way you describe Don’s 21, both the food and clientele, with your mother hushing you to listen in on what’s being discussed at the tables near by. I wondered if you were going to mention Al Martino’s role in the “Godfather” and had to wait for the end of the story for that. I have never been to the French Laundry (only heard descriptions), nor Lutece, but both seem pretty incredible. You seem to have loved every minute of both and shared that feeling with us.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks Betsy. I’m impressed that you remembered Al Martino being in The Godfather. Have you seen it again recently, or are you actually remembering it from the ’70s?

      It’s too late for Lutece, but next time you come out to California, if you know your availability two months in advance, we should try to get a reservation at The French Laundry.

      • Betsy Pfau says:

        We do go back and re-watch “The Godfather” from time to time. One of the greatest movies ever! But I also have a good memory for names and faces from movies (and in life), so that is just one of those things that I remember…I even remember the first time I saw the movie, how much the ticket cost ($4), on a date with a senior from Brandeis (Jeffrey Summit). He went on to become a rabbi. He’s now a chaplain at Tufts, I believe and he doesn’t remember me at all. We went back to his apartment but I wouldn’t sleep with him, so he took me back to my dorm! Our one and only date.

        Patti has told me about The French Laundry. Sounds divine! But I think too refined for Dan’s taste these days. When we come to CA, we stay in Mountain View because we are visiting Vicki. We come again in two weeks.

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