The First Event: 6.00pm
“Palermo in 1282 was not much different than it was 600 years later when the Great Emigration began: with the contadini being so exploited by their rulers as to live in constant and close proximity to death by hunger or disease or violence. Charles of Anjou was ruling the country as steward of the Papal States. French troops were stationed all over the island of Sicily, sometimes even in small villages.
“On Easter Monday, March 30, a young peasant girl of 14 left her home to walk the few moments to the town square, accompanied by her 12-year-old brother as protection. In the square they tried to avoid a small knot of six French soldiers who were lolling about, without an officer. The soldiers saw a diversion and circled the pair, making lewd and suggestive remarks; laughing at the easy sport. From inside their one-room homes, the women and small children not working in the fields looked on with frightened and angry eyes.
“The children tried to squeeze past to return home, but the soldiers were now engaged.
"These are criminals," said one. "We need to search them." He grabbed the girl by her arm, pulling on her clothes and groping her. She tried to resist but her efforts were futile and her face became impassive.
“The boy lunged at him and a second soldier struck the back of the boy's head with his rifle butt. The boy collapsed unconscious to the ground with blood oozing from the blow of the rifle butt. The soldiers laughed at the hilarity.
“The boy regained consciousness while the men were still abusing his stoic sister. He couldn’t fight them and he couldn’t call the police: they were the police. He staggered towards home. After a few steps he was able to walk and then gained speed, walking and running until, out of breath, woozy, sweating, bleeding, he pushed himself through his doorway.
“The mother screamed and cried in anguish before he said a word. She sent her smallest son to run for his father and two older brothers working in the field more than a mile away tending her injured son while she waited in agony for the men to arrive home.
“It took 20 minutes for father and sons to get back. They armed themselves with muskets and stilettos and, grim-faced, rushed out to the square. The girl’s mother, holding onto both small sons, followed as closely as she could manage.
“They arrived at the square far too late. In the interim, the insufferable rudeness of the soldiers had morphed into unbridled lust and violence. They pulled and pushed the girl away from the square, to the uninhabited mountainous terrain surrounding the village where their attack would be hidden by boulders. There, the teenager, who scant moments ago was happily reveling in her youth and virginal femininity, was subjected to the most violent and repulsive of sexual abuse that continued even after she mercifully lost consciousness. When none of the soldiers had anything left that was stiff enough to stab into her, they used their bayonets until they had no more energy of any kind. They withdrew, subdued by their own violence, leaving her shattered, lifeless body behind.
“At the village square a knot of contadini had gathered with faces set and determined, waiting respectfully for the father to lead. The funereal posse, lead by the father and two sons, followed by the men and then the women and children, quickly followed the road in search of the child.
“When they found the girl’s mutilated body, some clothes torn, some completely ripped away adorning the nearby rocks, her cheeks and ears still wet with tears, they lamented and wept openly. The bereft father knelt and straightened the askew legs and arms of his lifeless little girl, the daughter whom he had promised God he would protect. The village fell silent as he cradled her and pressed her distorted, angelic face against his, softly crying, “My daughter; my daughter.” In the Sicilian dialect, the words came out: "Ma fia, ma fia!"
“Wow! The Mafia! This is a great story!” said Doug.
Everyone agreed. Six of us were sipping glasses of Veuve Cliquot seated at a table set for seven in the Small Room, a formal space in my restaurant, Dom’s. Doug, one of the six, had called it the Small Room when he informally referred to this space in his first drawings of Dom’s expansion and the name stuck.
Dom’s occupied the ground floors of four separate but abutting buildings. The façade of the buildings was unified by a series of floor-to-ceiling glass panels divided horizontally and vertically by a 6” wooden frame. Horizontally, the frame ran the full width of each building. Above the horizontal, the glass panels were 3’ wide and 6’ high while below, the glass panels were 3’ squares.
Each of the buildings was blessed with 150-year-old heavy-beamed ceilings and richly-hued, antique-brick walls, both elements sandblast-clean, that made the restaurant warm and cozy, if a bit noisy at times. The second building from the left housed the main entry, the bar and the Small Room. Besides the architectural elements, the dominant design feature of this second building was a sixteen foot long by five feet high, faded-soft-pink sign with large letters advertising “CAPORALE” in a flowery, antique typeface, hung on the longest of the brick walls.
With the help of a borrowed truck, two tall ladders, assorted small tools and six friends, we liberated the large, heavy and unwieldy sign one late night from an abandoned building in the about-to-be-rehabilitated Faneuil Hall Marketplace. Doug was very proud of this acquisition and thrilled to be part of an ersatz heist, an event we repeated four times in the nights that followed, until we had rescued enough of these signs, rich in antiquity, age and appearance, to satisfy the design needs of all appropriate walls in the restaurant.
The Small Room was sectioned out of this second building and was defined by the façade on one side and by three light-rose-colored, six-foot-high walls on the others. While the three walls weren’t floor-to-ceiling, and despite a doorless entry on either side of the room that made for easy access in and out of the space, they, in tandem with a palpable force field that seemed to surround the room, sufficed to assure its diners adequate privacy.
Usually furnished with twenty-four black Carimate chairs designed by Magistretti set around six tables formally set for four, tonight the room had been rearranged into three tables, two for parties of six and the third for my group of seven. The tables were set with silver-plate, china and crystal and, with their chairs, sat comfortably spaced on solid grey plush carpeting. The ubiquitous tiny art-museum ceiling light fixtures helped light the room but the antique copper candle-sconces on the rose walls cast the room with a slightly richer ambience.
At our table were Big Daddy, Big Al, Mikey Ponzo and “Tory,” the professor, who, together with the soon-to-arrive Paul Carr, were intimates, plus Doug Parker, a long-time friend from my Boston University days, and one of Boston’s premier designers, Dom’s being among his first professional projects. Doug’s warm and tasteful design of Dom’s drew considerable attention to himself and the restaurant.
Our storyteller was Professor Ettore Bertocci, a math professor at Suffolk University. ‘Tory’ was discoursing on the American attitude towards Italian immigrants by constructing the derivation of the Italian reputation for violence, beginning with his theory on the historical roots of the Mafia.
Tory was one of my oldest friends. As children not only were we in the same gang, but from the second grade of St. Anthony’s School through high school we were classmates. Tory’s tall, thin, wiry frame sheltered two distinct personae. One was easy-going, quick to laugh and sensitive and the other could be angered, revealing a persona that fought with passion, strength and abandon. The one persona loved opera and math and kept him from joining in many of our gang activities; when the other hung out with us, he was a stand-up guy.
While he spoke we were served fresh baby squid, with a stuffing of its own chopped tentacles, mixed with fresh breadcrumbs seasoned Italian-style - with grated Romano cheese, a bit of olive oil, fresh garlic, salt and pepper and a touch of fresh dill. Poached in our fish stock, the crustacean was served chilled, dressed with extra virgin olive oil, fresh lemon juice, salt, pepper and chopped dill. If squid is fresh and not overcooked, it’s a tender and wonderfully textural food. This was that.
When Tory took a break from the story, I shared what I knew about the glass of wine we were just finishing with the group. The 1976 Frascati Superiore by Fontana Candida was a light white wine from the countryside around Rome and one of the best-known wines of Italy. While often enjoyed on a warm summer afternoon picnic, the wine worked well with our squid. The nose was clean and floral and it tasted of pears with a touch of minerals. With its crisp finish, on a rating scale of 100, the wine deserved an 85.
Paul Carr’s arrival in full Boston Police uniform precipitated a change of subject.
“Sorry I’m late. Did I miss anything?” He was smiling. Paul was always smiling. His affability covered up a street-sharp mind which sometimes gave him an advantage over adversaries.
“Tory’s talking about the rape and murder of a young girl in Palermo, Sicily, in the 13th century by French soldiers,” I said.
“Go on, professore,” Paul encouraged, and settled in.
My friend, our waiter, Tracy Wiggins, came over to help Paul settle in and then went off to get what Paul needed to catch up with Upper School
Meanwhile, Tory quickly summarized the first part of the story for Paul and continued.
“The mother took the daughter’s limp, blood-moist body from the father and carried it through town repeating the father’s cry, “Ma fia! Ma fia!” The church bells began to peal, out of their daily sequence and the tolling bells carried throughout the paese: “Come back! Leave your fields! Leave your errands! Come back to town!”
"In Sicily, ‘pazienza’ was the virtue of biding one's time until the moment to retaliate is right, even if it takes decades or centuries. Despite its similarity, it was neither ‘fatalism,' wherein one resigns himself to his destiny nor 'stoicism,' wherein one accepts his fate without complaint. “Sicilian Vespers,” as this historical moment came to be called, marked the end of a too-long era of pazienza and ushered in a time for retaliation; retaliation with finality; without mercy or remorse.
“The bereaved father and his two eldest sons, together with the men who were with them when they found the murdered girl, went to the town square to wait for the other contadini to return from the fields. Responding to the untimely ringing of the Church bells, the laborers left their work and returned in a long, steady stream to the village. On learning of the brutal rape-murder, they went to their hovels to arm themselves with muskets and stilettos and gathered at the square. The knot of armed men there grew to a small army.
“The contadini all over Sicily had been actively planning a coordinated retaliation against the French for a long time, waiting for such a spark. Men went out to apprise all neighboring towns and, in ever widening circles, until the word had spread throughout Sicily. The ‘Ma Fia’ story became the Sicilian version of “Remember the Alamo!” to be told and retold. The revolution was on.
“The call of the church bells for Evening Vespers was the signal to begin a slaughter which, in the next six weeks, would annihilate the entire French army in Sicily, as well as every French man and woman and child who had come to Sicily to feed off the toil of the contadini. News of the uprising spread quickly over the Western world, adding to the Southern Italian’s reputation for extreme lawlessness.”
I interrupted the story.
“Please excuse me for a moment, Tor; don’t continue the story without me.”
I had noticed our young Argentinean-born Italian chef and vocal social-radical waiting for my attention at the entry of the Small Room. I rose and walked over to him. He was focused.
“What’s up, my friend?”
“Sorry to bother you. I just want to review the numbers. We’re preparing dinner for 24 and appetizers for 225.”
“Exactly. What do you have for appetizers for the drinkers?”
“Crostini, croustades, baby lamb chops with rosemary, garlic and oil, shrimp toast with ground ginger and scallions, mushroom puffs... Oh, we don’t have wild mushrooms; only farm-grown. Is Ben coming tonight?”
As if on cue, Ben Maleson came through the door carrying his signature flat straw basket piled high with mounds of wild mushrooms; his wife, Mai Jing, directly behind him, smiling, as always.
“Perfect!” said Frankie when he saw him and, reassured, he returned to the kitchen to organize the crew for the wild mushrooms. Ben, Mai Jing and I walked to each other and exchanged ‘hellos.’
Ben was a sympathetic and likeable person despite his disconcerting appearance. He had an attractive, sad smile that lit up when he spoke about mushrooms or Mai-Jing. Much of Ben’s body had been disfigured from his youth from a fire in his parents’ South End townhouse in which he was the unfortunate victim. He hid his disfigurement as well as he could by staying fully clothed, including gloves with their fingers cut to permit his own digits the freedom he needed to work. Except for his fingers, only his face was exposed to public scrutiny, even on the hottest summer nights. He reminded me of Clive Revill’s Fagin.
Without much ado I jumped directly to the issue at hand.
"Ben, We need an extra four pounds for an important customer who booked a large party at the last minute. I called you but I’m sure you didn’t check your messages.” Ben sucked in.
"Wow! I promised the Chef at Maitre Jacques I would deliver him some product tonight. He's a new customer. And all I have left are the four pounds for him. Plus yours, of course."
"Ben, just call him and tell him a story. The dog ate them; it rained; tomorrow’s harvest will be the best! Make him salivate. Meanwhile, take the mushrooms I need into the kitchen. Frankie’s waiting.”
While his hesitancy was annoying, ultimately, Ben couldn't deny me. I had been his first important customer - on board with him from the moment he walked into Dom’s on a cold call.
“I’m Ben Maleson, a mycologist. I’m setting up a business to supply better restaurants with wild mushrooms, continuously throughout the year. I’ll be going to other restaurants but if you sign on, I can use your name as a reference and others will sign on. I’ll always make sure you have a good supply.”
I not only signed on but I even helped him price his mushrooms, convincing him to move from his first, tentative $11.00 a pound to a robust and firm $15.00 per pound. Despite the cost of his product, his business soon grew so that he rarely had leftovers. Whenever he did have too many mushrooms, I always bailed him out, buying whatever excess he had. I found a way to use them. I believe in protecting such a rare resource as Ben’s supply of fresh, wild, native mushrooms. But no way tonight, when I needed reciprocity, was he going to leave Dom’s with any mushrooms in his car destined for another restaurant.
His gorgeous Korean wife, Mai-Jing, was very much his business partner, too, and she understood the help they got when they began. Add to this that she liked the way Ben was treated here, I wasn’t surprised to see her looking at Ben, smiling and nodding approvingly.
"Okay,” he said, his handsome, disfigured Jewish face exaggerating his resignation. “I'll bring them in." I didn’t thank him.
“Take them into the kitchen for Frankie. They're for the filling in a puff pastry appetizer. Get Mai-Jing and yourself something to eat and drink and give me about 15 minutes. We’re finishing a story and then you and I will do our sidewalk act.”
Ben was off. He would relax in the kitchen discussing the cleaning and preparation of his harvest with Frankie. Frankie will listen with one ear, prepare nice plates for Ben and Mai Jing and direct the busy kitchen. Tonight I will miss eavesdropping on their earnest, amusing and respectful, if disjointed, conversation. By the time Ben and Mai-Jing were refreshed I’d be ready to again break away from my table for a few moments.
I returned to the table and Tory continued as though there had been no interruptions. His face was bit bird-like and he had a way of cocking his head to the side when he was engaged that emphasized that look. Tonight he was particularly eagle-like, a look that that increased the tension of the unfolding drama.
“Despite their historical knowledge of the violence endemic throughout the Mezzogiorno, Bostonians and many other Americans for that matter, were enamored of Italy and a great many of the more educated spent time in “bell’ Italia” to drink in Italian culture and the Italian mystique.
“The love affair with Italy influenced the way many Americans spent their professional and personal lives. Longfellow translated Dante's Divina Comedia into English. Boston’s dominant architect, Charles Bulfinch, designed buildings in a neo-classical style that he honed over time studying Italian architecture. The very wealthy and socially prominent, Margaret Fuller, fell in love with an impoverished Italian nobleman-patriot and supported the short-lived Roman Republic of Garibaldi and Mazzini. For their safety, they fled Italy when the revolutionary government was overthrown. On the trip back to America they lost their lives, along with their infant son, in a shipwreck off Long Island.
“America’s direct knowledge of Italians prior to the fifty years of the great migration of Italians into America was all positive. In the persons of Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci, Giovanni da Verrazano, Giovanni Cabotini and a goodly number of others, Italians discovered, explored and mapped America before the Anglo-Saxons and French were well-established here. Filippo Mazzei’s writings and conversations with his friends, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson influenced the latter’s writing of the Declaration of Independence, including the declaration that all men are created equal. Constantino Brumidi completed his famous frescoes in the Vatican then left Italy as a political exile. Arriving in America in 1848, he was commissioned to paint the much-admired, heroic historical frescoes in the Capitol Building in Washington. And so on, throughout early American history: Italians contributed to America, in positive, substantial, well-appreciated ways.
“Boston’s first experiences with Italians on American soil were also quite positive. By 1850 a few literate, commercially successful Genoese had settled around North Square. By 1880, 1200 Italians lived in Boston, many of them in the North End.
“The Marquese Nicholas Reggio of Genoa by way of Turkey immigrated to Boston to establish an American presence of his family's maritime business and became an important importer-exporter merchant. Eliza Biscaccianti was born in Boston in 1824 to Luigi Ostinelli, the Director of the Musical Society of Boston, a native of Como, and Sophia Henrietta Hewitt of Boston. Eliza studied her music in Italy and became a world-famous diva. Count Lorenzo Papanti of Tuscany settled in Boston and found a place as a violinist. In 1827 he opened a dance studio that was an important part of Boston's cultural scene for 75 years.
Nicholas Alessandro, son of Italian immigrant parents, was even selected in 1854 as Boston's City Registrar, a position he held for forty years.
“The established, mostly Northern Italians might have helped Boston prepare for the needs that their newly-arriving countrymen would have. They might have mobilized translators and other social services. They might have cited the strengths of the new immigrants thereby encouraging Americans to extend their well-known penchant for generosity and understanding. Instead and contrarily, they who had preceded the massive immigration from the South, sowed hatred and contempt among Americans for their modern-day countrymen and they impregnated the American population with a prejudice against Southern Italians that was to germinate, grow, blossom and live on for the hundred-plus years since.
“To many Nativists, the waves of Italian immigrants that lapped ashore in ever-increasing numbers in the 1880s and 1890s grew to alarming numbers in the following thirty years. How Americans treated the immigrants was greatly influenced by their attitude before the first of them stepped ashore. The historical reputation of the Mezzogiorno was strike one. The damning of them by their well-accepted Northern Italian brethren was strike two. Let me tell you briefly about strike three.”
“Hold that thought, professor. I have to run through the dining rooms.” While we were listening to Tory weave his historical saga, the two other tables in the Small Room had filled.
Dom’s appealed to a wide range of the dining-out public that, while communally sharing interests that included great food and wines, good service and a lovely ambience, splintered into smaller, more-defined groups with more specialized, even unique requirements that required micro-targeting. The two newly-arrived parties in the Small Room belonged to such a group.
Business accounts bent on providing a greatly entertaining and satisfying evening for their clients, came to dinner in small groups of from six to twenty people, were almost always entirely white male and actually liked the high prices which filtered out the less affluent and, more profoundly, signaled to their clients that they cared enough to provide the very best, both at their corporate headquarters and, here, at their preferred restaurant venue.
We had hundreds of such wonderful business customers, many of whom patronized Dom’s for years-into-decades and enjoyed the rare benefice of being able to settle their bill with their signature. Stu Grinnell, Director of Guest Services, Honeywell Corporation; Walter Pierce, Director, Boston Celebrity Series; Warren Olmstead, Executive Vice-President of the First National Bank of Boston, International Division; and John Scileppi, President, Pandick Financial Printers were a few examples.
I was honored by their patronage as a demonstration of confidence in the experience to follow. With every visit to Dom’s these successful business people put their credibility on the line. I also respected their patronage because the dollar volume of the business from this micro-group alone would have been sufficient to keep Dom’s in the black, without any of the celebrity business; without any of the business from romantic couples; without the business we generated from families; or small business people; or professional people; or gourmets, wine aficionados, and on. But, in fact, we had these business groups and didn’t have to forego the others – a happy circumstance indeed!
Fidelity Investments was the first of the two tables to arrive. One or the other of their fund managers were here every week, sometimes twice a week, chaperoning groups of 20 to 24 clients or, more rarely, staffers. I went over to greet them and accept introductions. I promised threateningly to return in a bit to help them with their dinner order and ended this first contact with the same question I put to all of my guests:
“Before I leave, are you very hungry? Should I order some appetizers for your drinks?” For Fidelity and many others, the answer was always, “Yes. We’ve been working all day.”
Always I would say a word or two to Tracy and go on my way. Tracy’s work at Dom’s was dedicated to the parties in the Small Room and we had worked together on so many of them that we needed little conversation to synchronize our roles. He would tend to their drinks and wine, serve them a variety of appetizers and follow that with a pasta course. When they finished this part, in about an hour, Tracy would let me know that they were ready for me to return and take their dinner order
But before any of Fidelity’s appetizers were served, Victor Grillo’s party took the remaining table. Victor was a life-long North End friend who had become a centimillionaire, through a combination of his perspicacity in the brokered sales of electronics and his business as a manufacturer’s representative of Far Eastern electronics companies, hawking their production to chains like Zayre’s and K-Mart under his own brand name, “Gold Star.” Victor and Mike were particularly close.
Being loyal, he would have been among our best customers under any circumstances. But having the same requirements as did the Fidelity people, he appreciated the fortuitous combination of a stylish entertainment venue owned and operated by his friends. We appreciated that Victor’s guest checks averaged a whopping $400.00 per person. Victor liked to brag that Dom’s billed him so fast that our invoice was waiting for him when he arrived home after having dinner with us.
Booking sports-betting became one of my side ventures because Victor liked to gamble. On every one of his twice-weekly dinners at Dom’s he’d ask Mike to call in sports bets for him. After the first half-dozen visits to the restaurant in which Mike called in Victor’s substantial bets, I decided that if we were providing the venue, Dom’s, and the agent, Mike, we were making a mistake in not making any money from the action. I asked Mike and Big Al to meet with me to talk this situation over.
Over a cup of espresso in a North End café I proposed that we set up our own ‘office’ to handle, not only Victor’s action, but also that of a few of Dom’s rock and roll clients who were on the same kick. No one needed convincing: the idea was a no-brainer.
My main concern was collecting the money. I was insistent that we establish a ‘no risk’ situation. Accordingly, we agreed that, except for Victor, we needed 100% surety from anyone who placed a bet. That restricted our action to Dom’s rock clients whose credit cards I had in my possession. I took on the twin responsibilities of credit and billings manager.
The second point I made was that we would only deal with big bettors: a minimum of $1,000.00 per bet. Both of these parameters were merely descriptive of the bets we were already placing; bets with which we were comfortable. We didn’t want a large client list; only a few clients who bet large.
We talked about the dangers of getting caught and decided that the chances of that were very remote. We talked of the dangers of tainting Dom’s with sleaze but I decided that both the restaurant and Victor were discreet enough to keep the betting out of view and the rock and roll business, although flamboyant, didn’t use Dom’s until well after our normal dinner crowd had gone home. On the up side, the ease of placing a bet would make Dom’s an even more attractive restaurant for high-end bettors; and of course, the easy cash income generated by the inevitable losses would be nice.
After our meeting, Big Al visited the ‘boys,’ the family in control of all illegal activities in our area, to get their permission to set up a sports-book, strictly limited to Dom’s restaurant. He explained since Mike was Victor’s personal ex officio agent already, he was entitled to an agent’s share of Victor’s bets; and the betting from the rock music business generated at Dom’s would be additional action for the local ‘office.’ Without Dom’s, the rock guys would call in their bets across country and some other office would profit.
Given Al and Mike’s past relationship with them in other gambling ventures, getting permission to set up wasn’t a problem. Al took on the job of accounting to the ‘office’ for the cash from the lost bets and to pick up our share of the losses. Mike actually executed the bets: dealing with the customer and calling the bets in, never using restaurant phones.
Victor had called me this morning to order six portions of traditional Osso Bucco Milanese and two bottles of a Biondi-Santi Brunello di Montalcino, 1961, that needed to be uncorked for at least 12 hours before drinking. Having already made all the necessary arrangements, once I said hello to everyone at Victor’s table, my involvement with them was basically accomplished. Victor did expect Ponzo, however, to spend as much time at his table as possible.
But I still wasn’t able to rejoin my table. High up on their list of compelling reasons for these two business groups, and many others like them, to patronize Dom’s was the permeation of theatre throughout the meal. Ben’s emergence from the kitchen signaled the start of our mushroom act. I joined him.
Ben loved his mushrooms so well that you had to spend time listening to his spiel or hurt his feelings. From the first time I watched Ben as he showed me his ‘harvest’ and his face lit up, I recognized that his art and enthusiasm created a natural presentation brilliantly appropriate for all of Dom’s many different audiences.
I asked Ben if he would share his experiences with my customers and he jumped at the chance to have a share of the limelight. So a tradition was born. On the twice-weekly occasions that Ben arrived at the restaurant with his beautifully arrayed basket, we walked the basket through the dining rooms in tandem, sharing the drama with our honored guests.
“Okay, my friend,” I spoke to Ben, “Let’s start our sidewalk act right here with my friends.” For the sake of expediency we needed to simultaneously engage all three tables in the Small Room.
“Friends,” I said out loud. “Permit me to interrupt your dinner for a quick gastronomic presentation by my friend and famous mycologist, Ben Maleson, who has brought us some wonderful, wild mushrooms which we are offering to you as a separate course for your dinner tonight.” Having successfully gained the focus of my friends and clients, I stepped behind Ben who, proudly displaying his basket of mushrooms, went into his routine.
“These are Chicken-of-the-Woods, and these, black trumpets, a very choice, flavorful mushroom. These are lion’s mane with a flavor like lobster and crab. We have pom-poms, several morels and white chanterelle. The chanterelle weren’t around two days ago but I knew that conditions were right for them and I should check it out in 24 hours.
“When I got to the area, several people were walking nearby so I had to wait a while for them to leave: I didn’t want them to see my spot. Finally they left and when I got to the spot, voila! They had arrived! And here they are for you!
“These are Japanese mushrooms called shimeji; they're very tasty, with a peppery flavor. Porcini have a full flavor and a meaty texture. These caps are very large, the best size, if you can find them. Finally, we have the beautiful funnel chanterelles.”
One of the Fidelity Investments group asked, “How will you prepare them?” I answered.
“Simply. Local fresh cream, French brandy, Irish butter, sea salt, pepper and fresh, finely-chopped Italian parsley.”
“How big is the portion?”
“That’ll depend on how many people in the restaurant want some. I’ll make sure everyone gets a fair share.”
“How much is a portion?’
“Look at line number 92 on your next prospectus. It’ll show up there,” I quipped. The group laughed in unison. A silly question deserved flippancy. What did the cost matter on their expense accounts?
“Dom, we all want some. What about a good wine for them?” Jim was loving the entertainment.
“I know you’re Barolo freaks. I have a few bottles of 1969 Ceretto, from a single vineyard they call ‘Bricco Rocche.’ They produce just several hundred cases of this for the entire world and, recently, because we’re good customers, the importer offered me the opportunity to buy a case of the wine – a great honor despite the premium price. Despite the honor I hesitated a bit, wondering who I could dump it on. Fortuitously, just then your office called with your reservation so I instantly sealed the deal for the wine.”
They loved it. Someone said,
“Hey, Jim, he saw you coming!” Jim and I were both smiling.
“Seriously, it’s a rare wine in seriously short supply. I tasted it a month ago and it showed awesome aromas, like cinnamon and nutmeg, and a great mouth with soft tannins to brace your palate. It’s $350.00 a bottle or $85.00 a glass. That’s not as bad as it could be.
I wasn’t being a bastard to stick them with an expensive wine: it was really what they wanted. In addition, the hosts at both tables were pleased that their clients knew they were spending lots on them. On my recommendation, Fidelity ordered two bottles, one for the main course. Victor ordered a single bottle since his main-course wines were already waiting for him. I asked Tracy to open a bottle of the Cerretto for our table. A third of the year’s supply was gone in a moment.
“Dom, Tracy helped us with some antipasti and a pasta course. But some of my guests don’t know what to order for main courses.” Jim, from Fidelity, left it to me, knowing exactly what he was asking me to do. Since this was a familiar routine on the nights I’m working and since I’ll be sitting beside them for the next couple of hours, I can’t easily beg-off without giving offense. So I pull up a chair, sit at their table and address the joker sitting across from me.
“Alright. Let me help. One second, please.” I enlisted our headwaiter, Ciro, to accompany Ben to present the mushrooms to the other three dining rooms and I dragged my chair to the Fidelity table.
“Who’s the problem?” I asked the question with a smile and sat.
“We all are,” Jim said.
“We haven’t even read the menu yet,” said one of the guests.
“We don’t need a menu,” I responded. “I’m your menu. In fact, let’s start with you, my friend. What’s your name?” Everyone sat erect; they had been told about the routine and were anticipating it. It’s something I did every night with all of my customers.
“Richie,” he said.
“Richie, I’ll give you five choices: chicken, veal, pasta, fish or shellfish, or a big chunk of meat. Which do you feel like eating tonight?” Like law students eager to learn the proper responses to a cross-examining professor, the group falls expectantly silent, although everyone is smiling.
“That’s it? As easy as that? The menu had two hundred pages.”
“As simple as that, my friend. Every item on those twenty-four pages falls into one of these groups. Pick one,” I commanded.”
“Okay, I’m easy: I really feel like fish tonight.”
“You may have swordfish, grouper or red snapper, everything fresh today.”
“How does the swordfish come?” he asked. I stared at him for a moment, as though the question caught me off guard and I needed a moment to think about the answer. When I responded, in three short sentences, I paused in between each sentence.
“I don’t really know. I never really thought about it. I suppose you rub its dick!”
The group erupted in a single roar of laughter.
“I told you! He’s great!” bragged the host.
The next person wanted a big-chunk-of-meat and from a menu of veal chops, osso bucco, rack of lamb, twin-quail and one-pound rib eyes, chose the latter. He went back and forth with the style. He needed a little goose.
“Grilled. No, wild mushrooms!”
“You’re getting those, already,” I reminded him. “Why don’t you try the one with peppers, mushrooms, tomatoes and onions?”
“Yeah, that sounds great!”
“Spicy or not?” I asked. He wanted it very spicy.
And so it went until I, their personal food consultant, had made sure that everyone had some fun and a meal that exactly suited him. The piece didn’t take five minutes but it would stay as one of their fond dining memories for many years to come. As I extracted myself from their table, they actually applauded enthusiastically.
Tracy had stayed nearby to record who wanted what, and blessedly didn’t ask me to repeat the order.
“Nice,” he smiled at me when I was done.
Before I rejoined my group I stopped for a moment at Victor’s table. “You’re all set for your Osso Bucco. Six orders,” I said.
“You made some risotto for us, too?” Victor didn’t need to ask.
“Of course. And gremolata to sprinkle over everything.”
“Great, my friend. What about that wine you ordered especially for my guests?”
“I opened two bottles of Brunello di Montalcino, Biondi-Santi, 1961, this morning. Signore Biondi-Santi himself told me to give it at least 12 hours to breathe. It’s perfect now for your veal.”
“Quanto?” he asked.
“Nine hundred dollars,” I said, managing not to smile.
“For the two?”
“My heart!” Victor liked drama and he held his heart and swooned. His table laughed loudly, both at his antics and in gleeful anticipation of the extraordinary wine experience soon to befall them.
“Don’t collapse, Victor. I’ll buy back a taste from you,” I offered.
I was referring to a note on the menu which read: “Dom will buy back a 1½ oz taste of any wine over $100.00 for 10% of the wine list price.” Ten per cent was double what we charged for the wine and so amounted to a discount to the customer who shared a taste with me. This was another of the many innovations for which Dom’s had become well-known.
Many of our customers who ordered the more expensive bottles on the wine list often wanted to generously share the rare experience of a great bottle with Dom, their locally-famous host. Others, not experienced in wine-tasting, wanted me to teach them some basics. Still others simply saw the sharing as a way to get the padrone to join them for a moment. Whatever the motivation, the desire to share a taste with me was complimentary and couldn’t be ignored.
But I saw a problem in charging my customers a considerable price for a 28oz bottle of wine and then taking an ounce or two for free. By ‘paying’ for a taste, I satisfied my customers desire to share the experience without freeloading. Besides, I gained in another way. Tasting the more complex wines in our inventory from time to time enabled me to track their development. In fact, if a customer ordered a bottle I hadn’t tasted in a few months, I sometimes imposed and asked if I could buy a taste.
But Victor wasn’t having any of that.
“No. But I’ll be honored if you come back to enjoy a glass and talk to us about the wine when Tracy serves it.”
“For sure, Victor.” Since Victor was my friend and was extremely rich to boot, I was comfortable taking wine free and freely from him.