Soft criminals think very carefully before we break a law.
Having a team back de rigueur.
So when our staff actively and loudly begged for the restaurant to hire their children in violation of Child Labor laws Mike, Frankie, and I repaired to an after-hours club for a huddle.
Today’s post recounts that meetup.
Today is Thursday, 6/7
Good morning, my friends.
This is my sixty-first consecutive daily posting.
And for the next several days it appears we in Boston will have mostly sunny days, 75 to 85. Yayy!
On TV: “The Letter,” w Bette Davis
I’m at my desk.
Dinner is the single lasagnas I made earlier in the week.
Nephew Stan coming to visit, one of the nicest human beings I have the pleasure of knowing.
I’d like to introduce myself, to your readers My name is Ron Fuccillo, and I am a former Northender. Excuse me, a former resident of the North End, a Northender, forever. Actually, I am a proud member of the FONE (Friends of the North End ).
I have been reading and enjoying , your blog, and would like to share some of my stories, with you, and your followers.
My interest in poems or storytelling is to express my feelings towards holidays or special occasions, or even current day to day events, that would intrigue me.
I like to capture my minds picture, and relate it in a quick story or poem, to share with the world, in hope, that it brings some joy o happiness to whomever reads it. Over the years, I’ve covered a lot of topics, but for now, I would like to share my North End stories.
Web Meister Responds:
Good to have you here, Ron.
Find Ron’s poems on his page in the “Boston’s Italian North End” section of the blog.
Today’s Post (This post can be found in context on the web site section called Dom's, an Odyssey.)
So the clamor for me to hire their twelve-year-old children began.
The opportunity to have their children with them provided the primary motivation. They wouldn’t have to leave their children home alone.
More positively, they saw my children involved in the restaurant and wanted their own children to learn poise, to gain confidence in themselves, to improve their English, and to learn the art of conversation.
A separate-from-the-rest-of-the-staff young crew of cart-people beckoned them.
For those who grew up in Italy in the 19th “Risorgimento,” a family working together was the ultimate good.
The parents ‘educated’ their children at home, the girls to be housekeepers and the boys to be laborers.
Children were considered fully-educated at age 12 and ready to take their places beside their parents as functioning adults.
Formal education was reserved for the children of the “galantuomini,” the upper classes. This centuries-old concept, born of the oppressed experience of a serf-like society, was an important contribution to the slow assimilation of Italo children of first-generation parents into American society.
But American law protects its young people even against well-intentioned parents and immigrant Italian families were stunned and dismayed to learn that in America their children couldn’t work until they were fourteen, and had to attend a formal school until they were 16 years old!
They did their best to resist by making it difficult for the children to study quietly or do homework; or by ridiculing their schoolwork and any ideas brought into the house from school or “American” classmates.
Italos have long since learned to reject the retarding influence of their immigrant forebears.
We have, however, maintained the family as the core of Italo culture, especially cherishing the aphorism “Keep your children close.”
We do this by not ceding parental authority or responsibility to schools, to the medical community, to the Church or to the state.
While the issue of staffing part of the restaurant operation with children of our greater family would bring us to a violation of the Child Labor laws and frustrating the Federal Government is not something one does without the most serious consideration, we also knew that, given our circumstances, having our children around us at work was a good idea.
We needed to thrash this out.
Within a couple of days after the idea was first floated, Mike, Frankie and I headed out to Big Daddy’s Pioneer Club in Roxbury. While Roxbury was normally not an area white people wandered about after dark, Big Daddy had established his club as a safe place for anyone in the city to patronize, especially after hours, their busy time.
At 3.00am we pulled up to the front of the Club where a small knot of husky, well-dressed African American men were gathered.
From among them, Mau Mau came over to the car.
His sober expression changed when he recognized us and he motioned for one of the men to come for our car.
We got out and, without a greeting or any sign of recognition, Mau Mau walked us inside.
The Club was filled with bar and restaurant owners, racketeers, pimps and prostitutes, waitstaff, pushers, bookies, gamblers and all manner of night-people who wanted to put their gainful employment behind them.
Here, freed from the world outside, everyone relaxed and enjoyed the easiness that was Big Daddy.
We spotted Big Daddy at a table on a raised platform in the rear, sitting facing out where he could keep an eye on the activity. He was with a group of associates, all business types, all African American.
He was smiling; hardly surprising.
He first looked to Mau Mau and then spotted us.
He smiled more broadly, left his table, and came over to greet us.
“Hello, my friends. What a pleasure! Your table is waiting.” I didn’t see a free table. He hugged each of us.
“Tell Table 38 their time is up but they can move to the bar.”
He was speaking to Mau Mau who whispered something back to him.
“Offer them nothing. Tell them we like them and they can come back. That’s it.”
Big Daddy spoke with us while the six young white men, surprised that their table had a timer running but amenable to Mau Mau’s suggestion of a change of seating, were moved to the bar and their former table wiped down.
“Come and sit. I won’t join you - I know you have a lot to talk about.
Call me if you need anything and don’t forget to say ‘goodbye’.”
We thanked him and he went back to his table.
As we got comfortable I noticed a couple of the newly-moved group glancing over, trying not to wonder how we rated their table.
We ordered drinks and, our meal choices being fried chicken for one, two or three, we ordered a basket for three. The drinks arrived and we toasted
We discussed old world values regarding of family and children.
We discussed our own interpretations.
Frankie regaled us with stories of his Argentinean upbringing, interspersed with his radical views of the world, including a dollop of the Italian fascination with anarchy.
Anti-government his kind of conversation.
We ordered more drinks and we talked about breaking the law.
None of us saw a moral issue.
The risks of getting caught were very small; everyone involved would protect us.
Of course, if an inspector did walk in, we would all assure him that the children didn’t work here: they were visiting their parents.
The cost and effort to obtain proof to the contrary would not be justified.
We spoke about safety. We had to be very careful to avoid injury from hot stoves or knives.
Frankie pooh-poohed any dangers there: the kids would be allowed only in a small part of the kitchen and really had very little to do there other than refresh their carts. Besides, the kitchen dangers were under our control.
Greater dangers to children of this age come when they are out of sight of caregivers. This I knew from unfortunate experiences in my own childhood: I lost two dear friends, each age 12, who had terrible accidents while at playing outdoors.
Much of my mother’s side of the family lived in the old West End whose edge blurred into Bowdoin Square and Government Center. One day, my cousin, Victor Baldassari, ‘went out’. When he didn’t return, the entire Capossela and Baldassari families, fifty strong, took to the streets to buttress police efforts to find him.
Double unfortunately, it was cousin Victor’s mother, Auntie Rosie, who was first in our clan to come across a knot of neighbors and emergency vehicles gathered around the entrance to the trolley tunnel.
It was she who first saw the charred remains of her son, my cousin Victor, my best friend at the time, dead at age 12.
She passed out.
Victor had crept through the security fence to investigate.
It’s what kids do.
For his initiative he had been electrocuted by the “third rail.”
The second occasion involved Richie Sciacca one of my best North End buddies, who lived just around the corner from me on Endicott Street.
What a nice family!
We went ‘out’ to play.
Our playground this day was the half-demolished West End, filled with unclaimed treasures waiting for us to take home.
The treasures lay amidst the ruins of the buildings; its bricks, lumber and rusty nails.
Climbing one of the hundreds of piles of solid but loose debris, Richie slipped and fell. He stretched out the palms of his hands to break his fall and an old rusty nail thrust itself through one of them.
We brought Richie home and his family brought him to the hospital.
Blood poisoning resulted from the nail – ‘lockjaw’.
They buried him three days later, dead at age twelve.
Mike offered the story of his four-year-old brother, riding on the handlebars of a bicycle in the North End, struck and killed by a truck.
Danger for children is everywhere.
Their only true protection lays in the love of their family and friends.
I offered that the real danger was subtler in that the children would be willing to work more hours than was good for them.
We must determine ahead of time the workload they could handle, specifying the number of shifts, the hours per shift and the beginning and ending times of each. When Mike makes the schedules, he must never stray from these guidelines whatever the exigencies of the moment; and must show an absolute even-handedness in the distribution of available shifts to avoid jealousy.
Mike talked about discipline.
He didn’t care how young they were: they would do as they were told like everybody else.
He was a no-nonsense guy from the old school and Frankie and I laughed at his hyperbole.
Despite Mike’s bombast he was a soft touch - Frankie and I were each far more serious with the staff than he.
We discussed whether the kids could handle each of the four carts.
The basic demands of the carts played into the speed and dexterity of the youngsters. Portuguese for the most part, the kids all came from fine families and from homes in which extensive and accomplished food preparation was the norm, so they were at least familiar with the concept of preparation.
While each cart had its own learning curve, the strokes required for each were simple and repetitive.
None of the carts posed any appreciable danger.
The pasta cart had the secured chafing dish with its open-flamed but tiny Sterno can and hot water. The salad, cheese, and dessert carts each required the use of small knives.
We could live with that.
We ordered more drinks and they came at the same time as the food.
The chicken almost overflowed the basket.
The woman who both cooked and served the meals made sure we knew she was doing us a great favor in permitting us to eat her prized Haitian cooking.
She set the basket down without a smile or comment.
She also left her special hot sauce, paper plates and napkins.
Being here obviously pained her.
She reminded me of the ‘birds of passage,’ the Italian immigrants who arrived in America with the sole intent of earning enough money to go back ‘home,’ where, they imagined, their newfound wealth would enable them to live as ‘galantuomini.’
Italian ‘birds of passage’ were one of the reasons that their early immigration waves had the smallest proportion of women and children among all the new immigrant groups and the highest rate of return to the ‘old country.’
As the early immigrants got jobs and established neighborhoods, more and more preferred their new home and stayed.
But from the ‘birds of passage,’ all we got was their recitation of the ways in which America stinks and the ‘old country’ is wonderful.
How boring! How utterly boring!
For Italos, despite the close bonds of family and heritage, the first generation in America, desperately clutching onto to ‘la via vecchia,’ often became anathema.
We each grabbed a piece of the chicken. I dipped my drumstick into the blazingly spicy sauce she served with the basket, crunched through the fried skin and ripped the firm, moist meat from the bone. It was stunning!
The lure of the fried feast quieted us.
We ate and listened to the pianist and her soft jazz.
I looked around the room and wondered at what adventures or misadventures these patrons had experienced tonight.
Life for night workers can be brutal and I was struck that Big Daddy had created this sanctuary, this moment where we could go to block out the bad and the ugly.
Have a drink, my friends, and be soft and gentle, be recreated.
I returned to Mike and Frankie, happy for us – friends, centered, employed, familied; controlling the high-ground.
The chicken dispatched, we wiped our fingers and went back to talking about our cart-kids.
We decided to pay the children the same wage we paid the dining room staff, the restaurant-industry minimum wage plus tips.
Their parents would appreciate that we weren’t looking for cheap labor.
Money wasn’t a problem with us and we all agreed that a well-paid staff was cheaper in the long run than the problems of turnover.
Besides, we fully expected that the kids’ production would be the equivalent of the adults.
Taking the cart presentation out of the hands of the wait staff would enable them to work a larger station and earn more money.
We decided to balance this bonanza by requiring the wait staff to pay out 20-25% of their earnings to the combined bus staff and cart-kids.
They’d yap but they’d pay.
For their part, since the tasks of the bus and cart-kids were interchangeable, they would pool their tips.
We concluded unanimously that our restaurant was ready and eager to handle the children-at-work, that everyone would benefit, and we would start tomorrow.
In the event, the cart kids proved a screaming success.
Six, in all, counting Dom. Mino and Chris still too young.
The greatest accolade our cart-kids ever received was a full-page review of Dom’s by America’s preeminent food critic of the day, James Beard.
Beard had enjoyed a nice dinner at the restaurant a couple of years back on an earlier visit to Boston; before we had introduced cart service.
He was in Boston again and showed up for dinner, unannounced, with a party of six. We sat him in the Small Dining Room at a table we had reserved for a later reservation, finding a nice table in one of the other rooms for the reserved group.
Beard was an imposing figure and ordered a multitude of courses.
After his appetizer, I sat with his party and we talked.
He didn’t care much for Michael Field, then a rage among food authors, and believed his success as a food writer was not fully deserved.
He particularly resented that Field was always picking his brain.
As we were speaking my son pushed the pasta cart over to his table and Beard turned his attention to young Dom.
On the cart was a twenty-pound wheel of imported Italian Gorgonzola cheese and a variety of tools.
A large chafing dish was screwed securely to the top of the cart and Dom, to keep the water simmering, lit the large can of Sterno.
In a small stainless steel bowl he combined heavy cream, drawn butter and grated Romano cheese.
He cracked two eggs and, discarding the whites, added the egg yolks to the bowl.
He fork-blended the ingredients and poured the mix into the chafing dish, immediately adding salt and freshly-grated pepper.
He cut an admirable wedge of cheese in a single deft slice and, using a large fork, crushed it into the sauce.
The melting blue cheese filled the dining room with the delicious pungency of a barnyard.
As always, many heads turned to find the source of such a dramatic aroma.
Another cart-kid came out of the kitchen carrying a pot of steaming tri-colored fettuccine, at this time Dom’s was the only restaurant making its own pasta, and smoothly slid the pasta into the chafing dish.
Using an appropriate serving fork and spoon Dom tossed the noodles in the hot, thick sauce and then lifted the noodles onto two extra-large, warmed bowls for Mr. Beard and guests.
After grinding additional pepper on the plates, adding a sprinkle of freshly-grated parmesan, and shaking a tablespoon of chopped walnuts as a garnish for each plate, he set the plates down, and, wishing them “Enjoy,” he wheeled the cart away leaving the diners with a lovely white bowl of red, white and green fettuccine noodles in a rich cream-yellow sauce flecked with the blue-green of the gorgonzola mold.
James Beard tasted and was stunned. Within days, in 200 newspapers across the country (unfortunately, no Boston papers carried his column) Beard’s syndicated column blazed with his pleasure.
While Beard was profuse in his compliments for the restaurant, half of his article was describing young Dom’s seriousness and his care.
“A return visit [to Dom’s] confirmed that impression….[Dom’s] is an extraordinarily different Italian restaurant.. every dish on the menu is prepared with care and imagination… There are many tempting dishes at Dom’s that you don’t find on the usual Italian menu, such as the appetizers of cold poached stuffed baby squid, tartlets filled with lobster tomalley, and crostini, slices of Italian bread in hot oil, topped with tomato, olive, anchovy and mozzarella and put under the broiler just long enough to melt the cheese.
“Young Dom Capossela, the owner’s 12-year-old-son, presided over our table concocting, with utmost care, a gorgonzola sauce…First he took from a wheel of beautifully ripe gorgonzola a big chunk that must have weighed at least half a pound and crushed it with a fork in a skillet over fairly low heat, adding some melted butter, until it melted to soft creaminess. Then he added 3 beaten egg yolks with 2/3 cup heavy cream and stirred this gently into the sauce until it blended and thickened, tossed freshly-cooked [three colored pasta: the regular, green spinach pasta and the pink tomato pasta] fettuccine into the sauce with grated Parmesan cheese and served it forth. He [later] made our salad with the same deftness and precision, tossing it just enough, not so much as to fatigue it completely.” He went on.
“It was an amazingly professional performance for a boy of his years. To watch him at work, and to see the pride his parents took in his expertise added a great deal to the enjoyment.”
For years to come this article was a source of pride for all of us; a testament to the hard work, love and attention young Dom had brought to his work.
The two of my sons, Mino and Chris, who had not been made glamorous by mention in the Beard article, still managed to get accepted and to graduate from Harvard. Ask either of them and they will swear that it was their work experience at Dom’s that got them admitted. Of course, their grades and their SATs were very good but so were those of all applicants. They were accomplished, ranked tennis players, but everybody entering better schools boasts such extracurricular accomplishment. That they had worked productively at a well-respected restaurant all their young lives gave them that extra layer of depth that set them apart.
All of the cart-kids enjoyed excellent career success.
For example, Manuel Pereira needed help getting into a private school and I was able to provide the advocacy he required. I was Chair of the Board of Directors of Fayerweather Street School in Cambridge and spoke to Chris Stevenson, the Headmaster, on Manual’s behalf. Chris met with Manual and agreed to permit him mid-term entry, stipulating that Manual would be responsible for the full term’s tuition. Manuel, age 13, rose up, put his hand in his pocket, and pulled out a wad of money from which he counted out 60 hundred-dollar bills. Chris was a bit stunned at this young immigrant and was aghast when Manual told him he had earned the money over the last several months at Dom’s. Manuel went on to become a pilot for a major airline flying the most modern and largest aircraft in the fleet.
Tina Pereira was Manuel’s aunt and the only woman in the crew. She overcame an almost crippling shyness to operate the carts brilliantly; to gain in confidence and stature and to become a lynchpin of our kitchen. In years to come she would become the executive chef of another large and very successful restaurant.
Joey Crugnale went on to buy an ice cream parlor in Medford, then to buy and operate Steve’s Ice Cream in Cambridge and to make a bonanza on the sale of his ice cream operation. His fertile mind conceived of a pizza place that offered its guests free ‘bocce ball.’ Insisting on using only the finest ingredients, he opened the first Bertucci’s pizza and pasta restaurant, and eventually turned the concept into a successful chain.
Phillip Barreiro opened a restaurant in Hyannis on Cape Cod, Massachusetts and turned it into a very popular landmark in the area.
All in all, Dom’s was an unusually fertile environment. Our staff was professional, street smart, supportive and tight. We were innovative, creative and energetic. We associated with rock music stars, with giants of business, with opera stars, actors and actresses, local friends and family. The time that each of these boys spent working among us has stayed, for us and for each of them, among the most enriching experiences of our lives.
I’ll relate one last pertinent anecdote, unfortunately, tragic, on the issue of child welfare. Within a year after he began working as a cart-kid, Phillip was helping to close-up lunch.
It was 2.30pm in the afternoon and his mother was in the kitchen washing dishes. A young friend of Phillip’s came running into the restaurant calling for him.
“Come quick!” He was frantic; crying: choking his words. Phillip paled and I got up from my seat to support and protect him.
The three of us took off running and dodging cars across Atlantic Avenue towards a deserted building awaiting demolition.
I heard Frankie running as well as he could behind us.
“We were playing on the top floor.” The boy was explaining as we ran.
“I turned around for one second and when I turned back he was gone.
I called but he was gone.
Then I knew.
I went to the edge of the elevator shaft and looked down.
I was so afraid.
And then I saw your brother.
He’s not moving!”
He began to wail.
He stumbled as we reached the sidewalk.
I caught him up and we finished our run at the unsecured front doors of the building.
We found our way to the basement.
The bottom of the shaft was heaped with solid debris: bricks, mortar and the like.
Splayed out on top of the pile was Phillip’s brother.
Except for the perceptible rise and fall of his chest, his twisted body was still.
His open eyes were fixed vacantly at the roof of the elevator shaft; blood oozed from his ears.
Phillip’s ashen face showed hopeless fear.
He was near a faint.
I put my arm around his shoulders and took him and his friend a few paces back from the view, seating them on a piece of lumber.
Phillip ducked his head down and quietly threw up.
Frankie viewed the body and came over for instructions.
He was somber.
We were all somber: a life had ended.
I told Frankie not to tell Phillip’s mother but to call the police and explain the situation.
They would need a ladder to get down to the victim.
We could use a professional to deal with the mother.
And a sedative for her as well.
I would stay here and Frankie would stay at the restaurant.
The ensuing scenes played out as they do every day of the week for someone or another.
Phillip’s brother lived, dramatically changed from his former self.
The young cart people came to work at Dom’s and stayed for years.
They ate well.
They were safe from predation on the streets; safe from accidents.
Their English-language skills improved.
Their schooling advanced beyond expectation.
They made adult money.
They learned about fine food and service.
They learned discipline.
They experienced camaraderie and accomplishment.
They enjoyed a constant flow of compliments.
They felt pride.
That they looked back to their years at Dom’s as wonderful moments in their lives is not surprising.
In this instant the throwback Italian tradition of family-working-together conflicted with America’s very well-intentioned child labor laws.
Our group of Italian and Portuguese-descended American families found its own way that worked well for us.
I’m not here advocating an abolition of the Child Labor laws, but illustrating a simple point: that judicious parents must make some decisions based on their own ideas and principles, even when they conflict with authority.
Don’t ever cede inherent healthy parental authority to any institution, not even the state.
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