In regard to food, my father baked his own bread, roasted his own hot, red pepper flakes that he kept in his pocket, made his own sausages(in his pajamas) and hot giardiniera. I was extremely fond of a slice of his hot Italian bread with homemade giardiniera and a slice of sharp Provolone on top. He grew up poor and did not eat a lot of meat growing up other than neck bones or occasionally meatballs with cheap chuck meat which mixed with cheese were fatty and delicious. His favorite meal his father made him was Fried Spaghetti and Oil on the stove top accompanied by a cold, cheap beer; and, of course, Pasta Faggioli which is as comforting as comfort food can get. Large portions of meat are just not a normal part of the Italian diet and my father always reminded me of what a luxury it was to have it on your table. My father said his Uncle was worshipped as the richest guy in the neighborhood growing up because he drove a garbage truck, if that helps put things into perspective, of how poor they were. My father used to put one-eighth of a donut in his freezer, if that goes to show you how he would never, ever waste food. If he didn’t freeze it, he brought it to the pool room in doggie bags for everyone who worked there, and for even the guys he would play pool against for money. At his funeral, “Lotto” from the pool room, a recipient of many Freddy meals, played “God Bless America” on his harmonica in his honor. If you were in the hospital or at home recovering, he brought you a plate. It was his way. The hardest part of my father passing away is that I no longer have someone to give me “plates” of homemade food every week on the way to the racetrack or pool room. I’d give anything to have someone cook for me! Especially my father’s meat sauce (secret is frying the fennel in the oil before adding the tomatoes.) The sauce was just as original and unique as he was.
For Christmas Eve’s “Feast of the Seven Fishes” dinner, everyone invited was compelled to commit minor crimes in his honor to procure the (expensive) food for the meal. Shellfish for forty people can add up! He would go to the Italian wholesaler for the imported cheese to get out of paying sales tax and meet a guy who barely spoke English in an alley in Chinatown beside the river who put a giant box of frozen shrimp in the trunk of his Cadillac for a small wad of cash. In a similar vein, he bought fake teeth on the black market and convinced Doctors to forgo their fees.
He judged a restaurant(George or Tom – old school Bebop jazz terms used to signify terrific or terrible – they even have accompanying hand signs used by pool hustlers to tip off a safe or unsafe situation or person) by how fresh the bread was in the bread basket. He returned the bread to the server if it was stale and demanded, “Now give me the fresh bread.” He had a large barrel chest and deep voice and could scare straight anyone into finding fresh bread in the kitchen. He could also identify which bakery the bread came from in Chicago. His favorite was D’Amato’s on Grand Ave which also makes exceptional Sicilian pizza.
He also had “tip offs” to tell whether or not a joint was any good based on his fifty years traveling the road hustling pool. He said any title with the name “Momma’s” or “Mother” or “Family” was a “stiff” 90% of the time(except of course Mother’s in New Orleans.) If he saw more than one ethnic group represented on a menu, he walked (fried rice and pizza, no!) He could tell if it was a “Greek joint” by the menus – if it had a Greek salad or egg lemon soup, he knew it was Greek. He reveled in being a restaurant detective. Some people sniff out rats, he sniffed out Greeks. There was a pizza place with a Greek name on Sixth Street in Philly we couldn’t go into, for instance. Any visual Acropolis on a sign or in the window or blue and white color decor (from the flag) and we had to turn around and eat somewhere else.
He had a small war going on with The Greeks and declared that they ruined the restaurant industry by making everything mediocre. If it was a Greek restaurant selling Greek food, it was fine – delicious even - he loved Greek food – especially grilled baby lamb chops and Taramosalata. He said at non-Greek primary food restaurants – like coffeeshops or faux Jewish delis -the French fries were frozen, they served soup out of a can for days on end and watered down the wine. He would often drive around to the old meatpacking area (West Loop) and show me the best purveyors and could name the frozen or processed food brands. He had an article about the artificial “Flavor” factory in New Jersey magnetized to his refrigerator for twenty years. He demanded fresh and the best in everything. If his dinner salad had a refrigerated tomato in it, or if the basted egg he ordered did not have a runny yolk for dipping toast, rest assured, he was going to send it back.
At coffee and bread he boasted that the Greeks were at the top of their game – you always got your coffee hot and refilled generously. He judged every other restaurant on how fast they filled your coffee. Nobody beats the Greeks, he said. His biggest “beef” with Greeks was that the Greek waiters in Chicago’s Greektown had their own underground casinos(dice and cards) that he deeply desired to get an invitation to but they were Greek only. He loved to eat at The Greek Islands restaurant because the owner – Michaelangelo- was Sicilian. The Beard also insisted he have a Greek waiter because he thought they were the best and could make all of your food requests come true- they were “five star” he said, and he would still take a chance and beg to get an invite to gamble with them.
Here’s the funny thing. After a lifetime of disparaging the Greeks, my Dad found out, that his maternal great- grandmother was Greek and that he was one-eighth Greek! He was ecstatic! He told all of his friends that he was Greek and all of a sudden a whole new world opened up to him. It was like finding out you’re part Jewish and all of a sudden you get to have Christmas AND the High Holidays off from work! Anyway, my father’s friends who were Greek took him into their world immediately and the perks were free food at all of their restaurants, where they, according to my Dad, “laid it on thick.” This was the best part of my Dad – he had fun just being alive and discovering new things!
He hosted lunch every day at his house for friends and visitors from all over the world. If you were his houseguest, you were treated with home-cooked, Italian meals.
I'm sure I'm not alone in missing those delicious meals made with love. Especially the homemade giardiniera!