Sunday, April 1, 2012

Scenes from My Italian Restaurant

The restaurant, photo from their Facebook page.

Basilica, 9th Avenue at 47th Street, in the heart of Hell’s Kitchen, NYC

Friday night as was, Miss O’ had a case of Holly Golightly’s mean reds, which she’s been struggling with for a few weeks now, faking it well, as she does, thanks to years of theater training. She had, this night, worked until nearly 7. It had been an oddly ugly week, what with the cruel man she’d allowed over to her home the Saturday before (only to tell her, “You are unattractive, and you make no effort to be attractive,”—I mean, color him “hot!”), but mostly it was the long hours spent still trying to meet impossible deadlines on the ol’ job, and March ending before it had begun, running hot and cold, and blowing mild and frigid, and her own life seeming to slip away in the mire of world ugliness, walks into and out of newly-sodded and blooming Bryant Park notwithstanding…how FUN am I?

So should Miss O' just go home? No. (Should you stop reading? No.) Should she go to Harry’s and tie one on? Definitely no, because she had done that Thursday night. Where to? Lisa's driving.

So off to Basilica, my home away from home—if my original home had been an Italian restaurant, and with my dad’s and mom’s enjoyment of putting on a good meal, including spaghetti and lasagna with homemade secret recipe sauce, it’s not far off—since my arrival in New York City. I had been to Basilica twice before my move, visiting my friend Richard at his apartment in Hell’s Kitchen in 2001 and 2002. My impression: This place was a little hallway of a restaurant, a brick wall on one side, old tin ceiling tiles, with walls filled with Italian paintings, mirrors, and wine racks. The owner greeted you. The pasta was homemade, an entrée was $7.95. Basilica, for me, was Richard, New York, warmth, delicious food, a cozy neighborhoody place, brick and real. What else is there to say? I would be back.

And when I moved to New York in 2003, I made a point of searching out Basilica once every month or so, or whenever I went to the theater, for a touch of familiar in a city where I had no bearings, no direction, only a vague idea of becoming something other than a teacher, other than a Virginian; something sort of wonderful, artistic, a bit extraordinary. In the meantime, I dined at Basilica.

So it was that on this past Friday; feeling less than extraordinary, I needed to feel at home when I dined. When I arrived, it was still busy with the pre-theater crowd, but Luis and Segundo and Jonathan took turns reassuring me it would only be a minute, and it was only about 10 of those. In the waiting—as I watched an aspiring young actor-y thing bring in her visiting parents (all these parents look exactly alike, so lost and dear, terrified for their aspiring child, who gently fakes grace and street maturity, even as she looks somehow ten years old again); pairs of middle-aged women friends taking a meal before heading to the theater; girlfriends both male and female, catching up—I strained to hear pockets of conversation, when a face leaned into my ear, “We’ve lost the lease.”

I’m not supposed to know—no one is, so don’t say anything. I know I can trust you. I cannot begin to tell you how this has affected me. So I will tell you instead about my Italian restaurant, in scenes.

Back Story: To Dine Alone

I was more or less born to be alone, and have been very good at it for as long as I can remember. I am particularly proud of my comfort in dining alone, because I have come to learn how very difficult this act is for most people. I share for the interested these tips: How I Do It.

Scene: Basilica (or any restaurant I love, on the second visit, if I recognize the host or head waiter)

HOST: Good evening, welcome to Basilica. One? [I am greeted. I am invited in. I am acknowledged as One, without guilt or shame. SIGH. Bliss.]

MISS O’:  Hello, yes, one. Thanks.

HOST: This way. [I am seated to the left hallway, and I preferred, early on, to face in, in order to watch the kitchen staff, the owners, the staff at work. I like to familiarize myself with the operations. No one troubled about it, though it was unusual. Now I'm a street view girl, because they seat me near the back, close to them.]

[On the HOST: Host 1: Philip was the maître d’ for years, a warm, a round, young Hispanic man, a New Yorker of real grace. One day about five years ago he wasn’t there. “Where is he?” Segundo gestured to the kitchen. He’s now the chef! And he’s been brilliant. HOST 2: Ramon, another wonderfully gracious Hispanic man, who sadly (for them) moved on a year later. At that point Host 3, the dear Luis, took over and has been my guy ever since. Segundo, who was the water boy and bus boy when I first arrived, moved up to waiter when Ramon left. He was so proud! You could just see his posture improve, his bearing mature, his smile of real pride in his new profession. Also: He had just completed his English language course work! It explained everything: He had to learn English. He’s fluent now.]

Back to the Scene…

[HOST brings a wine list, which MISS O’ did not use for years, believe it or not.]

HOST: Can I bring you something to drink? [Water—in the old days.] Can I tell you about our specials?
[Basilica now lists their specials each day on the menu, and I love that. I often don’t want to hear about anything, and the owner, Gianni, realized that printing them would be more efficient, I think, given all the Englishes the staff and patrons spoke.]

MISS O’: Tell me your name.

PHILIP/RAMON/LUIS/SEGUNDO: Philip/Ramon/Luis/Segundo.

MISS O’: Philip/Ramon/Luis/Segundo, what is your favorite thing on the menu?

[NOTE ON ASKING THIS QUESTION: I actually want to know. If a waiter suggests something, I will get it, unless it’s covered in mushrooms, a fungi in which I take absolutely no delight at all. Most customers, in my observation, get the opposite of what a waiter suggests, and so most waiters become reluctant to confess their delights. Over my many meals at Basilica, I have wildly enjoyed the Gnocchi a la Vodka, Manicotti Bolognese, Salmon and capers, Fettuccine Carbonara, Pappardelle with spicy sausage, and my favorite, Gnocchi a la Basilica (the one in the creamy pesto sauce), which became known as my usual. Kisses to the wait staff for their suggestions.]

[A NOTE ON EATING: I like to enjoy my food. One thing about dining alone is that one gets to savor each mouthful, with relish and without rush, because one is not having to talk or listen. I like to eat out with others, but prefer to do this with people who really enjoy eating, and I’m lucky I have so many friends who enjoy eating well-prepared, perfect food. Gianni, the owner, once told me how much he likes to watch me eat.]

[A NOTE ON WHAT I DO WHILE WAITING FOR MY FOOD: I write. Sometimes I do it with a pad and pen, but often I write in my head while eavesdropping on table after table around me. It’s less obvious now that I am a wine drinker. Gianni said to me, “I see you. I see what you do. You miss nothing. You are writing, aren’t you?” And I smiled. Yes, I am. “I love you,” he said.]

OVERHEARD AT BASLICIA: Various Customers I Have Noticed

  • On one of my first visits by myself, I had spent a morning at the Metropolitan Museum, gotten a half-price ticket for I Am My Own Wife starring Jefferson Mays (brilliant and amazing, I fairly floated out of the theater), and decided to close the day at Basilica. Being a Sunday at 5, it was nearly empty, but for a lone man in glasses, with cell phone, dining alone. Because he was seated along the other wall facing the street, and I was down a table opposite facing the kitchen, he could watch me, which I felt him doing on occasion. When he was settling his bill, I heard him discussing something (pleasantly) with the trim Polish waitress—the one with cropped blonde hair—and when he passed by my table on leaving, he said, “Good night,” which I found odd, and I said a shy “Good night,” or something, wondering. Then Asha brought the dessert menu, and while I almost never order dessert, the wonder of the day and the warmish sweetness of the evening changed my mind: I thought tartuffo sounded perfect. I ordered it. She brought it. “He paid for it,” she smiled, and gestured. I was confused. “That man who left. He put it on his bill. He didn’t want dessert, and he’s expensing it, and so he bought it for you. He said, ‘Give the dessert to that lovely woman.’” I was stunned. Isn’t that just too marvelous? No wonder he smiled a good night. Basilica is magic.

  • Another early evening we got out of work early, so it was only about four, just opened, and only one other group was there, a couple, probably in their late ‘30s, and the wife’s parents. Over the meal I learned they were from Ohio. The parents were visiting, but the couple did not live in the city, either, but maybe upstate. I will try to recreate what I heard.

SON-IN-LAW [his back is to me, arm around his wife; he’s tall, kind of red afro hair, easy-going]: So, Dad, what would you like to eat? [Fuck it, why bother? The son-in-law gamely, sweetly leading: They talked, in the slowest most unexpressive tones possible, about garages, favorite brands of soda, a childhood memory of son-in-law’s friend sneaking into his garage and taking a soda out of his family’s garage fridge, I think it was—kid named “Shorty”. I got to where I was in hysterics. I was chuckling uncontrollably, and Asha came over, perplexed. I whispered to her, fairly choking, “Have you ever heard a duller conversation in your whole life, and in a New York restaurant? This city is lost on them…” and she turned and looked, and looked back, and grinned.]

  • One night, a regular—a lone diner like me—castigated a guy on a cell phone. “Put it down, man. The phone. It’s rude. We’re having dinner.” The guy put the phone away.  We resumed eating. I was so thankful.

  • Another night a woman and her gay male companion (the peach suit or was it a pink shirt gave it away, I think, and the cravat) dined, and he kept checking his phone. I thought this was rude. Then a call came, and I was annoyed, and he answered, listened, said, “So it’s positive. Okay. What next?” and the woman companion—too thin, teased hair, crisp linen clothes—took a pad out of her purse and wrote down everything the man said aloud: “I’ll need a second biopsy. Maybe one lung will be removed…” and I realized I’d heard lives upended, was humbled, and ate the rest of my meal in prayer.

  • Returning from a visit to George and Jean’s in New Jersey, the bus hit traffic and I missed seeing the first feature at a comedy festival at Lincoln Center, and if I was to make the second feature, I would need to hang in Manhattan. I schlepped my backpack to Basilica, had a perfect meal, and as I settled the bill, told Luis why I’d stopped in, how I was headed up to meet my friend Howard for the next movie. “Leave your luggage here,” he said. “Get it after the movie.” I looked at him. Really? Of course. And that’s just what I did. It’s that kind of place.

  • Last night, just after I was seated, two middle-aged women friends offered me their remaining half bottle of Pinot Grigio. “We’re going to the theater, we don’t dare finish it.” It’s that kind of place.

I have recorded many such scenes over the years in Facebook updates. When my friends Steve and Chris came to NYC to be married and I wanted to take them to dinner, Steve asked to go to Basilica. I’ve taken aunts and uncles and cousins there, friends from out of town, recommended it to co-workers and theater-going friends. It’s the real deal, real food, real New York, a restaurant owned by a Greek immigrant and run by Latin American immigrants (and occasional Polish immigrants) with style and class, warmth and regard for relationships.

My gorgeous cousin Kerry O'Hara Cruz, who said, to heaven, "Sorry, Mom, but they beat you on the manicotti...," 
and she chose the perfect bottle of wine, too.

If you are outside waiting for a table, Gianni will bring you a glass of Pinot Grigio while you wait. If you live in the neighborhood, he’ll have your dinners delivered. If you are a regular, after the meal you’ll find an amaretto or a limoncello in front of you. You can sit there as long as you like, and no bill comes until you ask for it. Your water is relentlessly refilled. The olives are plump and wonderful, the bread real Italian.

You want to be there, is what I mean. I’ve seen Segundo through his English classes, Philip through the cooking classes, the two Polish waitresses through their arrivals and marriages and departures, and Luis through is nursing certification. While Gianni’s wife and son help run the place, it is Gianni who is in love with it. As I type, he’s running around the neighborhood trying to find a new space, for on April 30 he must vacate to make room for an optical place that will presumably pay higher rent so that stylish glasses frames will be available to the denizens of 9th Avenue because god knows where else you will find frames for your glasses in New York City. (There had been a scare before: A few years back, entrees jumped from $9.95 to $14.95, and I gently asked Luis asked what happened. The rent went from $6,000/month to $10,000/month, right at the start of the depression. Why? Because they could. Gianni tried to compensate by offering larger portions, but I asked him not to. The portions were perfect as they were—one could finish the meal, and feel good about it. He went back to the regular portions, and the economy improved, and customers came back and then some. Breathe. We adjust.)

It’s gone through many changes, my Italian restaurant, even as the single bathroommy first unisex bathroom experiencehas been unchanged. Art renovations and lighting change-ups and awning redesigns and front window reconfigurations and it’s always as wonderful as ever. (The latest awning is red and subdued, classy.)

And now…well.

Luis confided all this, as I told you: “I’m not supposed to say anything, but I’m telling you, because…well, because.” He saw my stricken face, the tears well up. He rushed, “And there’s an 85% chance we are closing, but a 50% chance we are staying.” He grinned, and then didn’t. “But Sunday is my last day,” he said, because he got an offer to manage a restaurant in the neighborhood and could not afford to turn it down, not in this uncertainty. One by one, in fact, Luis, Segundo, and Jonathan offered their confidences, told me stories, where people went, where they themselves were headed, how wonderful Gianni is, how much he loves this place, is trying to find a new one. They tell me I am their favorite. I will believe them. What it all means is we change. New York is all about changing. Something extraordinary could happen, after all, in the change. So we adjust.

So of course I am bereft. And I’ll adjust. But first I will grieve. I also plan to dine there every week until it closes.  I’ll follow them anywhere, my Italian restaurant. And whatever happens to me in New York City, I’ll always have Basilica.

 Kerry's photo of me was taken in a rapture that now looks like an appropriate lament. Salud.