Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Icon Singer of Little Italy

On the Friday night of our weekend anniversary trip to New York City last month, we took the N train down to Canal Street and walked east several blocks to Mulberry Street in search of Luna Restaurant.

As we neared it, just north of Canal on the right side of the street, I understood why they hadn’t answered their phone for several days while I was calling to see if they accepted reservations and whether I could arrange a special anniversary surprise with the maĆ®tre d'.

The interior was darkened and the neon sign was unlit and broken. The navy blue and white striped canopy was ripped. The glass on the door was filthy. Luna was where, I could have sworn, The Godfather’s Clemenza ate lunch before driving out to the sticks of Queens and whacking that guy, followed by the famous line, “Leave the gun; take the cannoli.” I’m pretty sure that was Luna. They had the famous cannoli.

And that was where I wanted to spend our anniversary dinner.

Karen and I had been there before, a couple times, one memorable time with our friends David and Tonya, when the waiter brought out an appetizer that we didn’t order – it was clams casino – and said, “Try it! If you don’ like it, you don’ pay for it!”

Witnessing the shuttered landmark, we walked north half a block to Hester Street to the notorious Puglia Restaurant. Puglia is where I first drank a beer in a restaurant, in 1979, and let us just say that I was not born in 1961.

Karen agreed that this would be an acceptable compromise.

As we entered the front through a canvas and plastic-windowed vestibule of sorts that has become common in many NYC restaurants since K and I have been there, a form of acute brain disease set in and the following absent-mindedness slipped out of my mouth: “This brings back memories of my bachelor party.” However, my heart stopped after the words hung out in the March air like breath crystals waiting to fall to the cement and shatter. I was referring to the bachelor party prior to my first marriage. I did not marry Karen the day after Puglia in 1990. Our marriage came seven years later. And this night at Puglia in the cold March air was supposed to be our anniversary dinner.

This was threatening to make for a lot of loneliness in a nice hotel room for the next two nights. We had seats the next night for “Rent” and yet there might well be a football field between us. Ever gracious and looking to poke fun at me, K. kind of chided me for the slip and blew it off.

The thing you have to understand about Puglia is that it is really not about the food. It is about shaking your napkin.

Jorge Buccio, a hybrid of Elvis and Johnny Fontaine, has been performing live there seems every night for the past 23 years. He does covers from Neil Diamond to Dean Martin to traditional Italian-American love songs on his Hammond organ. Jorge was honored by the City of New York with a proclamation that named him “The Icon Singer of Little Italy.” But there’s a song that all patrons wait for – wait for as they consume unlabeled bottle after bottle of house red wine and bask over their victories on Wall Street that day or drown their defeats… It is “Get up everybody, get up and shake your napkins!”

K. and I had taken her sister Terri here back when I was courting K. Terri was a high school guidance counselor in Austin, Texas, and had a masters in social work. My guess is that she had me figured out in about the first two minutes, and it was she – after hearing my life story from K over the phone one day early in our friendship – who said, “I see a few red flags.” Like seven or eight. But who’s counting.

K and I had finished our entrees and exchanged photo-taking duties with a group of moms from Westport, Connecticut, who were in for a one-day ladies’ shopping jaunt and sitting one table over.

Jorge lit into The Napkin song.

We got up. We shook our napkins. We sang. We laughed and shook some more.

And spent the next two nights quite together in our nice hotel room. Our seats at “Rent” were side by side.

No comments: