Wednesday, January 15, 2014
When I was sixteen years old I washed dishes at the Villa Valenti. Three nights a week, for $5.25 an hour under the table, I busted hump five feet from the first-generation matriarch, Emma Valenti, who’d arrive at three pm and sit all night behind a push cart cutting vegetables, rolling dough, barking out orders. Emma had the most beautiful white hair and the sharpest tongue. She’d ride my back for six hours straight, yelling for me to pick up the silverware, empty the dish bin, scrub under the machines. I was an “idiot” a “moron." It was the best job I ever had.
One night she fired me, I went home. She called ten minutes later screaming for me to get back. “We’re slammed, you idiot, where are you?” So I hopped on my ten-speed, raced back, a mile from my house to the restaurant. Another night she addressed me as only "dumb-dumb" as I scurried about. All night long: "dumb-dumb." Other nights she’d give me life advice, reward me with soda, homemade desserts and free dinners w/ bread (the most amazing food ever!). It was a wonderfully-schizophrenic experience. But . . . but if I needed something, anything, Emma got it done. She was a powerful woman. I adored Emma Valenti. I recommend everyone have an Emma Valenti at some point in life. She taught me that nobody's gonna kiss your ring for doing your job. She taught me that working hard for something never ends. Even now, years later as an adult, when I don't feel like reaching for that little extra, I hear her say, "Move your ass, dumb-dumb!" And I move my ass.
Back then the Villa Valenti kitchen was alive. Waitresses--HOT waitresses--coming in and out in their little black-and-white getups, cooks yelling out orders as rock music blared above the ovens, preppers snatching supplies from the walk-in freezer. Enter Ralph, son of Emma and business manager, dressed in slacks and a slick button down, walking with purpose from the jam-packed dining room, screaming frantically that Sen. Bruno or that guy from Channel 10 News just sat down. He’d make a lap from the right side of the kitchen to the left, hollering and clapping and cajoling us to work hard. "We're on fire tonight!" Then he was gone again. If somebody super important was eating in, Emma had me fetch her buttoned sweater while she fixed her hair for public consumption, then she’d leave the kitchen for a bit to say hello and have a chat. You really made it in this world if your presence moved Emma to slip on that sweater and leave her push cart unmanned.
As dishwasher, I’d often be sent out front myself, donning sweat-soaked, sauce-stained apron, to refill the salad bar or empty the overflowing bar garbage, maybe unclog the toilet, and let me tell you, the place would be rocking. Around the bar, people would be packed three-deep by the long wall that housed dozens of autographed pictures and newspaper clippings calling the Villa Valenti the number-one Italian Restaurant, waiting, waiting, waiting for an open table. I remember the framing of Emma and her husband Sam, the Villa patriarch, hung above the front door, where the hostess stayed busy with the long reservation list. From the other side of the partition that divided the bar and dining area, loud laughter and conversation flowed, mingling amazingly with the authentic, Italian music that played. To me, the Villa was the Kenmore, the Cotton Club, the place to be. I loved the look of it, the smell, the vibe, the everything!
Caffeinated on Pepsi Cola and pasta, I moved with surgical precision around the well-dressed crowd. I’d bag that garbage or touch up those salad trays then slink back to the hot-hot kitchen, where four more tubs overflowed with dishes in need of a cleaning. I was part of another big night at the Villa!
When the rush of diners' dishes began to slow, it was time to start breaking down the kitchen components, which meant big things (pots and pans and plastics) for me to wash. It was also my task to take out the garbage. I’d drag bag after bag to the dumpster in the back parking lot, then come back to the kitchen to find my just-cleared area once again filled. That part was always the hardest because I prided myself on keeping a pristine area at all times, but the rush was the rush. By now waitresses were beginning to clock off, and the constant bite of the time-card machine could be heard from across the kitchen. Soon I’d be the only one left, alone in the clean and quiet space that once raged. My last job of the night was bringing the salad bar back, the best salad bar on the planet.
Shift finished, I’d toss my disgusting apron in the laundry bin, clock out, carry my complimentary rolls and spaghetti dinner through the kitchen door. One of the cooks, maybe a waitress, would be sitting at the otherwise-empty bar, having a drink, watching a ball game on the TV that hung above the liquor supply. Before leaving, I always detoured through the desolate dining room, with the big paintings that filled the four walls and the tables freshly dressed for next day. God, I wished I could be lucky enough to go there and eat and be merry. Little did I know back then, but years later I’d have my last meal with my father in that room, my wedding rehearsal dinner would be had there, my 33rd birthday, countless Saturday nights with my wife. I don't care what anybody says: the food never stopped being amazing. The rolls. The sauce. The homemade pastas. The parm dinners. The cheese. The Villa was my place, even when I was the mole-rat who emptied garbage and de-crapped the clogged toilets. I knew every inch of it. The wood work. The green cushions. The colored cakes in the urinals. The basement where they made the sauce. I was part of it. We were all part of it.
Outside, I’d fetch my bike from the weed garden where I always hid it. I’d climb on and pedal across Route 150 towards home, stinking of Villa sauce and 42 dollars richer, past Emma & Sam's house, where a solitary light still oozed through the curtained windows. Behind me, as I rode away, the West Sand Lake Rd/Pershing Ave. traffic light perpetually blinked orange, and the huge sign on the side of the restaurant filled the night in red-and-white lettering that read THE VILLA VALENTI. Then I’d hit the steep hill for home and coast away, and the restaurant I loved would fade from sight.
We were on fire tonight!