I’m feeling homesick. I always do in the fall. Since moving to Los Angeles, October thru December, my thoughts bend home. The Big Apple is at it’s best right now. First the leaves turn. It’s a novelty to put on your favorite sweater after a summer hiatus. Then a crisp cool air invades, pressing in possibility with it. Tabula rasa to all my Poly brethren. An energy takes over the streets. The holidays hit. Thanksgiving to Christmas, New York City itself is the holiday spirit. A classy, old house decorated and welcoming to all; pure romance. Anything feels possible. Every restaurant is magical, dark, inviting, candle lit, a party of dear friends just getting underway. Salvation Army Santa’s score the bustling streets with ringing bells. The smell of Christmas is brought to you by roasting chestnuts and Christmas tree lots on city street corners. Steam escapes from subway vents to mimic your coffee or hot chocolate. Rockefeller Center, Central Park ice skating, Macys Herald Square, Radio City Music Hall, 5th Avenue windows, house decorating extravagance. Like I said, I’m homesick. In search of a tonic for my ailment I head to a local spot that just might get to the heart of the matter.
Cue first song break. Billy Joel, Scenes From An Italian Restaurant. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JUz48xw_OiM
It wasn’t necessarily my favorite, most listened to or super impactful on me, but if I had to choose one album to musically express what the feeling in the air was growing up in Brooklyn in the 80’s, it’s Billy Joel’s The Stranger. Go figure. It’s also fucking dynamite. Hit’s include; Movin’ Out, Just the Way You Are, Scenes From An Italian Restaurant, Only The Good Die Young, She’s Always a Woman. I have a very early memory of peering into my cousin Joseph’s room while the record was playing and being creeped out by the album cover. It’s a creepy cover.
Pinocchio’s is an Italian restaurant and deli in Burbank California. If you meet any Wop in my neck of the woods, we all know this store. We just find it. It’s one of the few places you can locate Italian delicacies and soul food in Los Angeles. As you first walk in you are greeted by a gelato case. You’re welcome if you just started searching for the location online. To the right are deli cases. They stretch down the whole left side of the store. Cookies, specialty Italian pastries, breaded eggplant, stuffed olives and peppers, fresh mozzarella, marinated mushrooms, sausages, cheeses, meats, bread. At the end in the back, fresh made pasta, sauces and frozen items. The rest of the store is filled out with specialty goods, from marinated artichokes & anchovies, to Italian wines, around coffee, passing every canned staple imaginable, pick up some dried figs for Grandpa, rolling by packaged cookies and ending again at the mountain of Panettone, otherwise known as Johnny’s Christmas breakfast. Many a year that I have stayed in Los Angeles, I have come shopping at Pinocchio’s on December 23rd. The wait for help at the deli counter is usually over an hour. It’s totally worth it. And the highest concentration of Italians possible in LA. I saw Ellen Pompeo here one year. She was all business, cause as the vowel at the end of her last name will tell you, she understands Pinocchio’s is no fooling around. I love this place. What is that smell? Fresh pasta, cheese and bread? It hits you right when you walk in. I want to curl in the corner and take a nap.
I should really wake up. Second musical interlude. Jay Z featuring Alicia Keys – NEW YORK ( EMPIRE STATE OF MIND). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6caAIE_Muww
If you are not in on this being the modern day New York City anthem you are missing the boat. Find your own young at heart and get with the program. New Yorkers count yourself blessed that so many amazing artists have immortalized your city in movie and song. Empire State of Mind is two generational artists, Hip Hop and R&B coming together to rock out just how electric your city can be. Also, it was Derek Jeter’s final walk up song.
I am not one for lines. As previously mentioned I don’t mind the hour plus wait on December 23rd for precious Italian treats. I kill that time by wandering around the store and looking at all these foods I love; foods that remind me of growing up. And then I head into the restaurant. I turn left at the gelato case, cause I have lunch while I wait. Pinocchio’s isn’t just a great deli, it’s a great spot to eat. Counter service with limited items, but any Dago purist like myself can find old school favorites done right; simple and traditional. What am talking about? Sausage & Peppers, Lasagna, Chicken & Eggplant Parmigiana, Spaghetti & Meatballs, Pizza and sandwiches. More Southern Italian inspired cuisine, (poorer, more immigrants, my people) red zesty sauce and none of this heavy, cream sauce shit every pasta in LA is covered with. It doesn’t end with the food. Pinocchio’s feels like home. Six words: red and white checkered table clothes. Amazing how much I love the site. Wood floors, exposed brick, red and brown leather booths and in the spirit of the season, an excessive amount of Christmas decorations. Perfect. This night I go for the Eggplant Parmigiana. I smile at the generous serving of garlic bread that accompanies all of their dishes. While I adore that the wine by the glass served is jug wine, I know myself, so I opt otherwise. Shamelessly rooting for the home team, Birra Moretti is an underrated classic beer.
I carry my plastic tray to a table. The Eggplant Parmigiana tastes like home. I tear off some garlic bread with my teeth and wash it down with the bubbly, bitter Moretti. Perfecto! I even splurged and added a meatball to the party. Christmas tunes play over the speakers as families gather all around me. Is this helping my homesickness? A line has begun to form. Suddenly it’s 20 people deep. Guess I’m not the only Guinea in need of a fix . I grabbed my food just before the rush. People watching is a favorite pastime, but this night it’s just making me lonely. I try to focus on my eggplant. This glorious, big flavor gravy. My fork dives through the melted mozzarella, sauce, fried then baked eggplant. Also, how is garlic bread so good? I eat fast. That’s New York, too. I love all this and I want to go. My mind drifts through La Sorrentina, Sammy’s, Fernando’s, Vinnie’s of Carol Gardens and more. Sigh. I salute your memory. A few more deep breaths to capture all the smells. Swig the rest of my beer and make my way towards the exit. Only one way to play it off. The way the champs do.
Frank Sinatra, New York, New York. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EUrUfJW1JGk
BONUS: Fun learning about ethnic slurs!!
WOP: a racial slur for an Italian or person of Italian heritage. It is often said that this term comes from “With Out Papers” or “Working On Pavement,” but it actually comes from the Italian word “guappo”, meaning a swaggerer, pimp, or ruffian.
DAGO: Slang: Disparaging and Offensive. A person of Italian or sometimes Spanish origin or descent.
GUINEA : The most vile racial slur that can be used against an Italian-American. Refers to the Guinea Coast of Africa; using this slur is a very offensive way of implying that Italian-Americans are non-whites.
*Thanks Urban Dictionary!