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A Man and His MeatballsThe Hilarious but True Story of a Self-Taught Chef and Restaurateur
By John LaFemina
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 John LaFemina
All right reserved.
My Back Story
The day before Ápizz opened in September 2002, I walked down Eldridge Street obsessing over whether or not it would all come together in time. Would the trained but untested staff know to recommend the Montepulciano d'Abruzzo with the meatballs? Was there too much Parmigiano in the braised wild boar lasagna? Were the amber gels I wrapped around the dining room lights making the room too orange? Would anyone even show up, and, most important, would they like the food?
These were the things I felt I could, to some extent, control. But as I got closer to the restaurant, I saw that something was so out of place, I stopped dead in my tracks. "What the hell is this?" I thought. There on the street, a few feet from the door of my brand-new restaurant, was a phone booth, completely ruining the beautiful and carefully designed entrance, which I had finally gotten right. I had spent weeks scouring lumber yards from Coney Island to the Bronx for the perfect piece of mahogany for the front door, and now it was blocked by this ugly phone booth. I didn't know how or exactly when it got there--it wasn't in the ground when I left the restaurant at two A.M. the night before--but it was the last thing I needed in front of my place. Phone booths on the Lower EastSide meant kids hanging out, and my little stretch of Eldridge Street was scary enough without that.
As a native of Canarsie, Brooklyn, I'd become something of an expert at identifying scams and get-rich-quick schemes, and this felt like one right off the bat. I knew something was wrong with a company installing a phone booth between two A.M. and eight A.M. The name written across the top may as well have been "Joe's Bogus Phone Company."
The first thing I did was call my cousin Tally, who works security for Verizon, and explained the situation. He had heard of these phone booths popping up in the middle of the night, usually next to bodegas in neighborhoods where people wouldn't complain. This time they were wrong. I remained completely calm and did the only rational thing there was to do: I ran down to the local hardware store.
"I need a jackhammer," I said.
I rented a fifty-pound jackhammer and brought it back to Eldridge Street. I ran an extension cord out of the restaurant to the street and plugged it in. I jumped on it like a pogo stick and pounded it into the pavement for hours in the hot summer sun, slowly unbolting this metal monstrosity from my sidewalk as the neighborhood kids cheered me on. Two of these kids, my porter, and I hauled the phone booth down the street and dumped it in an empty lot. I still had a long list of things to do to get ready for the opening, so I got back to work.
End of story, right? Wrong. The next day--opening day--I pulled up to Eldridge Street in a taxi. I thought I was dreaming. The phone booth was back.
I went back to the hardware store, the vein in my right temple pumping overtime. This time I bought the jackhammer. When I detached the phone booth from the sidewalk again, I didn't hide it in a lot down the street. I left it lying there on its side, in front of my place, a sort of message to the people who put it back up in the middle of the night. And about a minute later, one of those people--a tall forty-something guy in a dark suit--was standing next to me, his company's phone booth lying at his feet.
This guy actually tried to intimidate me with that double-talk code that wannabes use. He said I obviously didn't know who he was "with" or who the officers of his company were. I told him to have his CEO call my CEO and while he was at it, ask around and find out who I'm with. As he walked away, my wife, who witnessed the whole thing, asked me who in fact it was that I was with. I shrugged and said, "You."
I would say, on average, about six people a week tell me their dream is to open a restaurant. I just nod and smile because I was once one of them and, more often than not, I know exactly what prompted this fantasy. These future restaurateurs are usually stuck in a career they can't stand--accountant, lawyer, some bad tech job, ad sales--love to bake or cook at home, and have been told one too many times that they throw the best dinner parties ever. They believe that if their in-laws and friends enjoy their food and hosting skills, so will the discriminating diners of New York. But most important, these people believe that opening a restaurant will be a fun and profitable alternative to their current jobs and lives. And maybe it will be. It all depends on them.
Here's the deal: owning a restaurant is a life change, not a career change. That's the biggest thing to remember. And when I say owning, I mean doing whatever it takes to stay alive--getting in before everyone else arrives and staying until the end of the night, sitting in every seat in the dining room every day to make sure the music is at a perfect volume, the air conditioner is hitting each table just right, and the view of the kitchen is unobstructed. It means attending to every detail. Financing a restaurant is an entirely different thing, and we'll get to that later.
I have never understood why people say they want to open a restaurant when they retire, like it's an easy thing to do later in life. That's like me saying I want to be a construction worker or ditchdigger when I turn sixty-five. If budding restaurateurs understand and are ready to embrace the blood, sweat, and tears that come along with the life, they just might have a shot.
Excerpted from A Man and His Meatballs by John LaFemina Copyright © 2006 by John LaFemina. Excerpted by permission.
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