La Serenata

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La Serenata provided my first taste of veal scallops, of eggplant, Manicotti Parmagiani, cooked shrimp, Biscuit Tortoni.
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I listened to Vince’s suggestions, studied the menu, remembered seeing or smelling various dishes as they passed by me each night or overhearing diners’ reactions, and thought seriously for the first time in my life about what I actually wanted to eat, learning the way appetite and mood and daily circumstance interacted.
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In 2014, on the 53rd anniversary of my father’s death — the year in which he’d been dead as long as he’d been alive — images and memories of La Serenata flooded back. I wanted to research what had happened to the place and to the Russo family.

I opened the door of La Serenata around 5:30 as usual. It was a cold winter evening in early 1959, and the restaurant’s thick garlicky warmth was like a second door to walk through. I waved at Paul Russo, part-owner and bartender, and smiled at his brother Vince, part-owner and maitre d’.

“Evening, Mr. Skloot. We’ve got your table ready.”

I hung up my overcoat, checked that I had all the papers I needed, and followed Vince to my booth near the kitchen. I liked the anonymity of its location, and the hubbub when Vince rushed through the doors releasing the voices of his mother, wife, and sister-in-law as they cooked.

Vince unfolded the white cloth napkin for me and handed me a menu. “Mama’s cooking tonight,” he said. “So you might want to try the Home Made Ravioli.”

“Thank you, Vince. I had the Shrimps fra Diavolo last night.”

“Make Mr. Skloot his drink, Paul,” he called as he left for the kitchen.

I was still considering my choice of appetizer when Paul brought over my iced drink, garnished the way I preferred it with lime rather than a maraschino cherry. It was a Shirley Temple. I was eleven years old.

About fifteen months earlier, my father had been critically injured in a crash during his dawn commute to Manhattan. Waiting for roadside assistance from the AAA, parked just off the edge of Rockaway Boulevard, he went to open the trunk and was hit by a car that hopped the curb and slammed into him, smashing his head and chest against the still-shut trunk, shattering both legs between the bumpers. For a week, it wasn’t clear that he would live. Then it wasn’t clear that he would walk again.

He’d been hospitalized ever since — first in Queens, not far from the site of the accident, then in Long Beach, a small barrier island off the south shore of Long Island, where we’d been living since 1957. Because children were not permitted to visit, my mother would drop me off at La Serenata each evening on her way to the hospital and pick me up on her way home two or three hours later. I’d never had dinner alone in a restaurant before. I ate and did homework, lingering in my booth, comforted by the warm light, the red flocked wallpaper, the large oil painting of a fantastical Italian castle nestled among snowy mountains. Sometimes Vince would sit with me for a few minutes, sighing as he sank into the red cushioned seat and leaned back, and sometimes he would wink as he rushed past with dishes of hot food riding on his arm and in his hands.

I worked my way through most of the menu, skipping the Steak alla Pizzaiola because at $4.95 it was more than double the price of other entrees, and the Saltimboca alla Romana because Vince said I wouldn’t like it. After a month, I knew my favorites but tried to keep rotating what I ordered so I wouldn’t get tired of them. Except for Chicken Cacciatore, with its silky sauce and mushrooms, a dish so delicious I had to have it twice a week. My father had been a Kosher chicken butcher until selling his market in Brooklyn when we moved to Long Beach, so I convinced myself that ordering chicken was a way to honor him. Keep him in mind. On the other evenings, I listened to Vince’s suggestions, studied the menu, remembered seeing or smelling various dishes as they passed by me each night or overhearing diners’ reactions, and thought seriously for the first time in my life about what I actually wanted to eat, learning the way appetite and mood and daily circumstance interacted. Some evenings were right for heaped, filling plates of Linguini with White Clam Sauce or Lasagna, others for the spicy shock of Sausage and Peppers with Special Marinara Sauce or the solace of Veal Cutlet Parmagiani, the touchstone of Chicken Cacciatore.

When he returned to take my order, Vince brought me a complimentary plate with two Clams Arreganata, two steamed mussels in their shells, chopped carrots, and a small square of Sicilian Pizza. He placed a shellfish fork beside the plate.

“How’d you do on that math test today?” he asked. “I know you studied hard.”

“I’ll find out tomorrow but I think I got everything right.”

The restaurant had opened in 1957 in a building that once housed the Long Beach Public Library. La Serenata’s bathrooms were at the top of a long flight of stairs, the dimly lit space cluttered with extra tables and chairs, stacks of white tablecloths, ice buckets and tongs. The only quiet spot in the place, its hushed air was like a preserved pocket from the original library, and entering its stillness was like slipping back in time, as though I’d stumbled into an episode of the new television show The Twilight Zone.

The Russo brothers had grown up working in the family restaurant in Brooklyn. They’d swept floors, washed dishes, stocked the kitchen, bused and waited on tables. After it closed, Paul and his wife Frances, and Vince and his wife Lisa had moved to Long Beach and opened La Serenata. The similar paths and timeframes their family and mine had taken to arrive at that place made them feel like relatives to me.

Paul was the quieter older brother, 36, with thick graying hair, a suave stillness of demeanor, and a slight stoop I imagined he’d developed from bending over to measure precisely the drinks he made. He reminded me of Dean Martin and I kept waiting for him to start singing “Volare.” From behind the bar he seemed to keep a close eye on things in the dining area and knew just when to ask if another drink was needed. We shared a July birth date, which added to my feeling that we were related.

At 34, Vince had a receding hairline and a rounder face that seemed a perfect expression of his open, friendly, gregarious nature. He moved quickly, issued loud but friendly directives to the waiters or called orders to his brother from across the restaurant. His clothes were always disheveled, white shirt poufed above the waist of his black slacks, collar unbuttoned. When he stood by a table to take orders and write them in his tiny spiral notepad, he couldn’t help taking quick glances around the room. Like Paul, he watched everything that went on so he’d be sure none of his guests felt neglected.

One evening when he sat next to me I asked Vince why they’d named the restaurant La Serenata.

“It means ‘Serenade,'” he said, checking the table for crumbs and sweeping a few into his hand. “You know, like the love song for someone special.”

The first time I remember eating at La Serenata with my parents, shortly after it opened, my mother made her usual grand entrance, demanding that we be moved to a different table from the one Vince had chosen for us, demanding a different set of utensils from the one on the table, a different napkin, a different ashtray. All throughout her performance, Vince was calm and accommodating, soothing, cheerful. When he spoke to her, his voice was a soft croon. He was neither intimidated nor apologetic, but determined to find a way to make my mother feel welcomed despite her shenanigans. He brought over a plate of fresh bread that radiated warmth and a soft yeasty aroma. He made sure her water glass was full. I liked him and the restaurant instantly.

We were a family that ate dinner out once a week, on Sundays. After we’d moved to Long Beach, the dinners followed a regular monthly routine: Wing Loo’s one week for the combination platters with extra fried rice, then Meyer & Kronke’s just across the bridge in Island Park for seafood, Lenny’s in the west end of town for steak or barbecued ribs, and then La Serenata. Wherever we ate, my mother began with a Brandy Alexander, my father with a Seven and Seven, the drinks consumed slowly with an order of appetizers — egg rolls, shrimp cocktail, oysters on the half-shell. I remember my mother’s disgust as my father savored Clams Posillipo at La Serenata, getting tomato sauce splatters on the tablecloth, on his shirt, and eventually on my shirt as I leaned over to eat a clam off his extended fork.

La Serenata provided my first taste of veal scallops, of eggplant, Manicotti Parmagiani, cooked shrimp, Biscuit Tortoni. That’s where I learned to like string beans slathered in marinara sauce, and broccoli crisply sautéed rather than boiled until limp. Where I understood the difference between home made spaghetti and Ronzoni from a box.

By the time my father was injured, we’d eaten at La Serenata often enough for the Russos to know our peculiarities. Vince would greet us by asking my mother where she would like to sit, effectively blocking her standard table-switch maneuver. He would show her the napkin before placing it in her lap and check out the silverware, sometimes frowning and removing it himself and bringing her a new set without being asked. Paul would mix and deliver the drinks unbidden.

“I’ll tell Mama you’re here,” Vince would say, implying that of course my mother would be receiving special attention from the chef.

The restaurant was exactly two miles from our home. Sometimes it felt like another world altogether, a million miles away, so full of family warmth and ease, so different from our way of life, and sometimes when my parents laughed and lingered over coffee and Spumoni it felt like a newly discovered part of our home, no distance at all.

I think I remember that first dinner at La Serenata so clearly (Shrimps Scampi, Veal Pizzaiola, String Beans Marinara at Vince’s suggestion) because it was the evening my mother announced she would learn to drive. It was as though she’d needed her Brandy Alexander and antipasto before mustering the courage to break this news. My father, bent over his plate, came to a dead stop, threads of fettucine dangling from his mouth, and stared across the table at her for a long time.

“Well, I’m not about to teach you,” he mumbled, then looked at me and continued eating.

“I didn’t think you would.” She paused to light her Chesterfield. “So I’m going to take private lessons. Edith Sills knows a man.”

He shrugged and said “I hope he knows what he’s getting into.”

It was difficult to imagine my mother driving. As a passenger she had a peculiar relationship with the rules of the road. Sitting beside my father while he drove, she would argue with traffic signs, certain they couldn’t apply to a vehicle she was in, insisting that he ignore one-way streets or speed limits and stop signs if we were in a hurry, or that east and west were meaningless pieces of information when she wanted to know where Westbury was. And she loathed being told what to do — I think that was a key element in my father’s reaction.

My mother was 47 and had never felt the need to drive. Living in Manhattan or Brooklyn all her life, she’d gotten where she wanted to go by taxi, subway, bus, or trolley, or as a passenger in someone’s car. But the public transit options on the small island of Long Beach were limited and less convenient than she liked, and she only knew a few people there she felt comfortable asking for a ride.

After taking lessons and practicing for weeks with Edith, she failed her first road test. “Stupid examiner!” she said. “Made me parallel park and had the nerve to say I was too far from the curb.” When she finally passed and began driving a new white Plymouth Fury around town, she seldom ventured off the island until my father ended up in Queens General Hospital and she would visit him there daily.

One night my mother dropped me off during a light snowfall. As the evening passed, the snow worsened to a blizzard and I noticed that there was only one other customer in the restaurant. I knew who he was: Mr. Ritaccio, a language teacher at the high school I would be attending in a few years. Usually, his table at the center of the restaurant attracted a steady progression of visitors, students and parents, colleagues. But tonight it was just the two of us and he sat with his back toward me, glancing at the window. Vince kept looking out the window too, checking the weather, shaking his head. The restaurant was eerily quiet.

When Mr. Ritaccio left, Vince exchanged glances with Paul and they both shrugged. Vince went back into the kitchen. I heard him talking to his family but couldn’t make out the words. Paul picked up the phone near the bar and made a call, speaking softly. I wasn’t used to the subdued atmosphere, but it felt cozy rather than alarming.

After a few minutes, Vince sat next to me. “Your mother,” he said. “She’s still at the hospital with your father and didn’t notice how bad the snow is. She can’t drive in this.”

I remember feeling a rush of confusion. My mother couldn’t come for me? Maybe she’d have to sleep in the hospital and maybe I’d have to sleep in the restaurant. Maybe upstairs in the Twilight Zone there was a secret room with a bed or something. Would the Russos cook me breakfast?  That would be all right. All of it would be all right.

“What I’m going to do,” Vince said, “is I’m going to close up. Then I’ll drive you over to the hospital, we’ll pick up your mother and I’ll drive you both home. Don’t worry, okay?”

I wasn’t worried. I was disappointed not to be staying overnight at La Serenata. Or–I hadn’t thought of it till that moment — at Vince or Paul’s house. And I was embarrassed that the restaurant had to close, even though they had no customers, because my mother couldn’t come to get me. But more than anything else, I felt overwhelmed by the kindness in Vince’s voice and in his actions.

A few weeks later I had a mini-breakdown over a plate of Baked Ziti with Meat Sauce. Earlier in the day, I’d gotten home from school and decided the time had come to find out what was inside the carton my mother had stashed in the garage shortly after my father was injured. She’d told me never to touch it, had written DO NOT TOUCH across the top in large red letters, and stashed the carton underneath an old bedsheet against the back wall. All of which drew me until I could no longer resist.

It was too light to contain books or dishes. I felt sure it had something to do with my father. Something he didn’t need now but was too important to throw away. I wasn’t sure what a will was, but had heard the word mentioned lately. Was a will large enough to justify a carton like the one’s we’d used when we moved from Brooklyn?

When I opened it the first thing I saw was a large envelope containing photographs of my father lying on the ground in the immediate aftermath of the crash. He was flat on his back, hands raised as though warding off further assault. Below the envelope were his blood-drenched wingtip shoes and socks, torn pants, shirt and tie. Some kind of sheet or blanket that must have been used to cover him. It would all be evidence for the trial of the man who had crashed into my father, but I didn’t grasp that then. I thought my mother was saving it as some kind of ghoulish souvenir. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I couldn’t stop smelling it.

At La Serenata, when Vince put the plate of Ziti with Meat Sauce in front of me, all I could see, in its mixture of deep red and bone white and bits of meat, was gore. I was swamped by a kind of sensory overload–the sight before me, the odor rising from it, a feeling as though my entire body had become entangled in the gruesome fabric I’d touched that afternoon.

I pushed the plate aside and tried to stand, but the configuration of booth cushion and table seemed to hold me down. Vince, who hadn’t yet left the table, reached for me as I sat back and began to cry. Then he slipped into the booth and settled next to me, moving the plate out of sight. He didn’t speak, just stayed with me, waiting with me for the moment to pass.

My father came home from the hospital in late spring and my nightly dinners at La Serenata stopped. A few weeks later I went away to summer camp in Pennsylvania for two months and by the time I returned my father was able to get around in a wheelchair. The hospital bed we’d rented was gone but now there was a set of parallel bars in my parents’ bedroom where he would work three or four days a week with his physical therapist.

In the fall of 1959 we resumed our monthly routine of dinners out. I remember how bizarre it felt to return to La Serenata with my parents. The first time, Vince solemnly bowed to my mother, shook my father’s hand and asked how he was doing, then looked at me for a moment and opened his arms in greeting. He seated us at a central table my mother requested, not at my booth. Being there began to feel so formal, familiar but unfamiliar, like visiting a house you no longer live in. Vince never stopped to sit down with us or put his hand on my shoulder as he passed by.

My father died two years later. He’d gone from using a wheelchair to using crutches to using a cane to, at last, walking with the aid of a built-up shoe. In November 1961 he and my mother went with a group of friends for a Veterans’ Day holiday weekend at a hotel in upstate New York. Despite how much effort it took for him to get around, he must have felt somehow liberated to be there, away from the places that reminded him of his injuries and long recovery, because he spent most his time either riding horses, playing shuffleboard, throwing horseshoes, and walking on wooded trails. Toward evening, after dozing under a poolside sunlamp, he dove into the water and drowned. Going from the heat to the cold, he might have had a shock-induced heart attack, or he might found himself too tired to swim after all his activity, might have become disoriented–there was no autopsy to establish cause of death–but he died there beside the pool, having finally been dragged out by friends who at first thought his flailing was meant to be comic.

After his funeral we followed the Jewish seven-day ritual of mourning, shiva, sitting in our living room on small hard stools, saying prayers, talking about my father, welcoming visitors and their gifts of food. I remember my aunt calling to ask if there was anything special I’d like them to bring for dinner, something that perhaps reminded me of my father. I hadn’t felt like eating since he’d died. But once my aunt asked, I knew exactly what to request. I asked her to stop at La Serenata —124 West Park Avenue, they’d pass right by it on their way to our house — and pick up an appetizer of Clams Posillipo and an order of Chicken Cacciatore.

By the spring of 1982, I’d been gone from Long Beach for 17 years and was living in Springfield, IL. My mother and step-father, Julius Rosen, whom she’d married the year I left for college, planned to drive the 950 miles for a visit. But they didn’t get past the first mile, running a stop sign and smashing into a delivery van.

I received the call from Julius at my office. His voice was tight with pain and his breath rattled. “Broken ribs,” he said. “Cuts. And bruises. I’ll be. Fine.” But my mother was in bad shape with a leg broken in at least three places. “They had to cut her out of the car,” he whispered. “She wants you here.”

I was in Long Beach the next day. And that night, after visiting my mother and Julius, after dealing with the towing company and insurance and police, I went to dinner at La Serenata. I hadn’t been there in so long I wasn’t sure Vince and Paul would recognize me, bearded now, hair close-cropped, eyeglasses with transition lenses that made me look like a Mafioso in the least light.

As soon as I entered, Vince said, “Evening, Mr. Skloot. We’ve got your table ready.” He shook my hand. “I heard about your mother and Mr. Rosen, so I knew you’d be here.”

Paul nodded at me from behind the bar. “Not a Shirley Temple, Mr. Skloot, am I right?”

I laughed for the first time that day. When he brought me my Martini, Paul whispered “On the house.”

That dinner (Shrimps Scampi, Veal Pizzaiola, String Beans Marinara) and the four others I had there during my five-day stay in Long Beach, were the last I ever ate in La Serenata. The restaurant closed in 1984, after a 26-year run. Paul’s wife, Frances, recently told me that she and Vince’s wife, Lisa, wanted to keep it open. “But the men were done,” she said.

In 2014, on the 53rd anniversary of my father’s death–the year in which he’d been dead as long as he’d been alive — images and memories of La Serenata flooded back. I wanted to research what had happened to the place and to the Russo family. I wanted to remember more details about the menu, decor, atmosphere, wanted to pay homage, maybe try to cook their version of Chicken Cacciatore.

I learned that the building is still in use as a restaurant, currently occupied by Sutton Place Great American Bar & Grille. I emailed the owner to ask if he had any old materials — a menu, a photograph, memorabilia — he’d be willing to share with me.

“I am sorry,” he wrote, “but we don’t have anything from those days. This location has changed hands so many times since then. I am here my whole life since 1969 yet I was too young really for La Serenata. We have been here for 13 years now.”

Calls to the Long Beach Public Library and to the Long Beach Historical and Preservation Society yielded no information. Internet searches turned up very little as well, though I did find an obituary for Vince, who died in 2007 at the age of 83.

I suppose it’s not unusual for there to be little public notice of a small family restaurant located on a small barrier island nine miles long by one mile wide, an establishment that has been out of business for 32 years. But the virtual absence of information made La Serenata seem like a kind of Brigadoon, a mystical place that appears for just a single day every hundred years. If it lives in the present, if there are traces of it in 2016, they exist in the memories of those who knew it.

In 2005 The New York Times interviewed my classmate and friend Billy Crystal during the Broadway run of his play 700 Sundays. The play recalls his Long Beach childhood, and in amplifying details for the interviewer Billy said his family “ate Chinese at Wing Loo’s or dined at La Serenata, an Italian restaurant.” I think because I’d always felt cocooned in my booth, and isolated within the strangeness and fear and grief over what was happening to my father and my family, I didn’t remember seeing people I knew in the restaurant. But Billy was there, and there had to have been kids eating there with their families when I was present, kids I knew. I wondered what they remembered of La Serenata, what they liked to eat. So I wrote emails to a few old friends with whom I was still in touch.

“I loved La Serenata,” Murray Schwartz wrote back. As our graduating class reached its 50th anniversary, Murray’s capacity to recall details from our school years became legendary. “My strongest memory of La Serenata is of their hospitality. You were welcome.” He gave me email addresses for some other friends and I learned that many of them ate at La Serenata weekly or biweekly. Donna Selnick wrote, “it was my family’s go-to place to eat out and it set the standard for Eggplant Parmagiani and Veal Parmagiani for the rest of my life.” Janie Samuels wrote “Stuffed Clams, Veal Parmagiani and Spaghetti with Clam Sauce were always our favorites.” Arlene Krasner loved the Antipasto so much she would order it as her main course. My neighbor and lifelong friend Billy Babiskin wrote that the Veal Parmagiani and the linguine were very good.

One of my friends mentioned a closed Facebook group, “IF YOU GREW UP IN LONG BEACH NEW YORK IN THE 50’S, 60’S &70’S.” I was accepted into the group and posted a query asking for recollections and for the names of their favorite dishes. Never having belonged to a Facebook group and not knowing what to expect, I was astounded by the response: 72 people offered comments and a few photographs. Seven had eaten at La Serenata once a week and another remembered eating dinners there three times during a single Christmas week. Many said they ate there “often” or “all the time,” three recalled celebrating their elementary or high school graduations, two celebrated their Sweet Sixteen, and one celebrated his Midget Football League Championship at La Serenata. I’d anticipated that if anyone named a favorite dish, it would likely be the Veal Parmagiani, which my email correspondents had each cited. But instead, the group’s members named 30 different dishes as their favorite. From the Antipasto (9) and Baked Clams Arreganata (8) to the Veal Francaise (2), Beef Rollatine (1), and Chicken Cacciatore (1 — me), this was a menu of Greatest Hits, consistent, memorable, and apparently much missed.

Among the respondents was Frances Russo, Paul’s wife, who told me that Paul had died in March 2016, at 92 and after 63 years of marriage. She photocopied and mailed me a menu. When I asked her if she could send a recipe for Chicken Cacciatore so I could cook the dish here in Portland for my wife, Frances said, “What recipe? We just cooked.”

In a sense, the Russos are still taking care of me. Of course there’s no point in my attempting to duplicate La Serenata’s Chicken Cacciatore. I’ve cooked many versions of that dish since 1959 when I first tasted the  Russo version. Each time, it brought back memories that, for all their painful associations, were full of warmth, tenderness, and a kind of sanctuary.

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