Last night, I drove down Western Avenue on my way to see a theater performance. As I passed the Devon Bank, I noticed that there was a recently demolitioned building, empty lot on the east side of the street. I searched my memory banks and it only took a few seconds to realize that the empty lot was the former home of a building that used to be Papa Milano's Restaurant during the 1960's.
The building was a very picturesque one story structure built with red bricks and a green peaked roof, with windows all across the front, and a small protruding peaked roof entrance at the center.
Many businesses have been in that building since Papa Milano's but every time I drive past it, I revisit one or another of the memories of working there during my early 20's so many years ago. Now the visual is gone so I decided to set my story down in black and white ( or should I say in Basil green, Pizza Dough white, and Tomato Sauce red?)
I do not remember if I worked there during the summers while in high school or during my college days but I do remember myself (not at the time ... but in looking back) as a good looking, black haired, svelte, sexy man wearing tight black slacks, black Docksiders, and a fitted white shirt with black tie and ankle-length apron.
I not only waited tables (the beginning of one of many stints in food services) but also made pizzas. The restaurant was a moderately sized, family run establishment and the wait staff served many functions. I do not remember having to bake the pizzas, perhaps there was someone running the oven or if I did have to cook them as well as make them, most likely I did not burn too many or I would have been fired pretty quickly.
The dough was kept in separate plastic bags. You had to flour your hands, open the correct bag of dough depending on the size of pizza you needed, stretch the dough, run it through the roller machine one way, then the other way, sprinkle some more flour on a wooden shovel, then stretch the dough into place as close to a circle as you could get it. Next, you would ladle tomato sauce in place leaving a half inch margin around the outside, then you would evenly add any meats or vegetables which the customer ordered.
The usual wait-person protocol was to greet the customer, give each person at the table a menu, and bring glasses of water to the table. While they were thinking about what they wanted to eat you would return to the kitchen, cut and fill a basket with Italian bread, select the correct number of bread plates, deliver everything to the table, and finally take their order.
I do not need to talk in detail about the usual order of serving a meal, filling additional requests, preparing and delivering the drinks order, checking on the food (they had a full menu in addition to pizzas,) getting it to the table on time and hot, refilling drinks, taking care of other requests, delivering the check in a timely fashion, and after the party left go looking for and hoping for a tip on the table. In those days everything was done in cash as I do not think credit cards were widely used yet.
If you are a really good wait person, a thing called "flow" takes over when you are waiting tables. "Flow" takes place in many other situations as well when you are working quickly, within a time frame, with many details to remember and not much time to think about what you are doing. Somehow you just remember everything you need to do without having to work too hard at remembering the details, they all just flow as you "run in circles" waiting on five or more tables with anywhere from one to ten people at a table.
Flow is very difficult to achieve when the night is slow and you do not have too many customers. For some reason that is when your service is at its worse, although most likely still passable. But you certainly forget more and need a few more reminders from your customers than you would like to have to suffer.
Finally, comes my favorite memory of working at Papa Milanos. I had been working there for a second summer, by now quite a few weeks into the season. It was a very busy evening with many customers and large orders. No busboys had shown up for some reason, so we also had to bus our tables. Flow took over most of the time. Everyone was happy for the most part.
Enter my story, the person of MAMA MILANO. Let's just say she was an old world, no nonsense, no frills, unfriendly, Italian woman who was the owner's wife and served as the hostess and cashier. As usual, she sat on her stool up front and as usual didn't go out of her way to support the staff in any way, even though we were so busy and without bus boys.
What she was good at was telling you what to do, correcting your waiter skills, and yelling at you in front of the customers ... again without helping. On this particular evening, she was particularly abusive. After the third time of bawling me out, for three times that I believed I did not deserve it, and without lifting a finger to help me ... I had had enough.
The third confrontation took place in the kitchen and my response was simply to let drop the bread, butter, and dishes I was taking to a table and above the crash announce, "I don't need you to treat me this way! I quit!" I handed her my order book, grabbed my backpack, and walked out the door. I do not remember her response or the look on her face, if it had even changed!
I never looked back nor went back to Papa Milano's again but I certainly thought about the good times and the bad times every time I would drive by. Now the building is gone but the memories of my youth linger.