I begin, as I must, with my father. His story starts much earlier (he was born Philip Vito Capotorto in East Harlem in 1922), but I am compelled to introduce him through Cappi's Pizza and Sangweech Shoppe, his fateful venture into the restaurant trade. Built with his own hands out of a pair of burnt-out storefronts during the fall and winter of 1964, Cappi's occupied an awkward stretch of White Plains Road near Pelham Parkway in our native Bronx, directly under the elevated tracks of the Number 2 train but nowhere near the actual station. You really had to go out of your way to get to Cappi's. Once there, you had to endure the terrifying racket of trains thundering overhead every few minutes, sparks raining down from the tracks, crashing onto the pavement and bouncing off the white metal placard bearing our store motto: We Don't Spel Good, Just Cook Nice. Adding to the general tension and discomfort were the rules of the house, fancifully printed by hand on a sign the size of a man and posted aggressively at the door: NO RUNNING, NO JUMPING, NO PUSHING, NO SHOVING, NO YELLING, NO FIGHTING, NO CURSING, NO GRABBING. NO STROLLERS, NO BICYCLES, NO ROLLER SKATES, NO SPECIAL ORDERS, THIS IS NOT A BASKETBALL COURT, NO SHARING, NO EXTRA CHEESE, NO SLICES AT THE TABLE!
The shop was divided into two sections, a vestige of its earlier life as separate storefronts: one half was a typical pizza counter; the other, a simple dining room with little Formica tables and travel posters of Italy on the wall where you could order obscure Italian delicacies, like capozelle, the stuffed baked head of a lamb (an example, incidentally, of the word capo used in a physical sense); sanguinaccio, buckets of animal blood that are boiled and sweetened and churned into a nauseating mock-chocolate pudding; zuppa di trippa, the lining of a cow's stomach stewed in tomato sauce, and other such delights. My mother Mary, poor Mary, was in charge of the kitchen, while my father manned the front counter and dining room. She begged him to simplify the menu (though she could prepare world-class versions of everything on it) and lived in mortal fear of orders like shrimp oreganata or broiled cod. Perishable, rarely ordered items such as fish and seafood were kept frozen. Would the customer mind waiting four or five hours while it thawed? It was not unusual to find my mother bent over a steamer pot, weeping, pleading with one frozen lump or another to become soft enough to cook.
The pizza and restaurant sides were distinct entities in my father's mind, and ne'er the twain could meet. The staff, otherwise known as our family of six—my parents, my oldest sister Rosette, the next oldest Eva, me, and my baby sister Maria (less than a year old when we opened Cappi's)—could move between the two areas through a swinging door near the kitchen. But customers had to decide out on the street which entrance to use, and that was that. Their fates were sealed. So if a family of three came in for dinner, say, and Mom ordered eggplant parmagiana and Dad ordered veal cutlet and little Junior just wanted a slice of pizza, guess what? NO SLICES AT THE TABLE. Junior would have to be forcibly removed from his family, sent outside to enter the pizza area through a separate door, and made to stand at the counter to eat his slice alone. The only thing missing was a dunce cap. The parents, of course, would object. My father, the people-pleaser, would argue reasonably for minute and then just throw them out, busting into a full-throttle Ralph Kramden: "Owwwt! Get owwwwt!"
Word spread. Business was slow.
In an effort to boost sales, Cappi had the brilliant idea of offering to throw pizza parties for children. He'd lure a poor, hapless parent into booking the place for a Saturday afternoon and loading in, say, twenty over-stimulated ten-year olds, shrieking, shouting, jumping, and breaking all The Rules. Long before the first pizza was ever served (full pies at the tables were acceptable, just no slices) my father would be throwing the entire party out into the street.
"All right that's it, enough. Get out. Out!"
My own eighth birthday party ended this way, when Steven Morgenthal starting popping balloons with a plastic fork. Cappi exploded. "No more! Party's over! Everybody out! OUT! GET OWWWT!"
I was mortified. I didn't have many friends to begin with, so this was an important social event. A black-and-white photograph taken early in the party shows my guests and me dressed in white shirts and clip-on ties, like for Assembly Day. I was a big shot. This was my place, my party. Until it wasn't.
As my friends reached for their coats in fear and confusion, my father bellowing at them in his tomato-stained white apron, I ran from the dining room into the kitchen. My mother was turning away from a busy stove when I appeared in the doorway, wiping her hands on a dish towel and preparing to stick eight birthday candles (and one for good luck) into a big, fluffy cake. I wailed up at her like a wounded animal. She dropped everything and bent down to me. That moment is etched into my brain—my mother's instant downshift from a whirl of activity into a tight nest of concern. The seamless, lightning-quick transition moved me. It said that I was more important to her than any task could ever be. (I ended up writing about this moment in a fourth-grade composition assignment entitled "My Red Letter Day," which the teacher had explained was a day we'd never forget.) I choked out my sad little story:
"He threw the whole party out!"
"He threw out the whole party!!"
Indignant, she marched away to confront my father. Nothing came of it. My mother was no match for him. She acquiesced almost always, banking on the logic that this would foster peace—the more she swallowed, the less he'd have to dish out. But really it worked the other way round: the more she choked back, the more he shoveled in. I don't remember what happened to the cake. Maybe we ate it. I know I moped around for hours afterwards, sighing and anxious. How would I face my friends the next day? Eventually, my father sidled over to me with his tail between his legs.
"You can call them all back if you want to."
"No I can't. It's too late."
It was painfully obvious to all that Cappi wasn't cut out for retail. He must have been grateful for our regular customers, such as they were. My mother still refers to people based on their standing orders of forty years ago.
"You know who I ran into today at Met Foods? Gertrude Fierman. Remember her? She used to come to the restaurant with her mother, they'd order an eggplant parmagian' and a chicken parmagian' and split them—and they always wanted the cheese very burnt. Remember them, with the burnt cheese?"
And I do. Gertrude and her mother were two of our better-adjusted regulars. Some of the others were another story.
Like the Silent Drunk, whose name we never learned—a tiny slip of a man in his mid-fifties or so who'd toddle into the restaurant on late weeknights, inebriated, and just point to items on the menu, mouthing his order, never sounding a peep. (Zuppa d'escarol' and spaghetti with garlic and butter were his usual picks.) He traveled with an imaginary, or at least unseen, companion with whom he'd engage in silent conversation throughout the meal. My mother looked on the bright side.
"At least he thinks he thinks he's not alone."
But these mimed dates always ended badly, with the little man jumping eventually to his feet, gesticulating and shouting in a soundless rage, tossing a few crumpled bills and some change onto the table, turning his pockets inside-out and making a big show of being empty of further cash. The fights were always about money. I'd park myself in a quiet corner during his visits, pretending to wipe down tables or fill condiment jars or something. Then I'd run on back into the kitchen and report what I was seeing.
"He's a freak!" Eva would concur. (She and I, the two middle children, were constant collaborators.)
The silent drunk reminded us of the sad-sack hero of "One Meatball" by the Andrews Sisters, who, hard up and hungry, wanders into a Depression-era diner "to see what fifteen cents could do."
He could afford but one meatball . . .
My mother had the original Decca recording. We'd drag it out once in a while and she'd break into a quiet little Lindy Hop. I loved watching her in those moments, imagining what she must have been like as a young Bobby-soxer in flare skirt and snood. She had been an early Sinatra groupie, and photos from her youth showed a beaming, dark-haired beauty in stylish 1940s fashions, usually surrounded by a gaggle of girlfriends.
"Want to learn the Big Apple?" she'd ask in her lightest moments, demonstrating various foot shuffles and hip rotations. "Shine the apple!" she'd call, dancing an appropriate step. "Now slice it!"
Sometimes my father would take her hand and they'd give it a whirl across the scuffed linoleum tiles, a rare display of affection between them. The whole family knew the lyrics to "One Meatball" by heart.
The Circus Act, another pair of regulars known only by the nicknames we secretly gave them, were at their usual table on most Friday nights. Again, I'd watch from a "hidden" perch: he was about seven feet tall, gangly and unkempt, with great shocks of brown bristly hair pushing out at odd angles; she was maybe four-foot-one, Thumbelina-like and neat as a pin, her head rising not much higher than his hip. They seemed old to me, but were probably in only their thirties.
"There's a lid for every pot," my mother would say.
He was a toilet seat salesman. We could tell because he always had samples on hand, falling out of their dirty, bashed-up cardboard boxes. He carried a beaten leather binder stuffed with hundreds of unbound documents, all crumpled and ready to spill. He moved in uneven lurches. He was spastic in kid speak, and utterly fascinating. The miniature woman didn't say much. When she spoke, her voice was so soft as to be inaudible. At some point at the end of every meal, the toilet seat salesman would rise spasmodically from the table, nearly knocking it across the room, and lumber off to the bathroom where he'd remain for a good twenty minutes or more, minimum, while his date, alone at the table, shifted awkwardly in her seat, applied and re-applied lipstick, eyed the check anxiously. Eventually the giant re-emerged, thundering back to his table in a stink. On at least one occasion he stopped off at the kitchen door to shout the helpful news that "ya toilet's clogged." For some reason, he never tried to sell my father his wares. I guess he didn't like mixing business with pleasure.
Pizza was fifteen cents a slice. Heroes were something like eighty-five cents. You could have a homemade soup-to-nuts meal for about five bucks. Cappi had to move a lot of food to make it work. All regular customers were valuable. Their eccentricities were tolerated, as long as they obeyed The Rules. Some were more fun than others, and a few became family friends. John and Jen were a jolly pair, an unlikely sight in their authentic western gear, right down to the boots and spurs. They were obese, weighing more than six hundred pounds between them, and spoke with thick southern accents . . . though we were pretty sure they hailed from well north of the Mason-Dixon line. Horse enthusiasts and avid riders both (my mother pitied the poor animals), they hoped one day to own a stud of their own. At some point they moved away, but continued to exchange Christmas cards with my family for several years, always signed "John & Jen." Eventually, a third name appeared: Sandy. My mother wondered aloud every holiday season whether Sandy was a boy, a girl . . . or a horse.
Beryl and Barry, a pair of fresh-faced comics in their late teens or so, used to perform their routines in front of the counter as we gathered on the other side to watch. I'd howl with laughter at their bits, clutching my sides and doubling over. I thought they were the funniest things on Earth. One skit that always killed me opened with Beryl laughing hysterically; Barry walks up and officiously informs her that she is in a "no laughing zone" and will have to "stop laughing immediately, Madam," which only makes her laugh harder; he insists she stop; she laughs harder still; and round it goes. Eventually Barry starts laughing too, and they walk off together in a gale of guffaws. Curtain. Encore! I couldn't get enough! Beryl noticed.
"He is really laughing," she beamed one time.
It pleased her, which pleased me. I had a crush on Beryl. She was going places. She'd landed a bit part in Alan Pakula's Up the Down Staircase (1967), playing a high school student named . . . Beryl, and even had a few lines with Sandy Dennis. I was too young to see the movie but got the point: Beryl was a star.
She and Barry inadvertently provided my stage debut at the tender age of nine. A poor man's Lunt-Fontanne, they were starring in a comedy production they'd mounted at a local community theater. I don't remember the details; I have purposely forgotten. At some point during the show, I had to pee. My mother pointed in the direction of the bathroom but must have known it was useless. I had no sense of direction. (At Tung Hoy, the old-school Chinese restaurant my father brought us to on very special occasions, a grand room with a maze of tables and a colorful mosaic dragon snaking along two walls, my mother would have to flag me down after my bathroom trips or I'd wander around in total confusion, hopelessly lost and becoming frightened.) I was able to find the theater's bathroom with relative ease, as I recall, but got tangled up on my way back and ended up walking through a series of doors that somehow led backstage. Lost and disoriented, I asked a teenager who was loafing on a metal folding chair, a slacker stage manager I guess, how to get back to my seat. He smirked and pointed to a big pair of double doors.
"Right through there," he said.
"Here?" I asked hopefully. "This door?"
"Yep," he said with a glint. It didn't feel right, but I pushed through anyway.
A sudden flood of light engulfed me as I stepped into a very brights room filled with heavily made-up people who froze the moment I entered and were now staring at me with openmouthed horror. When I realized I was onstage, I snapped the door shut and sped away. His little metal folding chair had collapsed under the prankster's wild laughter, and now I could hear great peals of it rising from the audience as they realized what had just happened. My mother slumped down in her seat, hoping I wouldn't find her. I waited at the back of the house until the end of the performance. I don't know what Merle and Barry made of my hideous gaffe. I don't remember seeing them much after that. At some point, we heard that they'd moved to Hollywood.