October of 2002, the weather in Lyndhurst, New Jersey, felt like the weather in Los Angeles. On the weekends, people were out and about enjoying what little time they had left before men grew their grizzly beards and women stopped shaving their legs underneath their jeans.
At this point in my life, I had some free time. I was newly single (again) and still trying to find my surroundings in the Garden State. I was three months in and going strong. The people were quite accommodating. After crashing an Italian orthodox wedding, I found myself with a slight buzz of happiness mixed with a little bubbly headed down the Italian restaurant row of Ridge Road.
There were a couple of crowded Italian restaurants and bakeries. They seemed like the go-to places. A non-franchised restaurant with a line out-the-door meant that it probably had some sort of “staple” status throughout the whole neighborhood. As I looked across the street, ready to make my move, I heard a yell. For publishing purposes, I’m censoring several words so this article can be age appropriate for all. But for those who can handle the political incorrectness, just imagine every other word is a different tone and inflection of the F bomb.
“Hey, Kid. What are you doing? Come on. You don’t want to go over there. You want to be here. Sit your butt down and relax,” said a hefty balding, Italian man who was so out of shape his heavy breathing seemed as if he had emphysema.
The man sat along three of his doppelgangers. My rear end cautiously started to warm up the seat when the hefty Italian yelled at me again.
“Where’s your cigar? You going to grab a cigar or what? Hey! Go up to the bar in the back and get yourself a cigar. Milly! Hey Milly! Grab this kid a cigar.”
The place was dilapidated. It seemed like it just experienced a fire or explosion of some sort. I am not a fire expert or have any credibility in saying it was due to a fire or explosion. I just thought it was odd that I didn’t hear anything on the local news, because the local news in this particular area of New Jersey even goes crazy over a story concerning a cat stuck in a tree. The charred stains of the once hanging sign read Vesuvio. The interior was just as well done as the exterior. Renovation wasn’t even a thought. These men and this so called Milly, who I was about to meet, were soaking in the fumes and asbestos just as much as the pan-fried, red meat they consumed.
Honestly, I really couldn’t make out the restaurant. I couldn’t tell if it was a classy luxurious place or a place of kitsch. The paint that once featured scenic landscapes of the Italian countryside was crumbled. The men were sitting on make shift plastics chairs around a flimsy table. The wood, fine-grained maple were burnt splinters on the ground.
Milly, a frumpy and frail woman who seemed to have worked day and night on her feet ran out of the back, probably a kitchen at some point, with a large Cuban. I brought the cigar back to the table.
“Where’s your cognac?” the Italian man yelled again. “Hey Milly, get this poor son of a gun a cognac! How’s he suppose to smoke a cigar without a cognac?!”
Milly, doing what she could with what she still had left came out with a high caliber Remy Martin and a snifter glass. I was already seated down at the time with hawk eyes surveying every corner of my body.
“You know what you’re doing there, Kid?” the hefty Italian said. I shrugged my shoulders and took the cigar up to my kissers.
“No, Kid. You’re doing it wrong. Here. Watch. You swirl. It’s all about the swirl.”
The hefty Italian took his own cigar that he was chomping on and shallowly dipped the chewed tip in the liquid gold. He took it out of the drink and used the cigar as if it were a woman’s lipstick, brushing the liquor-laced cigar tip lightly to get his lips moist. Finally, he took a generous puff.
I copied his every move. The men nodded reassuringly and then returned back to their conversation. They were an overzealous bunch with a never-ending supply of material. They didn’t talk about money or any type of business. They only spoke of women. And more stories of women. Almost 4 hours of these stories that never repeated once.
These men, whoever they were, could have very well been mobsters from yesteryear. I’m not saying they were because that would be judging and stereotyping. I say yesteryear because, nowadays, mobsters are white collar. They don’t hang out in burnt down restaurants wearing unbuttoned Hawaiian shirts and wife beaters with their beer bellies draping over the table. The Italian mobsters today are all Wall Street types. They know that ownership in restaurants like Vesuvio’s is small time. The real money is in gigantic corporate mergers and contracts. They’re lawyers, doctors, politicians, and hedge fund financial gurus.
The men I was sitting with were a dying breed. My stomach growled.
“Hey! The kid is hungry. Hey, Milly! Bring out the lasagna!” the hefty Italian screamed.
Milly ran out from the back carrying a large covered-up casserole dish. She placed it down on the table and disappeared once again.
The hefty Italian plated a fine piece of china that Milly also brought over. It was a combination of the two amazing food genres that I love: fine dining and home cooking. A three-cheese blend with mozzarella, ricotta and toasted shreds of a finely grated, aged Parmesan. A spiced-up ground sausage concoction diffused into fatty bunches of chuck and some leaner sirloin. I particularly loved the sauce: half from real and half from canned tomatoes. Its consistency was thick like a roux. The noodles were al dente and never fell apart with all of the weight on top of them.
“You want some more?” The hefty Italian man asked. “Then, make it yourself. Here, write this down.”
I grabbed my Sharpie from my pocket and wrote the recipe I was given on my napkin. I was impressed. I asked if he was the chef. The hefty Italian said he wasn’t, but he knew a thing or two about Italian cuisine. Then, all of the men patted their guts and laughed.
At the time, I thought a restaurant like Vesuvio’s never needed to be rebuilt. I didn’t mind inhaling the fumes. As long as the food was this good I could have died right then and there and went straight up to heaven.
ATMOSPHERE: None. Pretty much an empty storefront. If you’re not invited personally then you have no business coming inside.
SERVICE: Extremely attentive. Though there is no manager on site, the little old lady from Pasadena in the back treats every one like royalty.
SOUND LEVEL: Loud, obnoxious, and yet informative and entertaining.
RECOMMENDED: Lasagna, cognac, and Cuban cigars.
DRINKS AND WINE: No.
PRICES: Just tip a good $30 and you’ll be fine.
OPEN: Whenever the men inside tell you it’s okay
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes
Restrooms: None. Don’t get caught for urinating in public