Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Death of a Restaurant ....Yesteryear

People grieve over many occurrences.

For me, level #10 grief would start with the loss of a spouse or child.

Level #9 would be the loss of a dog or a sibling, but level #8 would be the death of a restaurant.

When I was a kid, my family used to go to downtown Minneapolis to an Italian joint to celebrate life's events.

The place was called Cafe Di Napoli, and from a culinary standpoint, this place was a childhood Disney Land.

The booths had those high "Vegas Lounge" back rests, and my sister and I would have to stand on our tippy toes to see what was taking place outside of our booth area.

The walls were covered with murals of Venice, and although this place was huge, the pictures never overlapped like that backdrop on the Flintstones.

Remember that? How Fred would walk across his house to go yell at Wilma, and he'd pass the same couch 26 times before reaching her.

The other thing that was cool about the Cafe Di Napoli was that they offered us the first downstairs bathroom experience of our lives.

I think this might have been the first destination that influenced me to take up peeing as a recreation sport LOL.

During the Christmas holidays my mother would pull us out of school with her friend Sandy and her children. Our gang would shop, doddle then eventually infest every retail outlet on the Nicollet Mall.

The shopping excursion was always capped off with our clan going back to the Cafe where we would revel in festive customs that almost always started with those tiny little glass Coca Cola bottles.

It didn't matter how many times we had been there, all of us kids would make a huge deal over the listing on the menu that warned us.........


OMG, we thought that was the most ridiculous thing in the world, and by childrens standards, we were frustrated because we knew well enough that we were to young to network, and its hard to strive for justice when you weren't sure who to report this heinous violation to.

I think another reason why we had such a blast is that our mothers never let men come along on these special occasions.

Nothing drags down a kids dining experience quicker than a dad. Dad's don't let you go pee more than twice. Then they get all pissy when one of your lot spills a beverage.

Another thing that men do to retard chidren's fun is they don't give them change for the gum ball machine. Instead they just stare into the distance and recite every penny that they've spent on you during the last month.

If I didn't know any better, I'd swear they had some kind of "Kid Invoice" burnt into their mind.

But the biggest setback to dining with dads during the 60's was that they'd NEVER let a kid order for themselves.

Dad's always looked at that stupid, kids portion of the menu and told you how much you actually loved the items that you really hated.

But our moms, they were different, they were better than our dads.

They'd let up order pizza's, and every single time we'd order different varieties so we could secretly swap sausage slices for a piece of pepperoni pizza.

We showed those cooperate thieves, never once did that $1 sharing charge get slapped on our bill.

My mom's friends son, his name was Patrick. He'd count on his fingers and report to our table that our continuous ruse now had us $6 dollars in the black.

The cafe always served the kids first, I'm guessing to shut us up, but when our mom's placed their order, just hearing it roll off their tongues....it was so exotic, so decadent, you could just see the complete delight in their eyes as they requested......

"Two orders of Manicotti please!"

Within 20 minutes our table would be covered with plates,pickle bowls, bread baskets....just thinking about it, I'm getting a little choked up.

There was never a moment in my life when I was happier than that.

As I got older, some of magic began to fade though. As a teenager I realized that those murals hadn't been touched up in decades. That brown film on the walls wasn't created from poor water quality in the Venetian canals.

The staff weren't the charming servers that remained in the minds eye of my youth, in fact they were just the opposite. Many of the servers, bus staff and dish washers were Hennepin Avenue drifters that were just looking for creative ways to make a buck to secure their next jug of Gallo.

And maybe worst of all, I was now too old to have a buddy to run into the bathroom and pee with, and it goes w/o saying that If I snuck back into the womens restroom to inspect that wall mounted vending machine....there would be a whole new series of consequences to face.

When I eventually enrolled into baking school, my apartment turned out to be 3 blocks from the cafe. Each night after working an evening shift at Sherman's I'd walk by the restaurant on the way to my apartment, but I never went in while I was alone.

I remember thinking to myself that if I would have stopped into a destination spot like this on my own....it might have been considered culinary blasphemy. To me, it didn't matter how stellar a restaurant was.

Excellent food and ambiance seemed almost savage to me if there wasn't a pile of people I enjoyed to accompany me in the experience.

When my training was done, and I began to prepare to move across the ocean to Saint Paul, I did stop in one last time though.

Even though it creeped me out, I sat in the booth (whose back rest no longer seemed tall or impressive) and unknowingly ordered my last meal ever at the Cafe Di Napoli.

When the server came to my table, I mentioned the bond that my family had with this space, and how I was now, for the first time ever, dining alone and looking for the ghosts that I had shared my greatest meals with ever.

The server was an old woman with a bad a** bee hive hair do, and she smiled and mentioned to me that the cafe had fallen on hard times and was soon to shut their doors.

Then she offered me to take one of the laminated menu's as a keep sake. When I told her that I would have it artfully framed and give it to my mother as a Christmas gift, I think she was kinda moved.

One of the surrounding theaters had just let out, and as the crowd began to file into her station, she thanked me again for the conversation, and then before leaving, she asked me what I'd be having.

Before I had time to over think my options, the decision just seemed too obvious.

"I'm going with the manicotti." I told her, and it was Christ like.


  1. Asked what was the happiest moment in my life, I say:

    Dining with co-workers on Halstead Street -- The Parthenon -- when we all traveled to Chicago to accept an award for a film we made. Man, that was wonderful. Octopus, roditis, and saganaki!

    Driving back to Minneapolis from Worthington, after accepting the job of country newspaper editor. I felt I could do anything,

    Tossing a rolled-up athletic sock at my 8-month old daughter's face, Rollie Fingers style, having it bounce off, and then hearing her laugh hugely, for the very first time. Oh, man, that was it ...

  2. Thanks for noticing the ending....by the way, i have 1 autographed baseball in my posession. It's Rollie Fingers, imagine that.

  3. i remember going to Cafe di Napoli and seeing Rudy Perpich in one of the booths. I think that was shortly before it closed. Maybe you were there, too.