Thursday, September 25, 2008

Pins galore!

Luigi gave me IN pins for China, and I brought back some great ones to share with him and the family!  I picked up some more, and I'll post them soon.  Of course, I didn't trade for all of them.  I had to pay for some of the more amazing ones.  That German one from 1936 was forged for members of the British Royal Family, so that is no joke.

What's Cookin in Brooklyn?

So as I pulled up to my house: late, frazzled, and bemused by the happenings on the train, there on my porch stood the man himself, Luigi Vitrone.

"Chief!" I exclaimed. "It's been a few months since our paths last crossed."

Luigi smiled, extended his hand, and said "my good friend Johnny, it's good to see you brother."

I laughed at myself, having instinctively called him "Chief."

I call everyone Chief, and on that very same night that Luigi and I met back in Baltimore, as we cruised the town late into the night, I sad to him "You know Chief, this town ain't so bad after all." Luigi grinned wide at this, and told me:

"You know, Johnny, if my father were here right now, instead of in Brooklyn, he would find it very funny that you called me Chief right then. You see, my father only uses two name for people he is speaking with casually. If he doesn't know their real name, and even sometimes when he does, he calls them either "Chief" or "Johnny."

He continued "and here I am in Baltimore, hanging out with a complete stranger, who happens to be named Johnny, and who apparently just called me Chief."

Luigi really got a kick out of this, and it served to strengthen our friendship right from the start. Like Luigi's father, I call almost everybody "Chief," whether I know them or not.
Flashing back to the present:
I welcomed Luigi into our home, but had to almost immediately apologize. "Listen, Lew, Frankie and are I leaving for Asia TONIGHT. So while it is great to see you, I don't have any time to play host to you. I can offer you something to drink, but I only have a few minutes before I have to go upstairs and finish packing."

Luigi told me he understood. He knew I was leaving, and he just wanted to drop off a couple of things for the family. He had a bottle of his famous pasta sauce and a big tub of homemade pasta for the kids.

"I know your borther and his wife are taking care of the girls, but I wanted to make their lives a little bit easier and give them a night or two of dinner."

I thanked him profusely, as he is always so thoughtful.

"I have something for you as well, Johnny." Luigi continued. I was speaking with Mayor Baker last week, and he gave me a box of pins for the Wilmington IN Campaign.

"He wants me to distribute them at the restaurant, and I plan to. But, knowing that you and Frankie are going to be in China for the Olympics, and knowing how popular "pin-trading" is at the Olympic Games, I was hoping you could bring some IN pins with you and use them for trading fodder. What do you think?"

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


My apologies for the lack of a recent post.

Even though I carry my laptop with me everywhere, I just can't seem to write when I am on vacation. Frankie and I took a three month Pacific Asian tour, taking in Australia, Malaysia, Tokyo, Singapore, Seoul, Moscow, Mongolia, Nepal, Mumbai, Bankok, Hanoi, Da Nang, and, obviously, Beijing.

We visited the Olympics in the middle of our trip, and we took in some magical experiences. We saw Michael Phelps win his fifth gold medal, and we watched the US Women's Gymnasts win the team silver. We spent a week traveling (where we were allowed) in China, and I have to say, it is much, much different than it was the last time I was there, in 1994.

The Olympic architecture was spellbinding. I especially loved the "bird's nest" (where we were lucky enough to catch the Closing Ceremonies) and Frankie was enthralled with the "beehive." The entire Olympic Village, though at times sparsely attended, was a testament to the optimistic future China and the world hopes for. I did manage to use my influence to squeeze outside of the approved boundaries for a day and a half, and the bleak world I came across served as a dark portent to an untended future.

But we had a great time on our trip, and I look forward to regaling you, dear reader, with more stories about our trip in the coming weeks.

We were thrilled to see the girls and the pets upon our return, though I can't say they were as thrilled to see us. They feigned excitement, mostly in appreciation of the numerous gifts and trinkets we sent back throughout the trip.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Do-Wop Hop

I stepped off the train at my Princeton stop, briefacse in hand, with a wide smile.  I have always loved playing an important role in the lives of strangers, and to have had the opportunity to have enriched the lives of four separate people, all at once, so randomly, was a treat.  

Luigi would have loved to have been there for that one.  He would have gotten a kick out of Jean and Gerry, not to mention the young lovebirds.  They all get a kick out of him, and the stories I told only helped to strengthen the myth of Luigi Vitrone: amazing chef, lover of life, and gentleman.  I do what I can.

I hopped into my car and made my way home.  I live just outside of Princeton.  I wish I could still live in Brooklyn, but my extensive travel makes a more centralized and easily accessed place of living requisite.  Additionally, now that my two young adopted daughters and my love, Frankie, have a couple of dogs and a cat, it is important that we be able to stretch our wings.  

I still maintain one of the few penthouse apartments in lower Manhattan, but it has long since become a haven for my spoiled, sweet, debauched daughter Melanie, from my first marriage.  Melanie is in her twenties, talks like she's in her thirties, walks like she's in her teens, and acts like she's 5.  But I love her.  I'm happy when she's happy, and she's happy when she's happy.  So everybody wins?

Melanie is great, and we meet up for lunch a couple of times a week, as her fashion design school schedule allows.  

The two young loves of my life are Daria and Winny.  We adopted them at the age of seven. They are twins, and to say they had it rough is beyond an understatement.  We had in mind a baby, or a toddler at the oldest.  But these twins had just arrived at the orphanage, and when those two little angels laid their angelic eyes on Frankie and I, we nearly melted.  

It was official a few weeks later, and since that time we have watched as the girls blossomed into comfortable, mature, energetic, intelligent pre-teens.  The house in Rock Mill is a compromise.  I wanted to move back to Brooklyn, buy a couple of house, knock them down, and put up a gorgeous monstrosity of a mansion, a testament to my success in the face of moderate difficulty.  

I confided this dream to Frankie, who assured me that a much better choice would be the suburbs of D.C. where Frankie could follow dreams of political life, I could reach my varied destinations, and the girls could get a great education and live comfortably.  

In the end, I just couldn't see myself moving that far away from New York, and when Frankie and I saw the house I found in New Hersey, we both fell in love with it immediately.  We hope to grow old here together, and watch the girls mature into beautiful young women.  

When I pulled into our driveway, past our automatic gate, I nearly crashed my car straight into our meandering creek.  Who of all people, was standing in my front lawn, animately talking to Frankie, and holding in his hand a bottle of his world famous marinara sauce?  The one and only Mr. Vitrone!

Here's a video of Luigi making his famous Spiced Apple Chestnut Soup for Delaware Online.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

I looked up from my half empty plate, smiled, and said "Luigi, don't tell my grandmother, but these are the best meatballs I've eaten in my life?"

"I'm glad you like 'em" he replied, and sat down next to me.  "I can tell from your accent that you're not from around here" he said.  I agreed, and said the same thing about him.

"I come to Baltimore by way of Brooklyn, how about you?"

I was taken aback by this, mainly because I too was born and raised in Brooklyn!  It really is a small world.  These days, I travel across the globe, and my fading accent still gives me away to fellow Brookynites.  Deep down, I think I had known Luigi was from Brooklyn before I asked, and I am sure he knew where I was from as well.

He smiled and said "I thought so" when I told him where I grew up.  "So tell me, Johnny, how long have you lived in Baltimore?"

I explained that I did not live in Baltimore.  In fact, I told him, I still lived in Brooklyn, in the very house I grew up in.  My father had recently passed away, and I moved back in to take care of my mother.  In truth, I had never really moved out.  I had graduated from college only weeks before my father's death, and had been in the process of moving back home when it happened.   The plan was to live there and save some money.  I was too embarrassed to admit all of this to my new friend, so I let on that my living at home was an act of kindness rather than necessity.  

Everything else I told Luigi was the truth, how I had graduated and began a career in microfinance, and was doing my damndest to crawl up that great corporate ladder one rung at a time.  I went into dramatic detail about the meetings I had been to here in Baltimore, and in doing so no doubt violated my disclosure contract.  

However, Luigi seemed like such a nice guy, and so innocuous in terms of wishing or being able to negatively affect my burgeoning career.  Plus, that scotch had yet to wear off completely, so my lips were a little loose.

After a barrage of dramatic exclamations and boring explanations on my part, Luigi looked up at me, and said "Johnny, we've only just met, but let me tell you, you seem pretty tightly wound.  Maybe you and I should take a whirl around town here.  Let me show you some of the best places for young guys like us to have fun, and let me introduce you to some of my good friends here in the city.  That way, next time you come to Baltimore, you'll feel more at home, and maybe you can relax a little."

He was right.  I was pretty tightly wound, and I needed a good night out on the town.  And that is what he gave me.  After one of the best nights of partying in my life, I felt priveledged and obligated to consider Luigi Vitrone one of my dearest friends.  

Friday, August 22, 2008

If Babcia could see me now....

Were I to tell you that these were not the best meatballs that I had ever been served, I would be lying.  Were I to have told my dear, sweet Polish grandmother, may God rest her soul, that some day in the future, some random chef in Baltimore would make and serve me meatballs that did for the Italian classic what she did for the Polish variety, I would be ducking under the table as her shoe came flying past my left ear.  

I grew up in Brooklyn, as I mentioned, and while I will not be revealing my full name here, to protect myself and my business partners, suffice it to say my last name has more consonants than the world had continents.  

I have always taken a strong interest in food.  I have traveled the globe sampling local oddities and delicacies, and I am a frustrated cook.  I am self taught, essentially.  This is because, at the very last moment, I acquiesced and decided not to go to the Culinary Institute, as per my parents wishes.  My father told me he would pay for business school, but to be a chef I would have to pay my own way.

Despite financial and personal success beyond my wildest dreams, it is still, in a way, the biggest regret in my life that I did not follow my passion.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

B-more outragreous

"I met Luigi Vitrone in Baltimore, in 1983. I was in town for a meeting. In fact, it was officially my very first corporate meeting. I had sat through the board's discussions of various action plans, and was thrilled when the CEO invited me back into his office with a couple of key players after the formal presentations had ended. I was literally fresh out of grad school, and here I was, sitting in the office of the CEO of a large, well known company (which will go unnamed to protect the innocent and the guilty). There were six of us in the room, and as I sat silently, enthralled, each made a play on explaining to Bob (the CEO) just what they had thought of the presentations, and just where the company should go from here.

Marty, a middle aged gentleman and head of acquisitions, made the greatest impression on me. This was not because of his stellar insights, or ability to garner favor in the room. In fact, it was just the opposite. As Marty droned on about the bottom line and importance of being earnest, it dawned on me that Marty was in fact just an empty suit. The words he spoke carried no authority, and served no purpose other than to provide him with the false assurances that everyone else in the room didn't think he was a complete moron. How he got to be head of acquisitions, I will never know. I do know, however, that the consensus in the room must have mirrored my own thoughts. He was gone within the month.

But Marty taught me an important lesson that day. He taught me, through his actions, to play my cards close to the vest, never say to much, and certainly, most importantly, don't speak just for the sake of hearing your own voice.

As he sat back down in his chair, I kind of smiled to myself, aware of just how poorly he had performed in front of all the major players.

I, on the other hand, was still trying to figure out exactly why I had been invited into this cabal, and therefore attempted to keep my glib evaluations to myself.

But a big hand reached across from the big desk, and, topping off my now empty glass of scotch, said "what do you think, kid?"

My heart burst into my throat, and my mouth dried up like the Sahara. But I managed to keep myself together, and mentioned that, from what I had been reading as of late, it seemed that our best opportunity for growth and success would be to move into the area of affinity marketing. These words would have a profound impact on the trajectory of my life, and I still am not exactly sure where they came from.

I left the meeting after three large glasses of scotch, and a few hearty pats on the back from the "boys."

I stumbled into the nearest restaurant, which seemed a bit above my budget, but appropriate for the kind of solo celebration I was ready to get into. First though, I needed to get something in my stomach. As I bellied up to the bar in a half drunken, but functional state, I saw the chef step out from the kitchen, and happened to catch his eye.

"You look like you've had a rough day. I have too. In fact, I was just about to clock out and join you at the bar for a Cherry Cola. But you seem like a nice guy, and you look like you need a good meal. So I'm gonna go back in there and put together, for you, one of my specialties. He smiled and stuck out his hand. "My name is Luigi." I smiled and said "Johnny. Nice to meet you." He made a quick about-face, and as he walked away he said "be right back." He returned, about eight minutes later, and that is when I had my first experience with "Nonna's Meatballs."