I will henceforth settle the greatest dispute from my childhood once and for all: Dad, I love you, but Uncle Bobby is a better cook. While I’m at it — when it comes to meatballs, his are better. I’m going to throw Mom under the bus here, because she agrees with me. Bobby Rallo is the king of the meatball — the messiah of the coveted Italian side dish. And I know it hurts to hear it, but the man deserves some praise.
My uncle cooks with his whole soul. It’s a beautiful and understated way to cook, in a world where commercial chefs and big business dominate the American food industry, taking us away from the foundations that our love for food stems from. I think every foodie and chef alike has an origin story — a moment or a meal where they knew their heart and their hands were made for a kitchen.
When thinking of where my love for good food and cooking came from, I always start at my base. I was born into a family with a strong background in Italian cooking — beginning in the early 1900s in coastal Sicily and growing all the way to Red Bank, New Jersey. The faces and times have changed but the recipes have not. The passion has not. When I was little, my uncle owned a classic Italian place called “Rallo’s.” It has since closed, but if I could name five of my favorite places to eat in the world, it may be number three (behind II Vecchio Mulino in Sardinia, Italy — get the bucatini — and Le Bernadin in New York — have anything, and make sure you don’t have to take care of the bill).
At Rallo’s, my uncle would always be in the kitchen, which is a rare place for a restaurateur who normally mans the front of the house or walks around intimidatingly. But Bobby Rallo’s heart is in the kitchen and when he makes a kitchen his, it’s something like magic. I would burst through the aluminum doors of Rallo’s kitchen and he’d be behind the grill — white t-shirt, stained with a smear of oil and a splash of fresh Jersey tomato sauce, white apron — covered in pizza flour and pork chop grease.
If you’re not willing to get messy in the kitchen, then cooking isn’t for you.
I’d sit on the counter and he’d break off chunks of parmigiano reggiano and salami, prosciutto and sweet little cherry tomatoes, handing them to me as he flipped dough and stirred sauce. A chunk of soft Italian baguette with a little olive oil and rosemary. A traveling charcuterie, if you will — one for a duo always on the move. I would watch while he cooked, and even better, watch his face when he’d break from the flame and the daunting task of stuffing ravioli to bring a plate to a customer. If I had to describe my Uncle Bobby, that’d be the picture. Leaving the kitchen to bring someone something he made with his hands, and watching their eyes and their face as they take the first bite. It’s a gratitude of sorts.
Our similar love for food, spontaneity and the literature of the 1960s make us quite the pair. We always make the point to go on some sort of lunch endeavor every few weeks, and our growing list of favorites include boardwalk tacos and nutella pizzas.
The distance between suburban New Jersey and Mich. gives me a lot of things to miss, but these lunch dates are one of the things I miss most (also his lending of worn copies of Kerouac and spontaneous donut deliveries). In perfect Bobby fashion, he proposed we keep the lunch dates alive in an unconventional albeit charming way. The proposition: I’d go to lunch somewhere in Ann Arbor (with good company) and eat something delicious, strange, greasy, fattening, and I’d call him afterwards, describe the experience, and he’d cook the very same meal from home, eat it and then we’d talk about it. This is one of the best ideas he’s ever had, and not letting the throngs of distance split apart such an important part of who I am blew up with potential.
A lunch date from 1,000 miles away.
The first place I chose was somewhere I knew would spark delicious conversation and fit with the simple yet traditional nature of my Uncle’s palate. Monahan’s Seafood Market in Kerrytown was the spot — and my best friend was the company. Monahan’s is one of the perfect little quirks of the world, situated in the Kerrytown markets in a sequestered yet quaint corner. It has been in business for nearly 40 years, and is an understated yet brilliant joy. I ordered the fried fish sandwich — a pile of fresh fried cod, sandwiched between a perfectly soft roll, accompanied with lettuce, tomato, red onion and undefinable yet incredible sauce. My sandwich experience was wonderful. I split a side of cajun fries with my best friend and we talked about the fact that we trekked through the arctic tundra for a sandwich and we laughed a lot.
I called my uncle later that day and he said he’d be back to me with his sandwich experience by that night. When he called me on the phone, I felt like I was looking at him across the table of one of our favorite pizza restaurants from all the way over here in Mich. Bobby made himself a locally caught New Jersey fried flounder sandwich between a Balthazar roll (which he says is the true magic ingredient — crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside), accompanied with romaine lettuce, tomato, Sicilian olive oil, red wine vinegar and oregano. After we talked logistics, there was a pause in the conversation.
“It’s funny you chose a fish sandwich,” he said with a nostalgia I recognized, and I knew it was time for one of the stories of his that I cherish so greatly.
“I am a curator of visual nuggets from the past — a fried fish sandwich is a big trigger for these visual memories.”
My heart longed to have him saying these words to me from the bar of a sushi place we frequent. But even over the phone, I hung onto each word he said. He began to unpack the fish sandwich, like a door to the past. It starts at Crabs Claw Inn, a little shack type place down the Jersey Shore where Bobby took Antonio, a European aristocrat he met in college. Antonio didn’t appreciate the beauty of the sandwich and greatly misunderstood the power of a good meal. It made for a good laugh. The memory evolved into eating a fish sandwich with my father and drinking Polish beer and laughing about something ridiculous and getting thrown out of the restaurant, but not without the sandwiches in tow. The final memory, hungover at a highway side McDonald’s, the spring of 1987 — eating a McDonald’s filet-o-fish.
I laughed for a while at that image, imagining the person he was in college. Based on his integrity and deep sense of self, I doubt he was any different back then. I also have many of the books he read back then, all annotated and stained with various substances, perhaps a splotch of Sicilian olive oil, perhaps the grease of a fish sandwich. A man with a heart of absolute gold, an irreplaceable sense of the things he loves and a deep passion for lunch dates and sandwiches on good bread.
“It’s what I grew up with — it’s a particularly memorable food for me. We grew up on the beach. We’d catch fish and clean it, like after surfing, and we’d make fish sandwiches.”
A pause — for dramatic effect perhaps, or to pick up his two year old daughter, who is sitting at his feet.
“I love my fish sandwich. But not as much as I love my Eli.”