My eldest cousin just passed his second level sommelier test. A sommelier is a trained wine professional who generally works in a fine restaurant with an expertise on food and wine pairing along with wine selection. He’s the first of the six cousins to become a sommelier — my father and my uncle have both been sommeliers since their mid twenties.
When we turned 15, all five of us — my two brothers, two cousins and I — started working in our family’s restaurants. We didn’t have much of a choice, I suppose, but we also wanted to be there. Our evenings were spent in the crazed push and pull of a smoky, beloved building on Riverside Avenue — Basil T’s — a place where, among homemade beer and perfectly crispy pizzas, the five of us were raised. Instead of learning to ride bikes or fill out multiplication tables, we focused on how to grate parmigiano reggiano, how to use a prosciutto cutter properly, how to pour the perfect ratio of olive oil to balsamic vinegar. These restaurants feel more like home than our parent’s houses. They are the product of so much labor and so much love, they rest on my father’s shoulders like tangy, sweet tomato sauce on top of ropes of homemade pasta. They are physical manifestations of my family bloodline, a consistent reminder of my heritage, a sanctuary of Italian wines and Sicilian rice balls, and most importantly, a love letter to the place I love most: Italy.
From hostess to waitress to bartender, I certainly wore as many hats possible in the restaurant industry (save line cook or sous chef because I’m not a very good cook, embarrassingly), and fell in love with quality food and the almost poetic, out of the ordinary experience that is a Saturday night in an Italian restaurant in New Jersey. At most jobs, one can anticipate how a day will go — but in a restaurant, nothing will ever be concrete or known until it occurs. The customers, filling the tables I’ve known and adored for my entire 21 years, are the audience.
Eating at a restaurant is an experience from start to finish. In many ways, a chef is an artist. A restauranteur is a conductor. From soil to plate, ingredients are thought out, carefully placed, creatively paired. Long before the forkful of ricotta gnocchi paired with roasted eggplant and bufala mozzarella is suspended on a fork, steaming below your nose, it’s been methodically thought through. There’s a passion here. There’s a heart here. This isn’t just pasta; it’s what rests behind my father’s eyes when he sleeps. This isn’t just wine; it is pride and glory and tradition in a bottle. Corked and hiding from the cold air. It grew somewhere in Tuscany as grapes and met the hands of a magnificent winemaker in Bolgheri before filling a glass and meeting your lips.
The restaurant industry has always meant so much to me. Some of my first memories include the long gone cafe called Zebu on Broad St, where we’d watch my mother drink coffee and eat elephant ear cookies the size of our three year old faces and watch my dad, in rubber shoes and checkered pants, traverse the kitchen, making pizza and baking bread. My father’s desire to feed is about more than just hunger. It is a passion passed down from generations, it is what I was born into. It is always in the blood. The San Marzano tomatoes are scripture. The Partanna Extra Virgin Olive Oil is a lullaby. The ricotta cheese, resting alongside a honeycomb, bread crumbs and sour cherries is the center of the earth. The Vietti Barolo, we wish, could be our water. It’s more special that each sip is not for every day, but occasions.
There’s something intimate about sitting at a restaurant you love, long after the bill has been paid, because the company and the atmosphere is so captivating that you’d rather not step into the real world for a moment. To some, the practice of going out to eat is so trivial. But to me, it’s filled with a different passion, a different love.
People constantly ask me: Are you going to go into the business? Follow in your father’s footsteps?
I think sometimes our parents hope their passions are contagious, and other times, they hope we find some of our own. The restaurant industry is exhausting. It is late hours and constant interaction and rarely a moment of silence or alone time. It is burnt hands and a constantly ringing phone. The tuna can’t be delivered, the lettuce is recalled, should we add gluten free desserts to the menu?
Last year, I had the opportunity to join my dad in a business trip to Verona, Italy to attend Vinitaly wine festival — the largest wine festival in the world. I accompanied him to a weekend of important dinner parties, networking lunches and the festival itself. As a wine importer for the Italian restaurants at home, my dad was there for pleasure, of course, in that his work is also his love, but also for business. The entire time spent in Italy was ethereal. Wine flowed but held significance. It held purpose and weight. To everyone around me, wine was more than a means to be drunk. It was (is) a religion. One I suddenly hoped to follow, believe and practice.
I haven’t decided what I’d like to do with my life after graduation. Much of me hopes to be a writer, much of me hopes to keep creating theatre, much of me hopes to be accepted into graduate school. Some of me, or maybe it’s most of me, knows that the place where my roots were planted is a place I can always grow from. A place I’ll always be from, and a place I’ll always return to. There’s something about low lighting, about the smell of fresh basil placed perfectly on top of a swirl of pasta awaiting the first bite. There’s something about bringing others joy — through food, through wine, through the art we create in a kitchen. It’s something so captivating, I won’t ever be able to let go.