I wanna share something.
A lot of my friends -- and I am blessed and so lucky to have so, so many friends – who don’t know Newport or live in L.A. or wherever, don’t know the story of my time at Puerini’s. And I would like to share that with you.
Some of you who know me know that back ’99 I dated a stripper. She was an exotic dancer, an adult entertainer whose claim to fame was a 50-inch bust. Yeah, I was into that. I moved from NYC to Florida to be with her and was with her for two years. Fun time. But like a Hemingway novel, our fun time ended gradually, then suddenly.
Having given up my apartment in NYC, I moved back home to Newport (Rhode Island). This was 2001. I was broke, had no direction and was broken-hearted. I felt like a failure and had nowhere to turn.
Chris Jones, a dynamite old friend from way back – also the singer of the semi-legnedary local hardcore band Verbal Assault -- at the time, was working for Dan Puerini at his eponymous Newport restaurant, Puerini’s as a sous-chef. It was one of the two great Italian restaurants in Newport (Mama Luisa’s is the other; Saradella’s sucks ass and all of their sauces come out of cans. Total fucking garbage but they had a full bar, so you figure it out) and had been around for years. Dan started it when he was out of high school and was only selling meatball sandwiches and calzones, as I recall. Nicole Ziloumis worked there as a bus girl when I was in high school and Nicole was beautiful and has this amazing ass. So of course I went there, but not for the food. But the food was equally amazing.
Dan built the place up from a BYOB joint to a full service, semi-fancy Italian restaurant with veal dishes and recipes from “the old country.” It was magnificent. Ultimately, he hired a lot of young, local teachers who were still working their way up to tenure and that sweet, sweet gig of getting paid year-round and having summers off. Most of the staff was well-educated and cosmopolitan, even world-weary; but all were female.
Jones knew I was back in town and looking for a gig. So, at the time, Puerini’s only had girls on the floor and the kitchen was all men. Kinda old school and cool. I showed up one day, nervous as HELL and Dan came out in his white checks (pants that cooks wear). He could smell the smoke on me. He said, “Listen. Jones says you’re great. So, I’m going to give you a chance. We really haven’t had a man working the floor in years, so your real test is going to be getting approved by the girls. Also, there’s no smoking one hour before your shift and no smoking during service.”
I was so desperate and grateful, I said, “I’ll quit today.” Dan laughed.
I did though. I really did. I quit smoking, I quit drinking and I started training, trailing, at Puerini’s.
Amazingly, and as you might have guessed, I was accepted by the ever-so-slightly judgmental staff. Back then, Dan did not believe in air conditioning. For real. This guy ran a restaurant in Newport that was packed all summer and in the middle of the hottest months, had no AC. He felt it detracted from the eating experience. Or something, who the Hell knows now? But running around all summer, sweating my ass off, spending my days at the beach and working at night, I lost a bunch of weight and felt better about myself.
It was an unforgettable, glorious experience. There’s more, but that’s the context of Puerini’s. I ended up coming back to work summers in ’02, ’06, ’07, ’08, ’09, ’10 and ’11. I would sublet my apartment in Washington Heights and come back and stay at my Mom’s. Beach all day, working with pretty girls all night serving amazing food and got paid for it. Banked the money, went back to Manhattan and hustled writing gigs. Pretty sweet.
When Ebony and I met, I dragged her back here and showed her my hometown. It was an easy sell and she fell in love with it. I turned her into a Chowdah Monstah – she had never had clam chowder before and became an aficionado. (Her faves: The Black Pearl and Flo's) All the people at Puerini’s embraced her. Dan, Joe Flowers, Joey Piotti, Meg McCoy – whom I have known since she was 15 – Nicole Santaniello, Kerry DiGiovanni, Shelly Pinto, Jamie Socci, Stef Christman, Erin Kenny, Anthea Lewis, MaryEllen Fitzpatrick, Cara Lee Willi, Jean Pinhero Puerini and Jennie Gehringer Puerini. Jen Marton, who only met Ebony once, embraced her. And people who were part of Dan’s family: Karen Puerini Razza and Peter Razza, Anthea’s mom, Beverly, and the Olympia Dukakis if she was Italian and the matriarch of the FAM, Marie Puerini (God rest her soul).
Ebony once asked me, “Are all your friends Italian? What are you, in the Mafia?”
I replied, “There’s no such thing as the Mafia. But if there was, and by some freak accident, I was… you would be my goo-mah.”
When she finally saw “The Sopranos,” (every season on HBO GO) after countless times trying to get her to watch, she said, “Oh, I get it now. And I am not your fucking goo-mah! If you ever say that again, I will have you whacked!”
Damn, she was awesome.
So when Ebony needed 24-hour care, I was in New York, in Queens and working as an Entertainment Writer and Producer for ABC News Radio. I wrote for them and sometimes for the dot com. It was a sensational gig and I loved it and I loved the people. But things went south for us and Ebony needed me. I managed to get her up to Newport for Thanksgiving and Christmas, but my Mother – who has a host of health issues and is now approaching 75 – had to go to the hospital a couple of times. Times that I could not return to help because Ebony was my priority. All those people I mentioned a couple of paragraphs back… all of them – ALL OF THEM – found ways to help. They visited, they sent Care packages to us, looked after my Mom and fucking rallied for a fucking no-good Irish shitbag like me. They brought food, went shopping (Jen Marton) and fed the stray cat my Mom took in.
Flash forward: Ebony passed on March 20. I turned 50 on March 30. I like to joke that Ebony decided to check out before she had to see me grow old. But I came back to Newport to drink my face off on my birthday – we were supposed to be in Italy – and I was surrounded by all these amazing people -- Louise Ruggeri, Michelle and Ian Estpahn-Owen. People I am proud to call my friends. Maybe I haven’t been the friend to them that they’ve been to me, and that haunts me; but they were fucking here for me, even if I was drunk and ridiculously self-indulgent about it. Chris Jones’ sister, Sarah – whom I have adored since high school and who was probably was the fulcrum for me as far as having a, um… “black girl thing.” She and her magnificent boyfriend took me out, knowing that I needed to keen like an Irish widow. All these people just fucking rallied. I will never and can never forget that.
So, flash forward: here I am. It’s September. I have spent the summer crying and going to concerts. It’s what Ebony and I would be doing otherwise (except the crying). And Dan Puerini asked me to help him. How the FUCK could I say no? What kind of person would I be? It wasn’t easy for me – I need my friends but I am a right crying mess of a person – but I did it. Three “guest bartending” shifts: no problem, right? Last week he told me that if I wanted it, and I was up to it, he would like me to work one shift a week. Thursdays. You know what? I didn’t hesitate.
And tonight, I felt good for the first time in a long time. I lost myself in the work and the anxiety wasn’t there. I was just working. Watching this amazing food go out and banging out drinks (I don’t like to make “pussy drinks” and thankfully he doesn’t have Alize or Midori) and making people happy. It was good for me. The money doesn’t suck, either. But, to be honest, I would do it if there was no money. Because you know what? After everything I’ve been through, I really don’t give a fuck. At all. The most important thing in life, as I have learned, is family and friends. Without that, you got nuthin’. Nuthin’.
And I have family and friends and I could not be more proud and honored. My happiness and sanity may always be at risk, and the depths of my depression over losing Ebony can only be measured in fathoms. But I have this one night, among true friends, and I can tell you that there is no better feeling. I wish Ebony was here for it. But she knew and she loved these people as much as they loved her. And I am lucky to have them in my life. Not because of how they treat me, but because of how they treated my mother and how they treated Ebbs.
So: I am working (if you can call it that) every Thursday at Ida’s, Dan’s “new” restaurant, which features some items from Puerini’s and some of Joey’s unique creations (short rib sliders? OMG~!). And I’m okay with that, and after tonight, I can tell you that I’m a little bit happy for a change.
So if you wanna stop by and sit at the bar and make fun of my hair (I have to pull it up in a pony), please join me. There is so much fucking heart here, it's like the cardio wing of your local hospital. And it tastes SO good. Which is something Ebony would have loved. So there.