Sunday, August 09, 2009

Scenes from Silver Creek: Johnnie’s

Johnnie’s was a family restaurant owned by a friend of my father. Johnnie Cannazaro and my dad grew up a few blocks away from each other; beat each other at baseball beat each other up over girls, eventually served in WWII together. They enlisted together, went to basic together and then ended up in different parts of the war. Afterwards there was some talk of going into business together, but they could never agree on what. My dad wanted to open a garage, but for Johnnie, there was only the idea of opening a restaurant and serving the recipes of his Italian grandmother.

Johnnie’s was the kind of place where you were served massive platters of antipasto before you even ordered, and where they actually had candles in old Chianti bottles. There was no menu, just a blackboard where Miriam, Johnnie’s wife, wrote the day’s offerings in pink chalk over drawings of misshapen bowls of soup and loaves of bread.

We didn’t often go out to dinner, as it was too expensive for our large family, but when we went, it was to Johnnie’s. As a child, I loved going there because I imagined it was what a celebrity felt like. We’d be greeted with hugs, shown to the best table, and generally fussed over. They’d bring me a Shirley Temple with extra cherries, which I hated but never said because I was afraid if I confessed my detestation for cherries the drinks would stop. And after dinner all us kids got free dessert, a scoop of vanilla ice cream or rainbow sherbet in a cold, silver cup.

It was at Johnnie’s where I first heard the phrase “your money is no good here.” We’d gone there for my mother’s birthday and when my dad went to pay, that’s what Johnnie said. As a kid, I was terrified. What was wrong with my dad’s money? Was it counterfeit? How would we pay for dinner? Would we be arrested? Hell, what did I know; I’d never gotten a free meal before and had no clue what he meant.

My brother Ronnie got a job there as a busboy for two summers in high school, and I remember Johnnie catering my sister Kathleen’s wedding. I also recall my mother sending me out on cold winter nights to pick up take-out containers of Johnnie’s minestrone to which he’s always add (to my immense pleasure) a warm, foil-wrapped plate of garlic bread.

Johnnie retired when I was in high school. He and Miriam had no children and, therefore, no one to leave the restaurant to. But after 30 years of feeding the town, the Cannizaro’s decided they wanted to relax. The last night at Johnnie’s party was full of great food and good memories, and my very first glass of wine. With a “don’t tell your mother” Johnnie passed me a plastic wine glass with Chianti in it and I lifted a toast with everyone else when my father said “to good times.”

I cried when it became a southern café that served pretty good fried chicken and pretty awful biscuits. And to this day I miss that minestrone and garlic bread.

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