“I’m feeling a little emotional about this,” my dad admitted, as he stabbed a sesame-coated bread stick into the pat of soft butter.
“Me too,” I said, trying to disguise the catch in my throat.
An hour earlier I had called him from my desk in a fit of inspiration. “What are you doing tonight?”
“Leave in an hour. I’m taking you to Gino.”
Gino was our restaurant, the red sauce Southern Italian boite near Bloomingdale’s favored by the blue hairs, the ladies who lunch, and the olde time-y New Yorkers who still understood the value in that perfect bowl of pasta alongside the ghosts of Jackie O and Frank Sinatra.
The menu hadn’t changed much in decades, save for the line at top that read credit cards honored. that was added last year. While Gino had died in 2001, the wait staff didn’t turn over. Or age. They all seem to have been born 64. The flowers were fake. The Christmas lights over the bar may have stayed up longer than they should. The maitre d’ never used a list, never took a reservation. He just caught your eye at the bar, made a mental note, and when your table was ready, it was ready.
Gino was comfortable, it was tacky, it was unfancy and it was fabulous.
But the defining characteristic of that restaurant, by any account, wasn’t the tangy aroma of the lauded Sauce Segreto; it was the wallpaper. The spectacular, miraculous, lose-yourself-in-it wallpaper featuring giant zebras leaping across a field of crimson.
The wallpaper was the perfect metaphor for the restaurant itself: You got it or you didn’t.
When the news broke last week that Gino was closing after 65 years on May 29 thanks to a rent increase, I gasped audibly, the way you might when you read that your favorite 60s-era sitcom star had died. I couldn’t imagine a New York without it. (Neither can people like Gay Talese or John Pizaarelli.) And that is why, with not a small degree of urgency, I insisted to my father that we make our way to midtown.
It must have been my grandpa who first took me here as a very young girl, to this crazy, funky restuarant, the zebra wallpaper place, 20 blocks south of his own apartment. He was a regular, and he made sure my Shirley Temple came with extra cherries. He introduced me to Gino, who kissed my hand and made me feel fancy, like the ladies in pearls seated around us, diving into their Proscuitto con Melone. He plied me with Fettucini a la Romana, ruining me for low-cal dining forever.
That was the first time we ate there together. The last time was in 1981, the time Grandpa whispered over stuffed artichokes I might not be around much longer.
But that wasn’t his last time there. My dad reminded me that when Grandpa needed a break from the tubes and the colostomy bags and the doctors and the medicines with the long names, my dad escorted him down to 61st and Lex and through the green and yellow doorway.
“He’s not supposed to eat that stuff you know,” my grandmother scolded my dad.
“He’s dying,” my dad said. “What’s the difference. Let the man go to Gino’s.”
You got it or you didn’t. My grandmother didn’t.
I remember the dinner there celebrating my triumphant return home from Providence. I remember the dinner on my first September 11 birthday since 2001 that I was able to stomach, but only if it were at Gino. I remember the first time I took my baby girl there in a carrier, awaiting the day that she would be old enough to sit upright at the table with her own grandpa, drinking Shirley Temples and discovering the exquisite joys of tiramisu.
He didn’t get that date with Thalia. He did get a date with me though.
As I had climbed out of the 59th Street subway station, headed across Lex towards the green and yellow sign for the last time, a text from my father popped up on my phone: This is the Gino I remember and love – bar is mobbed. Lots of people waiting for tables and no names. Just the boss remembering. And a great vodka gibson.
Sentimental diners wielding iPhones snapped photos of the wallpaper. Bottles of white wine sloshed into heavy stemmed glasses. “I saw Coppola in here just three weeks ago,” a guest whispered to a friend. Two ladies picked at their arugula salads. We were seated sooner than we should have been. We ordered second drinks. We finished the breadsticks. The kitchen ran out of stuffed artichokes.
psst… for another take, check out my dad’s post on his blog, A View from Madison Ave.