“You better come very hungry,” Gerry warned us all in preparation for our impromptu dinner at a place called Patrizia’s in the Woodlawn section of the Bronx.
This deviation from our normal gathering routine where we take turns finding a restaurants that meet our budget requirements of $20 or less per person was based on Gerry’s insistence that Patrizia’s, though for our frugal selves, costly, worth the added expense.
What was this Patrizia’s place Gerry was so high on and how come I hadn’t heard of it if it was as good as he claimed. Sure it was hidden in an Irish enclave of Woodlawn, but with today’s media, social and otherwise, a restaurant would be hard pressed to find itself “under the radar,” as we used to say when such places existed.
Only Zio, who was assigned grandfather duty by the demanding and uncompromising Colonel, could not make it. Rick, a rare presence at our normal gatherings, even made it a point to drive to the Bronx on this pleasant August evening.
As we entered, Eugene, who has an uncanny memory for faces and names from his illustrious Battle Hill childhood, stopped short when the owner of Patrizia’s, greeted Gerry, his longtime business associate.
“Carmine Sunshine,” Eugene addressed the owner with a grin that almost turned into a smile. “What’s it been, 30 years?”
Carmine Sunshine shrugged as if he had no clue. And then the two men hugged.
“This is the guy that wouldn’t let me buy a slice at Sunshine Pizza,” Eugene said to us as we witnessed the reunion. “I felt guilty going in there. He wouldn’t take my money.” The connection, I was quickly to learn was that Carmine, the current owner of Patrizia’s was once the owner of a very popular pizzeria in downtown White Plains called Sunshine Pizza.
Carmine seemed overwhelmed by the adulation bestowed upon him by Eugene and was literally speechless. Instead, he led us to a huge booth in a private room and slid into the booth with us, apron tied around his ample waist. After some small talk with Eugene bringing up names from Sunshine Pizza’s past like Nicky, Sal, Joe, and Phil, Carmine stood up and did that thing chefs do when they are about to test their guests’ eating endurance—he clapped his hands and said: “So, any food allergies I should know about?”
Only Rick responded with a feeble, “Um…pine nuts. I can’t eat pine nuts.
Carmine nodded and headed off to the kitchen.
“Do we order?” Mike from Yonkers asked Gerry.
“No, he’ll just start bringing what he has.”
Mike from Yonkers flipped the menu away. “Okay, let him bring it then.”
“Oh he will,” Gerry responded, indicating he knew something we didn’t.
First to arrive on the table was a small pizza made in the restaurant’s wood burning oven. I have a faint recollection of Sunshine Pizza, but one thing I am sure of, that slice joint never had a wood burning oven. Carmine’s pizza was crisp, layered lightly with cheese and tomato sauce. It was a winning start.
Following the pizza, a waiter deposited a platter of coconut crusted shrimp on our table.
“This is the first time I can truly say I’ve had anything with coconut in an Italian restaurant,” I announced.
“Yeah, what was Carmine thinking?” Gerry wondered as he speared one of the jumbo shrimp and shoveled it into his mouth.
Carmine himself brought the next course; a fennel salad adorned with grilled calamari and dusted with…pignoli nuts. After presenting it he slapped the side of his own head realizing his mistake with the inclusion of the pine nuts and their toxic effect on Rick. “Okay, I’ll bring something else,” he stammered and while all but Rick sampled the aromatic fennel salad, he returned quickly with an overflowing platter of steamed little neck clams.
“Just ‘cause your allergic to pine nuts doesn’t mean you’re getting all those clams,” Gerry barked as he spooned a few onto his plate drizzling them with their own broth.
Before we could finish with the clams and fennel salad, another waiter presented a platter of roasted Italian peppers stuffed with cheese and sausage. With the previous four courses consumed the hunger that I was told to bring by Gerry had now faded, but that didn’t stop me from devouring one of the peppers, the saltiness of the sausage complimenting the sweet pepper and the mild mozzarella.
I sipped a glass of wine from the magnum of Cabernet on our table hoping to clear my palate and reintroduce that hunger before the next course but there was no time. Carmine appeared like a sadistic inquisitor with a platter of octopus cooked in his fiery wood burning oven. How could I resist?
I looked at Gerry. “Is this man planning to kill us here, so close to Woodlawn Cemetery,” I asked once Carmine was out of sight.
“Stop complaining,” Gerry said with disgust. “We haven’t even gotten to the pastas yet.”
And that was what I feared. I drank water and got up to go to the bathroom mainly just to stretch my legs and work off the first five courses. When I returned, there was a “family-size” platter of homemade cavatelli with more of that salty sausage and broccoli rabe sitting alongside another platter of what Carmine explained were “money bags,” or golf ball size dumplings stuffed with four cheeses in a rich mushroom and ham sauce. Both pastas were spectacular but also weighty on my already swollen belly. That didn’t stop me or others in my “family” from quickly consuming what had been assembled on the family-sized platters.
I paused to breath. I knew there was more to come. After all we had really only dined so far on the “primi,” even though the “primi” courses were coming perilously close to double digits.
Money bags on the left, cavatelli on the right.
“It’ll be awhile before the fish is ready,” Carmine explained; an almost evil smile on his face. “It’s cooking in the oven.”
“The pizza oven?” I asked.
He nodded. “Sure come take a look.”
Any excuse to get up and move; to stretch and work off whatever I could of what I’d already eaten was more than welcome.
In a pan close to the glowing embers were two huge branzino, also known as sea bass, juices simmering in the heat of the oven. They looked beautiful and momentarily revived my appetite. I lingered for a bit there, not wanting to get back to food quite yet even though I had a responsibility to fulfill.
Branzino in the oven
When I returned to the table I saw, at least to my ancient eyes, what looked like a football covered in brown gravy. Upon closer inspection what was on the table was really an enormous shank of osso buco and it had been placed in front of my seat reminding me that there was work yet to be done.
Mike from Yonkers was now eating standing up and groaning while continually shoveling food into his mouth. Two huge bowls of chicken, potatoes and vinegar peppers just added to the decadent misery we were experiencing.
I picked at a pepper. I broke off a piece of the tender veal shank and nibbled at it. And then finally the branzino arrived—each fish in an individual platter coated in a light tomato sauce and topped with shrimp and clams. I pierced the skin of the fish and scooped out the white moist meat not bothering with the clams or shrimp. I just wanted to say I at least tried the fish. And then I couldn’t help myself. I filleted a little more and, finding reserves I never knew I had, finished it off.
I turned to Gerry. “If he comes back tell him ‘no mas,’” I pleaded.
“Yeah I’m done,” Rick muttered, a dazed look on his face.
Only Eugene remained unfazed by the feast. He was still glowing over the blast from the past in seeing Carmine. “He wouldn’t let me buy a slice? I couldn’t go in there anymore,” he repeated again as if we didn’t hear him either the first or second time he mentioned it.
Carmine slid into the booth again. “What about a steak,” he whispered to Gerry.
Gerry laughed and swiped his finger across his neck signifying that we were done.
“Okay I’ll just get dessert,” Carmine said, not waiting for us to protest the arrival of more food
A fruit platter followed and then, the finale, pastries, stuffed with molten dark chocolate cooked in the wood oven and topped with powdered sugar. I summoned my reserves and found room for both.
Mike from Yonkers took the Branzino that was untouched home to his betrothed while Gerry and I went out with doggie bags of the chicken and potatoes. Nothing remained on the shank of veal that was once osso buco. And all the money bags somehow had been disposed of as well.
We thanked Carmine Sunshine. Eugene gave him another hug. “I’ll see you in another 30 years,” he joked.
“Next time I’ll make you a steak,” he told all of us and maybe it was the short stroll to my car on now desolate Katonah Avenue that momentarily gave me a second wind, or maybe I had more in my reserve than I thought, because by the time I got into the car returning for a steak actually sounded like a good idea.
4358 Katonah Ave