I fell for an older man, and I fell hard.
The night we met, I was in my office, chewing on the toothbitten plastic filter of a Tiparillo. Our first conversation went like this:
Brrrrrring. Brrrrrring. Brrrrrring.
Him: "Good evening, Ruggero's Bistro and Martini Bar..."
Me: "Yeah, hi. You open tonight?"
Him: "Yes, dear. We open every night at 5 o'clock."
Me: "Do I need a reservation?"
Him: [slight pause] "What's your name?"
Me: "Torchy. Torchy Blane."
Him: "Torchy, I'm Joseph, the maitre d'. Don't worry about a thing. You come on in and I'll take care of you."
I'm a total sucker for the words don't worry and I'll take care of you. This guy had my number. Right on his caller I.D. I got off the phone and told my spouse: "It's over between us. I've just met the man of my dreams."
But right away, doubts started to creep in. Was Joseph setting me up? Could he break even this tough old heart, promising a table that didn't exist? Or was he luring me in, planning a scam involving watery martinis and spongy pasta? Who was this Joseph? Why was he being so nice to me? What the hell was Ruggero's anyway, and how come I'd never heard of this fly-by-night operation before?
It was time to do some homework. I could be walking into a trap.
A couple of hours of investigative work and a few phone calls later, the pieces were falling into place. Ruggero's had the same name as the old joint on Federal Highway run by Chef John Albanese. But there the connection ended. When his health went bad and he had to close, Albanese more or less donated the name Ruggero's, along with his killer recipe for chicken livers with hot peppers, to the three principals who opened the place two months ago. The new guys, the kind of trio you'd be sorry to run into in a dark alley, had corralled Chef Luis DeGennaro and his wife, Jennifer, from the old Pà DeGennaro's in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. Now they had DeGennaro, just recovering from a motorcycle accident, hobbling around the kitchen on crutches, churning out his notorious "Mama's Everyday Sauce" and "panzanella salad" like a madman.
As for the trifecta of heavies who'd invested in this place, what a pretty little bunch of violets they were. One of them, "Bruce" Rossmeyer, was a legend in Lauderdale's biker culture. Along with the ten Florida Harley dealerships he already owned, Rossmeyer was building what he said would be the biggest Hog Heaven in the world, a $50-million, 150-acre biker theme park in Daytona called Destination Daytona. Then there was his partner, Harold "Hackie" Reitman, a pro heavyweight fighter and orthopedic surgeon; Reitman donated every purse he ever won to charity, boxing his last round in 2002 at the age of 52. These two met get this on the board of the Boys and Girls Club of Fort Lauderdale. How they'd hooked up with the third point of the triangle, "Butch" Samp, who owns the Floridian diner and Ernie's Barbecue, I didn't know yet. But I knew that Samp was a daredevil whose motorcycle and boating antics had left him walking with two canes and permanent spinal damage. Other than that, my trail had gone cold. I had ink in my blood and a nose for news. I needed to get down to Ruggero's.
When I pulled up about 7 p.m. that Sunday, under the blinking neon martini glass, the parking lot was already full of bling. The Caddies and Lexuses and Porsches were lined up like expensive dames at a Saks perfume counter. Joseph was at the front desk. He was wearing a good suit, and his silver hair was combed. He took one look at me. I looked back.
"Torchy," he said, shaking my hand. "Good to meet you. Your table's all ready."
Another first. A maitre d' who remembered my name. Shook my hand. And had a table. "Careful," I said to myself, "let's take it slow."
I glanced around. There was a mezzanine piano and martini bar, where somebody was softly playing "Moonlight in Vermont." A few tables of people were scattered around the big dining room, which had been done up in shades of butterscotch and burnt umber. White linen, black napkins in the crystal wineglasses. Muted paintings of abstract girls on the walls. If the effect they were going for was handsome and elegant, circa 1960s Italian-American, they'd succeeded. Every now and then, a blowzy blond in tight pants would drift through the door, and Joseph, who knew everybody, would seat her with one party or another. Weird, though. All the men, not just Joseph, were wearing good suits, including the table of three behind me. I tuned in to their conversation.
"We're friends of Hackie's," one of them told the waiter.
"Everybody's a friend of Hackie's," the waiter said back. "Every person who comes in here is a friend of Hackie's."
Hmm. So Hackie evidently had a lot of friends...
I opened the heavy, leather-bound menu and went through it line by line. There was the panzanella salad ($9.95) and an eggplant appetizer ($10.95). Asparagus wrapped in prosciutto ($10.95) and the famous chicken livers in Albanese sauce ($8.95). "Bring me a dirty martini," I told the waiter. "And some of that asparagus projoot. And the chicken livers."
I settled in for the long haul.
The martini was as cold and stiff as the contents of a mortuary drawer. The table behind me placed its order. "Not too heavy on the garlic," one of them told the waiter. "I can't take the garlic anymore; it makes me sick to my stomach."
"This guy's a wuss," said his friend. "And don't get me started on Long Island. The place is a hole, not fit for human habitation. One way in, one way out."
The chicken livers and the asparagus plate arrived, and I lost track of their conversation. One bite of those livers and I'd started to feel giddy. Another bite and I was tearing up. They were as silky and fragrant as the pair of stockings you've just helped somebody out of. Tossed with sautéed onions, a splash of wine, and very hot pepper rings a stroke of genius. Served over buttery crostini rubbed with a dash of Madeira. Scattered with chopped parsley. This appetizer would have served six and was richer than the coffers of an Atlantic City casino. It was the most meltingly divine concoction I've ever wrapped my tongue around. "Whoa," I thought. "Steady there."
Hard act to follow, but the asparagus, gently sautéed and wrapped in airy, salty prosciutto, drizzled with syrupy balsamic vinegar, and partnered with a fresh, tart green salad, was as cool and classy as the livers were hot-to-trot. "Bring me the eggplant appetizer and the panzanella salad," I said to the waiter. He gave me a serious look. But he brought the food.
Panzanella salad. Crisp golden croutons tossed with halved cherry tomatoes, roasted red peppers, capers, chopped garlic, shredded fresh basil, and a balsamic vinegar/extra virgin olive oil dressing set between four points of mildly bitter endive and sprinkled with a few fat curls of parmeggiano Regiano. Heavy on the garlic, but otherwise a sharp, clear salad to spur any flagging appetite. A plate of thinly sliced and grilled eggplant, just slightly crisp at the edges, was layered with creamy homemade mozzarella and smoky red peppers, sprinkled with fresh basil, and dusted with grated parmesan. Put it in your mouth and it dissolves into waves of flavor.
"I'll have the crispy skinned yellowtail snapper, Mama's Everyday Sauce, the veal Sinatra, and the pork tenderloin," I told the waiter when he came to clear away my appetizers.
Meanwhile, Hackie Reitman had come along and sat down with the table of guys behind me. He was a looming, dark man almost perfectly square, built like a prizefighter. Handsome face, with a great set of eyebrows. A nose you'd never know had been broken "more than a few times" over the years. His thighs were big and meaty. They made me think about that pork tenderloin I had coming. I tucked my napkin under my chin.
The night's special, crispy skinned yellowtail snapper ($24.95), had been butterflied and pan-fried in a lot of butter. The fish itself didn't have an overdose of flavor, but it was moist and luscious with butter, and the chewy, large-grained couscous and thin ribbons of carrot, zucchini, and yellow squash, which tasted like they'd been sautéed with a touch of vinegar, were warm and mellow (this dish actually reheated perfectly the next day). Veal Sinatra ($21.95) set a layer of tenderly sautéed spinach between two pale slices of veal, topped with a little bit of prosciutto and melted provolone and wrapped in a Madeira/portabella sauce that far outclassed its competitors elsewhere, just like the guy it was named after.
Now, if Chef Luis DeGennaro's mama actually made him the gravy he's serving "every day" instead of just on Sundays, he's a lucky son of a gun. Ruggero's "Everyday Gravy" is a spicy and fragrant tomato sauce, larded with sweet, sautéed onions and chunks of tomato. It comes with one whole, peppery Italian sausage; a fine, dense meatball that has sponged up all the sauce flavors; and a chunk of pork the size of Reitman's fist. It's all mixed up with chewy giant rigatoni and a coating of grated parmesan (the ricotta cheese had gone mysteriously missing, I noted). "Nobody has ever finished this plate of gravy in one sitting," my waiter told me. There was a note of challenge in those words. "Fly away, baby," I said. "And bring me a glass of Gabbiano."
I was just polishing off my pork tenderloin ($23.95) as the piano bar struck up the final song of the night, a jazzy rendition of the famous aria from Carmen. My tenderloin had been stuffed with sautéed mushrooms, drizzled with a viscous wine reduction, and nestled between a sculptural swirl of mashed potatoes and the crispest, buttered baby French beans you'll ever want to meet. I put down my fork, slathered a piece of soft Italian bread with sun-dried tomato hummus and a little herb butter, and raised my wine glass in the direction of the kitchen. "What's for dessert?"
"Black and white chocolate mousse pie," said the waiter at my elbow. "$7.95. It's excellent. Light as a feather." Turned out he was not telling a lie.
It was the first night of the rest of my life, and I never looked back: The beginning of a long, sweet relationship with Joseph the maitre d'. He lets me call him Joe Cadillac now. We've had some adventures, Joe and me. But that's another story.
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