The Italian restaurant

by Lorin Michel Saturday, April 13, 2013 12:51 AM

On Billy Joel’s 1977 album, The Stranger, there was a song called Scenes from an Italian Restaurant. Though never released as a single, it is one of his most recognizable and most celebrated songs. It’s an anthem, really, and at 7 minutes and 37 seconds, almost an opera. In fact, it has three distinct sections that tell three parts of the story. It begins as a piano ballad, nostalgic and warm, celebrating two former classmates as they meet for dinner. Then there’s an up-tempo jazzy middle with both a clarinet and a saxophone solo. The third act, the grand finale, is a 1960s kind of rock blowout about the ballad of Brenda and Eddie.

It’s very much like scenes from an Italian restaurant, especially the old Italian restaurants of the 40s, 50s, 60s, even the 70s, when Italian restaurants were just extensions of Italian families. They weren’t the high-society, sophisticated, new age and modern places we have today that often serve great food but have no soul; no true Italian personality. They’re lovely but not old-school Italian.

Italian restaurants of old were like going to the grandparents’ house. The décor was tacky, complete with plastic red-checked table cloths. If there were no table cloths, the tables were just bare wood. Empty chianti jugs sported candles. Plastic grapes hung in the corners. There were badly framed pictures of Jesus and the president and the pope on the walls. In that order. The music was always very ethnic Italian. Polkas and Vicki Carr or Dean Martin. The lighting was dark and the voices were loud. The smells of garlic and Chianti and bread intermingled like lovers at a cocktail party.

I love the boisterousness of a good old-fashioned Italian restaurant. Love the throw back to Italy. Which is not to say that Italy is loud, but Italians are passionate people. Their normal speaking voices are one level below shout, and their angry voices are not a whole lot different. I say this as someone with Italian heritage.

I’ve written before about my great grandmother Mercurio who literally came over on the boat from Italy. She and my great grandfather settled in Pittsburgh for reasons I don’t know. They lived in a tiny house on Squirrel Hill. It had two bedrooms, I believe, and one bath. They had 10 children, 7 girls and 3 boys. My grandmother, my mother’s mother, was the youngest girl. I’m sure it was a noisily loud household. I suspect there wasn’t a lot of singing. They were poor and had nothing more than each other. I’m sure they had a radio and listened to it. I’m sure they ate lots of pasta and tomato sauce because it was cheap. I’m pretty sure my great grandmother grew her own tomatoes, and probably canned them so that she had “fresh” tomatoes all year long to cook with.

Tonight we went to an Italian restaurant. It wasn’t like Christiano’s in Syosset, New York, out on Long Island, to whom Billy Joel dedicated his song. It was a restaurant that was old Italian. Tacky, warm, loving and loud. Joel’s inspiration for the song was actually as place called Fontana di Trevi. In the song, he wrote this line: “A bottle of white, a bottle of red, perhaps a bottle of rosé instead?” It was actually a question asked by a waiter. It’s a bit of sacrilege to drink rosé, but Italians are also known to drink their Chianti out of jelly glasses. They also tend to chill their Chianti. Talk about sacrilege.

We were at Grissini Ristorante, owned by Guiseppe Bellisario, in Agoura Hills. It’s sort of a cross between old-fashioned and modern but it leans more toward dark and red and Frank Sinatra. He used to have an Italian restaurant down in Hollywood, many years ago. Roy knew him then, when Roy worked at Capitol Records/EMI and frequented restaurants in the area. He got to know Guiseppe. When we first took him and Bobbi to Grissini several years ago, Roy and Guiseppe recognized each other right away. There was much hugging and loud exclamations. Roy was Italian that night.

It’s the Italian way. It’s what the Italian restaurant is known for, these scenes. Love, hugs, firm greetings and stern good-byes.

A bottle of red, a bottle of white Whatever kind of mood you’re in tonight I’ll meet you anytime you want In our Italian Restaurant. 

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live out loud

Comments (4) -

4/13/2013 6:49:59 AM #

Loved the nostalgia and ... going back in time.


mom United States

4/13/2013 9:08:10 AM #

Billy Joel tells the story himself of how “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” came to be when he was on “Inside the Actor’s Studio” with James Lipton. Telling of the construction of the three sections itself is completely fascinating. But what I really liked is when he explained what happened when he was stuck for lyrics. He tells of how he actually was sitting in an Italian restaurant with a completely blank notepad in front of him and feeling hopelessly utterly stuck with how to begin the lyrics when his waiter literally came over to him and said, “A bottle of red? A bottle of white?” Billy just looked up at him, smiled, and said, “Thank you”. Brilliant, I think.

As a songwriter I make sure to watch that entire show once a year every year. If you’re a songwriter or just a Billy Joel fan, this is a fantastically must-see “Inside the Actor’s Studio” appearance.

Fred United States

4/13/2013 5:27:13 PM #

I had never seen that episode of "Inside the Actor's Studio," a series I always enjoy. I'll find it and watch it today.


Lorin United States

4/14/2013 2:30:32 PM #

Billy Joel is the first and only ever songwriter to appear for the voice itself on "The Actor's Studio", which is a remarkable achievement.

Fred United States

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