Wednesday, January 29, 2014
Gaetano's and Mafia Chic
Last week I made a road trip up into Colorado -- a beautiful state with lots of guns and public radio stations. I had an audition in the Denver area, and drove up a day early so I would have a full night's sleep for the audition. Coincidentally, my driving day was also my birthday. Happy birthday to me, honk honk. I drove 650 miles into higher altitudes and colder temperatures, and for the most part I did not think about my birthday. Once I had arrived in Denver and checked into a Mold-tel 6, it occurred to me that I might treat myself to a nice dinner, perhaps accompanied by a glass of wine.
Since most of the options around the Moldtel were fast food chains, I did some exploring and found mostly Mexican places, but eventually stumbled upon what appeared to be -- and ultimately was, yes indeed -- an Italian restaurant.
The place is called Gaetano's, on Tejon Street off of Federal Boulevard. There was a pretty scary car accident there almost a year ago.
The place has a back story. It was a business owned by an Italian-American family that did some bootlegging on the side. The sons got involved in mobsterness and when they took over the business they added gambling and prostitution as off-menu services.
That family no longer owns the restaurant, but it is something of a shrine to the Smaldones, with photographic murals, displays in the rest room (where exclusive guests once accessed a stairway to all of the delights upstairs), and even the little clipboard that carries your check at the end of the meal is decorated with mobsters' mug shots. A little conversation piece to go with your tiramisu.
I know this story because my server was very eager to tell me all about it. It is part of the place's brand: its history and its decor put crime -- specifically, Italian-American organized crime, one of pop culture's enduring fixations -- at the center of your dining experience.
If I were to make one suggestion to the owners of this restaurant, knowing it will go unheeded, I would say the mafia stuff is utterly unnecessary. Gaetano's could be known as a superior Italian restaurant for the low-to-medium price range. I had such an enjoyable dinner, I invited friends to lunch there the next day. We had excellent, prompt, and friendly service; a comfortable atmosphere in which to eat; the food is excellent and the portion sizes are just about right. If you like wine with your meal, there is a list of decent and affordable wines; there is also a good beer selection and a cocktail bar that I did not visit. Without hesitation, I recommend this place.
The restaurant's history is certainly fair game -- it is local history, after all. But to some extent it buys into the mafia chic that is part of our pop culture, full of movies and television shows depicting criminal syndicates run by Italian-American males, with their alternative systems of "justice," often depicting them as romantic figures, even as noble.
I grew up near Providence, Rhode Island. In the 1970s, when I was a kid, there were still occasional "hits" in restaurants on Federal Hill. My family had no connection to organized crime, but it's a small state and we knew people. A family acquaintance who visited our house on more than one occasion was a hit man. It wasn't discussed openly but we knew that's what he did for a living. In my teenage years, I hit it off with a young lady and thought about mustering the courage to ask her out, but she was a daughter of a crime family and the fear of the attention I'd get if she went out with me was even greater than my own bashfulness around girls. I never asked her out.
I heard stories from people who spoke of small business owners who would get visits from local mobsters who wanted to buy their businesses or sell protection services. Business owners who refused faced repercussions, 'nuff said.
Organized crime is not bound by ethnicity. There are Irish mafias, Russian mafias, Japanese mafias. Not far from where I live, there is a great deal of violence perpetrated by Mexican mafia organizations that we call "cartels." There are highly organized and well-funded criminal syndicates with diverse Latino and Anglo participation that are not called "mafia." We call them "gangs" although they are much more than that.
But there is something about Italian-America mafia. The culture can't get enough of it. It's like the most addictively delicious marinara sauce ever known to humankind. It's comfort food for a culture that loves mental junk food. How well do people distinguish fantasy and reality? When people like John Gotti get elevated to the status of cult heroes you have to wonder.
I still get Facebook invites to play mafia-themed browser games. They are popular.
There is nothing beautiful or honorable about this stuff. On one level, a little gambling and some tug jobs in the back room of a restaurant might be titillating for a second, but it's not interesting. On the next level, we have racketeering, loansharking, intimidation and violence. Are these enterprises noble or respectable? And at the next level, we are talking about traffic in dangerous and destructive drugs, alternative systems of law that have nothing to do with justice, the destruction of young people's lives and their families, and cyclical violence over market share and turf. You can set that to a score by Nino Rota or Ennio Morricone, but you aren't going to make it look beautiful.
What's really strange is how resilient it is. The Godfather was an exceptional film about Italian-American culture and crime, portraying the brutality in a story that is deeply tragic. Goodfellas certainly doesn't sugarcoat the reality (it is based on a true story). What these people do -- regardless of ethnicity -- is dangerous, unjust, undemocratic, and ignoble. And yet people lionize the characters of these films as attractive anti-heroes.
At Gaetano's there are prominent pictures of young and middle aged, handsome men, often in business suits, looking mostly like respectable businessmen with just a tantalizing hint of danger about them. We get closer to the reality with black and white mug shots of dangerous men involved in dangerous business. But mafia chic never gets too close. You will never see full-color depictions of things like, say, what happened to Francesco Raccosta in Calabria. The fictitious Corleone family is a pre-school compared to the 'Ndrangheta. We like our mafia a little watered down: we like John Gotti walking around New York being nice to children on the street, but the reality of how he made his living must be discretely veiled.
The reality behind this pop culture fantasy is repugnant and frightening; and as the parmesan on top of this poison spaghetti, I have put up with jokes, and sometimes not-jokes, by people buying into certain assumptions about people with Italian surnames. It is entirely acceptable in pop culture to allow mafia stereotypes to represent tens of millions of Americans.
Yes, there are people experiencing bigotry in degrees far more severe than this. I do not face the same things faced by my friends who are gay, who are black, who are Jewish or Muslim, who are women, who have changed their gender. Still, this does exist, and its social acceptance is evident in the hurt reactions and the pushback I get on the rare occasions I bring this topic up. (It sometimes turns into a weird competition -- "I'm Irish, we get stereotyped too, so shut up!" Fine, here's your gold medal. Now I'll just slink off into cowed silence and learn my place.)
And so we have this place Gaetano's, which for the most part puts good food front and center.
The next step might be to lose the mug shots.