A rivederci, Gino

"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?"

"Nothing, why?"

"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.

[photos: Jeremiah's Vanishing New York, Mom101, NY Times Magazine ]


psst... for another take, check out my dad's post on his blog, A View from Madison Ave.


Blogger Magpie said...

Beautiful paean to a time past. I can't believe that I never went there.

5/27/10, 2:30 PM  
Blogger Adventures In Babywearing said...

There's a place like this from my lifetime, not as fancy but I remember every detail. I haven't been in too long, and really must go before it's too late.

This made me feel.


5/27/10, 2:35 PM  
Blogger GIRL'S GONE CHILD said...

This was so lovely and so heartbreaking. Time does beautiful things to places and people and people in places. Money does ugly things to places and people and people in places.

It kills me when I read stories like these. All my old haunts are long gone - bulldozed down to make room for parking lots. I always blamed the suburbs but its just as bad in cities. Worse even because the casualties are greater.


5/27/10, 2:45 PM  
Blogger Mom101 said...

Thank you for understanding.

I have learned that a Sprinkles Cupcakes is going in its place, and it makes me sick to my stomach.

5/27/10, 3:29 PM  
Blogger GIRL'S GONE CHILD said...

We had a diner that was 50+ years old in our old neighborhood. It was replaced by a Pinkberry. :(

5/27/10, 4:03 PM  
Blogger GIRL'S GONE CHILD said...

Also? It's AMAZING to me that people aren't more angry about this. It makes me want to march somewhere with a very large sign.

5/27/10, 4:04 PM  
Blogger Amye Gumbinner said...

I have tears in my eyes. I could barely read your stunning tribute to this treasured NYC landmark and your Grandpa; who passed away the month before I met your Dad. I have enjoyed their Segreto sauce often and I will miss it as well. Thanks for the memories...

5/27/10, 4:38 PM  
Blogger The818 said...

My favorite childhood spot just shut down after 30 years in business, and well...let's just say they've paved paradise and put up a parking lot. Wonderful post. Sorry about Gino's.

5/27/10, 5:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So sad. What a beautiful post though. I wish I knew what else to say but I don't.

5/27/10, 5:14 PM  
Anonymous Selfish Mom said...

My God you're a beautiful writer. I have a lump in my throat. And I want breadsticks.

5/27/10, 5:15 PM  
Anonymous Lisse said...

This belongs in the NYT or a magazine.

After reading this, I had to go look up the place in NJ, I went with my Dad on Google Earth. It is still there. He passed away 30 years ago.

And oddly, I "get" the wallpaper.

5/27/10, 5:16 PM  
Blogger Ciaran said...

Oh! I have a lump in my throat now. I remember Gino's. I went there with my dad, too.

I suppose that is one thing I don't have to worry about here in the land of the strip mall. Something is always on the verge of becoming a Supercuts, and almost always before you get too attached.

5/27/10, 5:18 PM  
Blogger Her Bad Mother said...

My family had a place like that. The Dragon's Inn, an old school Cantonese buffet restaurant with an actual dragon statue outside and a brightly lit aquarium inside and the best sweet and sour pork in Vancouver. It disappeared some years ago, years after the last time that we'd been there, years before my Dad died, but I swear to the gods that it was the first place I thought of after his death, the place that I wanted to go to recapture, partially, the magic of dining out with Mom and Dad and Grandma and Grandpa. But it was gone and he was gone and there was a moment there where the one loss compounded the other in the most terrible way, and, yeah.

5/27/10, 5:23 PM  
Blogger Wink said...

What a lovely tribute.....Not only to Gino's, but to your Dad and Grandpa. If I win the jackpot Powerball drawing, I'll pay their rent forever so they'll stay open for all of those who love it so....

5/27/10, 5:24 PM  
Anonymous The Yummy Mummy said...

Oh Liz, when I saw the title of this post I thought, "She couldn't be talking about that Gino's, my Gino's."

I haven't been there since having the kids, that makes it 5 years now, but I spent many hours, lingering at the tables there, under that tacky wall paper with one very special friend, a friend I never see anymore, but wonder about. Someone who was a real blessing to me when I needed a blessing.

The fact that I won't be able to go there or walk by on the street and think of that friend, or pop in with my kids someday, well, that makes me sad.

Obviously, we are just two people in a city of many who have stories from that dining room and that says something about the place, doesn't it?

Your piece is lovely, so glad you wrote it.


5/27/10, 5:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You made me cry and I've never even heard of this place.

But, it reminds me of the places we used to go in my mother's small home town and how sad I was to watch one after another close in the late 70s early 80s as the owners passed and the children just wanted to escape.

Same sad feeling. Sorry you're losing such a family institution (ours was Lisle's Drug Store -- she sold cold cokes along with all the other stuff that you might need - necklaces, harlequin romances, etc., etc.)

5/27/10, 5:28 PM  
Blogger Stefania/CityMama said...

I can taste that fettucine and those stuffed artichokes because you brought me there with you words. Thank you...grazie. Che belle parole.

5/27/10, 5:35 PM  
Anonymous Julie @ The Mom Slant said...

How did I miss Gino? If Kyle and I had known about it when we lived so nearby, I'm sure we would have been frequent patrons.

Thank you for reminding me to reminisce fondly over all the special places I've loved that are gone now.

5/27/10, 5:38 PM  
Anonymous Isabel @AlphaMom said...

i love Gino's and I LURVE the wallpaper which luckily will forever be immortalized in a Woody Allen movie (I can't recall which right now-- but I see it in my mind's eye).

I believe those zebras have inspired more designers than most people realize.

Thank you for this touching tribute.

Craig and I will miss this place, the true New Yawkers we are.

5/27/10, 5:48 PM  
Blogger Nicole Pelton said...

What a great tribute, it so brought back memories of my uncle's restaurant. A NY style deli in Orlando for 39 years, got all his meats and hired his pastry chefs from NY and it hardly changed the whole time it was open. People rioted when it closed and offered big bucks for the last cheesecakes and cannolis, but it was the last restaurant standing in the strip mall.

5/27/10, 5:55 PM  
Blogger litanyofbritt said...

What a bummer. I'm glad you got to take your dad before it closed for good.

5/27/10, 5:56 PM  
Blogger J from Ireland said...

Aw that is so sad. It sounds like a lovely place that holds lovely memories for you. Best wishes

5/27/10, 7:16 PM  
Blogger Gabrielle of Design Mom said...

What a sincere and beautiful tribute. It made me heartsick.

5/27/10, 7:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sorry about Gino. Reading your post makes me sad that I don't have a place that means this much to me. A place with so many memories. A place that some people get. And some people don't. I'm making it a goal to find myself a Gino.

5/27/10, 7:56 PM  
Blogger Susan C said...

Sometimes a restaurant is much more than a restaurant.

Thanks for the touching tribute.

5/27/10, 8:01 PM  
Blogger Paul S. Gumbinner said...

What is so amazing about this post is that you and I each wrote a tribute to Gino's. We each wrote the same thing in different ways. not the same thing, the identical thing. (Mine will post Tuesday) I read your post with tears in my eyes. And I loved the comments. Gino was a special place, wasn't it? It will live in our minds and hearts. As will your tribute. Dad

5/27/10, 8:28 PM  
Blogger Tirzah said...

This was so beautiful...so amazing. I feel as if I was in the moment. The crazy zebra wallpaper is gorgeous and strange and yet it works for what you've described. It's unfortunate that things like this happen. Beautiful writing!

5/27/10, 8:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The bar where I met my husband officially closed down the day we returned from our honeymoon and we were devastated. It was such a special part of our lives and it was gone. :(

5/28/10, 12:36 AM  
Blogger cheri said...

i've never been to gino's (since i live in another continent) and now, i dont think i'll ever have that chance. but thank you for remembering for all of us :)

5/28/10, 2:45 PM  
Anonymous brochure said...

Ah, bummer, it's always so sad to see one of your favorite places leave. And obviously it affects so many people, the owner, the staff that worked there, the neighborhood.

5/28/10, 4:30 PM  
Blogger Mahlers On Safari said...

So sorry for your loss.

5/28/10, 4:53 PM  
Anonymous dusty earth mother said...

That was so lovely, Liz.

And I have nothing to say about the Sprinkles Cupcakes. Because my throat is full of sprinkle-less bile.

5/28/10, 10:46 PM  
Blogger Fairly Odd Mother said...

Ugh. Time marches on and sometimes totally squashes some of the best things.

5/29/10, 9:31 AM  
Blogger Emma said...

The wallpaper is awesome! It's horrible when places like this close down. Glad you got to go with your Dad one last time. A lovely post!

5/29/10, 10:25 AM  
Blogger SUEB0B said...

It is a shock to lose something you assume will be there forever...here it was our little corner hot dog stand, the Top Hat

5/29/10, 5:40 PM  
Anonymous Motherhood Uncensored said...

For everything we've gained with time and technology, it's places like these that we lose. And it's what I fear my kids will miss out on - the character, vibe, and life of these "joints" that are memorable not just for what they were, but what they were to us in our own lives.

The wallpaper may go but the rich memories - and the taste the what sounds to be amazing food - lives on.

5/30/10, 1:02 PM  
Blogger Issas Crazy World said...

For some reason this made me cry.

I'm glad you were able to go one last time with your dad.

5/30/10, 2:39 PM  
Blogger Oasis Daily said...

Gosh... This made me sad and a bit nostalgic for NYC. Gino was a treasure and I would give my right arm for the chopped salad recipe. I used to walk by there once a week on the way home from a long day at Sanford Bernstein. Somehow I once pleaded and cajoled Sal into letting me place a "to go" order (gasp!). I did not abuse the priviledge, but every now and again he would aquiesced. It was a wonderful way to end a hard day savoring The finest Italian treat from the comfort of my home. The zebras dancing in red will forever be tattooed in my mind. There's no place like this in Miami.

6/1/10, 12:50 AM  
Blogger Seth Kaye said...

What a beautiful remembrance of how things used to be in New York, and of when times felt so different and simpler. Gino will always be for me the essence of New York City dining, great food served professionally in a unique atmosphere that didn't choose flash over substance. It was always so unique seeing the owner, maitre'D and the waiters bus their own tables.

Thanks for your touching words. Of course I had to pen my own thoughts on the sad shuttering of Gino, at http://zenandtheartofeating.blogspot.com/

6/1/10, 2:35 PM  
Blogger Judy said...

I loved Ginos so much! I used to go there every Sunday with my parents and grandparents. When you said sesame breadstick in pat of butter I almost fainted from the memories. I always meant to bring my kids there...I'm so sad that I didn't...it's like Cats in the Cradle...
But I'm sending this to everyone in my family.
Thanks for this Liz
I love that your father has a blog too!!!

6/1/10, 4:39 PM  
Anonymous Carol said...

Gino's will always have a special place in my family's heart. It was my parents' "New York Club" although they don't live there. And every trip to NYC included at least 1 meal at Gino's. I had the privilege of taking my own children there and they loved it because they knew of how their grandparents, mother, and uncles felt about it.
Ciao, Gino's. I look forward to its reincarnation...soon.

6/4/10, 12:28 AM  
Blogger Nicole Feliciano said...

Mr. Momtrends and I have been there only 2-3 times together...but I share your love. It was timeless and so uncool that it was cool all over again. Where to next?

6/7/10, 3:39 PM  

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