His mom provided the inheritance and amazing Italian recipes.
- Posted on Aug 27, 2019
FOR SALE. The sign on the pizza joint that winter taunted me. From the time I was a kid I’d dreamed of owning my own restaurant. Now here was the perfect place. Not so big that my wife and I couldn’t handle it on our own. A great location, right on the main drag, Route 15. Ideal for hungry skiers passing through northern Vermont in winter. Or the leaf peepers in the fall. There was just one thing standing between me and my dream: money. I was flat broke. No way could I afford to buy, let alone run, my own business.
Every day, driving to my job managing the housekeeping department at the Smugglers’ Notch ski resort, I slowed the car to a crawl as I passed by the place, hoping against hope for some burst of inspiration. It was called Papa Joe’s and was literally the only restaurant in tiny Cambridge. I’d tried every way I knew to work something out, even asking the owner if she would be willing to lease it to me. But her husband had died and she needed the cash. I understood. But what could I do? Outside of divine intervention I didn’t see it happening.
Early one morning I actually parked my car out front and sat wishing there was something I could do to make it my own. It wasn’t owning a business that excited me. I wanted to cook delicious food for people to enjoy together. Good food, to me, was the greatest gift you could share. It was a gift my mother gave our family every night.
Growing up, I’d gotten my love for cooking from my mother. Anytime she was in the kitchen I was there watching, eager for a chance to lick a spoon or help add some spices. We were Italian, and for Mom, cooking was as natural as breathing. I loved watching her stir together tomatoes, onion, garlic and a handful of oregano, letting it all simmer until it became the consistency of gravy and tasted downright heavenly. When she made the meatballs the size of my fists, she always set aside a couple for me to eat on my own later. We couldn’t count on leftovers, but there was always enough to feed whoever dropped in. “Delicious, Angelina!” “My compliments to the chef, Angelina!” Everyone loved Angelina’s cooking.
Mom told me her name meant “little angel” in Italian. I didn’t know much about angels, but if they were anything like my mother, I knew they must be warm and loving beings I definitely wanted to have around my establishment. I felt a little silly, sitting in the parking lot, dreaming my dream. But dream I did. I wanted to be able to tell Mom I’d turned that Papa Joe’s FOR SALE sign into one that said SOLD.
She liked to tell the story of my first job at the restaurant where my dad worked. I started out as a dishwasher, but one day I asked the cook if I could roll out the dough for a pizza, then layer on the sauce and pepperoni. What a feeling of accomplishment, watching the pie come together before my eyes. “You’re ready to put it in the oven,” the cook said. “You have to zap it in.” He showed me how to slide the wooden peel under it, then with one motion slide the pizza off onto the baking rack. I did it my first try! “I’m going to open my own restaurant,” I told my parents that night. “You better get a business degree then,” Dad said. “It’s not enough just to know how to cook.”
I’d done that. Twelve years later I was married with a young son but no closer to my dream. Dad had died without seeing me succeed, but I hoped Mom might live to see it happen. Perhaps it was time to give up. I pulled away from the restaurant and headed to work. Maybe God has other plans for me, I thought.
A few weeks later my brother called. My mother had suffered a heart attack and was near death. I dropped everything and caught a plane to Georgia, where she’d been visiting my brother. She spent her last hours surrounded by me and my siblings. Letting her go was the hardest thing I have ever done. After the funeral, we learned that Mom had left each of us a small inheritance. It was just shy of what I needed for the down payment on Papa Joe’s. I knew it was meant to be when the mortgage company allowed me to make the purchase with a second loan.
My wife and I stood together in the parking lot, admiring the sold sign on Papa Joe’s. “What should we call it?” I asked.
“We should name it after your Mom,” my wife said. “Angelina’s. She was the one who made it possible.”
I hired an artist to paint a large red-and-white sign on the building: ANGELINA’S RESTAURANT. HEAVENLY ITALIAN FOOD. Looking down on the words was an angel with wings and a halo, tossing a pizza crust.
Behind the counter I hung a framed photo of Mom. When people ask who Angelina is, I point to the picture and tell them about my mother, how she had inspired me to want to cook for a living. Of course, we use her marinara-and-meatball recipe in the restaurant. We don’t see many leftovers.
The dining room is big enough for only five tables, seating 20 people at most, but our business is largely takeout. From Day One customers loved our homemade thin-crust pizzas and deep-fried calzones. The top selling pizza is the Big A, covered with onions, sweet peppers, mushrooms, pepperoni and sausage.
We get the skiers and leaf peepers, just as I’d imagined, but most of all Angelina’s is a community fixture. A gathering place to catch up on local news, to celebrate birthdays, graduations and anniversaries. A place of warmth and love, just like my mother’s kitchen. After 30-plus years in business, some of my employees are the children of my earliest employees.
I can tell you some stories, all right. Like the time a car missed a turn and plowed right into the dining room at dinnertime. Miraculously no one was hurt—not even the driver. It’s been an amazing journey, truly a dream come true.
People don’t ask so much about Mom any more, or about the angel gracing the sign out front. They’re used to it by now. Sometimes, I admit, even I don’t stop to take it all in.
One day I was sharing a pizza with Father Robert, the priest from St. Mary’s Church, which is directly across the street from us. I was telling him the story of how Angelina’s came to be, about the joy I’d been blessed to be a part of. “It’s like someone’s watching over us,” I said.
Father Robert bit into a slice of pizza and nodded. “It’s your mother,” he said. “She’s with the angels.”
“That’s right,” I said. Maybe Mom wasn’t an actual angel. But she’ll always be the little angel to me, looking down on this little bit of heaven along Route 15.
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