Sunday dinner service is a sharp rebuttal to whatever was said in church that morning about faith increasing as circumstances turn us more wretched. Do you remember what a pacifier tastes like? You do if you've worked in the NYC restaurant business for eighteen years, not superstar material but competent enough so that when you threaten to quit every year or two they stuff a meaningless tooth-marked promotion in your mouth.
We, me and one of the three waiters who should be arriving now, get to the restaurant just as the Empire State Building's shadow begins to cast its narrow opinion over Midtown East. What an indignity it is for the captain not to be trusted with front door keys. But the door is unlocked, which means Rolando is there. And there he is, wiping down the bar counter that will never be clean. In another time there might have been a full waitstaff still taking post-brunch service shots of anything together, but the owners gave up on brunch two years ago.
First seating is at 5:30. She asks for a Campari and soda and he says he wants a Gibson, attempting a tone of voice that dares Rafael to tell him we don't have cocktail onions.
Good going, old man. I watch from behind the Compaq 256-color monitor we still use to process card payments. Good going you decrepit f***. You made the drive from Nassau County to Manhattan in only forty years. You indomitable tycoon of middle management, the Jack Welch of showing up every day. Good practice for the graveyard, all you have to do there is show up every day. I notice suddenly that I'm hissing at myself, not Mr. Kohland. He's a good customer, here twice a month with Karen.
And like that the owner's wife has roosted on the corner of their table with her brittle Art Deco hospitality. For the lady, the same questions she gets every time about her nails and her kids and her grandkids. For the gentleman, some cliched flirtation to keep his arthritic ego limber. Oh, stop. Eventually she leaves, loudly telling Rafa to ensure the Kohlands' every need is met, and winking at me as she returns to her office where she'll shop online until she screws up her computer.
By 6:30 there are five tables and though I could hang back and let Rafa and Macedonio deal with all of them, I take the six-top at table 13 to pass some time. It looks like a family, or parts of two families. They tell me which pastas they want (one grunts for steak which is furious with gristle here, every time) and I start for the kitchen.
"And we'd like a bottle of the..." I turn around to the chipmunk-cheeked millenial, the scion of the blond-haired family, who is still speaking to me with his eyes and finger on the wine card. "...Antinori Chianti." The card lists Antinori Chianti Classico Peppoli 2008, but our distributor hasn't delivered this wine for five weeks because the owner called him a shyster on the phone.
This is going to work in the table's favor , because it forces me to bring them the only Antinori wine we have, IGT Toscana 2007. My money's on the kid not noticing, and if he does I can either go apologetic or intimidating. Either way, they're taking it. And they should anyway, because this is a better wine from a year when the sometimes-vindictive Tuscan terroir was in concert with the intentions of the growers and their winemaker frenemies.
Sangoviese, no other varietal in Tuscany or anywhere is so taffy-stretched between tradition and modernity. The crusty, oxidized sad clown tragedies in wicker fiaschi under filthy corks are losing shelf space to glistening, inflatable panders, microoxygenated, reverse-osmosised and Fren-choked into submission under surgically clean corks.
Sangiovese, ushered to the IGT guillotine by thuggish Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah as the "contemporary market", the bloodthirsty rabble eager to see the beheading and drink the drainage, jeers.
Not this one, though. This is a dignified, generous wine in spite of our best attempts to disgrace it with our smudged stemware and indifferent food. In this bottle, gentle Merlot and decisive Syrah lend Sangiovese the compassion and motivation it needs to be better. I will drink anything they don't finish straight from the bottle.
I show it to the young master at the most inconvenient angle I can manage. He looks at the label, nods at me, and then looks back to the label as I step back to pull the cork. He says nothing, but has noticed this is not the Peppoli. Bright boy. He says nothing. When you are twentysomething and tasked with ordering wine on behalf of your elders, you probably don't know what to do when the script breaks. As in lovemaking, when something goes wrong in wine service it can be better or at least intuitive to pretend it didn't.
These feedbags are out at a restaurant tonight, having the experience they wanted to pay for: Looking at a menu, the most autonomy they've had all day. Being "waited on", whatever that means. Saying to each other the things they think people say in restaurants, all the while darting their eyes around in hopes of seeing their plates approaching, descending. The plates remind me of UFOs; get ready for the probe I sometimes think as I deal the losing hands around the table.
This restaurant is going under, do they not realize it? The Antinoris were, still are, smarter than everyone in this room, going back to that moment near the beginning of last millenium when one of them happened upon the miracle of people paying you simply because you already had money. They became bankers, and then they made wine. Being rich was so easy. Giovanni di Piero Antinori must have kept a huge grin on his face that had nothing to do with winemaking as he turned the screw on his basket press every October.
It tapered off, the banking. By the time Carl Rothschild arrived in Naples with his French cigarettes and insatiable, anonymous grudges, it was already easy to borrow money in Italy without passing a coin to Antinori. So it goes, so it continues, as this dirty decade in New York City accumulates its declines and falls.
Two hours later I approach their table with the check in my back pocket. They had two more bottles of the IGT. The kid is drunk and halfway through a cognac that drew a glare from his father when he ordered it. No one else had a digestif. His acceptably overweight mother has tiramisu on her nose.
"Is there anything else?" I ask.
"Just the check," the kid says too loudly. I set it down in the middle of the table.
"You guys could get some bigger glasses. Rie-DELLS," he continues unprompted. He is drawing uneasy glances from everyone at the table now.
I smile in spite of myself. "You know, I think the glass is only there to keep your wine off the tablecloth," I say as I pour the last two ounces for his father. I wish the pour was full of tartrate crumbs to help make my point, but this is a modern wine.
Service ends, of course we lost money, and I am ready to split less than five minutes after the last table leaves. The owner is still back there with the keys. He owns the keys.
"Estamos chingando!" I say over my shoulder to Rolando as he unlocks his bike out front.
I turn onto Fifth Avenue and decide to skip the pokey R train and walk the mile home to Battery Park City, past the Zuccotti Park gypsies and the big hole. That bright boy and his Sangiovese, I say as loud as I want as I pass the Flatiron and light my one-hitter.
Sang is blood, Giove is Jupiter, and I strain my eyes as I turn my head upwards, looking for planets through the light pollution.