My Mom, 4 Scousers, South Philly: Why The Restaurant Sounds The Way It Does
(My mom, Joyce, with cig, and my sister Suzie) Sometime in October, while I meandered unawares in the hills around Penne, Abruzzo with my brother Fred celebrating his upcoming 65th birthday with grub and plonk and plotting strategies for second (third?) lives, the restaurant received a very positive online review that, however, concluded with this sentence:
“…But, pray tell what was the deal with playing country western music at an Italian restaurant. It really killed the mood. Please change your playlist to something more appropriate. Thank you.” I don’t think she expected an answer. Industry norms frown on giving one. Generally, they frown on any honest, human exchange. But here it is:
Dear ____, Thanks for the kind words. Sincerely. As for “the deal with playing country (and) western music at an Italian restaurant,” I’m happy to tell you. But I’ve also got questions for you. Respectfully. If that’s ok. The quick answer: My mom’s family was from Appalachia. North Carolina, to be specific. While my paternal grandfather from Abruzzo - who lived (convalesced, actually) in our Reading, PA rowhome’s second floor back bedroom – provided the genesis of my jones for Abruzzo and, so, the inspiration that ultimately (with a whole bunch of other factors, including my Shanghai-born mother-in-law) resulted in this restaurant, my mom was also kind of formative. While I spent part of the day with my Abruzzese Pop-Pop listening to his stories about “Abruzzi” and paging through illustrated history books together, I also passed a lot of time playing on the opposite side of the basement from where my mom sewed. She was a fine seamstress and made and altered clothes for some of the city’s wealthier ladies (and for us too, of course). And, along with her cigarettes, it was her music, the classic country of the ‘60s and early ‘70s, that kept her going through those ten-hour (and often longer) days. George Jones, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, Skeeter Davis, Glenn Campbell, Bobbie Gentry, Dolly Parton, etc. - I heard and came to know them all and dozens more. Our restaurant’s name, Le Virtú, means “the virtues.” And though it derives from a complex minestrone made in Teramo province every 1st of May, it also references the virtues of generosity, kindness, hard work, ingenuity, and determination. And I learned about these things in spades from my mom. She died long before the restaurant opened, before I’d even come to know Abruzzo. But I want her presence in our place. And hearing that music helps make that happen. She and that music are part of me. Still, I have to ask why you singled out the C&W? If what you presumably wanted or expected was Italian (Italian-American?) music, why not lament the presence of the Beatles on the mixes? What does Liverpool have to do with Abruzzo? Now, I wouldn’t want to set foot in ANY place where those scousers would be considered inappropriate. And, frankly, I wouldn’t. The Beatles are one of a handful of reasons I’m able to countenance the day. So, the boys are in. Period. And I could go on. Mingus is from Arizona, Stevie Wonder from Saginaw, Dylan from Duluth, the Kinks from London’s Muswell Hill, Chrissie Hynde’s an Akronite, and Mark Knopfler’s a Geordie. Bessie Smith hailed from Chattanooga, but wasn’t very C&W. Closer to home, Stanley Clarke, Dr. Dog, and The Roots are from Philly, but are they “appropriate”? Jazz giants Eddie Lang (born Salvatore Massaro), Joe Venuti, and (the recently deceased) Pat Martino, the last of whom occasionally graced our bar with his gentle presence, were all Italians from South Philly, though none of them played “Italian” music. Did any of these folks on our playlists – or, for that matter, the Replacements, Big Star, Elvis Costello, The Modern Lovers, Television, Chaka Khan, Sly and the Family Stone, The O’Jays, Amy Winehouse, XTC, The Move, Warren Zevon, Richard Thompson, Miles Davis, Monk, Django, Chet Baker, Cab Calloway, “Mississippi” John Hurt, Dr. John, Wilco, Husker Du, or Beck – kill the mood? Is it only “twang” that’s lethal to the vibe?
(The Beatles, 1968)
We do have many real Italian songs featured in our regular mixes, by the way. Folk songs from Abruzzo, Molise, Puglia, Campania, and Calabria. For several years we helped a group from Abruzzo, DisCanto, come to the US and tour. And they played the restaurant many times. Zampogna (Abruzzese bagpipe), ciaramella (kind of a shepherd’s flute), tamburello, songs about shepherding, reaping, briganti. Often though, guests hearing the mixes don’t recognize these songs as Italian. To some ears they sound Celtic or Arabic. Mostly, they just don’t jibe with preconceived notions of “Italian music.” We’ve received complaints about this music, too. (One guest called a track from Puglia, where there are strong Arab influences, “terrorist music”). But is there anything more appropriate than an Abruzzese harvesting song, or one about the Transumanza (the annual migration of shepherds and sheep from Abruzzo’s mountains to the plains of Puglia) in a restaurant dedicated to the region? We don’t think so.
(DisCanto, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2014) The stuff from Abruzzo can be pretty rough and tumble, raw, and rustic. Like the region itself. Like a lot of its food. It’s got that in common with Appalachia, actually. I like to say I’ve got mountains and no shoes on both sides of my family. We’re proud to introduce these musical forms and groups to our guests. But we’d never be so pedantic as to create whole mixes of them, beat our guests over the head. Most seem to understand where they are and what we’re about, trying to do.
Were you looking for Louis Prima, Frank, and Dean (the last of whom was of Abruzzese origin)? Is that what’s “appropriate” in an Italian restaurant? They were beloved in my home, cherished by my dad (my hero) and appreciated by me (sidebar: did you know I actually once danced – poorly, of course – with Dean Martin’s daughter Deana? No lie. A great night and memory). But you hear those guys everywhere (most of their music isn’t Italian in theme, either, though Dean and Louis do have some classics in that vein). We play them at the restaurant sometimes, but not often. They can create expectations we’re not particularly interested in conforming to.
We opened this restaurant over fourteen years ago, a paean to Abruzzo, with the idea of adding the region’s flavors, traditions, convivial feel, and sense of community to our South Philly neighborhood (decades ago the landing point for many immigrants from the region and one of the last truly original places in America). It was all about Abruzzo, a place we considered a second (and now, future) home. That was just about all we felt qualified to do, given our lack of a service industry background. We needed to be creative, outside the box, atypical to pull this off. We wanted to explode preconceptions of what “Italian” food was or what an “Italian restaurant” felt like. Because, really, we’d no intention of opening an ”Italian restaurant.” That’s too broad a concept for us to have attempted and delivered on with any depth. This place has to feel right for us too, like home, ours, so we can feel comfortable enough in our skins to deliver the kind of hospitality - unpretentious, unvarnished, genuine, heartfelt - that best honors the region. We hope we’ve come close to achieving that. Many guests from Abruzzo have told us that we have. It’s the highest praise we’ll ever earn.
Coincidentally, I’ve just returned from almost four weeks in Abruzzo, its sibling region Molise (which was part of “Abruzzi” until ’63), and Roma. I’ve just eaten in every type of regional restaurant, from high-end ristorante to ten-seat mom-and-pop-as-the-sole-employees trattoria. Not once did I hear “Italian” music. And, yeah, some of what I did hear was at first distracting. The smooth jazz cover of Gerry Rafferty’s “Right Down the Line,” a song that didn’t need the removal of whatever grit it possessed by such a treatment and which I heard no less than four times in four different establishments, did cause figurative head scratching. And at the amazing 20-seat seafood restaurant in Vasto, on Abruzzo’s southern coast, the juxtaposition of AC/DC and Carly Simon was bold. I don’t know how old you are, but it was a little like listening to AM playlists from the early ‘70’s, before everything seemed to get ghettoized by genre. I decided to roll with it, be in the moment, let them be themselves. And, frankly, I couldn’t wait to hear what might come on next. I was rapt. It was fun. And, of course, THE FOOD.
But before I wrap this up, back for a second to the C&W and its murderous effect on ambience. On our longest mix, 122 songs, four are straight-up country and five (six if you count “Lodi” by Creedence) might fall under a loose alt-country banner. No more than three of these play in consecutive order. In a mix over 4 hours long. So, assuming you dined with us for two or 2.5 hours, ten minutes of somewhat C&W -tops - “killed the mood”? Really? I’m tempted to (jokingly) ask if, as a child, you were maybe frightened by a clogger or tobacco farmer (BTW, my maternal grandfather had been both, and he did scare the merda out of me; but I still love Hank Williams).
Anyway, in closing, we subscribe to the philosophy espoused by the guys in NRBQ, also on our playlists, two (and in later years three) of whom were Italian, but whose broad musical palette wouldn’t remotely conform to expectations about stuff from The Boot. They liked to say that there were two types of music: Good and Bad. We don’t all agree on what falls into each category, of course. But our long-time guests, a broad constituency who’ve sustained us for fourteen years (many of whom also don’t like every song we play), know that if they wait six minutes, the music will change. Rock ‘n’ roll will move to pop, pop to funk, funk to jazz, jazz to traditional Abruzzese, and back again. They allow us to be ourselves and the place to be itself. Which makes it feel like we’re cooking them dinner in our own home. We’re not going to change that. Ever.