Tag Archives: Goombah Joe

King of hearts

7 Aug

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One of the most solemn men that I have ever known is also responsible for possibly the greatest belly laugh of my entire life.

The man, chief of cardiac surgery at a renowned New York medical insitution, had one day earlier spent eight hours performing an open-heart procedure on a 42-year-old patient named Joe.

“So,” said the man, sounding uncharacteristically warm as he took a seat on his patient’s hospital bed, “how are you feeling today?”

“Okay,” Joe whispered unconvincingly. “How are you feeling today?”

The surgeon smiled briefly and reported that he was doing just fine, then moved closer to his patient.

“Do you mind if I ask you a question?” he said sounding genuinely concerned.

Struggling with discomfort all Joe could manage was a head nod.

“What I’m wondering, see, I mean considering your history, as well as your family’s, of course, which we’ve discussed…”

For a chief surgeon the man was coming awfully close to stammering, which raised the anxiety level in the room considerably. After all, this was not the first but the second time he had performed surgery on this patient in just five years. How could a professional possessing such skill and confidence behave so tentatively? What awful news was he attempting to deliver?

“Would you ever, just possibly, well…” He paused and straightened himself, as if readying for confession, then blurted out, but ever so softly, “consider the idea of becoming a vegetarian?”

The words hovered above the men for what felt like several moments of electrified silence. In reality it took but a few seconds for Joe to summon what little strength he could muster and answer the man.

“Fuck. No.”

The surgeon and I collapsed into such prolonged laughter that two nurses and as many aides appeared at the doorway to see what the fuss was about.

I probably should have mentioned my presence in the room earlier. Joe is my brother, you see, and I love him very, very much. Where else in the world could I possibly have been at that moment?

Today is his 58th birthday. More important, sixteen years have passed since the last time he was wheeled into an operating room. So this is a good day, one that is worth celebrating.

Joe takes much better care of himself these days. He doesn’t smoke anymore, goes to the gym every morning before work, golfs most every weekend from April through November, and moved to a much nicer neighborhood than he had grown accustomed to for more years than was wise or necessary.

I wish I could say that he eats as well as he should. Joe was diligent about keeping a healthful diet for a few years after his surgeries, but as time has lapsed so too has his discipline.

A heart-healthful vegetarian he is not.

Like me my brother is a product of a very particular culinary heritage: Italian American. More to the point, we each stubbornly embrace this heritage, no matter how many annual physicals we put behind us.

Joe is also a bachelor who works long hours, which presents its own set of menu challenges. His refrigerator is often stocked with prepared foods, many from the Italian grocery/deli a few blocks from his apartment in Queens. There are often balls of fresh mozzarella, arancini stuffed with ground beef and peas, chicken and/or eggplant parm, sausages with broccoli rabe; you get the idea.

I visit Joe a few times a year, always staying in his apartment, usually just the two of us. For a while there I tried being a good brother, suggesting going out for sushi when I really wanted a burger and a beer, or Chinese when our favorite old-school Italian Don Peppe was what I desired. I cannot tell you how many times I have sneaked away alone to a White Castle in order to protect my brother from an unhealthful craving that we both share.

Lately when Joe and I spend a couple days together we eat and drink what we want, without regard to his or our family’s unpleasant coronary history. Recently we were sitting at the bar at his favorite Italian spot in the new neighborhood. About midway into a bottle of red I stopped and surveyed the landscape before us: manicotti, meatballs, lasagne, baked clams, pizza topped with burrata and prosciutto di parma.

I thought about how the surgeon had once tried—and failed—to move my brother in a new direction, but kept it to myself. We were enjoying our evening out together and I wasn’t about to ruin things by being a nag. Besides, I don’t exactly have the cred to lecture anybody about responsible eating.

Maybe it’s time I started working on becoming a better brother.

Happy Birthday Joe!

Last Exit to Queens

16 Mar

Sometimes it isn’t all about the food, you know.

Take this pile of lightly fried calamari and shrimp that’s been generously doused in a medium-hot red sauce. It’s my and my brother Joe’s go-to order when we’re craving down-and-dirty Italian on those occasions when I visit him for a few days. The dish’s origin is a not in the least memorable restaurant called Vincent’s in Queens, New York, hard by JFK International Airport in an area known as Howard Beach.

Joe and I have enjoyed Vincent’s calamari and shrimp together countless times through the years. Largely we do this when it’s just the two of us on hand. We may stop by the restaurant after a day at the racetrack, or order takeout for watching a ballgame on TV. It’s one of our little rituals. You know, the kind that bonds you to another, no matter the time or circumstance. 
Last week marked the last time my brother and I would share this particular intimacy, though. I’m saddened by this; so is he, I’d imagine.

But it was time.

You see, just up the road and to the north of Howard Beach and Vincent’s is a place called Ozone Park. It’s the neighborhood where Joe has been living for around three decades. He moved there from our childhood home in Brooklyn after his two older brothers had gone off on their own, only Joe took our aging mother along with him so as not to leave her unattended. This is not how young men are supposed to build a life for themselves; nonetheless, Joe shouldered mom’s dependence on him admirably, if against his own interests, until the day that she died.
He’s a good man, my brother. Honor and loyalty flow through him freely—and he’s got the devotion of many good people around him to prove it.
Joe finally left his old life in Ozone Park last week, determined to start a new and better life elsewhere, one that is unencumbered by the past. I went down to New York and spent several days helping him with the move. The night before the movers came the subject of where we would be eating came up.

“Vincent’s?” said my brother, more a statement than a question.

We’d decided this last time would be a takeout run and so I waited in the car while Joe went inside. I could see that “The Fat Man” was at his usual place behind the cash register next to the door, and that he greeted my brother enthusiastically, which often is not at all the case. 

“Did you say goodbye to him?” I asked when Joe returned with our food.

“Nah,” said my brother. “Fat Man was in such a good mood tonight I figured why ruin it for him.”

If I’d had any doubt about Joe’s commitment to boldly turning a well-worn page in his life it was dispelled when he opened his takeout container.

“The hell is that?” I grunted, opening the last beer from an almost-empty refrigerator. “They give you the wrong order?”

Joe’s container held not our usual shrimp and calamari, as mine, but rather cheese ravioli and meatballs.

“Nope, that’s what I ordered,” he said. “Time to move on.”

Good luck, my brother. And much love.

My brother’s pancakes

11 Nov

There’s a lot that I don’t know about my brother Joe.

How he came to take up the game of golf has always mystified me. Where he learned to handicap thoroughbred racing so expertly I have never entirely understood either. What allowed him to believe, albeit briefly and very early this past spring, that the Mets might have a respectable 2012 season? That I shall never know.

Until a few days ago I also had no idea what an astoundingly good pancake maker my brother is. It has been more than a week since I cleaned my last plate of Joe’s crisp and fluffy breakfast treats and still I am thinking about them. A lot.

Of the five days that I stayed with my brother in Queens recently he cooked me his “famous pancakes” twice.

Hell, I didn’t even know that he had a famous pancake.

Naturally I had to find out the secret to my new favorite breakfast entree and so in between stacks I asked Joe to explain, slowly, so that I could commit the recipe to paper.

“Easy,” my brother said, dropping a fresh slab of butter onto a red-hot pan. “One cup Aunt Jemima pancake mix, three-quarters of a cup of milk, an egg, and about two tablespoons of olive oil.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it,” Joe said pouring another three pancakes’ worth of his mix into the sizzling-hot butter. “Oh, and be sure to use an electric mixer. Makes a big difference.”

I wondered whether my brother was holding out on me, keeping his famous pancake recipe to himself. The olive oil wasn’t exactly what you’d expect to find listed on the recipe panel of a mass-market dry mix box. But could it really propel Jemima to such greatness? After all, these pancakes were dissolve-in-your-mouth extraordinary.

After a few days of pondering, and an unsuccessful attempt to recreate Joe’s perfect pancakes in my own kitchen, I had my answer.

And it wasn’t the oil.

My brother is just the type of guy who does things really well or not at all. It’s probably the reason why so many people depend on him. He is smart and strong and very, very able. His heart is good.

When disaster struck our family recently Cousin Susie, who was forced from her home after Hurricane Sandy, told me that the one guy at the very top of everybody’s wish list for aid and comfort was Joe.

Which was no surprise to me. Like his pancakes (or his clam sauce, come to think of it) my brother is the best that there is.

Just so we’re clear.

Goombah Joe’s white clam sauce

26 Jul

This is my brother Joe. He is in my kitchen and he is tasting the sauce that he prepared Saturday night for a household of (okay, ten) family members.

It is not just any sauce. It is my brother’s white clam sauce.
A better homemade version you will not find.

He started with four dozen countneck clams that he steamed open in white wine, olive oil and sweet butter.
Like so.
After letting the clams cool a bit (I can’t say for certain but a Wii bowling match with cousins Joanna and Alec may have transpired during the wait) he scooped out the meat.
It is at this point that I must apologize for an interruption in the visual portion of our discussion, for I was called away to attend to a very urgent matter regarding a box of Joyva Ring Jells that were caringly driven more than three hundred miles to me by cousins Josephine and Frank (long story).
Suffice to say that the B team on the photographic side did not perform as admirably as the chef this evening.

And so I give you the finished product.

And the very much loved family visitors for whom it was prepared.
Oh, and if you’re interested in the rest of Goombah (that’s “godfather,” and he’s a damned fine one, much better than I) Joe’s method, here goes: Return the shelled clams to the wine/butter mix and add a quart of clam juice. Then — and this is the most critical part — add four heads of roasted garlic and simmer. When the pasta (linguine here, and two pounds of it) is almost done toss it in the sauce to finish cooking for the last couple minutes.

And stay away from the Ring Jells, okay. They’re hard to come by — and they’re mine.