Wednesday, January 27, 2010


           Everybody has people in their life who are like skin tags—unsightly, annoying, but not really life-threatening and easily ignored. Then there’s family; more specifically a large tightly-knit Italian family, where the only cure is intense therapy or total submersion. I was born into a family rooted to the borough of Fort Lee like goutweed—pervasive and impossible to remove. My maternal grandparents met and married in Fort Lee, and immediately began a population explosion. My mother was one of 10 Viola children; had my grandfather not died at a young age she would have probably been one of many more children. And those ten children, whose lives are indelibly etched into the character and history of old Fort Lee, left legacies nearly impossible for their children to live up to.
          I was born into the pack of second-generation Viola’s—the grandchildren who overly-populated Fort Lee back in the ‘60’s and early ‘70’s—a time when families moved around, but never moved away. There were about 40 first-cousins who lived within a mile of my house and we saw each other almost daily—we were bonded by blood, proximity, and a four-foot-ten inch grandmother who left her enduring mark on each and every one of us old enough to remember her. We used to get the shakes whenever our parents said that Grandma was babysitting. Let’s face it; a woman widowed with ten children at the age of 37 who worked many jobs to keep her family together was not in the business of suffering whiny grandchildren.  She did rub whiskey on our gums whether or not we were teething, but tough luck if you needed your diaper changed! In the ‘60’s, my older cousins actually had to work with her in one of the Fort Lee film labs. My cousin Charlie’s stories about “Working with Grandma” would rival every episode of Seinfeld.
Sundays bordered on the ridiculous, and it still amazes me that Grandma’s pot of sauce (not gravy) never went empty and her apartment in the Gnasso house, now the restaurant In Napoli, contained all our traffic. (Though, God as my witness, I’ll never eat another raisin and pignioli meatball again or sauce with pig knuckles—I always thought the pig was giving me the bare-knuckled finger!)  The noise level from those Viola gatherings still ring in my ears—the laughter, the shouting; the jokes, the shouting; the conversation, the shouting. When Uncle Joey asked someone to pass the salt it sounded like an invitation to fight, his voice so thunderous it exploded in my ears. But as a family, we had to live loud—it was the only way to be heard.
          There were definite advantages to being a part of such a large extended family. When I was three, my cousin Carol took me on her dates with Richie; my cousin Joey let me and my other cousins play in the engine room of Fort Lee Firehouse #1; my cousin Cheryl let me wear her make-up; my cousin Karen gave me all her “original” Barbie’s; and my cousin Danny, an outstanding Fort Lee football player in the early ‘70’s, would carry me on his padded shoulders onto the field after a home game win. It was the closest I ever came to being “cool.”
          When you’re part of a family that big and that close, the lines between brother, sister, cousin blur. When one of us got into trouble, we were always aware and there. And boy, we’ve had our share. Being a Viola is like running with a gang. I remember in high school some boy was giving me a really hard time until someone mentioned that I was a Viola. Immediately his whole attitude changed and he treated me with respect. I realized then, that although I didn’t carry the Viola name, I carried with me the force of 40. It was the first real powerful moment of my life.
          Time moves on, and so have we. Family gatherings are now intermittent weddings and too many funerals, but the force of 40 lives forever within me; always beside me; ever-present shadows on the streets of old Fort Lee.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


          Okay, I’m in total Mardi Gras mode. I’m serious; January begins the high holy days of winter, so why deny myself the comfort that only food and libations can provide? I’m done with setting goals on January 1st that I will ultimately reject. It’s when everybody falls off the wagon during March Madness that I buckle down and get serious. For now, I snuggle by the fire (read: candle) in my Snuggie, toast my feet in my Fuggs (fake-Uggs), pour myself Makers Mark (great Christmas present-- thanks brother!) in a cut-crystal bourbon glass, and snack on a plate filled with Spanish cheeses, Italian prosciutto, sliced pears, and spicy pecans. Put down the celery sticks and join me. Here are my picks of the season:
Cedar Lane Cinemas, 503 Cedar Lane, Teaneck (201) 836-3334:  If you ever wondered what movie theaters were like when they were independently owned, come to Nelson Page’s Cedar Lane Cinemas. Nelson is a film aficionado and hosts screenings of young independent film-makers. He also gets all first-run shows with tickets priced at $4.75 for ALL showings. “Big Screen Classics” is an absolute hit -- American in Paris is playing January 20th, 8pm; The Godfather is showing on February 17th, 8pm. Jeff Barker is the theater’s resident organist and plays every Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon. Have dinner at one of Cedar Lane’s many great restaurants, and then support one of our last independent theaters. Dinner and a movie have never been more affordable. For more information, check out
Garden State Pizza, 153 Bergen Blvd., Fairview (201)941-8510:  Nothing screams comfort food better than Garden Pizza. Whether you order their incredible pizza (their Sicilian is the best I’ve ever tasted), or anything else from the menu that’s sinfully cheesy, this bring-your-own bottle neighborhood gem is like an intestinal Snuggie. Johnny, Rosa, and sons Alby, Tony and their entire staff put the smile behind the word service. You’ll never feel more welcomed! My son made me promise he can work here as soon as he’s old enough so he can eat for free.   
Franco’s Metro Café, 1475 Bergen Blvd., Fort Lee (201) 461-6651: Who would ever expect to find a beautiful Italian bistro with a fully stocked bar in a strip mall? That’s Franco’s Metro Café. Although they dish up terrific pizza, their steak pizzaiola and veal marsala (along with everything else on the menu) is out of this world.  And for goodness sake—they have a martini menu! Also a great place to host a bridal shower or family event.
In Napoli, 116 Main Street, Fort Lee (201) 947-2500: I have to give it up for hometown boy, Sam Gnasso. Sammy has been serving incredible food for so many years that In Napoli is a local legend; my generation’s Riviera Night Club. When Chef “Keith Moon” Sammy isn’t drumming with his band, he’s cooking up these incredible specials: Lobster Night, Delmonico Steak Night, and Sunset Three-Course Dinner Night. If you’re looking for a great place to lunch—this is it. The food is great, the service is over-the-top, and the bar is THE BEST. And the bartenders! Jamie borders on reverent when pouring bourbon, neat; and Kathy is like having your girlfriend behind the bar—fun, fun, fabulously fun! If you and your husband haven’t done the “bar scene” in an obscenely long time, Sammy’s bar is the place. You won’t feel out of place; it’s an older crowd; it’s a great night out. Karaoke night is a blast! Also, my grandmother used to live upstairs when it was a residential house in the ‘60’s—I can still smell the meatballs with raisins and pigniolis.
Deli on the Cliffs, 476 Sylvan Ave, (9W) Englewood Cliffs, (201) 894-5515: When you just want a terrific sandwich, and GREAT coffee, here’s the place to go. Best BLT I think I’ve ever had. Nice dining area; great place to meet someone for lunch. Friendly and accommodating staff. A real find; my favorite deli!   
The best thing about these places—they’re owned by moms and dads, just like you and me so please support them.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Dear (insert Mom’s name),

It is an absolute pleasure having (insert child’s name) frequently come to our house to play; and although I thoroughly enjoy feeding (him/her) afternoon snacks, doing (his/her) homework with them, and feeding (him/her) dinner because it’s 6:45 and you haven’t yet retrieved (him/her), I feel that there are a few guidelines we need to establish.

1.     Please teach your child bathroom skills. I’m long passed the “wiping” stage, so inform (insert child’s name here) that they’re on their own for this simple human task. If baboons in the wild can master it, I’m confident (he/she) can also. I hereby refuse to cleanse the loins of anyone who is not biologically of my loins; even then I have my limits.

2.     Understand that my dog is fond of eating all things Chinese—spareribs, egg rolls, lo mein, Bakugan toys, Pokemon figures, Barbie and all her friends…my dog does not discriminate. So if (insert child’s name here) is upset because (his/her) 12 retractable Bakugans are resting uncomfortably in my dog’s lower intestines, or because Polly Pocket’s microscopic shoes are cleaved onto the dog’s molars, do not complain or expect that I will pay ridiculous amounts of money to replace these worthless pieces of Chinese plastic. Those are your investment choices for your child; not mine. Also, if Bernie Madoff has taught you nothing, you should know that all investments are risky. Especially in my house.

3.     Please, I beg of you, teach (insert child’s name here) the difference between a penny glass of Welch’s grape juice and a $10 glass of Merlot. (He/she) guzzled my whole glass, and now I have to send (him/her) home to you sauced. At least (insert child’s name here) will sleep well tonight; so, you’re welcome.

4.     Tell (insert child’s name here) to refrain from commenting on the dust bunnies that (he/she) notices beneath my couch, refrigerator, bed, etcetera.  If (insert child’s name here) insists on engaging in such undesirable activities then please tell (him/her) to refrain from announcing authoritatively while I am on the phone with my own mother, “My mommy would never let the maid get away with this in our house,” because that will force me to respond, “I am the maid in this house,” to which (he/she) will predictably counter, “Then mommy would fire you.” Such observations will only result in me wanting to twist and shove (insert child’s name here) beneath the refrigerator to go permanently live in the land of the dust bunnies.

5.     When you come to collect (insert child’s name here) do not feel the need to pitch a tent and stay to chat with me. I am not interested in how busy you were at work—you were with adults, I was stuck with children. I’m also not interested in hearing the frequency or infrequency of you and your partner’s sexual activities. Frankly, that ruins my appetite and sears an indelible impression of your unclothed partner onto my brain. As my son would say, “That’s not a necessary.” 

6.     Also, if (insert child’s name here) should throw a tantrum when you come to collect (him/her) keep in mind that you are the adult. When little (insert child’s name here) starts banging (his/her) head against my antique (read: Goodwill) armoire because (he/she) wants to stay, grab (him/her) and use physical force if necessary to eject (him/her) from the premises. Mantra: There is no reasoning with a head-banging seven-year-old. Ever.

7.     Upon collecting (insert child’s name here) do not respond to (his/her) repeated requests for the date of the next playdate. Common courtesy suggests that the host needs a minimum one week recovery period to forget the trauma. If you say “Maybe you can come over tomorrow,” as a way to get (insert child’s name here) peaceably out the door, I will bang your head against antique armoire.

Again, it is an absolute pleasure having (insert child’s name here) come over to play. Or at least it will be if you can comply with these simple guidelines.


(Insert your name here)

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


So here I am typing away at the final hours of yet another year, but not just any year. The ball drops tonight on the first decade of the new millennium. I remember New Year’s Eve 1999 as if it was yesterday; a night bloated with the hope and promise of a new millennium, Y2K predictions, and madness.
On New Year’s Eve 1999, I had an office at 4 Times Square with a huge window that was eye-to-eye with the iconic Waterford crystal Time Square Ball. My staff and I spent most of that morning watching the workmen test the ball again, and again, and again. I figure we rang in the New Year about 30 times that morning—and toasted each time. Having one of the best seats in the house, I wish I can say I stayed to watch the ball drop from my office at midnight, but I had to abandon it by 3pm because Mayor Rudy Guiliani and his entourage were commandeering not only my office, but the entire side of the floor for their own private festivities. I don’t want to talk out of turn, but when I returned to work a full bottle of Oban single-malt scotch that I kept in my bottom drawer for emergencies seemed to have gone out with the New Year, along with my humongous rubberband ball! I was going to report it to Security, but most of the guys were retired NYC detectives who loved the mayor. However, Mr. Guiliani, "J'accuse!”
Fast-forward ten years. Let’s just say there’s absolutely no chance Rudy Guiliani is commandeering my present space to ring in the next decade, unless he has an itch only Jersey can scratch. I offer no single-malt scotch this time around--just a son who swears (God bless him) that we’re African-American and wants his Kwanzaa presents; a dog medicated for stress; a husband who walks around the house with a confused expression—as if he’s mistakenly walked through the door of someone else’s house; and a squirrel who thinks he’s the newest family pet and scratches at the door when he’s not hurling shingles from the roof. If I could teach the furry-fiend to use a hammer and nails, he’d have a home.
Sitting here reflecting upon the first ten or fifteen years of my life, those years seem endless; a most sacred time, really, when I wished everyday into tomorrow without regard; when I didn’t suffer from wrong and right because I had my parents to guide me through my choices. Most importantly, the people who meant everything to me were with me every day—only a block or two away. There was no memory or regret to block my view of the days that stretched out before me. There was nothing but time and opportunity.
Ten years ago I picked up the phone everyday to check the amount in my I.R.A. Ten years later I pick up the phone everyday just to make sure that it’s still on and the phone company hasn’t disconnected us. Ten years ago I had a full bank account and an empty life. Now I have the fullest life and the emptiest bank account. I think I’m on the right side of the equation. This life, so much more than anything money can provide, is as full as it will ever be. I have a man, the love of my life, who adores me and through it all—the jokes, the columns, the false arrests--brings me flowers from the Korean market every Friday; children who fill my house with laughter and as many of their hungry friends as they can everyday; and a dog who would follow me through the fires of hell as long as I held a meatball in my hand. Ten years from now my children will be older and have lives of their own, and my life will begin its descent towards a time where the craziness will have moved onto some other young couple’s house.
May this decade bring you fond memories of years passed, good health, peace, love, and endless laughter.  Ten years from now: Party At My House!
(“Jim, sit down! You’re in the right house!”)