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Worry for Me and S&G

August 31, 2014 | Frank Bonanno

My wife can’t read restaurant reviews–not about our restaurants, not about other folks’ places. She says it hurts too much–the praise is never high enough, even the most minor criticism, too sharp. So Jacqueline will scan a review, get the gist of whether it’s good or bad, then walk away.

How she can step away like that, I’ll never know. Me, I read every word of a review three times, maybe four. I assess the validity of the critique, the intent of the writer–I try to use criticism to better our efforts, but mostly: I worry.

I worry that someone will take feelings against me out on my team, and I know how hard they work and how much they care. I worry that people won’t get what we’re trying to do, that just because I love something doesn’t mean every client will feel the same way. I worry that glasses weren’t polished, a lightbulb was out, the plants were dying, there was a hair. I worry, God forbid: did he like the food?

I worry.

So last week, when a photographer from The Denver Post called to schedule a photo shoot at Salt & Grinder, I started worrying right away. Bill Porter’s a fine writer and a kind man–his words will be heartfelt, his commentary genuine. But: Did he appreciate the stags on the bathroom walls, the crumbers for sale in fat pickle jars? Did he notice how happy those S&G servers are, the machine that kitchen has become in a mere three months? Mostly though, I’m thinking, did he like the food?

While I worry, I thought I’d blog this little piece I wrote for Kristen Browning for The Post at summer’s start. It’s a reminder (mostly to myself) that a lot of love went into this little Salt & Grinder deli, and even if The Denver Post, via Bill Porter, doesn’t care for the results, they were kind enough to give me an opportunity to state my intentions at the outset.

(Published June 4, “The Perfect Grinder: chef Frank Bonanno pursues the taste of memory”)

The narrative of my life is shaped by food, and this piece of my life, some eleven months focused on opening a tenth restaurant, will look from a distance, like a grinder roll.

When I was growing up, Rudi’s was absolutely the best place to get a slice. And Vito’s made the best sandwiches. The crust at Rudi’s was perfect , crispy on the edges, but firm and pliable in the middle–thin enough to fold in half and soft enough to arc downward as you drew it to your mouth. The sauce was fantastic—not too spicy, not too sweet—and the cheese, not piled on, but real and melty mozzarella . Flavorful, you know?
How many Rudi’s pizzas did I eat after school, in one uniform or another, same group of guys, laughing out loud with sauce on our faces?
Funny how memory holds childhood love warm and soft around the edges. Every time a friend visits my Jersey home, we go to Rudi’s. I order pizza and wait for the glee. Every time, same response: “It’s ok?”
Tigs or Skinhead, Weener or McGinley—those guys, my guys, still love Rudi’s. The back drop of a broken down strip mall, the Kmart up the street and bowed parking lot with grass growing through the cracks—all fades away to pizza so glorious, laughter so true here, today as when we were children.
The soul of Osteria Marco (and later Bonanno Brothers Pizzeria) lies in Rudi’s. I worked hard to capture a style of crust and sauce and flavor. I returned the mechanical dough roller to hand-toss and play at the dough with tenderness, lovingly combining toppings until I got to New Jersey, to the flavor and memory of sitting among laughter and sauce. I arrived when my children sat laughing over slices–my wife, my partner, my friends. In the process of recreating a pizza, I got to the clinking of glasses and cares just sliding from my shoulders.
Which brings me to Vito’s. Vito’s Meat Market was our neighborhood butcher shop in the ‘80’s. Mom went there for beef or lamb or chicken, but from 11-2, Vito made the best sandwich in the city: Tricio Brother’s bread, soft and flavorful; Boar’s Head meats–all but the beef. The beef he would roast himself, slowly, with a big cap of fat back trussed around the outside and tucked over herbs, brought to a pink, succulent medium rare. “Just” a roast beef sandwich, but piled so high, with such perfectly cooked and seasoned meat and shaved transparently thin. That’s the key to a really good sandwich: meat sliced so thin you could hold it to a window and take a peek at the neighbors.
Vito’s has been pulling on my memories for years–Mom unwrapping butchers’ paper to fill the house with warmth and happiness, me scooting up the road for a sandwich with ribbons of meat that just. Satisfied.
Oh, I’ve been thinking.
That bread– a cross between a hoagie roll and a baguette—airy with a hint of a crust. That bread tastes like Hoboken to me, not moist-chewy Denver, or crunchy-pungent San Francisco, but something in between—soft, and slightly sweet, toothsome and substantive.
I think of Vito’s in preparing for Salt & Grinder. I’ll roast and cured on site, everything sliced to order–never thick (rubbery), never ahead of time (too dry)—meat grazed across a slicer at the thinnest setting, at the final minute, and piled on the bread in lazy rivers one sheet flowing over the next
The bread—we’re calling it a grinder roll–took months of back-and-forth with Jeff Cleary, from Grateful Bread. Ultimately he lightened my recipe, tweaked it in ways only a true baker with live starters, a proofing box and cast iron molds could do. I think what we have—what Jeff has made—is wonderful. It pulls at my memories. When I bite into Jeff’s grinder roll, I taste the joy of going home after a baseball game and biting into Satisfaction.
Here’s the thing:
Week after week I brought Jeff’s samples into my restaurants, my office. I tasted it among my families. We tried it with different sauces and meats and salads and toppings, and when that bread hit just the right note it was as much about the people around me, their smiles, eye rolls of Satisfaction—as about my childhood and Vito’s Meat Market. Will my sandwiches taste like his? Unlikely. Impossible, even. If my neighbors come in to Salt & Grinder, if their kids can sit down with just a simple turkey and Boarshead American cheese(yellow) and mayo (the real stuff)—if they can do that, over laughter even, and leave Satisfied, well, then then I’ve come home.