I got there early to try and grab a table ahead of the Sunday Church crowd, since we were expecting 10 or so.
But before going in I just had to check the wall outside.
Yep, still there.
Scrawled in green kids-menu crayon on the wall next to the steps, in my son’s eight-year-old hand.
Be Back Soon!
I still remember giving Peter crap when he committed the act of vandalism so many years ago, during one of our family’s legendary long goodbyes on the back porch of Meloni’s Italian Restaurant. Feels both like yesterday and a lifetime ago.
For decades, young children and in-laws alike have grown restless on Meloni’s back porch, waiting for the family’s extended farewell scenes to fade to the blacktop of the parking lot. Mom was never in a hurry to let a celebration end.
And when it came to family goodbyes, no one could filibuster like Anna Margaret Riddell.
The process would begin inside the restaurant … with the Table Hugs, which, to the untrained eye, read like actual Goodbyes. In reality they only marked the initiation of the “Fixin’ to Leave” phase — kind of like a stretching of the goodbye hamstrings. In the classic version of the ritual, Mom, blood pressure freshly elevated from the family fistfight to pick up the check (she hated to lose, and swore vengeance when she did), would initiate a deceptive first round of hugs at the site of the first person arising from their chair. Owing to the mastery of her craft, she’d sometimes manage a second loop around the table before she escorted, or was escorted by, the last to leave.
Once we got Mom to the porch, the goodbye clock didn’t formally start until she had her post-meal cigarette, which she took on one of the stone benches to the side of the awning. In an effort to move things along, the family was not above deploying Operation: Grandchild Sacrifice … where we’d order one of the grandkids “to go smoke with Grandma,” when we sensed the table was itching to break up.
Ever since I can remember, back to the days when I played the roll of the family’s restless eight-year-old, Meloni’s was always THE PLACE for family celebrations.
Whenever we had a reason to celebrate, no discussion was ever needed. And no one ever argued the choice.
Our family has gathered around one of their signature long tables to celebrate visits from relatives (where the fistfights over the checks rivaled Ali-Frazier), light birthday candles, cut anniversary cakes, and open graduation cards. My nieces and nephews and I literally grew up around the long table immediately to the left of the restaurant’s side entrance.
A long Meloni’s table was always the perfect (and safest) place to introduce new boyfriends and girlfriends to our loving, idiosyncratic family. As years passed, we’ve table-hugged those boyfriends and girlfriends into husbands and wives, and eventually, into parents of their own.
It’s where Karry and I announced our wedding plans to my family.
It’s where Mom and Dad celebrated their 50th anniversary.
It’s where the family gathered after Mom’s memorial service.
It’s where my sisters and brother gathered in June on what would’ve been my parents’ 67th wedding anniversary.
A major reason it’s remained so special to us over the years is that is has changed so little. It first opened in 1950. And it’s to the credit of the previous and current owners that they recognized a good thing when they tasted it.
It’s the kind of place every small town worth its red sauce has, had or should have.
Red checker cloth tables. Stenciled Italian scenes running along painted white walls that meet wood paneling. Dimly lit wooden bar lined with tall red stools and flanked by classic green booths along a wall blooming with old photos.
Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra supplying a crackly soundtrack. The smell of an old social hall scented by decades of home made boiling red sauce.
The atmosphere nourishes every bit as much as the food.
The menu might as well be carved on stone tablets, as it hasn’t had reason to change in years. It reads like a Shakespeare sonnet (no wasted syllables), and each of us has memorized our favorite parts.
Salad is a given for just about everyone, either as a side or as an antipasta entre. Technically speaking, Meloni’s homemade bleu cheese dressing is the true given. The salad part is merely a conveyance for the dressing, which is so sublime, I must now pause for a moment of silence out of respect….
Mom would always insist that I order the Veal Parm, though I seldom needed the nudge. Tuesday Night Veal Night is a Uniontown institution. For years, one of my favorite parts of Facebook has been seeing an old friend from the neighborhood post ritual checks-in with his Dad for Veal Night.
Dad swore by their spaghetti with meat sauce and meat balls. He swore more loudly on takeout occasions when he got home to discover they gave him marinara or dropped a ball. Speaking of takeout … back in the day, you could bring your own pot from home for Meloni’s to fill with pasta and sauce. Raising four young kids in the early 60’s, Mom and Dad brought home more than a few pots. Dad also lovingly recalled the years when Meloni’s served as the place where the local dance musicians would gather in the wee hours after weekend gigs … to talk shop and tell stories before heading home.
I can remember my first memories … the ritual of parking in the Sherwin Williams lot (where Dad was the store manager), and walking across the street so we could enter through their magical side entrance. The climb up their long, narrow, low-ceiling corridor felt like a secret passage. The olfactory crescendo that built as the hallway elbowed left (allowing you to steal a glance through the kitchen window to your right). The door that spat you out at the front of the restaurant, where the early arrivers announced your presence with a yell, triggering Opening Hugs.
I was the early arriver last Sunday. Succeeded in grabbing us a long table ahead of the church crowd. Kissed my three sisters and hugged my brother upon their arrivals. My nephew Kenny was, fittingly, the last to arrive. A former restless-eight-year-old himself, he accompanied his beautiful wife, Maria, a former new-girlfriend-at-the-table, and their indescribably adorable 11-month old son, (Little) Kenny, who will become a big brother himself next year.
We were in no hurry to order, though perusing the menus was little more than a perfunctory act. Salads, antipastas, pastas. I debated for a hot minute, and waited for Mom’s voice in my head to encourage me to order the Veal Parm.
There was an extra seat at the long table, allowing us to switch seats so we could catch up with everybody throughout the meal. Whenever there was a lull in the conversation, we just ogled over Little Kenny.
We were in no hurry to leave. Conversation was dessert.
Laurie mitigated the fistfight over the check by picking up the bill when no one was looking. I gave her some crap for it, like Mom might have (minus the swear words). It felt like quoting a scene from a favorite movie.
Laurie then asked everyone to raise their glass, and we leaned them across the table to clink to Mom and Dad.
Then came the table hugs, before we made our way through the mostly-empty dining room, having long outlasted the post-church crowd.
And we paused on the porch, initiating another round of hugs that, by my calculations, lasted exactly one cigarette long.
As the scene unfolded in front of her, Maria spoke for generations of in-laws and young children alike, when she said quietly to herself, “Oh, I thought we already said goodbyes inside.”
It’s nice to know that, after all these years, the filibuster can still sneak up on the unsuspecting.
Before the scene faded to the blacktop of the parking lot, I checked the wall again. Brushed my hand across the fading kids’ menu green crayon graffiti, allowing the eight-year-old version of myself to exchange a high-five with my former eight-year-old.
Unconsciously, I spoke the words aloud, and they came out as a prayer … for hopefully generations to come.
Be Back Soon.