Eggplant Parm in a Strip Mall
“I despise formal restaurants. I find all of that formality to be very base and vile. I would much rather eat potato chips on the sidewalk.”
There was this Italian place in a strip mall out on Ridge Pike where my mom used to take my brother and me sometimes. It had to be when she had a little extra cash, I think, but I don’t know where the loot came from. The joint was typical ‘80s suburban Philly Italian-America. Decent food (that I thought was spectacular), red hard plastic cups with super icy sodas, and a mural of gondolas and gondoliers doing their thing in a Venice canal.
I guess I knew the mural was fake, but I didn’t care. To me it was art. Big art. The kind of art that you could only experience if you were eating your dinner out. As in: I’m at a restaurant. While all the other low-brow schlubs back in the neighborhood were eating hot dogs sliced up in box mac-n-cheese, me and my brother and my mom, we were feasting on the real shit. Italian cuisine. Regional specialties like Pasta Primavera with shrimp. And ravioli with sausage. Veal Parm. Chicken Parm. Fucking eggplant parm, dude.
Relax / Don’t do it!
Don’t punch yourself in the face because it’s been so long since you had eggplant parm in a suburban strip mall in 1985.
That’s why I’m here. I want to take you there.
I want you to have that again one last time.
And I want you understand how that whole goddamn scene ruined a big part of my life too.
The exact reasons for my mom taking us out to eat on rare occasions were, and remain, unknown to me. But I do wonder. We had very little money, so obviously that’s a significant factor right there. Also, my mom worked full-time and so at least five days a week were more or less out of the question as far as dining out goes simply because she was tired as hell AND broke. I mean, those two things alone are more than enough to mean that kids like me and my brother were looking at a loaded deck of dinner choices to draw from if we had any kind of delusions about what social strata we were born into.
See, there was maybe one or two golden ticket GOING OUT TO EAT cards in the entire deck. And there were something like 500 other cards that directed our tired dirty young asses with boring shit like:
Make Microwave Meatballs.
Eat Leftover Pot Roast and Potatoes.
Or, my favorite…
Figure Something Out.
That last one, which, to its total credit, was one of the most vital lessons I ever learned as a kid. To make my own dinner. To fix me and my brother something, or for him to fix it for us. Boiling water. Using the toaster oven. Frying in the pan. Smoke alarms freaking out and the delicate Jedi work/study program of using fans and open windows (even in the heart of winter) to eliminate thick buttery pan fog while also climbing on tipsy kitchen chairs to de-9volt the smoke alarms. The smoke alarms, incidentally, that never actually saved our lives (or even came close), but did, in fact, instill in me some of the speedball doses of tried and true anxiety that I ever experienced.
I don’t know for absolute certain if there was some mob’d-up company manufacturing fake Italian murals for low-to-mid grade East Coast restaurants in the 1980’s, but I mean, c’mon. There had to be, right? In Perth Amboy or Elizabeth, back in some cement-plant-looking industrial complex of warehouses and tall street lamps and chain link fences and signs with the red, white, and green of the Italian flag, there had to be at least a couple of places.
Bella Luna Graphics.
Atlantic Restaurant Decor & Supply.
These were places that I know must have existed because I can often clench my eyes shut and squeeze so tightly that small marbles with images of desolate loading docks and clattering metal gates and graffiti’d box trucks embedded in their glass literally roll out of my head and plink down onto the kitchen table or whatever. It’s almost as if I can take a vision/ any vision, man/ and make it real just by thinking about it so hard that it forms a physical version of itself, albeit just in a little marble.
I imagine it as a kind of grain-of-sand-becomes-a-pearl scenario.
If you drive through the Meadowlands or take the trains from North Jersey into the city, you will see these kinds of places. They are Broadway sets lost in the real world. Shadow box art so masterfully created that you will sigh at the very scope and brilliance of it all. The dumpster-ish detail. The perfect amount of true loneliness featuring slim dark-haired secretaries smoking cigarettes outside windowless doors. Gunmetal skies above cattail reeds in a swamp that edges up to a sad stack of pallets.
You can see the wind blowing trash and it looks like prairie dogs running for their lives.
In a hot flash of train window cinema: you can see a man, hundreds of yards away, walking away from a mint colored Cadillac towards a white stucco building where they might be making Venice murals for Italian joints all over the country.
I don’t know the ins-and-outs of this strange shady business, man, but I know it must exist. I know someone must be making these murals or mural kits or whatever. It’s not likely every suburb along the eastern seaboard has their own Venetian muralist, is it?
I have sat in the trains, decades after these meals, and I have still felt this weird deep possibility from back in the shadows as we rushed past. Something telling me that this is where that mural was from. The one from my youth. My summertime eggplant parm boy gondola scene. My teenage romance wall. My hot pepper flake stuck in my teeth art explosion.