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Scenes From an Italian Barbecue
The author’s quest for patio furniture triggers memories of a boyhood visit with neighbors—and a reminder of what that backyard meal is really about

By B.A. Nilsson

My wife and I stopped in the store’s outdoor living section and again eyed a lawn furniture set. I wanted something to gussy up the tone of my backyard cookery as our old picnic table grows ever more limp. You want to impress your guests, of course, and comfortable seating is a boon; and I had in mind a Memorial Day picnic of some magnitude.

And lawn furniture is becoming more of a commodity item. I’m not even talking about that good-for-a-season resin nonsense; I mean sturdy-looking stuff in which flashes of real metal appear. That table-with-umbrella-and-four-chairs ensemble has trickled down even into supermarkets now, and each time I saw one I imagined myself, assuming my butt fits into the chair, relaxing in my backyard, a tall glass of iced tea in hand. I fingered the price tag and decided it really was practically affordable. . . .

Then I saw myself in another backyard, decades ago, a glass of oversweetened iced tea in hand, at a picnic table so ratty it makes my current one look like a Martha Stewart catalogue item. And I remembered myself feeling serene and accepted in the midst of the chaos of Joey’s family’s get-together.

If you had asked this family to pose for an outdoor dining photograph, they would have laughed off the suggestion that their event could be so categorized. It was Sunday dinner, that’s all, and in the warm months it tended to spill out into the backyard.

I grew up one street away from this family, whose name was Rogers—a scaled-down version of an Italian moniker I never learned. But family patriarch Phil Rogers had parents who’d been born in Italy, and they—along with a cluster of uncles and cousins and aunts—thronged the house after church on many a pleasant Sunday.

Phil’s son, Joey, was about my age, and other than that we had nothing in common. Still, we pursued a friendship that led more often to his house than to mine, because mine was permanently frosted with a chill of dysfunction, something that hides wonderfully in the picturesque streets of suburban Connecticut.

The town was a developer’s dream, zoning-free and convenient for commuters who saw nothing wrong with tacking four hours of travel time onto the workday. Joey’s dad was different. He ran a floor-cleaning service. It was a big operation that included a retail arm, and afforded him a large, new house back in a time when some of the town’s oldsters were getting over the shock of seeing a well-liked but nevertheless Italian-descended man elected first selectman.

Fifty years earlier, this town was the weekend home of wealthy New Yorkers, who installed immigrant Italian housekeepers and gardeners at their estates. When John Scala, renowned for his cooking, bought the Elms Inn on Main Street in 1951, it was an open scandal, but also a significant mark of the extent to which those immigrants and their families had infiltrated and strengthened the town.

By the time I entered school there, vowel-tipped surnames were unremarkable, and it never occurred to me to ask Joey why his surname wasn’t so characterized. He was mad about cars; I was getting interested in classical music. We found other things to talk about. We swam in a nearby pond. I tried to keep up with him as he maneuvered a basketball around his driveway. And then one day I showed up and the place was crowded with relatives, and I had my first look at an extended family that actually enjoyed the company of one another.

Relatives rarely arrived at my house. Those who did were hated by the unrelated parent. At Joey’s house, not only were there relatives galore, all talking at once, but the fact that I was Joey’s friend seemed to put me on some kind of a footing with them, a phenomenon I found hard to fathom.

“He’s one of the family,” said Phil, slapping me on the back. “Now get outta here. Go get something to eat.”

Something to eat. Phil’s built-in barbecue bore a load of burgers and dogs. Sausage links sizzled on a nearby portable grill. The old picnic table was dressed with a cloth and bore platters of salads, heaping bowls of pasta. There was soda. There was pie. Al Martino crooned from an eight-track machine. “That sonofabitch can sing,” said someone in passing.

Two old men, each with a sandwich in hand, began to yell at one another, the free arm of each spinning like a windmill. They pushed their faces till they were nose to nose, sputtering and screaming about I don’t recall what. I expected the patio to hush in anticipation of the first punch thrown, but nobody else paid any attention. And then the two men laughed and clapped each other on the back.

It was the first time I’d seen emotion expended for the sheer joy of expending emotion. It was liberating. It meant that you actually could let loose of some of the passion that tends to build without being thought a maniac.

“They’re always like that,” said Joey, shaking his head, laughing. “You want to go for a swim?”

The lawn furniture set looked all the more lonely and sterile on the showroom floor, surrounded by other, costlier lawn furniture sets, the umbrellas all tilted in different directions like radar beacons searching for fun.

“Do you still want to get that set?” my wife asked.

I shook my head. “We need to get some sausage,” I said. “And some burgers. And dogs. And we’re going to call some friends. We might have to call some family members. We might even have to call your family.”

She placed a hand to my forehead and hustled me outside.

Full Service

Adirondack Pub & Brewery
33 Canada St., Lake George, 668-0002

Albany Airport Hilton Garden Inn
800 Albany Shaker Road, Colonie, 464-6666

Alibis Bar & Grille
1100 Madison Ave., Albany 489-0606

Arlington House
3532 Route 43, West Sand Lake, 674-1880

Corner of Putnam and Phila streets, Saratoga Springs, 583-6060

1192 Western Ave., Albany, 438-1144

The Barnsider
480 Sand Creek Road, Colonie, 869-2448

Bayou Café
507 Saratoga Road (Route 50), Glenville, 384-1568

Bayou Café Downtown
79 N. Pearl St., Albany, 426-8550

367 Delaware Ave., Delmar, 475-1111

47 Phila St., Saratoga Springs, 583-2755

BFS Restaurant
1736 Western Ave., Guilderland, 452-6342

Big House
90 N. Pearl St., Albany, 445-2739

Black Cat Ale House
25 White St., Cohoes, 235-3199

The Bleeker Restaurant
State and Dove streets, Albany, 463-9382

390 Broadway, Saratoga Springs, 587-6262

The Cambridge Hotel
4 West Main St., Cambridge, 677-5626

The Cat’s Meow
14 Karner Road (Route 155), Guilderland, 456-1895

Chameleon on the Lake
251 County Route 67, 581-3928

Chianti Il Ristorante
208 S. Broadway, Saratoga Springs, 580-0025

Christie’s on the Lake
6 Christie Lane, Lake George, 668-2515

Circus Café
392 Broadway, Saratoga Springs, 583-1106

Daniel’s at Ogdens
42 Howard St., Albany, 694-5320

Davidson Brothers Brewery & Restaurant
184 Glen St., Glens Falls, 743-9026

Elda’s on Lark
203-207 Lark St., Albany, 449-3532

El Loco Mexican Café
465 Madison Ave., Albany, 436-1855

El Mariachi II
289 Hamilton St., Albany, 432-7580

Everglades BBQ & Seafood
827 Saratoga Road, Wilton, 580-9631

2012 Central Ave., Colonie, 869-0494

Flying Fish Grille
265 Canada St., Lake George, 668-9224

Four Seasons
33 Phila St., Saratoga Springs, 584-4670

16 Caroline St., Saratoga Springs, 587-7359

The Georgian
384 Canada St., Lake George, 668-5401

Gideon Putnam Hotel
Saratoga Spa State Park, Saratoga Springs, 584-3000

The Ginger Man Wine Bar & Restaurant
234 Western Ave., Albany, 427-5963

Good Times Lake View Inn Restaurant
175 Lake Road, Ballston Lake, 399-9976

45 Phila St., Saratoga Springs, 584-4790

Holmes & Watson
450 Broadway, Troy, 273-8526

Horseshoe Inn Bar & Grille
1 Gridley St., Saratoga Springs, 587-4909

Hudson Harbor Steak & Seafood
351 Broadway, Albany, 426-5000

The Inn at Saratoga
231 Broadway, Saratoga Springs, 583-1890

Jake’s Round-Up
23 Main St., South Glens Falls, 761-0015

59 N. Pearl St., Albany, 432-1997

JJ Rafferty’s
847 Loudon Road, Latham, 783-6800

JT Maxies
240 Wolf Road, Albany, 435-1551

301 Lark St., Albany, 436-7008

Krause’s Restaurant & Grove
2 Beach Road, Clifton Park, 371-8033

La Serre
14 Green St., Albany, 463-6056

The Lakeview Inn
Route 43, Averill Park, 674-3363

Lanie’s Café
471 Albany Shaker Road, Loudonville, 438-5005

408 Broadway, Saratoga Springs, 587-7766

Londonderry Café
Stuyvesant Plaza, 489-4288

288 Lark St., Albany, 465-5275

Mad River Bar & Grill
86 N. Pearl St., Albany, 433-8338

371 Broadway, Saratoga Springs, 580-0312

1186 Western Ave., Albany, 437-1701

Magnolia’s on the Park
462 Madison Ave., Albany, 449-2492

1562 New Scotland Ave., Slingerlands, 439-5555, Stuyvesant Plaza, 482-8000, Shopper’s World Plaza (off Route 146), Clifton Park, 383-6666

Mansion Hill Inn
115 Philip St., Albany, 489-0466

Martel’s at the New Course Albany
65 O’Neil Road, Albany, 463-1455

4 Clinton Square, Albany, 463-1455

Mediterranean Garden Grille
1903 N. Scotland Road, Slingerlands, 439-3800

Mexican Connection
41 Nelson Ave., Saratoga Springs, 584-4466

Mill Road Restaurant
30 Mill Road, Latham, 783-7244

Moscatello’s Italian Restaurant
99 North Greenbush Road (Route 4), Troy, 283-0809

My Linh
272 Delaware Ave., Albany, 465-8899

Nicole’s Bistro at Quackenbush House
25 Quackenbush Square, Albany, 465-1111

Nicole’s Italia 2
54 Clifton County Road, Clifton Park, 383-4150

Nicole’s Restaurant
556 Delaware Ave., Albany, 436-4952

Orchard Tavern
68 N. Manning Blvd., Albany, 482-5677

Original Saratoga Springs Brew Pub
14 Phila St., Saratoga Springs, 583-3209

Pagliacci’s Ristorante
44 S. Pearl St., Albany, 465-1001

Parting Glass
40-42 Lake Ave., Saratoga Springs, 583-1916

Patroon House
614 Route 9W, Glenmont, 463-5130

Pearl Restaurant & Lounge
One Steuben Place, Albany, 433-0011

284 Jefferson St., Saratoga Springs, 582-2423

Pinehaven Restaurant & Catering
1151 Siver Road, Guilderland, 456-7111 ext. 132

Professor Moriarty’s
430 Broadway, Saratoga Springs, 587-5981

Stuyvesant Plaza, 589-7777

11 New Scotland Ave., Albany, 434-8186

Randy’s at the Dovegate Inn
184 Broad St., Schuylerville, 695-3699

Real Seafood Co.
195 Wolf Road, Colonie, 458-2068

The Riverfront Bar & Grill
Corning Preserve, Albany, 426-4738

Saratoga Lake Bistro
511 Route 9P, Saratoga Lake, 587-8280

Sargo’s at Saratoga National Golf Club
458 Union Ave., Saratoga Springs, 583-4653 ext. 601

Scholz’s Hofbrau
Warner’s Lake, East Berne, 872-9912

Sedgwick Inn & Restaurant
17971 Route 22, Berlin, 658-2334

Shepard’s Cove
Lower Montcalm St., Lake George, 668-4978

168 Lincoln Ave., Saratoga Springs, 584-9618

30 ½ Caroline St., Saratoga Springs, 584-9618

80 Main St., Lenox, Mass., (413) 637-4455

Springwater Bistro
139 Union Ave., Saratoga Springs, 584-6440

The Starting Gate
55 Watervliet Ave., Albany, 482-8179

Styx Restaurant
3295 Route 2, Cropseyville, 279-9993

Sutter’s Mill & Mining Co.
1200 Western Ave., Albany, 489-4910

Brown’s Brewing Co.
417 River St., Troy, 273-BEER (2337)

Uncle Milty’s Diner
Route 9, Glenmont, 434-3761

Van’s Vietnamese Restaurant
137 Madison Ave., Albany, 436-1868

The Van Dyck Restaurant & Brewery
237 Union Ave., Schenectady, 381-1111

Victory Café
10 Sheridan Ave., Albany, 463-9113

Washington Tavern
250 Western Ave., Albany, 427-0091

The Waterfront
626 Crescent Ave., Saratoga Springs, 583-2628

The Wheat Fields
440 Broadway, Saratoga Springs, 587-0534

The Wine Bar
417 Broadway, Saratoga Springs, 584-8777

50 Stockbridge Road, Great Barrington, Mass., (413) 528-2002

Counter Service

Bountiful Bread
Stuyvesant Plaza, 438-3540

Country Drive-In
1455 Vischer Ferry Road, Clifton Park, 371-3455

The Daily Grind
204 Lark St., Albany, 427-0464

Hungry Spot Café
480 Broadway, Saratoga Springs, 584-9060

24 Main Ave., Wynantskill, 283-5110

Jumpin’ Jacks
Collins Park, Scotia, 393-6101

Kurver Kreme
1349 Central Ave., Colonie, 459-4120

Lakeside Cider Mills
336 Schauber Road, Ballston Lake, 399-8359

1565 Central Ave., Colonie, 869-6279

Lickety Splits
Route 9, Latham, 785-6178

Mrs. London’s Bakery & Café
464 Broadway, Saratoga Springs, 581-1834

On the Farm
271 Troy Schenectady Road, Latham, 785-9930

Route 9, S. Broadway, Saratoga Springs, 583-7427

Professor Java’s
217 Wolf Road, Colonie, 435-0843

1342 New Scotland Road, Slingerlands, 439-7084

Stuyvesant Plaza, 489-1064

Tastee Freeze
58 Delaware Ave., Delmar, 439-3912

Uncommon Grounds
402 Broadway, Saratoga Springs, 581-0656

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