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February 12, 2006


A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.

February 12, 2006

Cavaleri's Is No Longer There

We're running out of good Italian restaurants

Nick Cavaleri told me that he has sold his restaurant. That was his way of saying that the place wouldn’t be closing, that we could still come there and enjoy the place. But how could it be the same without Nick, and his close supervision of the daily vat of marinara sauce?

The place opened in 1976 as a bar and pizza shop. Nick took it over in 1981 and expanded the building, turning it into a sit-down Italian restaurant, one of the standby pillars of Italian food in Albany. But as the Italian community dissipates in Albany, the numerous Italian eateries are disappearing. Even though it will remain open as a restaurant, Cavaleri’s is retiring with the owner.

Of course, the wife and I are convinced that it is all our fault. If we had gone there more often and not come to take the place for granted, maybe Nick wouldn’t have decided to retire. Maybe he would have stayed open for us. After all, the universe revolves around the two of us, doesn’t it?

Everyone assumed that one of his sons would have continued in his stead, but we shouldn’t be so surprised that none of them did. What is right for the father is not necessarily right for the sons.

With our amazing powers of hindsight, we can infer that back in 1981 Nick saw a business opportunity and took smart advantage of it, building on an already successful location. People were looking for an accessible and affordable place that served good, tasty dinners. He knew exactly what he was doing.

When Nick arrived in Albany from Calabria in Italy in 1952, he came to join his father who worked for the railroads. He had no long term plans to stay here, he did not intend to follow his father any more than his sons plan to follow him in the retaurant business. But he was here only four months when he got a letter from the U.S. government.

“Greetings from the President of the United States,” it read. Nick thought, “That’s nice, the President wants to welcome me to this country.” Or, that’s what Nick told me that he thought. Next thing he knew, he was packed off to Fort Dix New Jersey for basic training.

He landed in Korea near the end of the war, and in short order became Sergeant Cavaleri in charge of a platoon. He had his share of problems. “Those boys from the South, and from the West, as soon they heard I was an Italian from New York, they said, ‘Are you a gangster?’ I said, ‘Yeah, sure, we’re all gangsters.’” They started to think twice before harassing him.

However, after he became Sergeant, the problems began anew. The regular soldiers weren’t used to taking orders from, as Nick put it, no doubt exaggerating, “a guy who could only say two words in English, yes and no.” So he called the whole platoon out for an announcement.

“Listen up,” he said, “Cause I’m only going to say this once. First, I didn’t ask to be here. Got it?”

“Yeah Sarge, yeah,” they all said.

“And second,” he said, as he leaned over our table in his restaurant, pointing at the imaginary sergeant’s stripes on his arm, glowering at me as he spoke. “See these stripes? They talk.”

I was impressed. So were those guys way back when in Korea. They gave him no more trouble.

“One more thing.” he said to me. “There was a grocery store on Madison. Just before I left for Korea, I met a girl who was working there behind the counter. She was fifteen years old. I said, when I get back I’m gonna marry her.” He made his intentions clear to the whole neighborhood around lower Madison.

Several years later, when Nick got discharged and was back in Albany, he proposed and the wedding was set. But a fellow he knew took him aside and told him that there was a fellow, “Joe,” who had been pushed by his parents into making a play for the young lady while Nick was in the army. She brushed him off, but Nick was not pleased to hear this.

He found Joe in a bar on Madison. “Listen,” he said to Joe, "There’s not enough sidewalk around here for both of us.”

Joe hemmed and hawed, “Aw Nick, I didn’t want to marry her, it was my parent’s idea anyway.”

Nick said, “And I’m telling you there’s not enough sidewalk.”

As Nick told the story, he glowered at me as he must have done at this guy Joe, who reportedly left town abruptly.

This encounter happened around the time that I was busy being born, but for Nick it was as real as if it had happened that afternoon. The way Nick looked at me, I was ready to pack up and move to Albuquerque. You’d better believe that you will not catch me messing with Mrs. Cavaleri.

Nick may be a hardened businessman and a tough talking sergeant with a glance that can wilt pansies, but the man is also an award winning published poet. Indeed, some of his medals and trophies were on display in his restaurant. And if you asked him, he would come to your table and show you some of his work.

About ten years ago, while we were dining, he brought me a couple of his unpublished works on handwritten sheets, which I brought home and carefully preserved in a file folder. I have his oral permission to publish these poems on this site.

I paid for Nick’s generous gift of his poetry by reading them aloud in the restaurant, which seemed to please him immensely. Now, understand that I know something about poetry myself, having studied the stuff and attended plenty of open readings in bars full of drunks. I learned how to read my own poetry out loud under life threatening conditions.

As a life skill it is pretty much useless. Not too many employers are looking for guys who can read poetry, but now and then this ability comes in handy. I’m glad I got an opportunity to entertain Nick.

You will never find Nick Cavaleri’s poetry in the pages of Poetry Magazine, The American Poetry Review or in the back pages of The New Yorker. His poems lack the slippery subtle cleverness that so delights upper class esthetes with English degrees. Who reads that stuff, anyway?

Cleverness should take a back seat to sincerity for a poem to be memorable. The truly great poets can be both clever and sincere, but few of us can achieve that. If given a choice, I would rather be moved and entertained by sincerity than bored silly by cleverness.

Nick’s poetry is completely straightforward and lacking in pretension. At first glance, the cynic might want to snicker at his simplicity. But there is more than mere sentimentality here, it is an honest expression of his gratitude for living. Don’t look for illusions and wry contradictions. Where’s the postmodern subtext? Who cares?

Maybe now Nick will have time to write some more poetry. I’ve been wondering how a guy who has worked hard all his life is going to spend his time. Indeed, we did overhear him asking a certain person sitting at a nearby table about job opportunities.

I doubt that Nick needs the money. I wasn't crass enough to ask him how much his restaurant sold for, but I’ve noticed that it listed online for $549,000, a bargain for sure. Even if his sons don’t wish to continue the tradition, at least the new owner will maintain the continuity.

That reminds me of another worthless son who refused to continue his father’s restaurant, forcing it to close. I will never forgive our First Ward Common Council member, Dominick Calsolaro for depriving me of the butter drenched clams casino that were available at his father’s place, Calsolaro’s on Washington Ave. across from Townsend Park.

Apparently, after spending a good part of his childhood in the kitchen, Dom decided that he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life sweating over Italian food. He told me that his father was never home, and when he was, all his old man did was sleep.

Dominick also has told me that his Dad didn’t keep enough of the profits for himself. The family was always scraping together to pay bills, while the waiters were driving Cadillacs and wearing expensive suits. You have to respect a guy who treated his employees well. After all, they stayed at their jobs for decades.

At our last meal at Cavaleri’s, we found out that our waitress Antoinette (Toni) had been working there for 30 years. I asked her why she gave up a career in special education, letting her college degrees languish to serve food. She told us that although it was her first love, special ed is very time consuming and emotionally draining. It came to an either or choice for her, her family or her career. Thus it made sense for her to work at the retaurant where she could make a decent living and still have enough of herself left over for her children.

But now Toni is retiring along with Nick, and her kids are grown. She has some big plans relating to her knowledge of special ed. “You’ll be hearing about me,” she assured us.

We figure that Toni must actually predate Nick Cavaleri, having started working 30 years ago when the place was called Alexander’s Tavern. This beer and pizza joint was owned by Alexander Calsolaro, second cousin to Dominick Calsolaro’s father, who passed away this past month at the age of 90. Alexander and his wife retired in 1981 when they sold the place to Nick.

There may still be a restaurant at the corner of Second Avenue and Cavaleri Boulevard, but how can the marinara sauce be the same? The wife insisted that we buy up the contents of the sauce pot the last two times we ate there, we now have ten quarts of the stuff in the freezer. When that’s gone, there will be no more.

But I’m really gonna miss the chicken marsala. Where can I go to get that?

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