You Can’t Go Home Again

Joe Graziano opened his Casa Mia restaurant in 1969, bringing authentic Italian cuisine to rural northern New England. It started as one room at the intersection of the main street, right next door to a popular seafood place, The Channel Marker. Over the years, as word got out and the popularity of Graziano’s grew, Joe doubled his floor space, naming his dining rooms “Round One” and “Round Two,” because Joe loved pugilism. For a time he was state boxing commissioner, and he loaded his place with boxing memorabilia. Eventually autographed pictures of politicians and sports figures like John Havlicek of the Boston Celtics were added to the mix, but boxing was the motif—boxing, good food, and good fellowship. In its heyday—after Joe bought out The Channel Marker and took possession of the entire building, Graziano’s contained three dining rooms, a function room, and a lounge. There was a parking valet and, eventually, an extra lot located across the street for overflow vehicles.

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I started frequenting Graziano’s in 1978, while working in radio broadcasting. Over the years I brought dates and steady girlfriends there, as well as every member of my family (my brother-in-law Paul, from Florida, was a devotee) and my comics-reading friends. For a handful of Friday evenings during the early 1980s, we “funnybook guys” would venture to an area comics shop, pick up the new books, then drive to Graziano’s for a lengthy meal and some lively conversation.

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My good friend Tom Field and I were the regulars in those sessions. We were sometimes joined by others – most often by Howard Downs, Mike Dudley, Lee Weeks (in the days before he became a professional comics artist at Eclipse, Marvel, Dark Horse, and DC), Dave Peabody, Doug Thornsjo, Walter Orrall, or Peter Ferris—but Tom and I were there many, many Friday nights, talking sports and girls, comparing notes on the revelation that was Kitchen Sink’s Steve Canyon or the contents of the latest Nemo magazine, discussing ways we could take the industry by storm. We joked with the older waitresses and flirted with the younger ones, all while consuming mass quantities of veal scaloppini, chicken kiev, pasta, white pizza, and deep-fried mozzarella (Joe’s mozzarella fritta marinara remains the best deep-fried cheese I’ve ever tasted). We didn’t conquer the comics business, but we made our mark on it—Tom has written comics ranging from Incredible Hulk to Beavis and Butt-Head before becoming the biographer of Gene Colan and the aforementioned Lee Weeks, and, well, here I am.

Tom moved out of our home state years before I did, but by the mid-1990s we both lived in the greater Boston area, though on those occasions when we crossed the state line to visit the old gang, we’d often find a way to get back to Graziano’s. We’d find a way to get back to a place as welcoming as our own homes.

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How many packed Friday nights did we literally belly up to the bar in Round Two, waiting for Rosie the hostess to call our name for a newly-open table, leaning this way and that to allow waitresses lugging packed trays to squeeze by? I never minded the wait; our vantage point allowed me to keep an eye on Sharon, the tall, statuesque bartender with the long dark hair. Our friend Doug ran the first comics shop in the state, which attracted all of us like bears to honey; when he decided it was time to close his doors, it was Graziano’s where we staged our farewell roast in his honor. Knowing I worked in radio, Rosie once approached me for a favor. One of the kitchen staff had a seriously-ill son who had an interest in 1930s and ’40s music: could I help them get some cassettes of old music for him? A few weeks later I showed up with over eight hours of Andrews Sisters, Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie, and Cab Calloway tunes; the genuine gratitude of the staff was a heartwarming moment I’ll always cherish.

We grew to know many of the staff members: Rosie and the other hostess, Florence—waitresses like Carolyn (who was one of Joe’s three daughters), Angie, and Jeanine, a French-Canadian with a Norm Crosbyesque penchant for malapropism. One night we learned Jeanine was concerned about her high “cholesteroil,” but her doctor had told her to take two “Tylenoids” each day to improve that condition. When we didn’t know an employee by his true name, we christened him—Tom referred to the valet as “Peter Parker,” for example.

By the time the lounge area had been created, Joe himself recognized us as regulars and began standing us to an occasional free round of drinks while we waited for our table. He would pull up a chair and talk to us, telling us about his early days in the restaurant business in western New York State. One night, he said, the proprietor of the place let him knock early off from tending bar to allow him to spend the rest of the evening in the back of the restaurant, playing games of chance with Moe Howard and Larry Fine. I remember my reaction so clearly: “My God, you knewThe Stooges! You really are The Man!”

In 1997, my family called me back home – my sister and her husband and daughter were visiting from Florida. They took me to Graziano’s and threw me a surprise pre-publication party forBatman: The Gauntlet. Joe stopped by, saw my nieces and nephew—still very young back then – briefly went away, then came back with big key chains shaped like boxing gloves to help occupy them for a time. Two days after Gauntlet was released, Lee Weeks and I were in the area doing a book signing. Following the event, fifty of us had a publication party—of course, there was only one place we could go to whoop it up. I’d included a reference to “the Graziano mob” on the first page of the book, after all.

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Joe passed away in 2000; he was much-loved and is much-missed. His children continued to run the place. Carolyn often hostessed now, Andrea designed the menus, Mary Elizabeth and Joe Jr. (“Joey”) ran the kitchen and kept the standards high. In the mid-1990s I’d learned Joey was a great comics fan, and during one visit I sent some of Lee’s work back to Joey with my compliments. He came out of the kitchen to meet me, saying, “Lee Weeks? He’s one of myfavorites!” Joey and I have stayed buddies as the years have gone on; he has more than a few Library of American Comics releases in his home (which, by one of those twists of fate, is located not five miles from my parents’ house, where I spent my teen years).

During a weekend in late March of this year, Tom and I had to return to our home state to visit one of our friends. As plans came together, we talked about having dinner at Graziano’s on our way out of the state. Why not? So many things in life are temporary, but what has lasted through the three adult decades of our lives? Our comics-reading friends, and Graziano’s.

But before the end of the week, Tom sent me this sad news, posted on Facebook:

THE GRAZIANO’S HAVE LEFT THE BUILDING. After 43 years of full bellies, friendly smiles, and impassioned dinner conversations, we have closed the doors to our…location for the final time.

We’d like to thank our wonderful employees, whose loyalty and companionship made “Casa Mia” more of a home than a workplace, and of course, all of our customers and friends to which we’ve been privileged to cook for and serve all these years. We literally couldn’t have done it without you.

We leave with our heads held high, full of memories and garlic, a little worse for the wear, but proud nonetheless. We know that the spirit of Joe will remain within us for having been a part of this establishment, and we thank him for allowing us to live his dream for all these years.

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By the time we finished visiting our friend and had driven about forty-five minutes to that familiar intersection, night had fallen. It was Saturday night and the building was dark, silent, the parking spaces devoid of cars. It was sad to see, sad to know that the passage of time, the encroachment of cookie-cutter chain restaurants, the sagging economy and rising gasoline prices had laid low a place that played such a major role in our lives.

Tom and I walked around the building; I took these pictures and a handful of others. We went up the hill beyond the eastern wall of the structure, crossing the lot Peter Parker patrolled during other, more robust Saturday nights. This sign, on both the front and back entrances, summed up all the evidence we had been taking in.

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As we prepared to leave, I reached inside the window box planters, grabbed up a small handful of the soil inside, and wrapped in plastic—it’s not the memento of Graziano’s I expected to have, but I’m glad to have it.

And naturally, it’s not my only memento, as you can tell from this account. Locked inside my head are the countless hours, the family and close friends, the milestone events, the good times we wanted to go on forever, the warm and welcoming staff, and Joe Graziano – forever the quintessential restrateur, forever the gracious host, forever The Man Who Knew The Stooges.

Stepping around to the rear of the restaurant, I took this photo of the back entrance…

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…This topmost sign drew my attention…

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…And its clear, direct optimism helped me pick my spirits up off the ground. Every day we’re making memories, I told myself, and while we’ll never make a new one in this place we loved, we will find new places, new ways to make the memories to come as good as the ones behind us.

You’ll pardon me, however, if I pause this last time to raise a glass to all those grand times past. There will never—can never—be another Graziano’s Casa Mia. Saluto, Joe!

 

 

 

 

 

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