Digitizing Emilio's Restaurant
The sign says it all -- Sorry, We're Open.
I don't remember what year Emilio Maddaloni put that plastic sign in
the bay window of his one-room Italian eatery in downtown Portsmouth. He
made it by cutting a cheap hardware store sign in half and reversing the
sentiments. This is a man who would rather be anywhere but at work, and
makes no bones about it. You eat here, you pay attention. You got a
problem? Let's talk about it. You want a burger? Go to MacDonald’s.
Emilio knows all his customers by name. He knows where they live. He
knows what they eat. He knows about their jobs, their children, their
health, their love lives and their politics. Strangers must be prepared to
fill in those details, in Italian, German, Russian, French -- in whatever
language the owner is in the mood for that day. The radio may be playing
blues, opera, country, hip-hop, big band.
There used to be an old blackboard on the street that listed the daily fare. For the longest time it simply read -- THIS is a SIGN -- and indeed it was. Visitors come as much for the metaphysics as the food. For months Emilio insisted on showing everyone his talking GI Joe backpack. Then there was the talking pillow in the shape of Signmund Freud, then a talking cell phone. Now he has a talking orange pumpkin that sits on the shelf by the Food Museum, near the rack of Emilio-style berets and aprons.
Talking is definitely part of the experience. Take yesterday’s
conversation, for instance.
When Emilio is tired of talking and cooking, he begins dropping hints
"I gotta get out of here. I can’t do this anymore," he says. "Emilio
needs a vacation. Emilio needs a life."
Then days or weeks later – you can never tell -- the door is locked. The "Yes, We're Closed" sign appears, and the waiting begins. As Emilio’s vacation continues, hungry soul-starved customers begin to cluster on the front steps like zombies from a Dawn of the Dead movie. Some standing on tip toes, hands cupped over their eyes peer into the darkened store to see if Emilio is just pulling a prank.
Every time this happens (and the vacations seem to be getting longer) a couple hundred of us fear we've seen the end of the Emilio era. Nobody else is going to open a little Italian grocery store in Portsmouth again. And should someone be crazy enough to try, he still won't be Emilio.
"He's a throw back to another time when a store didn't have to be new and improved," says David Balkin, a regular at Emilio's since the late 1970s. I've known Dave as a marketing guy, a fundraiser, a radio talk show host and a newspaper columnist. He is also a serious Emilio addict.
"The quality of the food is excellent. The place is spotless. When I was a kid growing up in Boston, every store I went into was like that. People knew who you were. It was just part of doing business."
"When you think about it, " Dave says, "he's the counter man, the cook,
the cashier, salesman, marketing guy, janitor, carpenter, bookkeeper.
Emilio is a therapist, a teacher, a madman."
A few months ago Dave Balkin got a digital camera . For no particular reason, he started shooting portraits of customers at Emilio's during lunch. The camera doesn't require film. Before long he had over 100 images on his hard-drive. The images are huge, almost a megabyte each. But Dave's computer has a 15 gig harddrive, enough to hold 15,000 oversized photos. Then Dave got a color printer for $99 and began making 8 X10 prints of these portraits that, thanks to modern technology, look fabulous. Dave figures it costs about a dollar to print each one.
"It’s just fun," Dave says about his latest hobby. "I suggested Emilio might want to give the photos to people who came in the store. My goal is to take a picture of everybody, then maybe take a picture of everybody in Portsmouth."
Emilio hung the pictures all around the tiny store wherever an unused speck of wall space could be found. Some people took their pictures home, but most wanted theirs to remain in the growing gallery of patrons, like members of a very exclusive club. An iconoclast to the marrow, Emilio just couldn’t resist creating his own version of the photo project.
"This one guy said to me – Hey Emilio! Who are all these people on the wall? – And I looked at him and I said – These are all the people who owe me money!"
He laughs a hearty Emilio laugh and, as another customer comes in, he tells the story again. A running gag can last for months here. I suggested that Dave’s photo gallery will someday be a precious artifact, a detailed colorful record of life in the city’s last Italian grocery store. The giant photos are dense with detail. Seen full-sized they reveal every item on the shelves – boxes of Amaretti di Saronno, colorful bottles of vinegar and oil, imported olives, canned plum tomatoes, artichokes, dried mushrooms, bitter European drinks, pasta in every shape, strange and wonderful utensils, garlic presses, ceramic dishware amid candies with odd sounding names.
It’s all recorded digitally now for posterity, and the picture taking still goes on. Don’t ask me why, but these photos are a comfort. Long after the smells and sounds fade, we’ll have them.
Dave has taken pictures of Emilio behind his wooden counter against the hulking head-high deli case and beside the giant scale and shiny slicing machine. There are shots in the back kitchen with the ancient stove amid the worn pots and pans.
"Someday," I said to Emilio as he threatened another vacation, "a hundred years from now, a cyber archeologist will discover a cache of Dave Balkin’s computer photos. Professors will analyze them and Strawbery Banke will spend a million dollars rebuilding this room exactly as it is – right down to the labels on the cans. Tourists will stream through to see a perfectly reconstructed wax copy of Emilio. You will be immortal!"
"I could use the money now," Emilio says unimpressed, lifting the wax
paper off a stack of square slices of cold pizza. "How about a pizza with
lentils and spicy beef?"
"C’mon," Emilio insists for the thousandth time, "It’s good. You’ll
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