Sunday, April 15, 2012

‘And the fries are simply to die for…’

The Perratore household is all abuzz this month with the news that Andrew has made Vassar. I’ve so much to say to my son, so much wisdom to impart. Of course, being a normal, 21st-century 18-year-old, he’ll have to take off his headphones to hear it. Ignore the buzzing of texts on his cellphone, too, and put down that chicken parm and penne ala vodka sandwich for a minute…breakfast can wait.

Once I do get his attention, my first piece of sage advice applies to whatever he does during and after his college years: “To thine own self be true.” You know, one of those droll parental platitudes.

Not that it’s advice I followed from the get-go. Before I even open my mouth, I recall a column to which a few staffers of the Ridgewood Times contributed while I worked there as a college student. It was called “Feinschmecker,” a word the largely German population of that part of Queens knew to mean “gourmet” or “epicure.” It was a restaurant-review column…though one with a secret.

To anyone who understands the usual weekly newspaper, it was business as usual. The restaurants the column featured were advertisers. In exchange for a freebie meal for two—pretty cheap rates for a 500-word ad—the newspaper would run a review of the restaurant. And as that part of Queens is renowned the world over for its culinary fare, we at the paper knew before reading a word that the review would be glowing.

The first place I covered, my then-girlfriend Elena at my side (no jokes about cheap dates, please), was a local German haunt. We were served food I was having for the first time, such as Goulash Soup, Leberkäse a la Holstein and Kieler Rollmops, and I was expected to write about its quality with, ahem, authority. This from a kid who, given his druthers, was most likely to be found in the nearest McDonald’s or pizza place when it came time to chow down.

Anyway, I muddled through so with indecipherable gems such as “Yours is a virtual free-for-all of caviar atop Russian dressing over hard-boiled eggs on a bed of lettuce and tomato, all of which make fast friends when forked into your mouth.” To tell you the truth, I was very proud of myself for a different reason: When writing about the caviar, not once did I use the phrase “trout bait.”

My second assignment, at a more mainstream establishment on busy Queens Boulevard, took me to less charted waters. The owner himself seated us. And, as we looked at the menus—I “studied” it—he sat down at our table. “So…” our host began in a German accent that seemed to have thickened over the past minute, “you are der feinschmecker!”

I suddenly found myself in a surreal scene reminiscent of those World War II movies in which an American must bluff his way past a suspicious guard. Through a long silence, during which he wonders where he will be tortured and shot or merely shot, he holds his breath. But unlike those movies, I could not get away with merely chuckling and replying “Ja, ja!” To which he would laugh and reply, “Ja!” Followed by five minutes of back-and-forth “ja-ing,” with knowing smiles and nods—the meaning of which would mercifully escape me.

What I mostly wondered, though, was whether this man truly didn’t have the same wink-wink-nod-nod understanding of this food-for-praise arrangement. If I said the wrong thing, why, I could envision what came next—the owner throwing a napkin to the rustic stone floor, gauntlet-like, and hissing through clenched teeth, “You…are…no…feinschmecker. Get out of here, get out!”

So I winged it. “I guess so!” To which he told us the specials, recommended an entrée or two and went away.

After that escapade, I was only too happy to do a pizza place and restaurant for my third and last venture as a restaurant reviewer. Here, at least, I had genuine opinions.

We just took Andrew on another trip to his new college, and I couldn’t help but pick up a copy of the campus newspaper. I opened it randomly—to see a restaurant review. And I almost opened my mouth to utter the second piece of sage advice: Write restaurant reviews and get lots of free food!

But considering that he’s never truly had to pay for his own food, I don’t think that advice would go over well, either.


  1. Hilarious, Ed. And big congrats to Andrew!

  2. Thank you very much, Dez! I'll pass along your congrats, too.