Sunday, January 14, 2024

weird scenes inside the goldmine

One night for dinner, Mrs. P wanted spaghetti. Now, we are — in no way — "food snobs." We are not particular about where we go to get spaghetti. I am not one of those people who turns up their nose at ordinary, unimaginative, run-of-the-mill, neighborhood Italian restaurants that serve the basics. You know the type of place to which I'm referring. It's a big, boxy, dimly-lit place with a zillion teenage girls bustling behind the counter, a pen perched behind an ear and cracking chewing gum while they juggle a tray filled with generic-looking and plainly-prepared pasta dishes. Over in the corner is an older, balding gentleman in a white t-shirt and a  sauce-smeared apron, his overly-hairy forearms flexing as he grabs a knurled wooden peel and extracts a piping-hot pizza from the oven. A younger fellow — a family relation to the older man — is barking orders to the girls in a combination of broken English and fluent Italian. That sort of place. I know there's one in your neighborhood. It's usually called "Vincenzo's" or "Pizza Palace" or "Mama's Place," although "Mama" is no where to be seen.

In our neighborhood, that place is called "Roman Delight." It is only vaguely "Roman" and not anywhere near a "delight." Despite this misnomer of a name, it's been supplying mediocre, overpriced, somewhat Italian food to the northern Philadelphia suburbs for decades. Mrs. P and I have been infrequent patrons for about as long as we have lived in our house. (That's almost forty years!) Once we have whittled down our dinner options and Mrs. P doesn't feel like cooking, we will reluctantly call Roman Delight and get a perfectly okay meal for a little bit more that I think it should cost. Our order is usually the same each time. I get baked ziti in marinara sauce. Mrs. Pincus gets eggplant parmigiana over spaghetti and we will split an order of greasy garlic bread. Call-in orders sometimes need a bit of explaining and clarification with the order-taker — primarily to make sure they understand which items from their expansive menu I would like. Twenty or so minutes after my call-in order, I'll drive over to pick it up. We eat and that's it. It's not great. It's not horrible. It just serves as "dinner."

So when Mrs. Pincus wanted spaghetti for dinner, we just automatically thought to call Roman Delight. 

But, I stopped. "Let's try someplace different!," I suggested.

My wife gave me a puzzled look. "Where?" she questioned.

Several jobs ago, I worked for a place that designed and printed take-out menus for area restaurants. I remembered there was a place a block or so away from Roman Delight that boasted a similar menu. I pulled the place up from a quick Google search and scanned their menu. Their prices and selection were comparable to Roman Delight. "Let's give this place a try," I pressed on. Mrs. P appeared indifferent. So, we went.

The place I proposed is in a shopping center that we rarely visit. The last time I was there, the "Michael's Craft Store" that occupies the far end of the strip of businesses was a supermarket. The Rite Aid at the opposite end is now closed, a casualty of the pharmacy chain's slow and inevitable demise. In-between is a nail salon, a beauty supply store and a Chinese restaurant that never looks open. There's a Chipotle that I wrote about in 2014 and — in a space once occupied by a Baja Fresh — our destination Italian restaurant.

We entered the front door. The place was totally devoid of customers. It was 6:15 PM — dinner time for most — on a weekday evening. Not a single one of their dozen tables and booths were occupied. Behind the big, tile-front counter, two young ladies were staring off into space. Alongside the counter, a man in an apron sat in a chair. He greeted my wife and me with a big smile and a hearty "Hello!"
As I reached for a take-out menu from the small counter display, the man in the chair said to me: "Do you believe in UFOs?"

"Excuse me?," I replied, taken off-guard.

"Aliens! You know.... from outer space!," he explained.

Mrs. Pincus looked at me with wide eyes. Having seen those eyes over the past 42 years that we have been acquainted, I knew the message they were silently expressing. "I am not comfortable here." That's what my wife's eyes were telling me. We pretended to read the menu a little bit longer. The staff — the man in the chair and the two young ladies — did not say anything further to us. They didn't even look in our direction. They continued their conversation about aliens and UFOs.

I placed the folded menu back into the counter display. Mrs. P and I slowly — and as inconspicuously as possible — backed out of the empty restaurant towards the door. Still, no one said a word to us.

As we made our way to our car in the parking lot, I was already on the phone with Roman Delight — explaining which items from their expansive menu I would like.

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