Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Dorme Bene, il Bagatto

If you have read these pages, my other blog or if you know me personally, then at some point over the last decade you undoubtedly have heard me sing the praises of my dearest friends Julio Pena and his wife Beatrice Tosti di Valminuta and their miraculous gastronomic outpost and labor of love called il Bagatto in Manhattan’s East Village. Il Bagatto vastly precedes my period of patronage. What began as a culinary vanguard in the gritty mid-1990s on East Second street has developed over the last 18 years (an eon for a Manhattan restaurant) into a consistently top rated destination for lovers of true Italian food and wine, a discreet hideout for those avoiding the prying eyes of Page Six, and the erstwhile clubhouse for a rabidly loyal family of regulars of which I proudly count myself a member.

Indeed, my friendship with Julio and Bea and my experiences from the literally hundreds (perhaps thousands) of meals at il Bagatto over the last decade were the direct inspiration for the title concept behind EatDrinkSleepWell. When I penned the line above that I “spend my time looking for special places … local haunts that develop a loyal family of patrons seeking wonderful food, drink and fellowship” it was il Bagatto I specifically had in my mind.

As someone who truly loves this type of familiar food and fellowship, I have or have had other restaurants in my life where I was or am a regular. To borrow a phrase, some have changed, some forever not for better, some have gone and some remain. And while all of these places make up pieces of the mosaic of my life’s experience, none has become a central part of me as have Julio and Bea and il Bagatto.

Julio and Bea have treated me and my family, as they genuinely treat each of us who has found our way into their lives and their kitchen, as their family. I use the word family advisedly. My sons literally refer to them as Uncle Julio and Aunt Bea without any sense of honorific or irony. While this may be because they have heard Julio repeatedly introduce me to people as his brother (“from another mother”), it more likely because Julio and Bea have welcomed us into their home and lives as actual family, sharing in our joys and supporting us in our challenges, as we have in theirs.

And it is no exaggeration that il Bagatto has played a more central role in the history of my family than perhaps any other single location. I had my first date and my first kiss with my wife at il Bagatto. I met my future father-in-law there for the first time as my wife met my father for the first time. I got engaged there. We had our rehearsal dinner there. We had my 40th birthday party there — the last my father would ever attend before his premature passing — and then we mourned my father’s passing there. When one of my close relatives was in intensive care in New York with a sudden and life-threatening condition, Julio appeared immediately, and day after day thereafter, with trays of food for the medical staff. “We want them to know how special she is,” he said to me at the time.

Indeed, I can think of no major event or milestone that has passed over the last decade without a meal at il Bagatto, let alone the literally countless meals for more ordinary — but no less special — occasions. I even have tended bar and waited tables at il Bagatto in a pinch. This centrality alone makes il Bagatto unique, far more than simply a restaurant. Like the settings of some of history’s greatest films, it is a location that has taken on its own starring role in my life.

But there is more. Julio and Bea not only have welcomed us into their family but they have given all of us they have welcomed into their family an even greater gift: Through their alchemy, they have casually but methodically introduced us, their many friends and patrons. to each other over the years. And we, in turn, have learned from Julio and Bea to treat one another the same way the same way they treat us, even when we are without them. It is the rare moment that I would walk into il Bagatto and not know at least one full table of patrons, when in fact more likely half of those sitting in the place. I knew them well enough that I often would join their table with my own. I even have done formal pro bono legal work for at least two people who I knew only by sight before I learned of their plight sitting at the bar for brunch.

Those bonds did not end at il Bagatto’s door. I have been to numerous family milestones: christenings, weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, promotions and, sadly, more than one funeral of friends that I have met only through Julio and Bea at their remarkable crossroads. And while I’ve rarely stepped back to consider it, that is truly remarkable. How many places in your life, let alone restaurants, have brought to you a community of life-long friends? The answer, unless you know il Bagatto, is almost certainly none.

At some point years ago Bea explained to me that il Bagatto means the Magician from the Italian Tarot deck. Over the last decade, I never focused much on the restaurant’s name. It literally is only now as I sit and write this eulogy that I smile with bewilderment as I am struck by the brilliantly prophetic nature of the eponym Bea and Julio chose for their restaurant. Il Bagatto was indeed the most magical and transformative place I have ever known.

It became official recently that Il Bagatto morphed at the end of this summer, without fanfare, into a new venue called “Stairs.” I was there on what we now understand was that last night of il Bagatto in its former incarnation with my wife and sons, for one last Sunday dinner of calamari and Bea’s lasagna captured in the photos above. I was, and still am taken by many memories and emotions. I am comforted that Julio and Bea have kept their wine bar, il Posto Accanto, right next door at 190 East Second Street so I (and you) can still see them and my extended il Bagatto family (and get my fix of calamari and other il Bagatto specialties). Most of all, I know only that my life would not have been the same without il Bagatto.

Non posso ringraziarvi abbastanza, Bea e Julio. E dorma bene il Bagatto, mi mancherai.

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