Meatball Day came three times a year, four if I was lucky. This was the glorious day when my parent’s pizzeria turned into a frantic, semi-hysterical, family-fueled factory where thousands upon thousands of meatballs were mixed, rolled, cooked, cooled, bagged, and frozen. My parents had owned the ten-table pizzeria since I was a toddler, two Greek immigrants with no desire to challenge a cultural stereotype — every town in New England with a pizzeria or diner seemed to have a Greek family running it, like some kind of culinary sleeper cell — and as a consequence, restaurant life was inextricably woven into my childhood.
From the moment that I could walk I wandered among the dining room, seating myself beside customers and grandly introducing myself, gregarious and unintelligible (I didn’t learn English until I was almost four and began attending preschool). I honed my arithmetic skills in elementary school by manning the mechanical cash register (the 5% Massachusetts sales tax made it easy); in middle school l struggled valiantly yet vainly with the fifty pound bags of flour, attempting to drag them out of my father’s red Chevy pick-up truck with the tender upper body strength of a soccer player; and in high school, my older sister and I took over the restaurant entirely one July while my parents went on a much-deserved three-week vacation. My sister, no taller than five foot four yet supercharged with responsibility, manned the ferocious two-tiered six hundred degree oven while I made the pizzas and sandwiches, did the heavy lifting when deliveries arrived — redemption, at last, for a self-conscious bookworm — and at home, I tackled the bills and accounting, poking away at the chunky calculator with a pencil behind my ear and my tongue sticking out.
When I think of my childhood, and specifically of the time I spent with my parents, I always come back to the restaurant. I’ll never forget the last Meatball Day we ever had. I was a sophomore in college, and my parents were preparing to relocate to Greece at the end of summer. They were selling the house and the restaurant. I still didn’t believe that it would all be gone soon. It was hard to imagine, like someone unstitching your shadow and running off with it.
I drove home from school early one morning, the sun barely warming the New England sky — punctuality was a family virtue, along with persistence and perfectionism — and met my parents and sister in the restaurant kitchen. We didn’t say much, and nothing about this being the last time, we just got to work. My father fired up the ovens. My mother unwrapped the packages of ground beef. My sister soaked the bread in milk while I started to chop the garlic. We all knew our parts. Quietly, the four of us moved around the kitchen, bumping into each other now and again, like boats tied up on a dock when the wind hits. After a while, I don’t remember who it was, somebody spoke. Was it funny? It doesn’t matter. We all laughed. We had to. It was either laugh or the other thing.
(In memory of my father, Stylianos Gianopoulos, 1943–2011)