Growing up as a small kid, Friday nights were spent at my dad's house, watching TGIF and waking up in the morning for Pop Tarts. As an older kid, the sleeping over faded away but I still always met my dad for dinner at least once a week. As we lived in a small town, the options of places to eat for dinner were few, and we made the rounds to all of them again and again. But one of my absolute favorite ones was John's Italian Restaurant.
John's Italian Restaurant was on Route 507 right next to the on-ramp to Interstate 84. Head West to Scranton; East to Port Jervis, or continue on 507 under it to the netherworld of Newfoundland and beyond. Right next to a big gas station, it was one of those generic restaurants frequented by truckers. And us. It was a big restaurant, big enough to have one of those boards with table numbers lit up hanging on the wall, unused but still there. It was separated into three rooms. You walked through the door into the first one, past the gumball machines and newspaper stands in the entrance, past a hall holding a claw drop and some pinball machines, and you'd wait by the counter that housed all the cakes and pies and desserts. The kitchen was behind. The room on the opposite end of the building had tables under huge curved windows that were full of condensation in the winter. We normally sat in the room in the middle. The decor was plain: gold vinyl flooring, red booths, red backed chairs, generic Italian paintings on the wall, the odd tropical houseplant. There was a coffee station for the waitresses against one wall in the middle room; pots of regular and decaf on the burners at all times; stacks and stacks of white coffee creamers in little ceramic bowls; extra silverwear sets wrapped up in napkins.
There were better restaurant choices, closer to town, more personal settings, but I liked coming to John's Italian Restaurant for one reason: the ziti. Like all these big restaurants, I'm sure the menu was also huge, but I got the same, exact, astoundingly boring thing every single time: ziti with red sauce. Not even a damn meatball or two. Nothing special about the ziti, nothing special about the sauce, other than it tasted perfect and I wanted it all the time. I'd pour endless grated parmesan from those ubiquitous globular shakers, and I would eat every last drop. It became sort of a joke, the way repetitive, reliable things become jokes. "Well, guess Jill's going to get the ziti." These jokes are never actually that funny but they are always good jokes because they remind you of the solidity, the roots of your life that allow you to be so hilariously predictable. You're lucky to be predictable.
Sometimes it was just my dad and me, sometimes whatever sibling(s) was around, although as I was the last to leave home as the youngest, I tend to remember the times that were Just Me the clearest. But the best times were when Grandma or Aunt Anita were able to come, too, which was most of the time. Maybe even sometimes a cousin, Jodi or Jenn, if they were in town. A childhood where your extended family was not a part of your life every week is a childhood I don't understand and one I pity. Aunt Anita was such a good talker that there was never a struggle to make conversation; you wouldn't even have to say a thing. I could just listen to her talk about whatever she wanted to talk about and eat my ziti and it was best.
The other thing about these restaurants that were close to the Interstate was that they were frequently open late for the truckers, and in a small town, not much is open late, so you take what you can get, you and the truckers on Saturday nights. I remember going to John's Italian Restaurant once or twice on the way back from a trip to Scranton in high school, with my friend Jenna or a few other people, sitting around and eating bread and drinking coffee even though I never normally drank coffee. We always sat in the first room, closest to the door, those times. It was fun, but it always felt sort of weird anytime I was there without my dad, without the ziti.
I tried to Google John's Italian Restaurant before I wrote this, but as with a lot of Google searches involving things from my hometown, it wasn't an entirely fruitful search. I found a website which may be of the right restaurant--it has the right area code and there can't be that many John's Italian Restaurants in Greentown, Pennsylvania--but the pictures on it showed a much more sophisticated-looking place, full of tables made of fancier wood and booths sheathed in darker colors and it just didn't seem right. I hope it hasn't changed. I would be really depressed if John's Italian Restaurant was a fancy place now.
That's the thing, though, with leaving your hometown. You forget it's a place that doesn't exist merely for your nostalgia. It changes, and you have no right to fault it.