THE ITALIAN-AMERICAN DEMOCRATIC CLUB
Sundays meant family dinner at my grandparents’ house; Friday or Saturday nights meant dinner at the Italian American Democratic Club—or “The Club” for short. The Club was for members only and their families. Only men could be members, and you weren’t allowed to enter without them. My grandfather was a member, and so was my father. When my grandfather died, my father became the member for my grandmother and the four of us. So, when we went to eat at the club, it was a family affair. When we went out to eat, it was to The Club. We went to The Club for holiday brunches, like Mother’s or Father’s Day, or for anniversaries. Sometimes, we would go for funeral luncheons, too, and there was a separate room you could rent for big family gatherings.
I remember the little walled courtyard, with the white wrought-iron gates where you entered. My mother tells me that on the nights my father didn’t have his key for the gates, he would lift me over the wrought iron fence, and I would unlatch the door from the inside, though I don’t remember doing that. Inside the courtyard, there was a fountain in the middle, where my sister and I would beg my father for coins to throw into the cascading water; we would toss them in and watch the shiny pennies settle to the bottom of the Virgin Mary blue bowl while the water sprouted from the statue in the middle and made bubbling pools around all the wishes of the families who had come to eat and socialize that night.
There was a big St. Anthony festival held each year in the courtyard, with food and music and flags flying across the courtyard, but the fountain is what I remember most. And then the brown door where my father would let us in with his member key. He would show his membership card to the hostess, even though everyone knew him already, and we would be seated at one of the big, round tables in the main dining room. To one side, there was a bocce court, where the old men played, and a TV on the wall. There was a bar next to the bocce court, and if my sister and I were good, we could go up with my father to order pitchers of soda and carafes of wine for the tables. The bar tender would make Shirley Temples for us, putting two Maraschino cherries into the tall glasses and an orange slice on the rim.
The waitress would bring the antipasto on an enormous white platter piled with meats and cheeses, anchovies, and sliced hard-boiled eggs on a bed of lettuce and tomatoes (which we only ate “to clean the palate”). My sister and I always ordered clams, too: a dozen clams, steamed and soaking in a small lake of parsley, garlic, olive oil and butter, and served in a special tin pan that seemed made to perfectly accommodate the 12 clams with room at the corners to sop up the “juice” with the thick slices of bread from the basket on the table. The juice would run down our chins and even our arms. We ate the clams with tiny forks, and no matter how much our parents encouraged us to share a tray between the two of us, we insisted on ordering our own—and we always ate every last clam, leaving a tray of seashells floating in a shallow parsley-dotted lake.
The weekend special was trippa, or tripe. The first time I ever tried it, my father spooned a generous amount from his dish and ladled it onto my own plate. I asked him what it was; he replied, “It’s tripe.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s a fish—eat it it’s good.”
It looked a lot like the calamari (“galamad” as my father called it)—chewy pieces of squid covered in red gravy. I took a small bite, then another, and I couldn’t stop eating the delicious fish in the gravy. From that night on, for as long as we ate dinner at The Club as a family, it was the only thing I would ever order as my main course.
I found out when I was in college that my father had tricked me all those years. Tripe is not a fish. It is the lining of a cow’s intestine.
“Why did you tell me it was a fish?”
“Would you have tried it if I told you what it was?”
“And it was your favorite.”
“It did taste like galamad.”
“You loved that tripe.”
I did love that tripe.
The Overbrook IAD Club closed in the early 1990s. At any rate, I don’t remember our family going there much after my sister and I graduated from high school. Yet, I can still smell and taste that trippa, in rich red gravy over the club’s homemade spaghetti. I remember sitting at the bar, surrounded by twinkling lights reflecting off the bottles of liquor, and sipping my Shirley Temple in a tall, cool glass with extra maraschino cherries that I skewered with my straw while my father ordered drinks for the adults at the table. And I remember the dessert, a dish of spumoni, my favorite ice cream with tiny pieces of citron and pistachios tucked throughout the tricolor layered sweet—a treat I haven’t eaten in over three decades.
These are the flavors of my childhood: rich, tomato and garlic-laden warm meals that I attempt but cannot replicate properly for my own daughter, who never ate at The Club, never threw coins in the courtyard fountain on the way in and out of the wrought iron gate, never entered through the secret door on the side with a special key, and never ate funnel cake at the St. Anthony festival with the little flags crisscrossing the courtyard and flapping against the evening sky in a reminder to all of us at the festa that we had roots in the same soil.
T Nicole Cirone lives next door to her parents in Upper Darby, PA, with her teenaged daughter and two very literary cats. Ms. Cirone is an English teacher and a yoga instructor. Her work has appeared in several literary journals, including Serving House Journal, Ovunque Siamo: New Italian-American Writing, Hippocampus, Perigee, Red River Review and Philadelphia Stories; and in three anthologies: The Best of Philadelphia Stories Anthology, Reaching Beyond the Saguaros: A Prosimetric Travelogue and Gateways. She is also a prose reader for The Literary Review. Ms. Cirone holds undergraduate degrees in Italian Studies and Political Science and an MA in English from Rosemont College, and a dual-concentration MFA in Creative Writing Poetry and Creative Non-Fiction from Fairleigh Dickinson University. She is the author of Nine Nails (Serving House Books, 2019).