Tuesday, August 9, 2022

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Joe's Neighborhood

Letter to Kate and William’s new boy


Way to go, George. You’ve been born at last. Eight pounds, six ounces of joy. Congratulations. You survived the media hype with barely a spit-up. Now you will be getting all sorts of presents and well-wishes from just about everyone. Precious stones, beautiful artisan works and the latest in baby fashions. Gold, frankincense and myrrh. Of course, you won’t really know what’s going on. But, be patient. In a blink, you’ll be ready to either become a poorly behaved prince or an adored royal. Your call. Confused? Ask the ghost of your beloved Grandma Di about confusion.

But I have a special gift for you. Before you say “no,” I’m going to up-sell it just a little bit. OK, how’s this? I guarantee that if you accept this gift, you will have no problem weaving your way through the moral ambiguity of your soon-to-be strange life. Yup. My promise sounds grandiose, but I’m not kidding. Listen, at some point you’re going to be driving down the nine circles of hell wondering which is your exit. That happens to everyone who is given too much. But this gift will guide you out of Dante’s mess with barely a singed hair. I promise. Still hesitating? OK, if you are ever wondering whether your car can clear the embankment, whether you’re too much for one woman or man to handle or whether you should drink, sniff or inject the latest concoction, this gift will do the trick. Scout’s honor. You on board? Great.

My gift to you is a job. In Des Moines. Working for Louie. No, not tomorrow. But perhaps when you’re out of trainers. Certainly not much later than that. Let me introduce you.

joes1Yup, this is Luigi (“Louie”) Baratta. As you can see, Baratta has no problem talking. Yes, you’re right, Baratta is quite animated, and I know that can be scary. And, yes, Baratta laughs more in a day than your paternal grandfather has laughed in his life. But that’s the point.

Baratta runs a small restaurant on the skywalk downtown — Something Italian. His specialty is pizza to die for. When I tell you he “runs” it, I mean he is there laughing, talking and cooking every day from before the sun comes up until the lunch crowd is long gone. This guy works.

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You need to understand that Baratta was born on the south side of Des Moines to Italian immigrant parents. Italian was the only language spoken in the home, because that’s all his mom and pop knew in those days as they struggled just to survive. But, George, this is important: These are sharp folks who know how to navigate the world.

“My dad went to school up to the sixth grade. Smartest dude ever. Way smarter than I am. This guy didn’t have nothing. Couldn’t speak a lick of English. He made a good life for himself here,” Baratta says while he quickly and efficiently cuts slices of pizza.

So, what’s in it for you, George, to come under Baratta’s wing? Let’s count the ways.

1. Baratta will teach you about work. “You have to work to get what you get. Very seldom are you going to get lucky. I start my kids from the very bottom. They clean some tables. Go around and say hi to some people. Wipe the little counter tops off. Clean trays. Work their way. Then maybe they can start rolling dough.” Now, don’t get nervous, George, but, after working for Baratta, the next time you parade through London in a horse-drawn carriage, you’ll be thinking about the guy who cleans up the horse poop. That’s a good thing.

2. Baratta will teach you about building a community of loyalty. “I worked forever growing up. I worked for Giudo Fenu, when he had the Hotel Savery, and then Frank Graziano. I’m thinking: ‘Damn, two hard-core Italians.’ I still do things they told me to do. They were real smart people. George Formaro then helped gigantic. Joe Gatto helped. He is like the consignere. He’s a big part. I’ll call him all the time: ‘Dude, I have a party for 600, what do I need to do on this? (Imitating the Godfather voice): Heh, this is what you do…’ ” George, even you are going to need help. So buck up. And we all need a Godfather.

3. Baratta will teach you about discipline — and, tangentially, Italian: “When we are at a function, and my kids are getting in trouble, we can yell at them in Italian and no one knows we’re yelling at them. It’s great.” (Lots of laughter — “no, no, my kids are wonderful.”) Yes, George, it’s good for you to hear “no” in any language.

4. Baratta will teach you about family. “I live in one house. My mom and dad live right next to me. And my sister lives on the other side of them. It’s the best thing ever. My wife, Sara, loves it more than anybody (that last statement has not been fact-checked, but is within the realm of possibility)… My mom was a tailor her whole life. But she cooked all the time. We still eat there every Sunday. At 1 o’clock. Whether she’s sick or not sick, there is always food on the table.” Your family is going to be crazy, George. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you. But whose isn’t? Every Sunday, you got that?

5. Baratta will teach you about simplicity. “My parents were just regular southern Italian people. As a result, I love normal southern food. Nothing crazy. Normal red sauce, white sauce, lasagna, manicotti, meatball, sausage that normal people know of. Just nice, southern peasant food. That’s the best.” George, the lesson is clear; just keep it to a red sauce or a white sauce. End of story.

6. Finally, Baratta will teach you about achieving the good life. “This restaurant is my dream. If I could do this the rest of my life and be happy, why change it?” So, what’s your dream, George? That’s the question.

And some day, George, when you’re the boss and worried about the unsettled Middle East, global warming and international terrorism, I want you to remember Baratta’s last excited announcement to me as he smiled and gestured and appeared to taste his words: “You know what we’re eating tonight? Meat loaf sandwiches. I’ve been thinking about them all day. I’m going to put barbecue sauce in there and some prosciutto. A little country Italian meatloaf, mashed potatoes and gravy. Nice and easy.”

“What’s for supper?” The perfect question when your life is upside down. Just another lesson from Baratta. Nice and easy.

So, when should we expect you? CV

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: www.joesneighborhood.com.

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