Letterpress List No. 25: A Rare Slice

Mary’s always been a little disappointed that Shop Boy knows so little about his people:

“Dad, are we Italian?”

“No,” answered Shop Boy’s father — Wally St. Angelo — one day long ago. “We’re American.”

End of discussion.

See, where Shop Boy grew up, identifying yourself with a particular ethnic group (Mom was Irish) did nothing but help the local wiseacres better target their barbs. We were your basic melting pot. A milky Caucasian broth to be sure, but quite a mix. (Turns out there was even a Swedish neighborhood, Eden Park. Who knew? I learned this after I’d moved away from Cranston, R.I., when someone from home mentioned something going on in “Sweden Park.” Jeez.)

Is it any wonder, then, that Shop Boy has needed some, um, cultural retraining from time to time. Take Pepe DiNave, Mary’s straight-from-the-old-country neighbor in Newburgh, N.Y., who once handed me a drawing of a squid with dotted lines demarking the cuts of meat (loin, flank, T-bone). Shop Boy was flummoxed at the joke. Pepe and Mary hooted. Or John Ottina, husband of Mary’s cousin Mollie, who skewered me over my knowledge of pasta. (He’d memorized all 8 zillion varieties or whatever.) What do I know from anything? Mom called it all macaroni.

Not that Shop Boy’s real name hasn’t paid off at times. True story: Mary and Shop Boy were visiting Federal Hill, the Italian section of Providence, R.I. Hungry, we’d settled on an authentic-looking little place to grab dinner. We were just approaching the restaurant as the tough-looking woman running it turned away a couple just like us. OK, they were blond. And, yeah, maybe a little WASP-y. But you can’t pick your parents, right?

Disappointed, Mary asked if we could put a name on the waiting list. (Mine, not hers.) As we told her the name, the woman’s eyes lit up. “For you, we have room!” she declared, dashing over to swipe half a table set-up from another blond couple in the corner, setting it up at the center of the floor and throwing a red-checked tablecloth over it. “Now, you sit,” she ordered, as a violin player began to serenade us. Swear to god. You should have seen Mary’s smile.

See, she finds her own, ahem, more thoroughbred lineage sort of dull. So when Mary meets someone with genuine pride of ethnic heritage, she wants to know their story. And if this person happens to be a printer, or the son of a printer, willing to share letterpress knowledge, she’s smitten.

Which is what brought us to Martin’s West, a wedding/prom/banquet palace just off the Baltimore beltway (I-695). This is one of those places where they designed the gargantuan chandeliers first, then simply came up with a frame to hang them from. We were there for the La Buona Vita Bull and Oyster Roast, all because of Vince Pullara III of Inter-City Press, which was founded in 1947. Vince III is a third-generation printer (son of Vince Pullara Jr., now retired from Inter-City and Chesapeake Press) and proud Italian-American who introduced Mary to my new favorite phrase for a hangover, “a sprained liver.”

Mary had met Vince and Vince the usual way — she was in the market for old letterpress stuff. They had it. She asked to pick the stuff up in person so that she could see the printshop. Well, once you let Mary in the door …

It turns out the Pullaras have experience operating The Beast, a Miehle vertical, which Typecast Press has been working toward bringing online. Having no such operating experience, Mary and Shop Boy had been cruising spots frequented by letterpress types, hoping to perhaps abduct an old-timer and, um, persuade him to teach us how the thing works.

Well, this was almost too easy.

For bonus points, Vince III immediately solved a problem we’d been having with the guillotine paper cutter. To wit: When we’d cut a stack of heavy cotton paper, one side of the cut would be left nice and smooth, the other ragged or fuzzy. We’d have to clear the fuzz by hand (every bit as annoying as you’d imagine) and still some of the cards would be unusable.

Vince knew right away what we were doing wrong: “You aren’t back cutting.” See, the front of the blade, even newly sharpened, cuts less clean than the back. So, leave a little extra room in your measurements to make a final trim on each side. Chop, chop. No mess, no fuzz.

Anyway, La Buona Vita is a society that celebrates Italian-American culture while it does good works in the community, and the LBV Bull and Oyster Roast is its big annual fundraiser. What exactly is a bull and oyster roast? We had no idea either, but we were for darn sure going to find out.

So there we were, attacking the raw bar and antipasto, hitting the pit beef, pork and turkey hard and devouring plate after plate of the — what else? — pasta. Vince III’s wife, Heidi, stopped by, telling stories of her husband’s uncanny efficiency in getting projects done, both in the printshop and out, something else Mary and Shop Boy hope eventually to get around to. We partook of the open bar — without injury, it would turn out — yukked it up and danced. Then we went back for dessert. It was the least we could do.

And what a crowd, proud, warm and welcoming, and having a really good time, not put off at all by the Maserati of Baltimore display that greeted us. You know, the letters M.O.B. … subtle.

Much cooler were the polo shirts with the tasteful LBV emblem that Vince III had made up by Inter-City for the guys who run the society to wear for the occasion. Shop Boy asked whether these were for sale. Forget it, Vince said. Members only.

Turns out that everyone’s Italian on LBV Bull and Oyster Roast day, but not everybody’s that Italian.


Letterpress List No. 25

Time for about an hour’s worth of music to … oh, memorize pasta types by. Or to check out my other blog by. ;-) Most tunes should be available in the usual places. Videos are from YouTube.

Scenes From an Italian Restaurant Billy Joel (It all depends upon your appetite.)
Who Are You?the Who (What do I look like, a genealogist?)
I’m a ManChicago (And that’s good enough for Shop Boy)
Oh Methe Meat Puppets (Nirvana did a great cover.)
Danny BoyHouse of Pain (For the Gilloglys, Martins, Gaulins, O’Haras and my mom’s people, the Dempsters.)
Hungry Like the Wolf
Duran Duran (Australian … that’s sorta like really, really, really southern Italian, right? Paisans!)
Hunger StrikeTemple of the Dog (Yeah, right. Gimme more!)
Jenny From the BlockJennifer Lopez (Not forgetting where she came from … Ha!)
Meat Is Murder the Smiths (Let me be guilty.)
Too Much Pork for Just One ForkSouthern Culture on the Skids (Mmmmm, tasty.)
The First Cut Is the DeepestSheryl Crow (The second’s just as tasty.)
Sheer Heart Attack Queen (Hey-hey-hey-hey, it was the DNA.)
Eat to the BeatBlondie (Faster, faster.)
Days Gone BySlaughter (Every hair band needs a wimpy ballad, eh?)
Cold GinKiss (Did I say wimpy?)
The Great American Melting PotSchoolhouse Rock (Room for all.)
That’s AmoreDean Martin, aka Dino Paul Crocetti (Loved it. Thanks, La Buona Vita.)

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