Spaghetti-eaters have been scratching their names and initials, and the names of their crushes, into the wood paneling at Sam’s Restaurant on Newtown Lane since 1947. If you sit in a booth at Sam’s, this filigree of graffiti — a thicket of tags and phrases exceeding that of any high school bathroom stall — buzzes all around you during dinner, and I find that my dinner conversation with my children at Sam’s hops and bounces with a similar staccato.
My son, without fail, orders penne Bolognese. My daughter gets linguine with white clam sauce and a Shirley Temple (Sprite, no ginger ale, even though I have tried to raise her to understand that a Shirley Temple is better with ginger ale). I take them to Sam’s maybe once a month, when I have nothing to cook that night or am fatigued and unwilling to create a mess in our own kitchen. If you haven’t had Sam’s linguine in white clam, I suggest you try it. It is better at Sam’s than at any other local restaurant we have sampled, and it is $21. My own current dish of choice is shrimp parmigiana; served with a side of pasta, it is also $21. It has been noted that Sam’s has not raised its prices as frequently or precipitously as other restaurants have felt forced to do.
We were at Sam’s for supper on Monday night, seated in the booth by the waitress station, and I asked the kids what I should write about in this week’s newspaper column.
Teddy suggested that I write “about art,” and when pressed to be more specific, he suggested I talk about one painting that I like and how other paintings are a bunch of, as he put it, “B.S.”
“It might be hard for me to narrow it down,” I said.
It was, of course, crowded on the first evening of August, although a Monday. I felt sympathy for the waitresses, encircled as they rang up checks by a growing pack of customers who had ordered takeout pizza and who every time I looked up had shifted imperceptibly closer, like wolves around a campfire, their eyes staring. Sam’s never seemed very popular when I was a kid; in fact, we never went there then, preferring to go to Lyon’s Chinese restaurant across the street when it was time for something cheap and cheerful. At home, the Rattray family ate what is now termed “locavore” cuisine decades before anyone conceptualized all that: Raw scallops, venison with berries, striped bass — that’s what we ate for dinner, and a place like Sam’s wasn’t any of that. But still Sam’s — like the Fairway Restaurant at Poxabogue Golf Course (where the curried chicken salad recipe hasn’t changed since the 1990s) and the Candy Kitchen (no need to extol the virtues of the grilled cheese or lime rickey, because you already know) — has accrued over time an aura of home and family simply by remaining as it was, where it is, the neon still glowing. I prefer my restaurants with a side of nostalgia.
I asked my son where he would live when he was an adult, and he said, “If I become a rich doctor, I will live in a big modern house in San Diego, which is a cool city with beaches and a lot of places to skateboard. Is that in California?”
“Yes, Southern California. Do you really want to live so far from your mother?” I asked.
“What if there is an earthquake or tsunami?” asked his sister.
“I will go into my underground bunker,” he said, “because I will be a rich doctor and can afford one.”
“What if the underground bunker collapses in the earthquake?” Nettie persisted.
“I’ll keep a helicopter on the roof of my large house.”
“Will you know how to fly it yourself?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “If I have the time to learn how to be a pilot after my training in medical school.”
My favorite restaurant used to be the Old Stove Pub, with the sign by the highway that read, “When You’re Fed Up With the Chic, Come to the Greek” (a slogan I happen to know was written by the ad man Julian Koenig, who treated me, along with his daughters, to more than a few meals at the Old Stove Pub in the 1980s and 1990s). For 40 years or so, the Old Stove Pub served “Sagaponack steak” and broiled saganaki cheese, but I haven’t been there since it changed hands again. The last time I went, a few years ago, dance music was blasting onto the porch and there was a party vibe, which was never the point of the Old Stove Pub. Florence Fabricant wrote in The New York Times in 1977 that the Old Stove Pub was a quiet dining room where weekenders went to relax and unwind. No one comes to “the Hamptons” to relax and unwind nowadays. (Remind me? Why do they come? They aren’t swimming in the bays and oceans much anymore, and they aren’t boating. They’re not even really buying much in Gucci Gulch. They seem to come mainly to eat out.)
Because I dislike crowds, unless we’re at a singalong or baseball game, and get very grim and childish when I have to wait on lines, I usually frog-march my children into Sam’s the minute the door opens for dinner, at 5 p.m. It’s a ludicrous hour for the evening meal, I grant you, but it’s better than never going out at all.
For very similar reasons (obnoxiousness-avoidance and sentimentality), I also much prefer shopping at the North Main Street I.G.A. to stomping and snarling my way resentfully around Citarella (where I bought a $10 blondie recently only so I could show it to friends and point furiously at the price sticker) or Stop and Shop. It takes a heartier soul than mine to willingly descend into the purgatory of Stop and Shop on Newtown Lane. It always smells a bit funny in there. Instead I go to the North Main Street I.G.A. at odd hours when hardly anyone is grocery shopping, like just before 10 at night after returning to Cedar Street headquarters from a run to Southampton Hospital with the ambulance corps.
If you have not read the poem “IGA” by Philip Schultz, from his 2018 collection “Luxury: Poems,” I suggest you do. That and the white clam linguine. I get the impression that Mr. Schultz — who lives on Osborne Lane and won a Pulitzer prize in 2008 — finds the North Main Street I.G.A. to be the depressing purgatory among our local grocery stores, not Stop and Shop, so if I ever meet him we will have to disagree.
The I.G.A. is on my ever-shrinking list of home places that deliver the small pleasurable sensation of being momentarily in the past. (I know we are supposed to believe that the past wasn’t actually better, that we only think so because we’ve forgotten, but that’s incorrect. Life was more enjoyable when there were a third of the people here and we mostly recognized one another. Hint: Humans are happier and behave better when they live in smaller groups and don’t have to physically wrestle strangers to find a patch of sand on which to lay down their beach towels.) Anyway, in his poem “IGA,” Mr. Schultz describes the conglomeration of cranks who shop and work at the supermarket, and it occurs to me as I write this that I have already become one of his I.G.A. eccentrics, ranting about the price of peaches and making unreasonable demands. I have, in fact, mentioned twice to two different I.G.A. employees stationed in the manager’s booth by the front door that I am disappointed they have changed flower and plant suppliers this summer and no longer are offering the perfect $7 tulip bouquets but have, instead, made the mistake of thinking it was an upgrade to offer uglier flowers for twice the price.
I asked my daughter what I should write about in this column this week, and she suggested I write about what it’s like being a white mom with Black kids.
“Hm,” I said. “I think I’m too tired for that topic this week.”
Teddy said, “Write about Sam’s.”
There is nothing relaxing about eating out in restaurants nowadays. Even taking your kids to Sam’s, the pressure is on as you try to park your car and people are honking, then you make your way through the sardine-can crush by the front door, but a dose of red sauce is good for the heart, both medically and psychologically speaking.