Hanging Out in Rockford: The last days of Little Italy—part two

So there we are, I and the beautiful woman standing outside in the San Francisco weather: she smoking a cigarette, I dreaming of San Francisco. Then, we go into Little Italy. She disappears. I go over to the bar, where the usual list of suspects is hanging out on this, the last New Year’s Eve that Debbie will run Little Italy—on this night, the end of an era.

I have a hangover. I have the kind of hangover that doesn’t come easily—you have to earn it. The night before, I picked up the red-headed girl at her home. The night before, we ate at Café Greco with Elisha and Ricky Cervantes. The night before, I celebrated New Year’s Eve in advance. I celebrated it a little too hard. I left the redhead at 505. She wanted to stay. I walked back to the Rose, and up the stairs. I closed the hatch and turned off my telephone. Tonight, I just want to get something to eat and go back again to my little apartment above the Rose. Tonight, I don’t want to celebrate.

Deb has some wonderful food that fits into my hangover scheme. There is baked chicken. Oh, how I love baked chicken. I possibly love it even more when I have a hangover. There are wonderful oven-roasted red potatoes, too. I make my way to the buffet table twice. I fill my plate up, then fill it up again, and then I am tired. I hug Deb on this, the last night of New Year’s at Little Italy, and I go back to the Rose having had only one drink. The redhead calls me on her way home to say she, too, is going home, that she wants to feel good the next day. I understand. But I don’t know this until the next morning when I check my phone messages.

In the old days, there was Iggy and there was Carl. Iggy sang at the bar. Iggy played Frank Sinatra and Louis Prima and Keily Smith. Iggy played opera, and Iggy sang along. Carl had the best voice, but Carl only sang on special occasions. On those few occasions, Carl played the concertina. Frank Calvanese ran the distribution business. Carl ran the concrete business. Deb and Maria worked in the kitchen. Iggy bartended, and Iggy sang. Iggy loved to sing.

After Iggy got sick and couldn’t work anymore, Carl bought the buildings next door, the buildings that housed the Kirby Vacuum dealership and the piano-moving store. Carl worked hard installing marble floor and building the deli. Frankie ran the deli. 505 came about, and Higher Ground played there. Higher Ground is Frank’s band. Frank’s brother Maurice plays in the band, too. All the boys loved music. It ran in the families, and Iggy sang, but Iggy wasn’t singing anymore. Iggy was pretty sick. Occasionally, he stopped by, but you could always tell he didn’t feel too well.

Then, it is like a blur. Iggy died, and before you knew what was going on, Carl died, too. Cancer is like that. It took my friend John. It took him in weeks. Now, it is taking my friend Brad. Things weren’t the same after the guys passed on. The place didn’t seem quite the same. Deb and Frankie split up the business. The doorway between Little Italy and 505 was closed off. Debbie married Richie Cunningham (the Buddha). Debbie rebuilt the Little Italy side. Her son-in-law, Connie’s husband, did the remodeling.

Next door, Maurice is running the Deli Italia and doing a nice job. The lunch business is good; you can tell by the enormous piles of buns you see in the window. They have started opening the bar at 505 for music, and there are some really good crowds on the weekend. But at Little Italy, Debbie is tired, and Debbie wants to quit. She is going to be running the restaurant for Matt and Danny for a while, but it is the end of an era. You should stop by while you can. You should stop by while there is still a Little Italy. They still have one of the best pizzas in town. It is the end of an era. Stop by.

Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. Leifheit is owner of the Irish Rose restaurant in the downtown River District.

From the Jan. 10-16, 2007, issue

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