Lunch with Marjorie: Revisiting the ‘Gold Island’

Tony Ernandez has been making award-winning pizza (Lisa’s Pizza) in Janesville, Wis., for more than two decades. But he’s about more than pizza.

“At 16, were you thinking about owning a restaurant?” I asked.

“It was the easy thing to make it a going concern. It’s a dream,” he said, “It’s like whatta you gotta lose? Am I right?” he added, with stereotypical Italian hand gestures.

“I found something that really got me moving, and the more I do it, the more I wish I would be younger, because you get more experienced. I wouldn’t do anything that much different, but I would do more things, because I would be more energetic.”

We were lunching at South Beloit’s Ramada—Cattails Restaurant.

“I’m gonna have the salad, something simple,” he decided, ordering Seafood Louis with creamy dill dressing. I decided on bronzed salmon, over spinach.

Tony’s mother was born in Beloit, Wis., moving to Sicily when she was about 10.

“Grandpa decided to go back because of his health. He worked for Fairbanks. He had a problem with his lungs. The doctor said the only way to get out of it was go where there’s a lot of fresh air.”

So Tony was born in Petrosino, Trapani, a Sicilian province. His after-school days in the Mediterranean were spent helping his father in vineyards and orchards.

“When you hit 12, you have a job,” he said. “I got my own (motorcycle) by 12—MV, 50 cc’s. It’s a beautiful vehicle for everybody. That’s the way they can go real cheap, city to city, if they have a job, and it costs real cheap, because they don’t make an arm and a leg as money.”

Recollecting Sicily brought light to Tony’s dark eyes.

“Your family made tomato sauce?” I wanted a story.

“Yes, we did that. Every year. One does one thing, the other one helps Mom. That’s the way it’s done. The mother organizes. Usually, we are all together. Father…he’s the one who provided the whole thing. We helped him pick the tomatoes, and bring them home, then you boil it, and then you have the machine by hand, and then you make the sauce—olive oil, salt. You cook them, then put it in the 2-liter jars, and then you seal them. You make enough to last you all winter—60, 80, 100, depending on how many you want. In the summer, you live by salad, almost every day. What we’re missing here is a lot of fresh produce. It’s not the old days. Now we eat with chemical fertilizers,” he sighs.

“Sicily’s (produce) is very popular, known (as the) best around—oranges, lemons, because there is so much sun. Every day you have fresh vegetables, fresh fruit. The clime is fantastic; it’s not real big, but it’s so loaded with sun. It is called the ‘Gold Island.’”

It’s unfair, but my greens paled, as I imagined sun-drenched Sicily. Tony struggled, too. “This shrimp, this is in a can, and it tastes funny,” he said.

Tony’s mother moved her family back to Beloit, a few years after his father died. Tony was 21.

“It seems you’d want to stay there—beautiful climate, fresh air, food. Why here?” I asked.

“It’s everybody’s dream…to work…if I could make more money. That’s the key. It’s like in any other country. There’s better opportunity in America than there is over there.”

“You could go in winter,” I suggested.

“Even if I could, I wouldn’t,” he said. “Restaurants are like babies.”

“That’s why you don’t leave?”

“You’re right, a 100 percent right,” he said. “Most of the failures—the restaurants are not taken care of right.”

Tony loves America and his work. This isn’t second choice.

“That’s my priority. It’s the food. That’s life,” he said.

Our server brought a dessert tray.

“Do you want dessert?” I asked him.

“No,” he said. “You know why? I had a piece of zucchini bread—we made it three days ago. It’s fantastic, got nuts in it. So I’m thinkin’ when I go home, I’m gonna have a piece with an espress coffee,” his musical accent emerging again.

“Oh, that sounds good,” our server said, unmistakably thinking more zucchini bread than cake.

Tony reached for the check.

“No,” I said.

“You sure they’re buying? You don’t lie to me?”

I laughed. This beefy body builder was ready to fight for the check.

“This is ‘Lunch with Marjorie,’ Tony. It’s my job.”

He acquiesced, reluctantly. It was hard for him to let a woman pay for lunch.

Marjorie Stradinger is a free-lance writer residing in Roscoe. She has covered food, drama, entertainment, health, and business for publications in California and Illinois for the past 25 years.

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