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The Dove Restaurant, Satellite Beach, Florida by John Hoppenthaler – Curator Special Features, Poetry/A Poetry Congeries with John Hoppenthaler
Mom & I, & The Dove
Last week, I hand fed my mother. I got to the nursing home just as dinner trays were being placed in front of residents who had been nodding off or watching tv; my mom had been staring off into space. Rather than remain in the common room, a grimly depressing place, I grabbed my mom’s tray and, dodging various carts and other obstacles, maneuvered the wheelchair into her dorm-style bedroom at the end of the hall. A disposable bib had already been slipped over her head. I uncovered the plastic plate on her tray, and the aroma of institutional stuffed peppers began to lace the room’s air. My mother—unable to chew and swallow properly since her debilitating stroke some years before—now requires that her meals be pre-chopped into a digestible though unappetizing mess. Her meals here all have pretty much the same grayish color and grainy texture. She ate with perfunctory determination, and we spoke between her mouthfuls. The things she said alternated between kernels of lucidity marked by extraordinary historical recall and detail, but then devastating flights of dementia. When every bite of her dinner had been eaten or wiped from her chin, she was through chatting and asked to go “downstairs.” By this she meant the dayroom, which isn’t downstairs at all but on the second floor. Much of what my mom says these days is confused and confusing; there’s little about her situation, her life here, that can make this any different.
Jean Zana’s popular restaurant, The Dove, has been a site for family reunions and celebrations since its inception in 1989. Zana began his involvement with The Dove six months after its opening, serving as the restaurant’s manager for thirteen years before eventually buying out the original chef/owner, John Matiello, seven years ago; he now looks forward to the establishment’s twentieth anniversary. The restaurant has been recognized as one of Florida's "Top Italian Restaurants" (Zagat Survey, 2000). It is the sort of place where early bird retirees mingle with younger families, where the well-dressed coexist with the casual. Zana estimates that 80% of the restaurant’s patrons are locals. With Cocoa Beach just up the road and the lively Melbourne Beach area a few miles south, The Dove remains a safe haven from the tourist craziness associated with other area restaurants.
Zana, born in Nice, has been careful to cultivate a subdued, mildly Mediterranean atmosphere, an “Old World” style that evokes something of a timeless quality, providing diners with the illusion of a hedge against time even as it passes away outside the restaurant’s doors. The feeling I get there is that of having a seat at an extended family dinner on a special occasion, good silverware and manners on display. The breads, soups, sauces and salad dressings are all homemade on the premises. Most of the well-trained, informed, and unobtrusive staff has been with the restaurant for years, so a familiar face usually greets diners. Former owner Matiello still stops in from time to time to chat with his old customers. Another homey touch is that children under 12 eat for 1/2 price. It is common to hear diners bragging about how long they’ve been coming to The Dove. However, given that many of the restaurant’s patrons are seniors, the periodic loss of regular customers to the hereafter serves as a constant reminder that time indeed—despite any illusion to the contrary—continues its relentless passage.
Robert Frost famously described poetry’s ability to provide “a momentary stay against confusion.” Relaxing into the earth tones of The Dove’s décor, soft piano music tinkling in from the restaurant’s lounge, one begins to discern a pattern, feel a texture composed of images and sensory stimuli that seems to make such a stay seem possible. A good meal is not unlike a poem. When a meal is well-prepared, when its progression is controlled so as to allow for the flavors of each successive course (like each successive line or stanza) to mingle and play off of one another, when this sort of culinary generosity is appreciated without the distraction of television, texting, newspapers, or anything else but the diner’s focus and the warmth of good company, then the meal, like the poem, becomes an engagement and takes on a life of its own, one that exceeds the individual visions of chef and diner. The world becomes, for a while, a little less confusing.
After my father’s death in 1993, my mom sold the suburban ranch house where our family had lived since 1965 and moved to Florida, all by herself. Mom and dad had planned to retire to the Melbourne area after several visits there to see old family friends; my Mom decided to carry on. What else could she do? Even though the mortgage had been paid off, the cost of living in Rockland County, NY was an impediment that could not be ignored. After renting for a couple of years, she ended up buying a condo in Indian Harbour Beach, just around the corner from The Dove. My visits to see mom inevitably included a trip to The Dove, a restaurant she loved but visited only on special occasions; my mom’s frugality seemed always to foil her desire. She’d accompany pals on gambling cruises that departed regularly from Port Canaveral, for example, though she would rarely venture more than ten dollars on gaming. Instead, she would enjoy the sea air and the company of her girlfriends. But visits from her only son were as special for her as they were for me, and so these trips to The Dove became shared moments of celebration that even the stroke has been unable to obscure.
After the stroke, my sisters and I brought our mom back to New York, to the nursing home where she still resides. She had been put through therapy, but the stroke’s damage proved irreversible. I’d make periodic visits to the condo for routine maintenance and a few days of solitude in which to write or recover from the day to day bruising of the world, and I’d return bearing the gift of breadsticks and rolls from The Dove’s own ovens. Patrons of The Dove are able to snatch a bag of these breads from the rack by the doorway on their way out, a friendly gesture that endeared the place to me immediately. My mom would savor a few nibbles and ask about how the condo was holding up, about the friends she missed so much. My mom was of the old world, off-the-boat German via Romania like my father. My mom had spent her American life mostly as a housewife; she spent nearly all those years on her hands and knees, cleaning the homes of wealthy people. Even after her move to Florida, she worked as a housekeeper in a resort hotel for several years. After my father’s death, we were shocked to discover that she could not write out a check; she never had been required to, and I would help her to practice this and related skills at the kitchen table. It was remarkable to us how well she managed to adjust to single life. For a few years—despite missing us back in New York—her life was happy and full of activity. But then came the stroke, and it all disappeared. My sisters and I maintained the condo as best we could, but lately the money has been tight. It became apparent that we could no longer manage to keep it. My most recent visit to The Dove, in early March of this year, was on the occasion of finalizing the condo’s sale and gathering the few last personal possessions that remained there. We won’t tell our mother about this; it’s better that she not know.
Dinner at The Dove begins with a small bowl of pasta fagioli; tender beans and pasta, combined with a subtle yet tangy tomato-based stock, takes the edge off the keen hunger with which I’ve arrived. The soup is accompanied by the previously mentioned breads and small dishes of whipped butter and extra virgin olive oil spiked with garlic, oregano, and red pepper flakes. I’ve made meals of less, but a trip to The Dove is not a trip meant for those with slack appetites. On the heels of the soup and breads, a small salad of greens, cucumber, and tomatoes appears, topped with bread crumbs toasted in garlic and oil and lightly drizzled with a creamy parmesan and peppercorn dressing. The mouthfeel created by these complimentary flavors and textures is one to make this salad—unlike most items on American menus that claim the term—truly an appetizer, readying the palate and mind for the main course to come. This does not stop me, though, from ordering an additional appetizer, as mom and I sometimes did. I choose the clams casino. Again, it is the layering of texture and flavor that appeals to me. Pimento and smoky bacon top a thin bed of breading that is not, as is the case in many places, the main part of the dish, mushy and hiding, with good reason, an overcooked, rubbery nub below; rather, in The Dove’s version, the breading is a well-seasoned crunchy drapery under which rests a perfectly al dente clam, awash with the fresh brininess of the ocean. Each clam is a delight, as I pull them from their shells with a seafood fork. Soon, my waiter arrives with a restaurant-made digestivo, a sweet, lemony liquor with a slightly bitter aftertaste that both cleanses the palate and provides its own pleasures. Lemon rinds are left to marinate in vodka or grain alcohol and sugar for seven days, and some water is later added to thin it out a bit. My father, I recall, made his version for Christmas, using orange rinds, and his presence, too, suddenly joins me at the table.
Mom and I almost always ordered the same dishes when we visited The Dove. She would get the milk-fed veal parmigiana, served with pasta and topped with marinara sauce and Mozzarella cheese. A classic, and one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes. I sometimes would order the “Little Zuppa,” The Dove’s tempting take on a classic recipe that includes shrimp, calamari and mussels sautéed in garlic, olive oil and white wine. Usually, though, I’d opt for the Pesce Oreganata, the broiled catch of the day, lightly breaded and seasoned with oregano. The inside joke is that the catch of the day is ALWAYS mangrove snapper (not to be confused with the threatened red snapper). At one point, Zana explains, he tried to vary the choice, but it led to complaints. The comfort of continuity is important to the restaurant’s patrons. I order both the veal and the fish. Mom and I would share our meals, and this day I wished to duplicate, as much as possible, the moments my mother and I shared here, to conjure up her presence. I wanted to stop time for a moment without thinking about what had come to pass and what the future will hold. When I visit the nursing home, my Mom almost always asks, “When can I leave here and go home?” “We’ll see,” I say. “We’ll see what can be done.” The actual answer has brought me to tears more than once. But how do you say never?
The main courses arrive at the table with a refill of the house Chianti. The veal is pounded thin and tender, but not so tender as to lose substance. A slight chewiness remains, al dente, as is the case with ziti beside it on the plate. The marinara is agreeably fresh tasting, and the slightly-browned layer of cheese is of high quality, not the thick mass of greasy goo one is so often forced to confront at “Italian” eateries. The generous portion of snapper, pan-seared in butter, capers, and white wine, is moist and delicious, prepared perfectly. It is accompanied by vegetables, also pan-seared, and the sweetness of the carrots combines wonderfully with the slightly charred broccoli and cauliflower. A jasmine rice pilaf completes the dish.
I left The Dove with ample leftovers for the next day’s lunch and a bag of breads. Stepping outside, the illusion of timelessness faded and was quickly replaced with borderline melancholia I wasn’t able to shake that evening, though I drank the better part of a bottle of wine trying. Frost’s quote about confusion and poetry’s temporary ability to defy it, from his essay “The Figure a Poem Makes,” is more substantial than the snippet most poets allow to easily trip off of their tongues: “[The poem] begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life—not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion. It has denouement. It has an outcome that though unforeseen was predestined from the first image of the original mood—and indeed from the very mood.” A very good poem, like a very good meal, ends in clarification and leaves us sated but, as well, finally leaves us with what “was predestined from the first image of the original mood...” Drunk and staring out the hotel window at the huge bulk of a cruise ship awaiting its departure, I arrived at clarity, at denouement. My Mother’s old world, as well as the old world of my sisters and myself, is gone. What can we say that will make this any different? How can we say never?
1790 Highway A1A
Satellite Beach, FL 32937
Fine Italian and Continental
Dinner Check: $$$
Hours: 5-9 Tuesday-Thursday, 5-10 Friday & Saturday, 5-8 Sunday, 11-2 Sunday brunch