By Lou Illiano (“Peppino”)
The circus is coming! There is a certain unbridled excitement that still accompanies this simple phrase. High wire walking. Lion taming. Bearded ladies and wild animals! Who doesn’t love a good circus? All brought to you, courtesy of the circuses charismatic, always in charge ringleader…
I opened my restaurant the day after Thanksgiving, 1992. And the very next midweek, Mr. Louis Anthony Belfore worked his first shift. And, other than a few months in his second year when he and I worked out the nuances of why I frowned upon smoking cigarettes and drinking Grand Marnier while he was bartending, he remained behind our bar on Monday nights for just a few months shy of 25 years.
If you knew Lou you knew why his bar was such a great place to sit. A quick smile, a warm greeting, and a healthy dose of sarcasm for all was a great way to pass a Monday night. Lou had his own way of doing things, and the customers knew it. I learned early on that what I considered “normal” service had its own rules when “the belf” was in the ring. Something I would never consider saying to a customer would be greeted with uproarious laughter. Service a customer received that I would be shaking my head at would be quickly dismissed the following week, when that same customer returned, to sit in the same seat, and have another helping of the week before’s shenanigans.
Yes, Lou had his own recipe for his success, and I knew to just let him spice it his own way. Perhaps the most unique to Lou was how, over the years, he was able to morph his crowd from those his own age to one that was a generation or two his junior, definitely something not all barkeeps are capable of. While the original crowd didn’t go out as often, or drink “like they used to,” Lou managed to make connections with younger generations. They were there for him and his quick wit and his willing generosity to share whatever he had just procured. Yes, if Lou had a half of a half of a great sandwich (“you gotta try this”) you could be sure you were getting some. That’s really why, over the years, he just got busier and busier instead of fading into retirement. Disappointed folks who couldn’t get a seat at his bar, sat at a table instead, all the while watching and wondering what he had going on “over there.”
The last few years, Lou’s health had started to betray him. He missed more shifts than normal and (as all of you who sat with him know) “normal” attendance was, again, based on Lou math. I really was concerned that the music was going to stop, as he just wasn’t going to be able to physically do it anymore.
It was Friday, July 15, and I was in the kitchen prepping. “Hey Lou” I heard. And there he was, looking fitter and better than I had seen in years. He had had a cataract procedure “I can see again,” he said. He was moving great, too. “They have me rehabbing,” he continued. He had stopped by just to tell me he would be here Monday night, “I’m ready to go,” he had said. And, of course, he grabbed a handful of meatballs as he walked out the door.
But it was not meant to be. Lou never made it to work on Monday night. And for that — and I know I speak for many — Mondays just got a little bit smaller. We worked together for almost 25 years mostly because as crazy as it was, I wouldn’t miss it! He made me laugh every week, and not just a little chuckle, one of those full belly laughs, the ones you tell all your friends about later.
Every week it was something else. It was like the circus, and I was lucky enough to get to have it come almost every Monday for the last 25 years. Lou walked a tight rope of service: Tamed a lion-like customer. Filled the bar with a clown car full of hungry guests. He fed a bearded lady. And if it was particularly crazy? Ladies and gentlemen, we have wild animals!! It was an amazing thing to be a part of.
On behalf of myself and Lou, I know thanking all that have supported us individually here is impossible. You know who you are. We know who you are. But I say thank you anyway. “Three Lou Night” will no longer be performing. Father-son Mondays, where I would sit with Lou and Lou’s son Joe, with my dad (oh, we would laugh!) won’t be happening anymore. But as in the circus, the show must go on! And it will, though it will never be the same.
Rest in peace to Lou, my friend and ringleader for almost 25 years. You will be missed!
A sad week gets even sadder at Peppino’s. In the same week we lost Louis Belfore, we learned of the passing of “ Deli” Steve Van Nostrand, a super bartender and all around general great guy who anchored weekends here for many years in the late 90’s and early 00’s. His handmade bada bing tavern sign still hangs in our bar, and there it shall forever remain!
Thank you and Rip deli!!
Louie “little Flower” Belfore