A meal for $1.25? You've gotta be kidding.
I'm standing on Broadway, down in Chula Vista, paying up on the Fender Strat -- laying down a Jackson to finance another four-month vacation for the guitar in my favorite pawnshop. Plus, I've been hearing about this shoe shop with real deals. The Shoe Warehouse. It's right next to the Mohawk Trailer Park, opposite the Chula Vista Gun Store. I head on over. Get me a pair of running shoes for a Hamilton. Ten clams!
When I come out of the shoe store, all cock-a-hoop, I head right, past an aging trailer in the Mohawk with a nice little tree-shaded garden. I glance across Broadway to a row of blue, cream, and brick storefronts. Lots of parking out front. "Parisi's," says a sign on this one long, low place. "Italian Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge."
"Italian and American Cuisine."
"All Cooking Done On the Premises."
"Spaghetti $1.25, Mondays and Tuesdays, All Day."
Whoa. I do a double take. Sure enough, that's a buck twenty-five for a plate of spaghetti. No small print. No "...if you buy a 16-inch pizza."
So hey, this is Tuesday. It's around one, and I've been at it all morning. Who can complain if I take off ten minutes and spend five lousy pesetas? I cross the road and the parking lot, eyes on the sign. Man, this day and age, that price is a miracle. I wish Hank could handle the carbs. I'd haul his sorry carcass in and splurge the whole of $2.50 on the two of us.
Now I'm through the dark doors, into a white stucco room with arches and Tiffany-looking glass lampshades.
"Do you mean $1.25 for a plateful, or $1.25 per noodle?" I ask the gal behind the cashier's podium.
"For the plateful," she says.
"That include sauce?"
The gal nods. Name's Anne, daughter of Nick and Rosemary Parisi, who opened this place back in 1979. From the look on her face, she's heard these questions before.
In the background, Roy Orbison's singing, "Dream, dream, baby..."
"So, would you like one?" Anne says.
"Sure," I say.
"You want something with it? A meatball? Sausage?"
Ah, I think. Here comes the rub. Gonna bitsy me to death. I see the meatball costs $1.50 extra, and the sausage is $1.75.
"My brother Nick makes the sausage right here," Anne says. "Our dad taught him. He used to be a butcher in New Jersey. He puts a bit of fennel in the sausage -- and other secret ingredients."
Anne's sister appears. Chris. "And how about garlic bread?" she says. "That's only $1.50."
Damnit, I want to just try the $1.25 deal. I'm not mad at these sisters; they're doing business. It's me that's the problem. Because I can't hold myself to this one simple dish. I say yes to the sausage. Yes to the garlic bread, and an iced tea ($1.95). So -- that's what? My spaghetti, plus $5.15. Six forty, and tax.
I sit down in an orange booth. The tables have metal-studded Leatherette chairs. The white stucco arches show bits of another room past the plastic planters filled with a jungle of artificial plants. A black iron-grill door closes off one of those midnight-at-midday cocktail bars. It's part of the same business.
"You can eat in there too, if you want," Anne says as she brings my iced tea, my basket of garlic bread, and the plate of spaghetti. It has a big, pale Italian sausage sitting on top. I study the basic $1.25 dish. Well, yeah, it would fill you up. But if it didn't, you could always buy another. That would have you up in the $2.50 range. Big spender.
Anne goes to the full-size cooler and comes back with a chilled Parmesan cheese shaker and a shaker filled with red pepper flakes. Nice touch. The spaghetti's al dente, as Anne puts it -- not too raw, not too mushy -- and the sauce is strong enough. Not watery.
But I have to say, even though I'm down $6.40 instead of $1.25, brother Nick's sausage is really good. You can taste the fennel. And this homemade spaghetti sauce has bits of tomato and green things in it. It's a danged delicious lunch.
"We have regulars who come in only for the $1.25 dish," says Chris. "There's a lot of people on fixed incomes from the trailer parks around here. Of course, for the rest of the week it'll cost $4.95, with garlic bread. People might have an eggplant Parmesan sandwich [$4.50] or even a personal pizza [$4.95 with $1 or $1.25 extra for each topping]. We have plenty of other regulars who have the same dish every day."
The Parisis came to San Diego when Anne and Chris were just girls, in 1979. But they remember what it was like back in New Jersey and New York. "We still miss the life back home," says Chris. "They say people are harder back there, but once you're their friend, you are friends for life."
"Neighbors know neighbors back there," says Anne. "Not like here."
"I don't have a life," Chris says. "Just right here, in this dining room and the kitchen."
"All I wanna do," sings Sheryl Crow from the next room, "is have some fun."
Note to self. Haul Hank in here. In fact, why not haul in everybody I know? Start having Tuesday parties? I buy the basics, $1.25 each, and people can add anything they want. Group of ten, I'm out a whopping $12.50. Another $12.00 for a liter of house red wine, and -- pah-tee! Look what happens when someone offers you an honest-to-goodness down-to-earth deal.