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The Grotto
Jul 11, 2003
A great night out on the town with my family always meant one thing: 'Get in the Caprice Classic, we're going to The Grotto.' My whole life, I've never seen a real grotto. When I was nine, I thought "grotto" and "ghetto" were one and the same, and that Elvis sang about my favorite Italian restaurant -- but at my grotto, no mommies cried with their little babies. It is my family's ritual. It is an Italian Restaurant featuring "La Pizza".

There is a mural painted on the wall, of scenes in Venice -- like drawings on a cave wall. This is a masterpiece. It's a good thing that no sunlight touches these walls, so as to preserve the vibrant colors. When I visited the real Venice for the first time, I was awestruck. It was nothing like the Grotto. And neither was the food.

This was our place: we know the menu by heart. We always get the same dishes. My mom: Spaghetti with extra marinara sauce, please. And a highball. My dad: Spaghetti and meatballs, extra sauce, plus a small onion pie. And a Miller. My brother: Cheese ravioli. Extra bread. Extra cokes. Me: Spaghetti marinara. Or when I got more daring, eggplant parmegiana. Oh, it's to die for -- its layers meld together and melt in your mouth and then, when you're done, you can't really move for a few hours.

Good times, bad times, there was always The Grotto. When we heard they might close, or sell, we stopped arguing long enough to almost cry. No one else understood our bond with The Grotto -- "It's just red-sauce Italian American food -- what's so special about that?" But when you hear that little bell tinkling from the kitchen, and you think it's your order that Joanne is hustling to get to you, and it might be that onion pie, you get very excited. All the while the crumbs from the delicious rolls that you've spackled with butter are sticking to your arms because they're all over the vinyl checked tablecloth and you've got your elbows on the table because it feels like home. And the plastic ferns do nothing to help clear the smoky air on a Friday nite, and sometimes they even get in the way of you watching the big screen TV.

I've only met one other person whose family has made The Grotto a family tradition -- we bonded instantly. There's an understanding that we have, when one of us eats there, we say, "how was the sauce tonite?" "oh the sauce was good -- not the way it used to be but still good."

I don't ever want that mural to fade. 24 years of Friday nites with my family have been burned into my memory. It's why no other eggplant parmesan will do. And it's why I grew to love Bethlehem's south side. It's perfect.

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