When you’re in the restaurant business, you’re fortunate to meet many people — everybody from politicians to dignitaries, sports players, wine producers, actors and, if you’re lucky, even some royalty.
Seventeen years ago, a gentleman walked into our family restaurant and asked to see the owner. He was brought into our office and announced his name was Gene. He told us he was a new wine rep from St. Louis and he wanted to sample some wines from Sicily with my brother and myself.
I’ll never forget that day because it was a Friday and my brother Leonard and I were just getting ready to enjoy lunch with some friends.
Gene joined us and along with my chef’s special menu, we enjoyed some great Sicilian vino.
Within weeks, the wine was placed on our menu and became a great seller. Sicilian wine and our food went well together, it was a natural.
Over the years, Gene would visit and we would enjoy lunch. It always involved too many courses and too much wine. That was a good thing.
A friendship was born and became much more. Lunch would become a tradition with friends and family, sometimes moving to a private room when more joined in.
Eighteen months ago, things changed. We did not see Gene for over a month. My brother finally called and found out Gene was diagnosed with cancer. Not just one organ but throughout his whole body.
Chemotherapy was begun immediately but Gene was told to get his “things in order.” His time had come and one of the doctors told him he may last a month at tops.
Gene made it through the holidays and he visited one cold January night in 2013. To be honest, I didn’t recognize him. He had lost 65 pounds, a mere skeleton of his old self. We all sat and shared a quick bite, nothing like old times. Gene had no appetite.
Over the next few months Gene’s body started reacting to the chemotherapy and he told me, “Jay, I just need to make it to my daughter’s graduation in May.”
Well, he made it, a little weak but very proud.
We enjoyed many Friday lunches and each time it seemed Gene was getting stronger. He was always positive, never complained, but ate very little.
I would fix some of his favorites, polenta, risotto, braised pork shanks and always a pasta course. He would rave about the food. We would all tease each other, cuss, laugh and drink wine. Each time we finished, we promised to meet again the next month.
We would all text and email, plan out lunch and add more guests to the table including a close friend who also sold wine for many years.
At one point, Gene talked of opening his company again, distributing wine in Kansas City. We had many meetings and long afternoon talks, always ending with a to-go dinner for Gene. More laughs and crude remarks, that become a staple.
Gene went back to the hospital several times over the past year. In early June we all enjoyed a great lunch on a Friday. It may have been the best ever according to Gene. Too many courses, but so memorable.
Our wine friend brought several cheese’s and I had some new artisan salumi. It was a hot day, but we enjoyed a dish of simple Paccheri with a house cured guanciale. It was so delicious. We finished late and I had to get to the dining room.
Gene and I talked privately and he told me he was really sick and the end was near. We hugged but I wouldn’t say goodbye. I figured if I said goodbye it would be the last.
The next Monday we received a call from Gene’s sister. He was back in the hospital. It was not good. My brother went to visit. I couldn’t.
You probably can imagine the rest of the story. Gene passed peacefully that weekend. His time had come. His battle over.
We all met again the next Friday for lunch. My brother pulled out a nice bottle of wine. I cooked. It was not the same. There was an empty seat for Gene. We talked about Gene.
The wine was okay, the pasta nothing special. We made a few toasts and then I remembered something. We had some of the cheese from the previous luncheon and I went into the wine room where we stored it.
I placed it on the table with some crostini and fresh fruit. It would be our dessert. It would also be the last Friday lunch for the group. The cheese was the end.
We will all meet again, Fridays for sure, but but it won’t be the same. There will always be a piece missing — an empty seat. We have good memories. We ate damn good. We drank very well.
I don’t regret not saying goodbye to Gene. I can still see his smile. He was a fighter until the end. We had a good talk and he got to see his daughter graduate.
For Gene, he lived a good life. He was a successful businessman, he had a beautiful daughter and he had many friends. He ate and he drank well. In life, that means everything.
There still is an empty seat at the table. Believe me, it will always be there.
I also have a recipe of the last pasta dish I fixed for Gene and the group. I hope you all enjoy as much as we did that last Friday lunch. Salute Gene.
Paccheri con Guanciale, Aglio e Pomodoro
2 pounds of fresh tomatoes
6 cloves of fresh garlic minced
1/2 pound of Guanciale (cured pork cheeks) diced
1 jalapeño minced
1/2 cup olive oil
12 torn basil leaves
Sea salt to taste
1 pound of Paccheri cooked al’dente
Peel tomatoes, core and purée. In a large sauté pan, sauté Guanciale until crispy. Add oil and garlic and jalapeños. Sauté 3 minutes. Do not brown. Add tomatoes, basil and season with salt and red chili pepper. Cook 15 minutes.
Serve over fresh cooked Paccheri pasta. Dust with grated Romano cheese if desired.
Chef Jasper J. Mirabile Jr. of Jasper’s commands the helm of his family’s 59-year-old restaurant, consistently rated one of Kansas City’s best Italian restaurants. In addition to running the restaurant with his brother, Mirabile is a culinary instructor, founding member of Slow Food Kansas City and a national board member of the American Institute of Wine and Food. He hosts many famous chefs on his weekly radio show Live! From Jasper’s Kitchen on KCMO 710 AM and 103.7 FM and sells a line of dressings and sauces.