Most restaurant workers don’t like their bosses. Talk five minutes with anyone in food service and you’ll probably hear plenty about the egotistic son-of-a-bitch who makes their life hell.
I’ve been lucky. I’ve worked for some great owners and today I’d like to share a few stories about Tina DeLellis, who for almost twenty years was my boss at Johnny D’s. When she passed away on April 8, 2008, Tina was one of the last of the old-school proprietors.
Here was a strikingly attractive and gracious lady, but with that first handshake you knew Tina was also a tough, no-bullshit woman. She had to be.
Somerville, MA — one of the hub cities that make up Greater Boston — was a gangster enclave in 1969 when Tina and John DeLellis opened Johnny D’s. Old timers still talk about the gun battle at a bar called The Rail Side, across the street from Johnny D’s. Gunmen fired round after round out the back door up at another gangster shooting down from the third floor window of the adjacent apartment building.
Somerville was so tough that Massachusetts Senate President William Bulger was quoted in the Boston Globe as saying, “Someone should put a fence around Somerville and give everyone fifteen years.”
John DeLellis was a Somerville Police officer for 13 years and he still commanded respect both by his former position and his reputation with police-issue firearms. With his wife at his side John made sure their club was safe, and when he wasn’t there it was up to Tina to keep things under control.
“Sometimes I’d be shaking inside,“ she told me one night, referring to the time when she had to deal with gangster customers, “My heart pounded so fast I thought it would jump out of my chest, but I would never let them see me afraid.”
As Somerville changed The Rail Side was torn down and the gangsters were gone, but Johnny D’s was still a nightclub — and we’d have the occasional trouble-maker.
One night this huge guy started throwing his weight around. He began to swear at people for simply walking past him. “Fuck you! What are you going to do about it, ASSHOLE!” He was aching for a fight.
Tina approached the guy, and the doormen and bartenders quickly spread out nearby. (We were supposed to look like we were watching TV, or talking with customers a few feet away, only stepping in if the situation got dangerous — Tina always insisted that she be the first one to deal with things.)
As Tina walked up to the guy, he reached out — but Tina avoided his grasp and took that huge paw in one of her hands, gently patting the back of it with her other hand.
“My buddy, . . . my buddy,“ she said, patting the back of his hand. This guy was at least 6‘5“, probably weighing three hundred pounds. He dwarfed Tina. “My buddy, my buddy” Tina said, standing calmly in his shadow, “What seems to be the problem.“
The guy was taken aback, and Tina continued.
She explained that she thought of this club as her home, and as her guest she wanted to know what was going on with him, what she could do to make him more at ease.
“Why would you want to act like this?” she asked, “If I invited you into my home is this how you’d behave?”
The guy was no match for Tina’s savvy charm. As he continued to listen he began to nod his head thoughtfully, his hand still in hers. By the time she was leading him to the door, her hand was now between his two hands — two huge paws holding that one small hand of hers — and he was thanking her.
“Thank you,” he said, as she walked him to the door. She was throwing him out and he was thanking her. “Thank you,” he said again. “Thank you.”
Tina was the master at this . . . I’ve never seen anyone better.
With John DeLellis’ early death from a heart attack in 1984, Tina’s kids Carla and David had come back to help her run the place. They talked Tina into adding a full restaurant to the nightclub, and Carla began to book national acts. It was an expensive, risky gamble.
Now Tina was worried about just staying afloat while the new business developed. She watched every penny.
I remember she walked into the kitchen one day and a prep cook had just finished scraping ketchup into the line dispenser from a plastic gallon jar. He tossed the empty jar into the trash.
Tina picked up the container and looked at it. There was a least half a cup of ketchup still remaining along the edges of the bottom. She called the prep cook on it, saying something like, “What is this? Why are you throwing this away?”
He looked at her like she was crazy. How much could it be worth, that ketchup at the bottom? I could imagine him thinking, “Why is she bothering me about a few pennies worth of ketchup?”
“I have to make a phone call,” Tina told him, changing the subject, “Do you have a quarter?”
“How did that feel?” she asked. “I know it’s only a quarter, but how did it feel?
“That’s how I feel,” she said. “It might not seem like much . . . but now you know how I feel when you throw my quarters away.”
She reached into the trash and retrieved the coin. “Wash it off,” she said, “And it will be as good as new.”
All this attention to the pennies made more sense when you knew a little about Tina’s background.
Tina (Chiarolanza) was born in Naples, Italy and she was nine years old when WWII ended. Her earliest memories of post-war Italy were of her family just trying to find enough to eat. Every day she and her older sister Rose were sent out to neighboring towns to steal bread so that the family could survive. “In all my life,” Tina once told us, “That’s the one thing I’m most ashamed of.”
Tina and her sister were sent because they were young enough that if they were caught, they wouldn’t be shot. Tina’s sister Rose did get caught once, and the police shaved her head. That’s what they did to the kids to shame and humiliate them.
This youthful experience remained with Tina throughout her life. She was determined not to fail. She was determined that none of her children would go through that.
Things went well following the renovations. There were hundreds of articles written about Johnny D’s in the Boston Globe and other local media. Year after year the club won awards in one category or another — Boston’s Best Music Club, Best Neighborhood Bar, Best Sunday Brunch
Tina continued to fine-tune. Anyone throwing away her quarters or just slacking off was sure to hear about it in no uncertain terms. But if someone was making an effort and simply fell behind she was the first to help out.
I walked into the kitchen one day and she had the sleeves of her white blouse rolled up. She standing in front of the sink, up to her elbows in dirty plates and bowls, helping a dishwasher who’d gotten slammed. When she saw me watching, her expression said, “What are you looking at?“
If someone on her staff found themselves short on funds at the end of the month, Tina might loan them money. I know of more than one instance that she never got it back. She shrugged it off as part of her responsibility as an owner.
Tina developed a reputation in the community for the way she ran Johnny D’s. I remember one afternoon when Somerville Mayor Mike Capuano (he’s now a U. S. Congressman) walked into Johnny D’s.
He was here to see if Tina would hire his sons part-time at her establishment. His boys were still in school, but he thought they should learn what it was like to work for a living and he didn’t want them to begin anywhere else. “I know you run a good place,“ he told her, “I want my boys to start learning here.”
Tina tried to hide it, but she sat there just about bursting with pride.
In 1998 Tina’s son David died of a rapidly-spreading cancer that seemed to come from nowhere. He was only 37. When Tina lost her husband she had worn black for a year — her clothing was always tasteful and attractive, but it always something black. Now her son was gone.
I don’t think Tina ever completely recovered from David’s death. Parents don’t expect to outlive any of their children.
But she was still at the club five nights a week, usually talking with long-time regular Kenny Branco who faithfully took the seat next to Tina’s every night. She was still the consummate host.
I remember the last night her friend Luca came in. Luca was a semi-pro hockey player from Canada and his team played in the Boston area once a year. After meeting Tina at Johnny D’s several years ago, he now brought his entire hockey team to the club each time they came to town.
Luca loved Tina.
He was probably twenty years younger than she was, and movie-star good looking. When he was at the club he’d spend the entire evening talking and flirting with Tina.
I think they danced one dance that Saturday night because we had a swing band playing and Tina loved to dance. As always, at the end of the night Luca tried to take Tina out for a cup of coffee at one of the late-night espresso shops in the North End. As always, Tina politely said no.
“You should have gone,” I told her when Luca left. “You might have had a good time.”
“Oh,” she said, “If I was ten years younger, maybe . . . if I was ten years younger, who knows.” I still remember that small smile on her face.
Tina had a great time that night. That’s something the other bartenders and I like to think about because it was the last time we saw her. It was Tina’s last night at Johnny D’s.
Tina passed away the following Tuesday night, April 8, 2008. She’d been at the hospital earlier that day to complain of chest pains. They told her to come back for further tests and sent her home.
At her funeral, by request of the family, the bartenders were Tina’s pallbearers. A woman came up afterwards and told bartender John Bonaccorso that it seemed fitting to have us as the pallbearers. We had always been so protective of her, worked so hard for her, the woman said.
“It’s more fitting than you know,“ John told her.
He explained that we had always looked out for Tina, and one thing we didn’t like was for her to leave the club alone at the end of the night. We insisted on walking her to her car. At first Tina protested. “Who’s going to bother me?” she’d say, putting up a tough front.
After a while she accepted it and walking Tina to her car became a kind of tradition with the bartenders.
Tina was gracious and charming lady, but at the same time a tough, savvy business woman. She didn’t graduate from high school but she was as sharp as a country lawyer. She never forgot what it was like to be down-and-out, and that helped her relate honestly to just about anyone. She was one of the most amazing people I’ve known, in this business or out of it.
Rest in peace, Tina.