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?”
He fished a quarter out of his pocket, and gave it to her. Tina took his quarter and threw it into the trash barrel.
“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.
“Today,“ John told the woman, “We walked her home for the last time.”
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.
My wife and I have been coming to Johnny D’s for years and we remember Tina well. She was the grand lady of that wonderful place. We enjoyed learning so much more about her. She must be missed by everyone
You’ve given us a beautiful story about a strong, competent, lovely woman. thank you.
Wow, that’s some amazing history. Tina sounds like a great boss, I would have liked working for her. Not many like her left nowadays.
This is a good story about life running a restaurant. People don’t understand what it takes to be successful in this business. Tina is to be admired
You’ve told a very touching and compelling story. It makes me wish I’d known Tina.
Johnny D’s rocks! Thanks for showing us another reason why.
I remember when she passed; it was so quick and unexpected. I also recall how upset you were by her passing. May she rest in peace.
She was a tough cookie with a soft center
Thanks for the memories! I thoroughly enjoyed my years at Johnny D’s and only regret that as a waitstaff I didn’t get to know Tina as well as the bartenders did. I was very sad to hear of her passing a few years ago. I hope everyone else is doing great – and Mike, I’m glad to have discovered your blog – you’re a great writer!
I couldn’t describe Tina better than you Mike! She certainly had a regal air about her and was a no-nonsense kind of woman. I am honored to have worked for her and learned way too much to start counting now. I’ll never forget the first time I caught her on the dance floor, and she never believed me when I told her guys were flirting with her. Guys were always flirting with her! She was perfectly proud and modest at the same time, and I always appreciated her full-throttled honesty. My favorite example is as follows:
“Jamie,” as she takes me aside, “Do yourself a favor?”
“Sure Tina, what’s up?” apparently not catching the “yourself.”
“When you get home tonight, and you take that dress off,” I can’t imagine the confused look on my face at this point, “roll it up and toss it in the trash,” as she gestures with her hands the act of crumpling a ball of paper and tossing it over her shoulder.
Of course I just laughed it off, “Okay Tina!”
Sure enough, the next time I went to wear that dress (it was comfortable, what can I say?) I saw exactly what she meant and was slightly horrified myself.
I’ve seen Tina roll up her sleeves and barback if need be, there was nothing in that restaurant that she couldn’t do – and often knew how to do better! She was the elf of Johhny D’s too, to this day I am still discovering some of the little things she would do around the place to make it a little nicer. Maybe you noticed the remote controls are recently sparkling again Mike?
Tina was a pistol. She didn’t take crap from anyone, but she was a sweet sweet lady. Never ever regretted playing in her club or doing business with her. Johnny D’s is our Somerville home and I raise a toast to her each April now. Her presence is still felt and missed.
Mike that is an amazing story. Tina was a classy lady and I will never forget her. When we came to Boston the year she passed away I called her and told her that we were in town, sick and all she still made the effort to come and see us at Johnny D’s that Saturday night. Today we still come to Boston and we still go to Johnny D’s and seeing Carla is like seeing Tina and the staff still greet us with open arms, Tina did a great job raising Carla and the staff, let’s keep Tina alive by always talking about her. Thank you.
Luca and the Boys of Montreal
Thanks for this beautiful insight into some of Tina’s life, Mike. Great story. My wife was one of Tina’s “smoking buddies”, as they would chat outside the club while enjoying their butts. She was one of the sweetest, and yet toughest ladies I ever met. Johnny D’s has never really been the same since Tina’s passing. One of the best feelings of the evening was when you went to the club, you would look foreword to her sincere “Hello” everytime you walked in. Her energy was contagious. We miss her a lot, and we are so glad to hear that Carla & Sean are planning to bring her “name” back to the Square. Rest in peace lovely lady.
George, … as you and anyone who knew Tina realizes this short blog post about her only scratches the surface. She was an amazing person … smart as a whip, gracious, generous to a fault, and yet as tough as she needed to be to survive in this world and in this business. Coming from humble beginnings she never forgot was it was like to be down and out, and even though in later years she rubbed shoulders with all the movers and shakers she never lost touch with just regular folks. It was great to see you again at Johnny D’s last night. You know you and your wife are always welcome … Beatlejuice will be coming to the club again soon, let us get you a good table for the show.
I have so many fond memories of Tina and Johnny D’s. My dad was a regular there, and I would often stop in to see him, but spent more time talking to Tina and friends. My dad was a creature of habit, they knew what nights he would be in, exactly what he would be drinking and how he liked it (white zin in a warm glass with a splash of soda water and a napkin wrapped around it to keep his hand from getting cold-no kidding) When my dad died suddenly Tina was great. She closed her restaurant to accommadate our family and friends. When I walked in the door that afternoon after the funeral, my dad’s drink was sitting in his usual spot and I almost lost it. I think for a second I thought he was there. I don’t get in too often anymore, but every time we visit we are treated like family. Mike, John, Carla, Sean et al are great, and BTW the food is always great.
Mike Jr: Thanks for reading the post on Tina, and thanks for reliving a few of those great memories we have of your dad. I’ll be in touch soon . . . I’m planning a post on “Midnight Mike (Sr)”.
They don’t make them like her anymore. Whenever I visit Johnny D’s, which is still a great place, I look at the bar, at her chair, and will never get used to not seeing her there. RIP.