It was the fall of 1992 the first time that America’s master of supernatural suspense, who set the standard for the wildly popular genre, visited Poughkeepsie. Stephen King, a renowned American author came to the Hudson Valley during the 1992 Vassar College Parents Weekend to visit his oldest son, Joe Hillstrom King. Where else would he stop for a great Italian meal but none other than The Original Coppola’s Restaurant just a few blocks away from Vassar College.
I can recall that foggy ghostly night, where the lights coming in through the restaurant windows cast eerie shadows against the stark white walls. All of a sudden I felt a chill in the air as the door opened to reveal a tall dark-haired man wearing glasses. I held back a shudder as I greeted our guest thinking he looked vaguely familiar. But it wasn’t until he sat down at a table with his wife and son that I realized it was Steven King. He was pleasant enough at first welcoming the customers’ recognition of him. But it got out of hand and a steely look came over him and everyone knew it was time to let him and his family enjoy their meal. And so Stephen King, his wife, Tabitha King and son, Joe Hillstrom King thoroughly enjoyed their meal at Coppola’s.
Joe King graduated from Vassar College in 1995 and followed in his father’s footsteps using the pen name of Joe Hill. Joe Hill wrote the widely read “Heart Shaped Box.” The younger son, Owen King also went to Vassar graduating in 1998 and followed his dad’s footsteps as a writer. But that wasn’t the last time Stephen King came to Poughkeepsie because in 2001 he gave the commencement address at Vassar College and in his speech he exclaimed, ” You invited America’s boogeyman!” On that very day at Coppola’s we all heard the echo of his laugh from a few blocks away and felt a shudder come over our bodies…..
As I write on this blog I am beginning to think that Poughkeepsie is so much more than just a silly quote from The French Connection, “You pick your toes in Poughkeepsie?” Bill Duke is an actor and director from Poughkeepsie, NY. The first time he came into Coppola’s my sons recognized him right away from the movie Predator, 1987 starring Arnold Schwazzeneagar. They both exclaimed “There’s Mac!” Mac was his character name in Predator. (But as coincidence would have it – when he was growing up Bill Duke’s cat’s name was Maccintosh and Bill was long nicknamed by family and friends in Poughkeepsie as Maccy Bub).
Bill Duke would often come to Poughkeepsie from Los Angeles to visit his mom and bring his family and friends to eat at our restaurant. I was looking at the dates of my autographs and noticed that he came on Easter Sunday, April 3, 1994. I thought this would be a good time to write about him. Whenever he was in town visitng his mom he would make Coppola’s on Main Street one of his stops until his mom died in 1999. He was a quiet and unasuming man. Never did he make a bid deal when he came in with his group.
You can see by our autographs that he would amuse us by taking pictures and giving out his autograph. The picture you see above is with our long time bartender, Leo that has since passed away. It was taken in our bar. Bill Duke would usually come in on weekdays during the late afternoons. Did you all know that Bill Duke went to Dutchess Community College? He continued onto Boston university and furthered his education at New York University‘s Tisch School of Arts and the AFI Conservatory. He was the first of his family to attend college and went on the be one of the most accomplished African Americans currently working in TV and cinema.
Not only is he an actor but has directed quite a few films and TV shows. He has a credit list as long as some of the great names in Hollywood – and a quite a few awards to accompany it. Quite an accomplishment for a Poughkeepsie native! And of course he always made time to stop at Coppola’s!
I just can’t let Easter go by without writing about the Italian Easter tradition of Easter Bread. Everybody makes Easter bread in Italy, but does it turn into a competitive baking contest? In Coppola’s Restaurant and in the little town of Monte di Procida it is! During Lent not only do we fast and give up stuff (never panettone recipes!) but we start planning the art of baking panettone (Easter bread).
One year we were in Italy during Easter. At every house we visited we were shown rows and rows of pans filled with rising dough covered under blankets waiting for Holy Saturday to be baked. Now mind you the judging starts even before the bread is baked. Everyone is eagerly watching their breads rise. If it rises too fast that it will be a big flop. If it rises too slow it will be hard as a rock. At twelve years old I thought this was comical as we all peered into all these pans. We were made to look at these pans as if was the latest discovery! hahaha…
Our whole family practiced this tradition. So you can imagine the amount of Easter bread that was made. But what was even funnier is that my father, the chef made Easter bread and also my mother made her own batch. It ended up being a contest within our own household. So if that wasn’t enough my dad’s brothers and their wives also made Easter bread. And guess what? Yup! Our Italian customers and employees got into the act too!! And you can’t leave out Caffe Aurora!! So by Easter Sunday the restaurant was wall to wall Easter Bread.
Now this competition was not a formal competition but was just informal tastings. Like “Hey Joe, taste my Easter Bread how good it came out!”…. and vice versa. But with all this craziness that I experienced growing up with this informal Panettone competition I keep making loaves and loaves of it myself trying to get the perfect recipe. I always try a new recipe every year. But let me tell you a little secret if any of you have ever tried Easter bread. It is an acquired taste. It comes in a variety of ways its either really dry and flavorful or it is moist and light. Some are braided with colored eggs. Always with bits of dried fruit throughout. The Italians like to eat this bread at the end of their meal with jugs of wine. That’s the best part!
When you come to Coppola’s on Easter Sunday you will all find Easter Bread in our bread baskets. Over the years our competition has given up the challenge but we continue on. It can’t be Easter without a battle of the Easter Breads at Coppola’s. It’s tradition!
Let me share my recipe that I used this year. According to my son who just came home from college (….he ate the whole thing in 2 days) it came out awesome!!! Not sure if it was hunger or if it was really good. But I am delivering a loaf to my uncle and hopefully I will get the nod of approval!
Last night one of my Dad’s good friend and customer’s daughter and her husband came in for dinner. She started reminiscing of the days at 273 Main Street. It made me look back at such a happy time. I do remember her Dad, Dick Freeman. Every Christmas my dad would bring us all shopping to pick out gifts for my mom. It was the same routine every Christmas. We would go to Up-To-Date where Mr. Forman would greet us and Amanda Gobbi would help us pick out a fancy dress for my mom. The last stop was to visit Dick Freeman who owned J. Arnold Wood, Ltd. It was fun there. I can still remember the laughter that those 2 men shared as my dad picked out the biggest and the gaudiest piece of jewelry. My dad always loved big and shiny!
Dick Freeman was one of our earliest customers. I didn’t realize that Dick’s and dad’s friendship went back before Coppola’s. Mr. Freeman actually got to know my dad when my dad was a chef at the historical Nick Beni’s in Mount Carmel Square. My father and Mr. Freeman got to be very good friends. When my dad was contemplating opening up a restaurant Mr. Freeman said to my father, “Joe, no matter where you go I will follow you.” And so it came to be that when my dad and his brothers opened up Coppola’s Restaurant on that day November 24, 1961, Mr. Freeman was one of their first customers. Mr. Freeman”s daughter, Jane told us that whenever my dad would go on vacation (vacation was going back to his hometown of Monte di Procida) Mr. Freeman would say “tell me what day you are going to be back because I want to be there the day you return.” And my dad would always surprise him with a new specialty dish that he brought back from Italy. After my dad died Mr. Freeman presented me with a plate from Nick Beni’s restaurant to commemorate his friendship with my dad so many years ago when he first met him as a chef at Nick Beni’s! Mr. Freeman has since passed away and I bet my dad welcomed him with a Coppola feast including all the specialties he is learning from his new adventure……….
Where else but in Dutchess County can you find a recipe with the ingredients of James Cagney, Floyd Patterson (world heavyweight boxing champion 1956-59, 1960-62) and Coppola’s Restaurant? I didn’t realize what good friends James Cagney and Floyd Patterson were. When we relocated Coppola’s Restaurant at 825 Main Street in 1979 my father so appreciative of his success that he wanted to give back to the community. That first Christmas and many years afterwards he would host parties for various children’s homes. One particular Christmas Party that comes to mind is the one for Cardinal Hayes Home. At the time James Cagney was a frequent customer and wanted to help… Not only did he gift a huge check to the children’s home he also asked his good friend Floyd Patterson to make a guest appearance at the party.
What did James Cagney and Floyd Patterson have in common that they struck up such a friendship? Well did you all know that James Cagney’s father was an amateur boxer? James Cagney Jr. followed in his dad’s footsteps. Not only was he a good street fighter he was also encouraged by his mom to take up boxing as a hobby. He went so far as to engage in amateur boxing and won the New York State lightweight title. When he was approached to become a professional boxer his disapproving mom told him “If you want to become a professional fighter, then your first fight will have to be against me.” James immediately abandoned the idea of professional boxing and the rest is history.
As he got more and more involved in films he frequently portrayed that rough street fighter image. James Cagney’s last performance at 84 years old was in the TV movie Terrible Joe Moran playing a former boxing champ. Clips from his 1932 movie Winner Takes All (a movie about boxing) were throughout the movie Terrible Joe Moran. Floyd Patterson was the gym janitor in this movie.
James Cagney’s introduction to Floyd went back to 1960 where James was hosting and reviewing the fight between Ingemar Johansson vs Floyd Patterson. This was the famous fight where Floyd regained his World Heavyweight Championship Title. James Cagney reviewed the different boxing styles of Johanssen and Patterson on the WABC radio show.
So it came to be that these 2 larger than life characters along with my dad, Joseph Coppola put on a wonderful Christmas Dinner with gifts and a memorable donation right here in Poughkeepsie, NY to benefit The Cardinal Hayes children’s home. Years later with Floyd’s many visits to Coppola’s at 825 Main Street this heavy weight champ had the chance to meet my son Josh. Josh was just 3 or 4 years old. Floyd Patterson took one look at Josh’s hands and said he has the hands of a boxer. I took James Cagney mother’s words and said “well his first fight will have to be against me first!”
James Cagney and his wife were loyal customers at our restaurant since the early ’70s. He was such a down to earth guy. He never conducted himself as an unapproachable celebrity. It wasn’t until we moved to this location that James Cagney and my father got very friendly. Mr. Cagney and his wife would usually come in on Sunday afternoons for quiet dinners in the back room. On more festive occasions when he had guests he would come in on a Saturday night with a group of people. Never would I have thought that in Poughkeepsie we would have such a revolving door of celebrities. But then again Poughkeepsie did get mentioned in the French Connection movie. Remember the quote “You picking your toes in Poughkeepsie?” Sheesh!
While writing this post I did some research on James Cagney. I found some peculiar similarities between Jimmy and my father. Cagney’s first job was on stage as a dancer making $55 dollars a week of which $40 of it was given to his mother. When my father and his brothers first came to America the money that they made was also sent home to their mother. In fact James Cagney bought his Stanfordville farm in 1954 the same year my father came to America. And if it could be a weirder coincidence James Cagney retired in 1961 to go back to his Stanfordville farm to raise Morgan horses the same year my father and his brothers opened up Coppola’s Restaurant.
As I have written on previous posts he brought in Martin Sheen and John Travolta to experience Coppola’s. I remember on one occasion he came with his best friend Ralph Bellamy. Ralph Bellamy was part of James Cagney’s acting friends who called themselves “The Irish Mafia.” I recognized Ralph Bellamy right away. Remember the film Trading Places with Eddie Murphy? I didn’t realize he was such a well known actor in his earlier years but seeing that movie Trading Places I recognized him right away. I did have a few words with Ralph Bellamy. He actually whispered in my ear!! I will never forget his words to me……..” Please give me the check!” Haha!!!
Liza Minelli was also a guest of James Cagney’s who also enjoyed Coppola’s Italian food. Whenever someone came into town to visit James Cagney he made sure they ate Coppola’s Italian food. I have so much more to tell you about James Cagney but I will put more in another post. Did you all know that he was friends with President Ronald Reagan and supported his campaign 1980 and 1984? President Reagan gave his eulogy when he died. Those ’80s were memorable years. We couldn’t wait for the weekends to see Jimmy Cagney and all his famous friends. March 31, 2011 was the 25th anniversary of Cagney’s death. As I gaze at our wall of celebrities I miss those years where Poughkeepsie was more than just a quote from the French Connection!
I always think of the parable of Jesus feeding a huge crowd of people with 5 loaves of Barley bread and 2 fish when I think about the huge snow storm of 2009. We were debating whether to close or not that ugly winter day when we received a phone call at home from a dear customer. She was so distraught exclaiming that they had no where to go. It was the day of her brother’s funeral and all the guests were invited to The Italian Center for an after funeral dinner. The Italian Center called and said that due to the weather they were not going to open. Jim comforted her by telling her that we would gladly open for her family. She said she thought it would be about 30 people and Jim assured her that would be no problem. So we quickly went to work with only half of the kitchen staff along with Jim and I to take care of the dining room (our dining room staff was not able to come due to the storm). We figured serving 30 people would not be a problem.
Well at 11:30 as Jim greeted the family at the door and I took the count people kept flocking in. I had to keep running back and forth to the kitchen as the number of people kept increasing. The kitchen staff thought I was nuts as I ran in saying 30,40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90, 100… It turned out to be more than 100 people. Our kitchen staff kept making salads, warming up bread, pounding and breading chicken. Pots and pots of tomato sauce and boiling pots of water for the pasta were on the stove. Meanwhile out front Jim took care of the drinks… hundreds of drinks… I took care of preparing the tables. It got to the point where one of the guests manned the soda machine. People were throwing money on the bar for payment for the drinks. There was a huge pile. Jim couldn’t give out change fast enough as he was pouring drinks. The salads were all ready and I ran around the dining room with trays of salads and warm bread. Believe me when I tell you Jim and I kept it together as best as we could but we must have been looking a little stressed.
All of a sudden all the family and friends started pitching in. One by one they all lent out a hand. Ever so grateful that we opened on such short notice that everyone took part in serving. Jim and I just couldn’t believe our eyes. We all started laughing and having a good time. e had servers, dishwashers, coffee makers… There must have been 30 people pitching in. And the bread kept coming out in basketfuls… the pasta kept coming out in bowlfuls…. hundreds of Chicken Parmagianas… It was unbelievable!
When I think back I wonder how we had all that bread, lettuce, chicken… on hand. It really was like the Miracle of the 5 Loaves and 2 Fish. What a wonderful tribute to our dear customer’s brother! All his friends and family pitching in like that making it so wonderful for the immediate family. A true inspiration for all of us to see!! And that wasn’t all… After begging everyone to stop that we will take care of everything after they left, nobody would leave until they all helped to finish cleaning. That is one story that Jim and I will never forget. Our customers never cease to amaze us. You see Coppola’s Restaurant isn’t about us. It’s all about the wonderful people in the community! They are truly amazing! We have to say Thank You!!!