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!!!
Did you all know that John Travolta came to have dinner at our restaurant? Yes! He did… he really really did! It was in 1985. James Cagney was John Travolta’s idol. So he came to Dutchess County to visit James Cagney and of course Mr. Cagney brought him to his favorite Italian restaurant.
Naturally, I couldn’t miss this opportunity to see John Travolta. When I look back now and read about John Travolta he was experiencing some movie flops in the ’80s. But I didn’t consider any of this because all I knew him was as Vinnie Barbarino in Welcome Back Kotter, Saturday Night Fever, Grease and The Urban Cowboy.
was very patient not interrupting him while he was having his dinner. I waited until he was walking out the door. I excitedly screamed “John Travolta!!!!!”. I must have said it a little too loud… actually I screamed it. Well the poor guy was startled and he looked scared. I must have used my loud Italian soprano voice because he was looking for the nearest exit.
Sensing his unwillingness to talk to me in the crazy state I was in, I immediately calmed down and sweetly asked him for an autograph. He took a big sigh of relief and signed my Coppola’s Menu. Of course he was just as handsome as in the movies but I was very surprised as to how slight he looked. I wonder if that is why he was nicknamed “Bone” while he was growing up?
Needless to say I remember every detail of that day. I even know exactly what I was wearing. That beautiful cobalt blue silk scarf reminds me of the day I met John Travolta and it has a special place in my closet!
Speaking of being surprised how slight John Travolta was I have to remember to tell you about the actors from Vassar’s Powerhouse Theater that came in one afternoon to have lunch.
Hey all! This is going to be a short post today. But I just wanted to tell you about this woman that came into the restaurant last night and shared her story with my husband. It brought a tear to my eye as Jim recanted the story. It never ceases to amaze me how generous my father was. My father has been gone now for seventeen years and we still get stories from our customers! Anyway, this lady came in for an order to go with her daughter. She has been a loyal customer since our days on lower Main Street. Apparently when she was pregnant with her daughter she developed an insatiable craving for veal.
As I understood it she was working in Poughkeepsie and living in Amenia/Dover area. Well, she would come in for her daily meal of veal. As she came in on a regular basis my dad and her got to be quite friendly. Progressing with her pregnancy becoming more and more obvious my dad would make a point to make her get off her feet. She said she would sit on a stool in the kitchen. ad would say to her “Mangia, you have to take care of the baby!”
At this point in the story the woman doubled over in laughter and joy as she remembered the story! (From what I can gather from this story is that she must have been going there to get orders to go. As she waited for her order my dad made her sit and would give her something to eat for the long ride back home.) As she recollected herself she continued with her story…
As she neared the end of her pregnancy and would waddle into the restaurant she didn’t have to pay for her meals anymore. Finally when the day came that she delivered the baby she made sure that my dad knew that she had the baby. Of course my dad did what he knew best on such an occasion in true Coppola style! A huge Italian meal (with veal of course) was delivered to the hospital!
If there is one word to describe my dad it would be the word generous especially at Christmas! Much planning went into gathering boxes of wines and liquors that he would give out as gifts to say thank you. Two couples that stand out that were just as generous as my father. One couple was the Wassmer’s from Bearsville, NY and the other were the Pitcher’s from Rhinebeck, NY. They were one of our most loyal and generous customers. Both Judy and Theodore Wassmer were artists that would take the trip to Poughkeepsie to enjoy a meal with their best friends Mr. and Mrs Ralph Pitcher. Every Christmas they brought our family gifts. The Pitchers brought bouquets of anemones and the Wassmers with beautiful framed paintings. In fact the anemones made their appearance several times a year!
The Pitcher’s had greenhouses in Rhinebeck where they grew anemones for the whole North East. Did you all know that Rhinebeck is considered the anemone capital of the world. The Pitcher’s have had their farm for over a 100 years. Ralph Pitcher started growing anemones from seeds imported from Holland in 1936. Mr. and Mrs. Pitcher were so proud of their flowers that every time they came in would bring my mom a bouquet of flowers and later on when my brother and I got married they would bring 3 bouquets. Such beautiful flowers that bring back so many memories!My brother now lives in North Carloina and whenever the family comes to town one of the stops is to Ralph Pitchers and Sons farm to pick up a couple of bouquets of anemones.
As a little side trivia: Mildred Pitcher said “Anemones were a favorite flower at the Kennedy White House. Jackie sent pictures to the Pitcher family, of tables decorated (for a state dinner) with anemones. Jackie was very specific in asking for pastel bouquets.”
Let me tell you about Theodore Wassmer. He was born in Salt lake City Utah. His wife Judy Lund and himself resided in Bearsville, NY for 30 years before they moved back to Salt Lake City, Utah. Mr. Wassmer and Mr. Pitcher were best friends. Mr. Wassmer never came empty handed either. Every Christmas he would bring my dad one of his paintings and as we got older he would bring my brother, my sister and I paintings as well. A painting just wasn’t enough to Mr. Wassmer he always made sure they were framed too! He is described as a prolific painter. With all the Wassmer paintings in our family I think there has to be a better word than prolific.
After Theodore and Judy moved to Salt Lake City I continued to keep in touch with him. His Christmas cards were hand painted and a long letter of his thoughts and feelings for the year was included. Even after his wife Judy passed away he continued to write to me. His was always the first Christmas card of the season that I received.
In 2006 I didn’t receive a card so I looked him up in the Salt Lake City newspaper only to find out that he died at the age of 96 on his wife’s birthday Nov. 26th. He was a wonderful generous man who never forgot us. One of my favorite paintings is the one where he combined the portraits of him and his wife along with Mr. and Mrs. Pitcher overlaid with 5 anemones.He called it “Five on Four”. After he and Judy moved away to Salt Lake City he sent each of us in my family that painting to remind us of the Wassmer’s and the Pitcher’s weekly Saturday lunches at Coppola’s. That painting hangs in the center of my family room as well as all his other works. It’s like I have my own Wassmer gallery!
Wassmer’s prolific body of works attest to his artistic commitment. Over 2,000 of his paintings, watercolors, and drawings are in the hands of private collectors, museums, colleges, and schools in the United States and Europe. I don’t think anyone knows about all the paintings we have hanging up in my house. Anemones and Wassmer paintings another memorable tradition at Coppola’s Restaurant!
Life’s Most Meaningless Statistic is the Half-Time Score
When I turned on the TV the other morning Meadowlark Lemon jumped out at me. Since I started writing on this blog all kinds of things trigger my memory. Meadowlark was promoting his new book, Trust Your Next Shot: A Guide to a Life of Joy. Yep, Meadowlark Lemon came to Coppola’s for dinner! It was the during ’70s when the Harlem Globe Trotters were playing at the Mid-Hudson Civic Center. My brother was working that night he was just a young teen. Everyone in the restaurant did a double take when this 6’8″ guy came in. The ceilings were really high (remember we were in the old Rialto Theater) so he wasn’t too out of place. But when he sat down at a small table for two that was another story. I don’t know why the host sat him at a table for two because it was quite a ridiculous sight as his knees did not fit under table.
My brother was so curious that he meandered to the table and asked who he was… ha ha ha. “Meadowlark Lemon, I am with the Harlem Globe Trotters!” Meadowlark enjoyed his meal so much that the following day the whole team came for dinner. You can imagine what all the Italian staff not more than 5’8″ said when they saw these tall men all come into the restaurant, “Is this how they grow them in America?”
One of Meadowlark’s inspirational quotes in his book is quite apropos for our 50th anniversary. Meadowlark says “Life’s most meaningless statistic is the half-time score.” I wonder what else is in store for Coppola’s Restaurant as we work on our next half time!
When my husband and I got married in November 1980 our friend Joe Bertolozzi played the organ at our wedding. He played Mozart’s Joy as we walked out of the church. He played so beautifully and magnificently we wanted to go back in and enjoy the rest of his rendition.
When Joe came in a few years ago wanting to promote his Bridge Funk Music we jumped at the chance. He had a marketing campaign with some of the area’s restaurants to come up with a dish promoting Joe’s Bridge Funk Music. Bridge Music allows listeners to hear the bridge played like a musical instrument. The work was created for New York’s 400th anniversary observance of Henry Hudson’s voyage up the Hudson River. Originally intended to be a live performance piece, this “audacious plan” (New York Times) to compose music for a suspension bridge using the bridge itself as the instrument brought Bertolozzi wide international attention. A recording of the results, the 2009 CD “Bridge Music” (on the Delos label DE1045), entered the Billboard Classical Crossover Music Chart at #18, and has been released globally.
Jim came up with a dish called Funk Pasta to help market Joe’s famous Bridge Funk Music. This dish became so popular that even after the promotion was over, people are still asking for it! It’s a great summer dish and Jim usually puts it on the menu during summer months. He uses fusilli pasta (corkscrew-shaped pasta) with fresh lemon juice and a dab of marinara, adding smoked mozzarella cheese, provolone, prosciutto, salami, artichoke hearts, green olives and chicken. As long as we have all the ingredients we will happily make it for our customers even if its not on the menu.
Joe Bertolozzi and his mom are loyal customers who enjoy a little bit of Funk! Check out Joe’s Funk Bridge Music on YouTube. And don’t be shy if you don’t see Funk Pasta on our seasonal menu. All you have to do is ask for it. We will gladly make it for you provided we have all the ingredients.
Gosh I almost forgot to tell you about Coppola’s Restaurant and President Richard Nixon. It all goes back a beautiful day in October 1971. President Nixon’s younger brother Ed came to a luncheon to address Dutchess County Federation of Women’s Republican Clubs at our restaurant, Coppola’s on 273 Main Street. It was a crazy day in Poughkeepsie! Not only was Coppola’s Restaurant surrounded by protesters but also the campaign headquarters on New Market Street, outside Coppola’s students were dressed like “grim reapers” to dramatize their protest of the war in Indochina. The leaflets they handed out were titled “Six Million Victims.” One student was even bound to a cross. It was quite a scene as Ed Nixon left the restaurant under guard with police escorts to a limousine. Yes, Coppola’s Restaurant shared a headline with Nixon the next day in the Poughkeepsie Journal. Despite all the protests in Dutchess County Nixon went on the win a second term of the Presidency.
July 6,1983 I waddled over to Coppola’s Restaurant for a chance to meet Pres. Richard Nixon. This time instead of his little brother Ed, Pres. visited Dutchess County. He was warmly greeted as he toured Franklin D. Roosevelt home and library. He later went on to have lunch at Coppola’s Restaurant. I wasn’t going to miss the chance to meet the President. I don’t know what I was thinking but in July 1983, I was pregnant with my son Joe and I wasn’t hiding. There I was front and center. I mean how can anyone not notice me as I stood there waiting for a chance to shake hands with Pres. Nixon. Of course, he right away noticed!!(Really how can you notice anyone else since I took up all the space.) I didn’t even have to ask as I stood there proudly holding a pen. The President wondered if I knew what the sex of the baby as he addressed the autograph to Baby Morgan, Best Wishes from Richard Nixon.
But that didn’t end our dealings with the Nixon Presidency. Later on that year, December 28, 1983, G. Gordon Liddy, (he served on the Nixon administration involved in the White House “plumbers’ unit to control the leaks from the White House), came to have dinner at Coppola’s Restaurant, 825 Main Street. As he sat at table 51 (a quiet table for 2) he enjoyed a delicious meal and gladly autographed a menu.
As you can see…I have been an avid collector of autographs through the years. Hahaha… and also not at all abashed to waddle to all these 1983 events….
With Charlie Sheen headlining all news stories lately I thought of the day his dad, Martin Sheen came for dinner at our restaurant. It was May 27, 1983. I was expecting my first born son and was quite a spectacle. When I think back I don’t know what I was thinking that instead hiding out at home I was right in the middle of everything and in the way of everybody.
James Cagney was a regular at the restaurant, arranging a dinner party with Martin Sheen as a guest. Of course I was taking up space in the foyer and I couldn’t help but get Martin Sheen’s attention. He asked when the baby was due and hoped that I could wait till August 3rd, his birthday. I exclaimed that I didn’t think I could last that long but would be honored if my baby could share his birthday. Little did I know I was pretty close to that date when I had Joe. Joe was born July 25th.
While waiting for the rest of the dinner party to show up some of the guests were at the bar along with Martin Sheen. While everyone was enjoying cocktails Mr. Sheen suddenly got up off the barstool and told them he had to do an errand. He came up to me and asked where the nearest church was. I directed him to Holy Trinity and he came back later to join the dinner party. I thought how interesting that he provided no explanation but just excused himself making going to church a priority. Remind me to tell you about James Cagney next…