Curtis Mombelly and the Heritage Tap
Curtis is a native of the Virgin Islands. He first met Manya when she was working down there. They reconnected later in the States, married, and had Eve and Ginger, two of the most beautiful little girls you'd ever want to see.
The Mombellys live in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, right in the neighborhood where Manya grew up. This Rhode Island branch of the clan is about as Polish as you can be without actually having been born in the old country. The best, most stereotypical kind of Polish--simple, friendly, warm, honest, and hardworking. Driving down Grand Avenue, Pawtucket is like going back in time...to the '50s. Two-family houses on small lots, lots of asphalt shingles and vinyl siding, tiny manicured lawns. Everything clean and swept and neat as a pin.
Curtis used to be a prizefighter, a middleweight who trained with Goody Petronelli, also trainer to Marvin Hagler. He retired with a record of 19 wins and 4 losses while he still had an unimpaired brain and a handsome face. From boxer, he switched to restauranteur.
After working as chef in numerous establishments, he bought the Heritage Tap, a block from where he lives in Pawtucket. It's easy to overshoot--the street is resolutely residential, and this place is a remodeled house with a modest sign. Just six tables and ten stools at the bar.
I had to go down to Pawtucket to meet a publisher, and Joanne had business there, too, so we decided to try the Heritage Tap. I'd met Curtis up here in Massachusetts and had pumped him relentlessly about West Indian food. Both Joanne and I had promised we'd visit his place and try his cooking for ourselves one day.
We had VIP passes to a Pawsox game courtesy of the publisher, and I was invited to author a challenging, possibly lucrative, monograph. But the highlight of the trip, after all, was the scrumptious meal at the Heritage Tap. The best way I can explain it is to say it tasted just the way I would cook, if I could cook like that.
Curtis makes his own bread, a wholegrain loaf which he slices and I think grills slightly so it's warm and crunchy. Joanne and I shared an order of onion rings, then split two main courses, the Friday fish & chips special and an angel hair pasta dish. After the game, we went back for coffee and Manya's homemade pie. Strawberry rhubarb and a cheese pie, which was like a New York-style cheesecake, only a pie. The food is very simple, absolutely fresh, piping hot, and portioned just right. Curtis keeps running out of the kitchen to hug people and flash his thousand-watt smile. We were more than full and happy...we felt positively loved.
I have to say a word about the onion rings. Those who have had the bad fortune to dine out with me can attest that I am a real pain in the ass in a restaurant. I grumble about the selections, ask too many questions, and bitch about the preparation. I'm a vegetarian and can never find what I want on the menu. I have been on the trail of real onion rings--i.e., the kind my mother used to make--for at least fifteen years. Today, I finally found them.
Curtis's onion rings are beer-batter dipped, lightly coated with flour, and quickly fried. Not a trace of the dreaded cornmeal. They're pale gold and lacy, like an exquisite tempura, the likes of which you can rarely find even in a good Japanese restaurant.
On the walls of the Heritage Tap, all tastefully framed, are pictures of Eve and Ginger, a few bright posters, a shadowbox with Curtis's boxing trunks and other artifacts from his prizefighting days, a note from Steven Speilberg thanking him for his role in Amistad (that's another story), and a complimentary review from the Slater Trader. What's not there, and ought to be, is a giant gold medal for his first-rate home cooking.
If anyone wants to drive to Pawtucket, Rhode Island, any day of the week, for a plate of onion rings and a slice of cheese pie, I'm there.