The Father of Peppino

Photo by Jack GouldThis is the season for stories about the redemption of weary, hungry travelers who arrive after dark in a strange land to find no room at the inn. Our story happened last summer, so we saved it until now. Depending on whether you can envision Lake Forest as the Bethlehem of Orange County, the scenario is not totally unlike the night Mary and Joseph walked a donkey into the first Christmas Eve.

We had journeyed from afar—perhaps you've heard of Downey?—on a hot August night: Darls and I, who, like Mary and Joseph, are still working out the, uhhh, biblical sense of our situation, along with Kent, who is the first to admit he can be somewhat of an ass. We had made a pilgrimage to witness the Dibs at the Gypsy Lounge. It was a good show, but it began too early to eat first and too late to get anything good after, even though the Dibs didn't encore, a fact that still rankles.

Anyway, we eventually found ourselves huddled in the parking lot, our appetites mocked by the darkened IHOP at one end of the strip mall, our spirits roiling like the sleazy beats sloshing from Captain Creem's strip joint at the other. And it was only 10:30 p.m.

Then someone noticed there was still lots of life—and food!—inside Peppino's. Through the glass, an Al Martino sound-alike was strolling and singing to diners. But when we tried the door, it was locked. And when a kindly old gentleman in an apron responded to our knocks, it was to apologize and explain—”We're closed,” he said gently—and then to apologize again when he admitted he could think of no other places to eat in Lake Forest.

Trudging sadly and hungrily away, we had nearly reached our car when we heard the old man's voice behind us. “Wait! Wait! What was I thinking?” he shouted in a voice drenched with old-country accent and a mob-movie rasp. “You are hungry! This is a restaurant! What am I thinking? Of course you may come in and eat! This is why we are here!”

Now we were apologizing, concerned about imposing, imagining the aggravation of the restaurant's staff on seeing three new diners arrive after-hours. But the old man insisted. And the staff actually smiled when he unlocked the door and ushered us in.

“I am Carlo, the father of Peppino,” he said, referring to Joseph Moscatiello, owner of this restaurant and six others in the Orange County chain. “His mama and I named him Joseph, but we called him Peppino. It means 'Little Boy.' But I am still his father, and I am going to feed you.”

The kitchen was closed.

“But we can make you sandwiches,” suggested Carlo. “You want sandwiches? Okay, sit down. We'll make you something good. You must have something to drink. Yes, sit down, and we will get you something to drink.”

Carlo brought water and soft drinks, hung around a few minutes to make small talk, and then went to the kitchen and returned with three baskets bulging with huge rolls of soft bread layered with fresh meats, cheeses, peppers and onions.

“You like these?” he asked. “They're okay?”

Yes, we said.

“You eat, then,” he ordered.

We did.

When we had finished, Carlo returned.

“The sandwiches, they were good?” he asked. “You had enough? You want more?”

Yes, we said—well, no. We were still kind of flustered. What we meant was, yes, the sandwiches were good—they were great—and, no, we wanted no more.

Peppino's was almost empty. Some of the lights were off. Now the staff did look as though they wanted to leave. We asked for a check.

“No, no, there is no bill,” said Carlo. “The food was good? You are hungry no more? Then that is enough. You go home tonight, but someday you come back to Peppino's. Okay?”

We didn't know what to say. So we said thank you. We said thank you very much.

Carlo smiled. “I try, you know?” he said. “People need something, I cannot always help. But I always try to help. And sometimes, I can.”

Peppino's Italian Family Restaurant, located at 23600 Rockfield Blvd., Lake Forest, is open Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. (949) 951-2611. Full bar. Dinner for two, $30, food only. All major credit cards accepted.

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