Some say it’s taboo to talk politics at the dinner table, but I tend to disagree. What better place to get to know our elected officials than at their favorite restaurants? In my first installment of ‘Politics at the Dinner Table,’ I set out to dine with six honorable State Representatives.
Representatives Jim O’Day and John Mahoney
Representatives Jim O’Day and John Mahoney are pondering dessert. “What do you think of the mousse?” O’Day asks.
“It’s a big brown animal with antlers,” responds Mahoney. He never skips a beat.
There’s actually not much pondering going on. They will decidedly get dessert, it’s just a matter of which one. We eventually buckle down and order all three.
People are always trying to feed these two. O’Day says that he could probably eat at an event everyday if he chose to. But, he doesn’t; he’s watching his caloric intake.
In order to lure them to dinner, I have agreed to meet at Mare E Monti where everything from the pasta to the dessert gets made from scratch daily. The two men often find themselves doing business over a hot meal. This is their favorite spot.
O’Day’s background as a social worker means that he is uniquely attuned to the needs of children living in central Massachusetts. Likewise, Mahoney has remained a staunch supporter of public education throughout his career. This duo understands the importance of building family and community. Where better to start than the dinner table?
Mahoney insists on introducing me to the owner of Mari E Monti. He praises her family’s persistence in keeping 19 Wall Street alive and points to her childhood photo on the wall like a proud father. “The homemade food – there’s nothing like it!” Mahoney exclaims.
He has an impressive appetite. During our meal alone, Mahoney downs two baskets of bread, an order of shrimp cocktail, a house salad, the Vitello Vincenzo over Pappardella, an almond tort, and two cappuccinos. At one point when Mahoney misplaces his glasses, O’Day leans over his Spaghetti Alle Vongole and says very seriously, “He might have eaten them.”
These guys can take a joke. It’s a good thing because they both like to dish them out. O’Day chuckles and says, “Sometimes I feel like we’re an old married couple.”
Mahoney flags down the waitress for another basket of bread.
Representatives Mary Keefe and Dan Donahue
Representative Mary Keefe is running a bit behind schedule. To be fair, as a member of the legislature, she ostensibly has more important obligations on her plate than eating hot dogs with me on a Friday afternoon. But, Keefe is happy to oblige because she loves “Coney’s” and she cares a great deal about drawing attention to urban agriculture. She, herself, keeps bees in downtown Worcester.
Keef’s delay, for which she is all apologies, allows her colleague, Representative Dan Donahue to wax poetic for sixty minutes about four generations of Donahue men who have eaten at Coney Island. He is unabashedly giddy about this place; he loves that nothing has changed at 158 Southbridge Street since he was a kid.
Representative Donahue insists that I order my hotdog “up,” with all of the fixings. He likes them with mustard. He’s actually a little bashful about that fact, insisting, “Everyone always says I’m SO Worcester except for the fact that I don’t order my hotdogs ‘up.’”
I ask him, “When was the last time you ate here?” He tells me he had Coney Island for lunch yesterday.
“I’ve been coming here with my grandpa for as long as I’ve been alive. My grandpa used to shine shoes here. He’d bring me here after my baseball games and take the ’back roads’ so he could tell me about the neighborhood,” Donahue explains.
Donahue values his work with the Mass Food Trust aiming to alleviate food deserts in his district. He wants his constituents to have access to healthy food. He is optimistic about the impact of urban farming in Worcester, noting accomplishments of the Regional Environmental Council.
When Keefe walks through the door, I thank her for driving from Boston to meet us. She insists it is her pleasure, saying, “We have colleagues from the State House who stop here whenever they are anywhere near Worcester.” She tells us that Coney Island’s 100th anniversary is quickly approaching.
“New restaurants try to recreate this. But, who can recreate that?” she asks, pointing to the carvings in the booth behind Donahue’s head.
I ask Keefe if she goes out to eat often, but she shakes her head. “I love to cook at home. I really like to look in my fridge and put something together. I always let it get down to the bones before I go grocery shopping,” she says. Clearly, Keefe is a problem solver.
Keefe’s annual fundraiser at Coney Island is just a few weeks away. Donahue notes that it falls on his birthday every year, and she never forgets to present him with a cake. I have a feeling he’ll be back at Coney Island before then.
Representatives Kate Campanale and Dave Muradian
Representative Kate Campanale is surprised when the bartender remembers her name and favorite drink. She has only been to the restaurant for a handful of events since she was sworn in two years ago, but the caliber of guest relations at Nuovo is nothing short of dialed in. My impression of this is further cemented when Representative Dave Muradian arrives and owners, Loretta and Alex, both appear to welcome him with a hug.
At first, I suspect that Nuovo’s warm reception might be a sales pitch; after all, the Republican Party is shopping for a state convention venue. But, it turns out the connection runs much deeper than that. Muradian and his wife had their rehearsal dinner at Nuovo and it’s pretty much the only place he eats outside of his district.
As for Campanale, she’s pleased to actually enjoy her dinner for once. “There’s food at nearly every event, but I never remember to eat. Most nights I end up just having cheese and crackers when I get home,” she says.
We order the antipasto and the calamari. Muradian tells me about the boxed garden on his porch in Grafton where he grows peppers and tomatoes. Muradian turns the question on Campanale, asking if she grows anything at home. “Actually, I planted strawberries last night,” she informs us.
“Look at you, Representative! A green thumb!” Muradian says, laughing.
Muradian’s passion for agriculture is no joke. He is a huge supporter of the Community Harvest Project, an organization that has been run by the Abbott family of North Grafton since the 1970’s. CHP’s annual harvest equates to 1.2 million servings dispersed throughout Worcester County. They draw over 9,900 volunteers each year including corporate groups and schools. “A lot of the young visitors don’t know where their food comes from,” Muradian says. He is adamant that I attend Plantapalooza in May to receive my own free tomato plant from CHP. I give him my word.
Campanale is also an advocate of unique agricultural initiatives. She cites Dismas Family Farm, a transitional program for ex-offenders as a beneficial initiative in the area.
When entrees arrive, Chicken Marsala for Campanale and Pot Roast for Muradian, I relay the story of my previous dinner with Representatives O’Day and Mahoney. I ask about dynamics between the parties.
“Our motto is: ‘Don’t burn down the barn,’” Muradian says.
“We all want to work together for the betterment of our districts,” adds Campanale.
As if to illustrate, Muradian holds out his plate, “Pot Roast, anyone?”