On a quiet residential street of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Bamonte’s Italian restaurant celebrates 118 years and four generations of seamless family transition. Bamonte’s phone rings non-stop. Most Friday afternoons, the restaurant refuses reservations for the weekend. Its 25 tables are filled, thanks in part to John “Bamonte.” He allows this journalist to ask him questions over the next two hours while he writes down names in a leather-bound reservations book.
Despite claiming the last name of the restaurant, John is not a Bamonte by blood. He was married into the family for 25 years, took many trips to Southern Italy, then divorced, but stayed on, accumulating 53 years of service as barman and now gatekeeper. He says (with a beautiful Brooklynese accent) that business was good even before The Sopranos was filmed on-site.
Sitting on a stool near the entrance of Bamonte’s, he answers phones and reads James Patterson mysteries. His cane dangles on a chair next to him. He watches everyone who comes in and out and every car that passes without turning his head. His supreme loyalty protects the restaurant from the volatility of human nature and time.
After five attempts to retire and 77 years of age, John knows this more than anything else: he is valuable.
He’s from Brooklyn, that’s all
JB: I have nothing to do with the restaurant, I just work here. I’ll just give you my name. My name is John. That’s all.
AN: And how old are you, if I can ask? And where did you grow up?
JB: I was just 77. This neighborhood.
AN: Do you call this East Williamsburg or Williamsburg?
JB: When I was a kid, there was no Williamsburg. There was no Greenpoint. There was just Brooklyn. It got to be called Williamsburg when the real estate started to change.
AN: How long have you worked here at Bamonte’s?
JB: I’ve been working here since 1966. 53 years ago. When Lisa’s [Lisa Bamonte, Manager of the Restaurant] grandfather died, I was going out with her aunt. The father died, and they needed help. That’s how I started to work here. And the rest is history.
AN: When you look in the dining room what memory comes to mind first?
JB: When I started working here, I started working day and night. 15 hours a day. That’s what I look at. I don’t look at the dining room, I look at a lot of work.
Getting a Table at Bamonte’s
AN: What’s your reservation system like?
JB: We have a diagram of up to 25 tables. We try to fill up every table twice. Now, tomorrow morning [Saturday], I’ll be refusing a lot of tables because we don’t have the room. You can only fit so many people.
AN: When is a good time to come eat?
JB: Don’t come on a Saturday. Come during the week. Night.
AN: How quickly do you try to turn over a table?
JB: Well, for four people, we allow for two hours. Five people we allow for two-and-a-half hours.
AN: Is that enough time for parties?
JB: That’s plenty of time! What do you want to do?
[Phone rings interrupting the conversation as John answers it.]
JB: Bamonte! You want a reservation for tomorrow?… What about it?… Well, you come tomorrow night, there’ll be a hostess… Tell the hostess. She’ll take care of that. Maybe you just go into the bathroom, and you tell the hostess… They’ll take care of it… All I can do is put “HB” next to your name. That’s about all… I’ll take care of it. Alright, I see… I see… [sighs] ahhh.
AN: HB– Happy birthday?
JB: Yeah. She wants us to sing “Happy Birthday John”.
Bamonte’s, not a “baloney” business
AN: Have there always been white tablecloths?
JB: Always the same. Nothing’s changed.
AN: It’s hard not to change. Isn’t it?
JB: Why change? There’s nothing wrong, you know the expression? If it’s not broke.
AN: … Don’t fix it
JB: … Got a good business.
AN: How do you think Italian values have made the business strong?
JB: Italian values? What values?! When you have a business like this: quality cooking, quality food… What do you change?! You don’t change at all.
AN: How would you describe this place as a restaurant? Some of your regulars, how many years have they been coming?
JB: We’re just a plain, plain restaurant with nothing fancy. We don’t want a coat check, valet parking. We don’t want to get like that. That’s baloney that kinda business. We have people coming here a long time. We have children of people who have been coming.
AN: So when there’s a new employee do you help train them?
JB: No, Lisa’s the boss. She hires. We don’t turn over help that much. Most of the people that have been working here have been working here quite a while.
AN: What’s the secret to that, do you think?
JB: Well, they’re satisfied with the job. They earn good. What more could you say?
AN: How do you know if you’re offering quality service at a restaurant?
JB: Well, there’s always somebody from the family here at night. Lisa has two sisters, and they watch everything that goes on. The father taught them what to watch, what to look for. If somebody complains about the service, we look into it. You gotta keep an eye on everything in this business.
He almost invited Frank Sinatra to Bamonte’s
AN: Were there any famous people you used to tend bar for?
AN: Did any famous people come in that you made martinis for?
AN: Frank Sinatra?
JB: Nah! Frank Sinatra never came to Brooklyn. I met Frank Sinatra twice in the city. First time I met him, it was just a handshake. He was with Barbara. The second time I met him, we sat down, and I talked to him a bit and told him I worked at a restaurant in Brooklyn. He says, “You know something? I never went to Brooklyn.” He came from Jersey, Hoboken. So, I didn’t want to turn around and tell him “Why don’t you come to Brooklyn? I’ll give you a nice feel and a restaurant.” And then I told myself, why even get into it?
AN: What was Frank Sinatra like? Well-dressed?
JB: Nice. Very pleasant. Very pleasant to talk to. Oh yeah, impeccable. But he wasn’t… he was just lucky. He had a great voice. That’s all he was. Lucky he had a great voice. His great voice got him into movies. Just a lucky guy. Without a great voice, he might’ve been driving a truck somewhere.
The Sopranos made no difference on the business
AN: The restaurant has had a lot of coverage…
JB: Lately. We’ve been in a lot of TV shows, a couple of movies. You know why? The place has got character. A lot of character. Those two telephone booths have been seen around the world. You know that?
JB: We were in four different years of The Sopranos. And The Sopranos has been seen all around the world. The four years they were here, the guy who played Tony Soprano [James Gandolfini] was in the telephone booth, and they filmed him, so those phone booths have been seen around the world.
AN: Did you like him? Was he a nice guy?
JB: Oh! He was a regular guy. Came from the streets. Got lucky. Made a few movies like that… The Sopranos. It’s a shame he died so young.
AN: Were you worried The Sopranos was going to make this place seem like a mafia restaurant?
JB: No. No they wanted to use the place. It didn’t matter.
AN: Who thought it would be the phone booths! It wasn’t the food?
JB: No. The man who created the Sopranos was half-Italian. His name was David Chase. He was very good. He came here the first time, and said, “I gotta use this place.” He made–you know– he made The Sopranos.
AN: Was David Chase a nice guy?
JB: Oh, he’s a wonderful man. Believe it or not, he wanted to be a doo-wop singer. He made a fortune for himself and for the people involved. And made a fortune for HBO. Actually, The Sopranos put HBO on the map.
AN: Did you make him a martini or anything?
JB: No. When they filmed here, nobody from the restaurant could be in here, only the people working on the thing. They stressed their privacy from week to week. They didn’t want nobody knowing what it was going to be about. That was one of the great things about it.
AN: How did you keep people out of the restaurant? You told them it was closed?
JB: The place was closed. When we couldn’t be in here ourselves! He wanted whatever was being shot to be seen on television for the first time. Anybody that worked had to keep secrecy.
AN: Did you like keeping a secret? What did your customers think?
JB: I didn’t care. Didn’t matter to me. We’re shooting The Sopranos here.
AN: Did that help the business?
JB: No, business didn’t need help. [laughs] We didn’t need any help.
AN: Why do people come here?
JB: We’re a good restaurant. Honest restaurant, quality food, quality service. Go to the city you pay double what you pay here.