Issue 29

Eulogy, Last Supper and Resurrection

Eulogy, Last Supper and Resurrection

When you hear about the death of a friend or acquaintance following a long illness, you wonder how you lost contact and did not know about the health problems. Had you known you would have visited, given support, schmoozed about old times; now all you have is lapsed remembrance or worse, guilt. The unexpected disappearance of restaurants leaves a vaguely similar void. They leave a wake of empty bays. The loss of leases and chefs are disastrous for independent restaurants. Owner retirements and death also take their toll.

Eulogy

Le Café de Paris, opened in December 1969 on 6th Street in South Omaha’s Little Italy, in the space of the former Italian Gardens, (fondly recalled earlier in these pages by Bill MacKenzie). Ivan Konsul from Yugoslavia via France and Washington DC, and chef Freddy Hiltbrunner soon made it Omaha’s highest rated restaurant. Its twelve tables were a destination for epicures across the nation. It was a special event venue – anniversary, birthdays, graduations, birthdays containing a zero or 5, visiting out of town gourmets, and farewell events. Tie and jacket were required and were provided to the uninitiated by the maitre de. Bigger purses ate their regularly, with brass plates identifying their tables. My first luxuriant meal, with out of town guests in 1975, was Boeuf Wellington, my last in 2000, a going away party for a coworker. Dirty martini, Hermitage Cote du Rhone wine and a sumptuous array of food ended with the expected financial reckoning.

Scott from Houston wrote on MyTravelGuide.com in May 2006, “An intimate, elegant little jewel with professional but friendly, attentive service in the European fashion, the way it should be delivered. Traditional French food that is prepared to perfection. Superb menu, fine French wines. Reservations and Jacket required, but well worth it. Yvonne and his fine staff will provide for and perhaps even anticipate your every need.”

Imagine my surprise when I wanted to enjoy Ivan’s cuisine to learn it had been closed for almost two years. In December 2006 Chef Freddy Hiltbrunner retired and subsequently reappeared as a consultant to Bellevue’s Confluence which closed in January 2010.

Last Supper

No too long ago, Passover and Easter were observed. The New York Times Magazine on February 14, 2010 (p. 6) printed a montage by Korean born Ji Lee, who lived in Sao Paulo and New York, that inserted the last supper into the 1856 painting, “Washington as Statesman at the Constitutional Convention,” by Junius Brutus Stearns. The well publicized closing of the popular Tavern on the Green in Central Park permitted devotees to partake in a memorable nostalgic last meal.

Attilio and Maria LaFata left Lentini, Sicily, with their three children in 1979 to come to Omaha, Nebraska. Attilio served for several years as a pastry chef at LaStrada (now Spezia). In 1990 he took over Daylight Donuts and opened Something Different, a mom and pop shop, in 1990 at 2304 N. 72nd Street at the south end of a stripmall, all within a few block of his him and church. He renamed it LaFata’s Caffe Italiano in 1993.

We were regular Friday dinner guests at LaFata’s. We would descend with anywhere from 4 to 10 guests, and play rubics cube rearranging tables in the 30 seat establishment. We watched as the family and friend wait staff changed, and as Attilio aged while his wife Maria stayed eternally youthful. Simple faire, tastefully prepared – rolls, butter, and on lucky Fridays, filet of sole, seasoned boiled potatoes, fresh vegetables. LaFata’s had no liquor license and we brought our own until the neighborhood got a bit antsy about it.

Altajoe reported on Tripadvisor.com in May 2005, “LaFata’s is a small family run Ostaria type restaurant located in a small strip mall. It looks like a deli, which I’m guessing it was. So, absolutely no atmosphere. This is no romantic place. The food is the closest to real Italian I’ve come upon in Omaha. The menu is not particularly extensive and the portions are smallish, but the blends of flavors is perfect. The clientel [sic] is often the traveler who has been to Italy on more than one occasion that recognizes beauty of simple Italian fare.”

Fortunately I had one last pleasant meal on closing night and got to say goodbye and best wishes to the owners and other diners. Today Caribbean Delight graces the location. My wife and I had goat there but it did not replace the pasta and marinara sauce in our heart.

Fred Garber writing on October 10, 2006 in qarrtsiluni an online literary magazine was not so fortunate, “I was in Omaha a few weeks ago and my favorite restaurant has closed. La Fata’s at 72 and Blondo….I will miss the place.”

Resurrection

When my wife Karen and I moved to Omaha in 1974 the city lacked Indian, Japanese sushi and Schezuan cuisine, and a bagel store. By 1980 Omaha had all four, and we transplants from London, Toronto and Los Angeles felt more at home.

Joel and Susan Brezack moved from Long Island to Omaha and opened the Bagel Bin at 119th and Pacific on the north end of a strip mall in 1980. They were the first tenants. Bagel Bin was Omaha’s only commercial retail kosher bagel bakery. It quickly became a destination to nosh and kibitz. Joel died in 2004 and Susan and two of her sons, David and Scott baked and boiled on.

The glass case contained water, egg, onion, salt, poppy seed, sesame seed and to make purists shudder raisin and cinnamon and blueberry bagels, accompanied by various cream cheese schmirs. Bagel Bin’s Friday production of challah, egg bread, made it a ritual stopping spot for Shabbat preparation.

The 2009-10 winter was unprecedented. The low temperature and volume of snow and ice led to a boom in road, sidewalk and roof snow removal. The winter elements blocked the flu leading to the ovens resulting in a three alarm fire on January 8, 2010.

Loyal patrons created their own electronic internet firestorm. By mid-February REBUILD Bagel Bin!!! Facebook had over 2700 visitors and countless words of bagel longing and kvetching about inferior alternative bagel suppliers. Patrons grieved the loss of bagels and the social meeting place. No doubt this encouragement will speed Susan’s motivation to reopen the three-decade-old business. Nearby Brother Sebastian’s reemerged from the ashes following a fire several years ago, so will Bagel Bin. Bagel Bin reconstruction is slated to start in April 2010.

Familiar restaurants are like friends. We visit, we enjoy, we lose, we miss, and we reminisce. Good memories, bon appétit, and keep looking for new friends.

Oliver Pollak

Oliver Pollak

Oliver B. Pollak taught history at the University of Nebraska at Omaha for 38 years. He earned his doctorate at UCLA and law degree at Creighton University. He has published ten books and hundreds of scholarly and popular articles on many subjects including food and wine.


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