Aunt Bella’s and Valentine’s Day – perfect together

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This Valentine’s Day, my wife, Wendy and I went to Aunt Bella’s restaurant on Marathon Parkway in Little Neck. The restaurant originally opened in 1978. I discovered it in 1983 from a work colleague who lived in Forest Hills. Upon walking into Bella’s, we were meet by Danny — the head waiter and unofficial host. He sat us at our favorite table in the back corner facing the kitchen. I have always enjoyed watching the cooks at work. It is like going to the opera. The head chef waved and before I even ordered, proceeded to prepare my favorite appetizer of sauteed sweet peppers in olive oil, no garlic. The owner Richie took time out and stopped at our table. We exchanged greetings and began to reminisce about our old Little Neck neighborhood.

I have lived in the neighborhood since the 1960′s. My very first job was at McDonald’s on the corner of Northern Blvd. and Marathon Parkway. In those days, it was a simple menu of hamburgers, fries and milk shakes. The Big Mac was the new item of the day.

I was amazed to learn from Richie I had become one of the top ten longest continuous customers. Upon my first visit in 1983, I was sold on the menu. Chicken Cutlet Parmigiana, Garlic Bread, Salad and Pasta became my standard. Years later, I would switch to Sauteed Chicken with Peppers and Sun dried Tomatoes. Wendy always seems to enjoy ordering the Shrimp Scampi over pasta. During my bachelor days on cold winter nights I would phone in for a delivery “care package.” Back then my appetite could handle an order of baked ziti as an appetizer followed by a Chicken Cutlet Parm with a side salad, garlic bread and pasta. I was so grateful for the delivery person that I would always be sure to leave him with a good tip. I always wondered he might be stopping by my house for the first delivery since the food always arrived piping hot.

Richie and I spent a good twenty minutes on a trip down memory lane comparing notes on all the stores and owners who had come and gone. Even with many loyal customers growing older, moving away or sadly succumbing to old age, Bella’s held on. Business is still so good that there are sometimes several couples standing at the door waiting for a table on a busy weekend evening. The wait is never long. New generations of customers and neighbors have replaced those lost. They quickly learned about the great food at reasonable prices that are accompanied by the personal attention of the staff. Once hooked, they became regulars. Many loyal customers who may have moved would still try and come back. It was not out of the ordinary to see neighbors recognizing neighbors while dining.

Aunt Bella’s has a wide variety of dinner entries to accompany your choice of salad, sauteed vegetable or pasta. There are also incredible lunch specials for $7.95 on weekdays. Whenever home on weekdays, I always stop by for a lunch special. Of course, I still order my sauteed pepper ala cart.

We also frequent Aunt Bella’s for New Year’s Eve and other special holidays. Even when there is a Special limited menu (it is the only way for any restaurant to keep up with the high turnover rate of customers) for New Year’s Eve or Valentine’s Day, it is well worth the extra dollar or two for your meal. Why travel into Manhattan for some fancy upscale restaurant where you are a total stranger. You can obtain a better tastier meal for far less.

Eating at Aunt Bella’s is like dining with family. They sometimes run a 10% off coupon in one of the Queens Weekly newspapers. We end up passing on most of the savings to the tip.

On cold winter nights, hot summer days or when it is my night to cook we walk a few blocks over to Aunt Bella’s Over time, we have gotten to know many of the staff on a first name basis. Frequently, the portions have been so generous, that we have had a doggy bag for the next day.

Two years ago, our good friend and neighborhood icon Sal, owner of Sal’s Pizzeria – decided to retire. I had no idea that Richie was a good friend of Sal’s. Many people don’t realize how knowledgeable Sal is about life, business, government and politics. We always urged him to run for public office, but he had a full-time job to worry about. I have always told Richie he should write a newspaper article about how difficult it is for a independent small business owner to survive today between competition and incredibly excessive government regulations.

Walking down Northern Boulevard in the evenings, my wife and I see fewer people dining out and shopping, except on weekends. Years ago, we would never see any vacant storefronts. Today, there are many.

In these difficult economic times, it is especially important to patronize our remaining local neighborhood businesses. My wife and I along with many Great Neck neighbors are regular patrons of the local stores in neighboring Little Neck on Northern Boulevard from Glenwood Street at the City Line to Marathon Parkway. Why drive and waste time? There are so many great businesses. Leave your car in the driveway, save some gas, say hello to neighbors and take a walk around the neighborhood to get some exercise. Talk a quick turn on to Marathon Parkway. It is a short two block walk south off of Northern Blvd. to Aunt Bella’s. You’ll be glad you did.

We don’t mind occasionally paying a little more to help Aunt Bella’s and our other local stores survive. Don’t forget your cook and server at your favorite local neighborhood restaurant. We try to tip 20 percent against the total bill including taxes. If it is an odd amount, round up to the next dollar. If you can afford to eat out, you can afford an extra dollar tip. When ordering take out, don’t forget to leave a dollar or two for the waiter or cook. Trust us, it is appreciated.

Remember the people who work at Aunt Bella’s are our neighbors. They work long hours, pay taxes and provide local employment. If we don’t patronize our local community stores and restaurants to shop and eat, they don’t eat either. This helps keep our neighbors employed and the local economy growing.

As part of our annual yearly Christmas/Hanukkah celebration, we always drop off a box of cookies from Joe Siciliano’s Bayside Bakery to our friends at Aunt Bella’s, along with others who treat us like family all year long. It is our way of saying thank you.