It’s Lovely Rice Pudding
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The rice is tender, but has a little snap. Suspended in silky custard, with a dusting of cinnamon on top, it’s not too sweet.
It’s just about right.
Dianne Calamunci started working at Johnny’s Lunch when she was a child. Her parents, Johnny and Minnie Colera, opened the restaurant in 1936. Dianne learned to make the rice pudding from Mrs. Ida Jim, and uses Mrs. Jim’s old kitchen spoons and bowls to measure and stir ingredients, and her large pot to make the rice pudding they still serve at the place on Fairmount Avenue in Jamestown. Mrs. Jim has been gone a long time, but her presence remains in the ultimate comfort food, that glorious rice pudding.
There is no written recipe.
Eighty years after it opened, Johnny’s Lunch is still going strong. It’s still in the family. Rob, the fourth generation to work at the place, serves the customers and helps his grandmother, Dianne, when her cellphone locks up.
Gust (short for Augusto) Calamunci, Rob’s grandfather and Dianne’s husband, is in the kitchen preparing the sauce that makes the hot dogs and burgers so distinctive. Johnny’s sauce is a sort of chili sauce without beans, and was perfected by Johnny and Minnie early on. It bubbles in a steel cauldron, gallons of the stuff, and the pungent, meaty smell of it escapes and wafts through the dining room when the lid opens.
This recipe is secret, too.
While the sauce simmers, Gust washes dishes, bending his head over well-used pots and pans at the sink. Wearing a white apron over his blue shirt and a cap on his head, the steam from the spigot fogs his glasses.
Gust has his own rituals with the pots and pans. Sacred rituals. No one besides Gust is allowed to wash the chili pots.
The hot dogs – Texas Hots in Johnny’s vernacular – are grilled, and then tenderized before they are tucked into warm buns with mustard, sauce and onions. The tenderizing process involves running each hot dog through a special machine that makes tiny slits in the skin.
“That way, they absorb the sauce,” Dianne explained. “But my dad used to say it put air in them, too, so people would eat more.”
For eight decades, young people and families have been gravitating to Johnny’s for a good, inexpensive meal. In the early 1980s, a local team from the high school formed the “Gust Club.” They gathered for eating contests, and awarded Gust with a signed baseball bat that is displayed prominently on the wall, along with pictures, plaques, a flag, newspaper articles and other memorabilia that has accumulated in the restaurant’s 80-year history.
“We get about a thousand customers a week,” Dianne said. “And go through about 23 gallon-sized tubs of ice cream for the milk shakes.”
Many of the customers are regular patrons. Kids returning home from college and people returning to visit relatives stop at Johnny’s to have a bite to eat and a bit of nostalgia before they go see their parents or loved ones.
For them, Johnny’s is a touchstone of home.
Fans on Facebook capture the essence of how people feel about Johnny’s Lunch:
“Deb, your mom & dad’s favorite place back in the 50s…XO”
“Lunch with the fam! No trips complete without it…”
“Johnny’s Lunch is one way Maynard’s show love…”
“Lots of people come in with a history,” Dianne says. “They’ll tell me this is where they had their first date, or that they met here years ago.”
That history sometimes plays out in “to-go” orders. People grab to-go orders to start their family vacations. Like turkey for Thanksgiving, it’s not a proper family gathering without Johnny’s, even when the scent of the sauce lingers in the car’s upholstery.
Other people take something of Johnny’s back home at the end of the season.
“One old woman used to fill up a vanity case with hot dogs every year,” Dianne said. “Remember vanity cases? For makeup? We’d pack the sauce separately, and she’d take the food to her grandkids in Arizona on the plane. She sent me pictures.”
The crew at Johnny’s is planning a celebration for their 80th anniversary, on Flag Day, June 14th. Hot dogs, French fries, pop and other menu items will be available for 80 cents. The event will be dedicated to Jim Roselle, the beloved radio announcer at WJTN Radio in Jamestown, who died last month. Roselle broadcast his show from Johnny’s for other events, including their 50th anniversary. A picture from that day, 30 years ago, is on a wall over one of the booths. Dianne is hoping that WJTN’s Dennis Webster, a legend in his own right, can take Jim’s place for the celebration to carry on the tradition.
By running the restaurant her parents started so long ago, Dianne Calamunci is immersed in tradition.
“Here’s my email address,” she said. “The numbers are the 4-digit phone number for Johnny’s Lunch when it was located in Brooklyn Square, downtown.
“Because of this place,” she continued, “they’re always with me. My parents are always with me. Do you know what I mean?”
Nostalgia, along with the food, is served up well at Johnny’s Lunch. Food is never just about food, of course. The simple act of eating a well-cooked hot dog smothered in sauce represents home and family to generations of people around Chautauqua Lake. And a bite of rice pudding can throw people back to their own childhoods, back into their grandparents’ kitchens, creating a strong and poignant reminder of things long past.
The rituals and beloved objects that make up our lives as well as the life of the community can be found at Johnny’s.
I’ll take mine with mustard and sauce, light on the onions.