At Your Service

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At Your Service

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THERE WAS A TIME WHEN waiters wore tuxedos, when they prepared Bananas Foster at your table, and when they cleaned the crumbs from white table linens between courses. At The Ship Lantern Inn, in Milton, they still do.

The restaurant, set in an Revolutionary War-era farmhouse on property John Foglia bought in 1924, was run as a boarding house for 10 years before Foglia turned it into a restaurant. An immigrant with a third-grade education, Foglia hailed from Boschetto, a small village in Emilia-Romagna, a region in north-central Italy renowned for its food. (Thank Emilia-Romagna for Parmigiano-Reggiano, prosciutto di Parma, and porcini mushrooms.) His sons Angelo and Johnny succeeded their father in the business and managed the restaurant together for years. Mike Foglia, Angelo’s son, stepped up to the helm after graduating from Cornell with a degree in hospitality management in 1977.

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There’s a painting of John Foglia in the entryway, and in many ways his spirit continues to infuse the atmosphere in the dining rooms. (“He was a very humble man and he was the one who gave me the passion for this business,” Mike admits.) Today, a restored red-and-green, retro-style neon sign on Route 9W beckons diners with “John Foglia/Ship Lantern Inn/Cuisine Continental Since 1925” and a red, white and blue neon sign of a Hudson River schooner hangs over the doorway. Family photographs and paintings of ships line the wood-paneled walls inside; two fireplaces provide warmth and a touch of romance. A display showcases four scale-model ships constructed by a well-known shipbuilder, Captain H. Percy Ashley, who gave them to John in exchange for room and board.

The setting and atmosphere of the rustic dining rooms are not merely painted on—enter the Ship Lantern and you enter the very definition of Old World hospitality. The service is formal, friendly and chivalrous, and much of the gracious ambiance comes from waiters George Pironi and Carlo Cadamagnani, who have been working at the restaurant for 57 years. (Not 57 years total—57 years each.) When they started working at the Ship Lantern in 1958, gas was 24 cents a gallon and the annual tuition at Harvard was $1,250.

The two men met a few days after they arrived from Italy and both started their long tenure at the restaurant as busboys. They now wear tuxes to work every day (they keep four in rotation at any given time) and both men love their jobs. “The challenge for me is to make the customer happy,” Pironi says. “If a customer does’t like something, they should tell us. Some customers don’t say anything—then they go home and send a letter. For me, it’s nothing to go into the kitchen and tell the chef, ‘Get me something else.’ There was once a guy who ran a lumberyard and he used to have the king crab legs. You know, king crab legs are salty, all the time, so I went to the chef and asked what we could do to take the salt away. He said, ‘I can boil them so the salt goes into the water and then I can sauté them in butter.’ So I said do that. And the man says, ‘These are the best king crab legs I have ever eaten.’ For me it was nice, because no one else can take care of this guy. People who no one wants to take care of because they are very, very hard—I know I can win them over in my own way. If I can make the customer happy, I get something back.”

Craig Claiborne’s 1959 review of the then-new Four Seasons restaurant in New York City comes to mind. He wrote, “It is a revelation to find a corps with the pride and enthusiasm that their occupation demands.” In other words, you rarely find service like this anymore. (Cadamagnani’s grandchildren love to be served by their grandpa in the restaurant, but, Pironi says, “When my family comes, I send them to Carlo—if I serve my wife here, she wants me to do the same at home.”)

Brando was like a farmer. He’d sit down at the table and he takes his coffee cup and he says, "Hey, gimme some coffee."

Over the years, many, many customers have passed by John Foglia’s portrait. One of the most memorable times, Pironi notes, was when Sidney Lumet’s 1960 film The Fugitive Kind was filming in the area. The stars—Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani and Joanne Woodward—came in for lunch all the time, Pironi recalls. “Brando,” he says, “was like a farmer. He’d sit down at the table and he takes his coffee cup and he says, ‘Hey, gimme some coffee.’ ” (Paul Newman, on the other hand, who sometimes accompanied Woodward, was more genteel.) More recently, Cardinal Timothy Michael Dolan, Archbishop of New York, came for lunch and took pictures with the staff. He was “lovely,” Pironi says.

Stories like these pepper the conversations at Ship Lantern. Another one is sparked by the photo in the bar of a mid-1930s Chef Boy-ar-dee sales convention: Soon after he immigrated to America, John Foglia was working in the Park Plaza Hotel in New York City, where he met another immigrant, Ettore (Hector) Boiardi. The men became friends but eventually went their separate ways. Boiardi opened a restaurant in Cleveland, where he developed a tomato sauce that became so popular people asked to purchase it to take home. This gave Boiardi the idea of selling prepackaged spaghetti dinners, and he called on Foglia, his old friend, who gave him $1,000, saying, “It’s not heck of a lot, but it’s all I can do.”

Boiardi’s original box included a can of meat or mushroom sauce, a can of grated cheese and a box of dry spaghetti. It was advertised as “Food for hungry people, for choosy people, for busy people,” and could be prepared in 12 minutes. Boiardi phoneticized his name to Chef Boy-ar-dee because not even his sales staff could pronounce his name correctly.

Shortly after the outbreak of World War II, General Dwight D. Eisenhower learned that the Chef Boy-ar-dee factory was producing spaghetti and meatballs, and he thought the canned meals would be good for the troops. Two sample batches were requisitioned—one for cadets at West Point and another for the pilots at Stewart Field (now Stewart Airport). The meals were prepared in the kitchens of The Ship Lantern and trucked to both places. (The West Point cadets heartily cheered Foglia after their meal.) The Chef Boy-ar-dee company went on to produce meals for the U.S. troops and the allies and became one of the first food processors to be awarded an Army-Navy E Award for its contribution to the war effort. (Postscript: John Foglia’s initial $1,000 investment in his friend’s company made him a millionaire.)

John Foglia was from a poor farming family in Italy, so it’s not surprising that he was attracted to the 30 acres of farmland surrounding the inn. Up until the 1980s, the pristine farm was known as “the little gem.” According to Mike, “There were fruit trees growing there that weren’t growing anywhere else in the world—my grandfather had brought limbs from overseas and grafted them onto trees here. There were sweet and sour cherries, Bosc, Bartlett and Anjou pears, plums and several kinds of apples. You had to spray them or they wouldn’t survive. It was an idyllic place to grow up. We hand-sickled around the trees and put nets around them to protect them from animals. The area around the spring-fed pond was manicured and so clean that you could fish and raft in it.” (The Department of Environmental Conservation eventually made the family take the trees down because they were sprayed and so close to the restaurant.)

Working with a local farmer, Mike has cleared and cultivated several acres around the property where they’re now growing organic heirloom tomatoes, lettuces, peppers, plums, cherries and other produce for the restaurant. An Adirondack-style barn is planned next to the pond for rustic weddings and catered events.

Chef Dana Calabrese has worked in the kitchen for almost 20 years. His menu features timeless classics like escargots Bourguignon and duck à l’orange alongside contemporary dishes like rack of lamb with chipotle, plum and roasted shallot sauce, and Thai chile shrimp with quinoa. A near-universal recommendation is his sublime sea bass, with beurre blanc and citrus sauce—not to be missed and never forgotten.

Times may change, but at The Ship Lantern Inn, a half-century hasn’t changed things much. At a recent anniversary dinner for longtime customers, one patron, whose wedding reception was held at the inn a half-century ago (at $8 a head), remarked to Mike after the event, “It was just as good as your grandpa’s. There’s just one thing—the price went up.”

Nonetheless, Mike, George, Carlo and Dana carry on John Foglia’s tradition of gracious hospitality and civility. One of the first instructions given to new hires typifies their approach to service: “Ladies first, of course.”

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