In 1977, Pete Sr. bought Wally’s, the bar down the street from his deli, and made just three changes — he added stools to the standing-only bar, he lifted the “men only” rule, and he named the bar after himself and his wife, Henrietta, whom everyone called Chickie. His brother George would run the place, along with Pete Sr.’s oldest son Pete, who had taken a cooking class at Northeast High because it sounded easy. (It turned out to be a twice-a-day, double-period French culinary monster.)
So there’s Pete the next year, in the dead of the winter, with no crabs to sell, a bunch of leftover seafood seasoning, and a couple guys he was bribing with free beer just to keep him company after midnight. Those late-night regulars became a focus group for his kitchen experiments, most of which were disasters, save for one — seasoned french fries. Twenty-one-year-old Pete trademarked — and later patented — his creation, but his old man wasn’t sold. “Look at Big Shot over there,” Pete Sr. would say of his son. “He’s reinventing the french fry.”
When Pete’s father died in 1987, it was Chickie who encouraged Pete to run with his fries and whatever else he wanted to try. The heart of the Ciarrocchi family was the kitchen, and that’s where Chickie would hold court. She lived the role of the traditional Italian mother, and when she died, Pete, then 31, and his 21-year-old brother, Tom, felt like their world had collapsed on them. Both were still living at home, and suddenly, no one was there to leave a plate of macaronis for Pete when he’d come home from the bar at 4 a.m. Then after work one night, Pete found leftover pasta in the kitchen, covered with Chickie’s red sauce, and immediately woke up his brother.
“I can’t believe you found Mommy’s gravy in the freezer!”
“I made it,” Tom replied, half asleep.
“Get out of here!”
“No, you didn’t,” Pete said. “That’s not funny.”
“Then don’t eat my food!”
Some colorful language and a near-fistfight followed, but Pete still wasn’t convinced. Chickie didn’t leave behind a single recipe. How had his kid brother, who had never cooked a thing in his life, made Mom’s gravy? A few days later, Pete found eggplant parmigiana waiting for him, just the way Chickie made it. Again, he roused his brother from slumber.
“You make this eggplant parm?”
“You’re cooking at the bar tomorrow. Be there at 4 p.m.”
In what could have been dark, hopeless days, Pete Ciarrocchi found opportunity. He had his chef, and nothing holding him back. Pete was ready to prove his old man wrong and see what he could do with those crab fries of his.