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Victor Lang Remembers 

No Sugar in the Pasta Sauce, Please!
 November 24, 2005 
  


Listen to Victor talk to  
Junior and Larry Puccetti   

At the intersection of 19th Street and Avenue L. stands a building 
that has looked the same to me since the 1940s.  That is when 
my Grandmother first took me into “Sonny’s Place” for some pasta 
with meat sauce.  I have been happily consuming the same dish 
in the ensuing years and can 
report there has been no change 
in how it’s made.

The big secret (or at least the part of the secret that owner Junior Puccetti will divulge) is that sugar does not belong in the pasta sauce.  I agree completely with him and find that the sauces on sale in stores are more sugar than anything else.  If you have not had this dish at Sonny’s, march forward and do so as quickly as you can.  Should you not be a pasta hound, then order the chicken vegetable soup which Junior makes fresh nearly every day. 

Lynda and Jim Guidry and I were in Sonny’s this past Tuesday for lunch  to take photos and do the oral interview with the Junior and son Larry for this essay.  I think most everyone on the Island is familiar with the “Behave or Be Gone” rule of the house---which does not permit profanity and the fact that in 1971 there was a foiled attempt to rob Sonny’s.  This robbery attempt could have cost Junior his life and happily it did not happen that way. 

I don’t know that very many will know the following story which I think is really about the best I’ve ever heard coming out of 19th and L.

After a long absence from Galveston, I returned here to live in 1995 and resumed my visits to Sonny’s Place upon my re-entry into Galveston.  It was necessary for me to reacquaint myself with many people I had not seen in years and meet a number who had moved to Galveston while I had been gone.  This was becoming a bit confusing for my weakening brain and I began to be very cautious about admitting I did or did not know a person I might see in local watering holes.

I was sitting at the bar in Sonny’s one fine day and noticed a very attractive lady standing by the freezer behind the bar where the always frosty mugs for the tap beer are kept.  The lady obviously worked in the place as she was washing, drying and putting mugs into the freezer.  I was sure I knew her but could not place her face or come up with a name.

The mistake I made was to lean over the bar and ask Larry who the lady was by the freezer.  “Oh, we don’t really know who she is.  She just turned up one day and asked for a job and she’s been here ever since.” 

Now, I should have recalled that Larry is not to be trusted about such things under any circumstances.  I continued to look at the lady and finally said to her “I know you but I just can’t recall your name.”  The lady replied  “It’s okay, Victor, I know you as well.  We went to Ball High together and my name is Melba Puccetti.  I’m Junior’s wife.” 

Larry Puccetti had dissolved into fits of laughter behind the bar and I was just extending my hand to wrap it around his throat as I said “You &$54#@$, that lady I asked you about is your mother and furthermore, she and I went to Ball High together.”

Puccetti replied “Oh, I know, and I went to Ball High School with you.”  I thought, “Aha, I’ve got him now.”  I said “Well, you look ugly enough to have been around in high school with me but the age on you doesn’t make that possible.”

Somewhat smugly, Larry told me the truth of the matter and, as much as I  hated doing so, I had to back down once the facts were known.  Seems like Melba and Junior had been going together when Melba and I were in school.  Melba’s mother decided to move from Galveston and Melba did not want to accompany her. Melba wanted to finish high school here in Galveston.  She and Junior checked into things with the powers-that-were in the school district at the time.  They learned that if they married and Melba continued to use her maiden name she could stay in school.  Further, if she became pregnant after her marriage and was not “showing” that would also be all well and good in those days.  Melba and Junior did marry, Melba did continue to use her maiden name and, before graduation, Larry was conceived but did not “show.”

Indeed, then, Melba, Larry and I did attend Ball High School together.  I have been plotting getting back at Larry for this one but I want to be sure and make it a really, really good one.  We shall see what the future brings.

In 1951, Lawrence Puccetti, Jr., known as “Junior”, took over the popular family-run establishment.  Sonny’s became home-away-from-home for University of Texas medical students though they had to obey the “no profanity” rule and some of the rowdies were occasionally ejected for their language.  For whatever reason, Thursday nights were UTMB night at Sonny’s.  So great was the affection of many classes of medical students for Junior that in 1996 two physicians, who were graduates of UTMB and former denizens of Sonny’s, established the Junior Puccetti Scholarship Fund at UTMB.  The fund continues to do well and help many medical students.

The Big Gun Battle of 1971 is commemorated with an inscribed plaque on the bar near a bullet hole. The episode is well worth recounting and was well described by Gini Fendler Brown and Max Rizley, Jr. in their book “Galveston---Lore, Legend & Downright Lies.”  With due credit to the authors I borrow from their text.

In the fall of 1971, three hijackers probably had the idea that a little "mom and pop" place would be an easy score.  It nearly cost the three amateurs their lives. 

It was a Friday night.  Three men were sitting at the bar and nineteen other customers were at tables and booths, most listening to a high school football game on the radio.  At about 9:30, three men walked in … one stood at the door… two confronted Junior at the bar.  Brandishing a .45, one robber ordered, “Give me all the money!”

“Take it easy,” Junior responded as he began emptying the cash register.  All the customers were on the floor as gunman number two demanded their wallets and purses. Junior said the first guy swung his pistol around and hit a napkin container on the bar, accidentally discharging and throwing a slug into the counter.  Pretending to be hit and falling to the floor, Junior’s son quickly pitched him a .38 revolver from the kitchen. Customer Edward Connelly, worried that Junior had been hit, stood up and was whacked over the head with a shotgun barrel.  Then the gunfight ensued.  One slug hit the beer spigot---there’s still a dent in it.

The robbers grabbed $125 and fled with Junior in hot pursuit, emptying his gun at them as they ran down the street.  Junior said he’d always worried about being robbed, although he never had been before---or since.  He said he would have given them the money but when the gun went off, well…!

My word of advice to punks of any age from anywhere would be that Galveston, in general, is really not where you want to be.  Try the big cities if you want to live long enough to enjoy being sentenced to a really long prison term. Galvestonians don’t take protecting their families and property lightly.          

Each Friday there is a specialty of the house---gumbo. One may order in two ways, shrimp alone or shrimp with very small, peeled crawfish also in the roux and the latter is a particular favorite of mine. 

While the Guidrys and I were stoking up on this past, there was quite an influx of locals.  Bill Levin came in, he being a former head of the University of Texas Medical Branch.  Bill has been coming to Sonny’s since he was a medical student here.  After Dr. Levin we saw Galveston County Sheriff Gean Leonard, accompanied by one of his deputies. There were already two detectives from the Galveston Police Department in the place.  And just for the record, all the law enforcement officers were in and out of the restaurant before you could say hello.  Paula Glenn, wife of dentist Dr.William Glenn, III and her mother, Delores were sitting toward the back of the room and a group living at the Palms on Seawall Boulevard was filling part of a side dining room and having a lively time of it. The place gave every sign of getting ready to fill to capacity and we were not yet well into the noon hour. 

I saw muffulettas in evidence around the room.  It’s a sandwich that originated in New Orleans.  The key ingredients are crusty Italian bread and olive salad.  Sonny’s are taken a bit further and layered with ham, salami, mortadella, provolone and Swiss cheese along with Grandmother Theresa’s olive salad.  Most couples tend to share half of one of these behemoths taking the other half home for later consumption.

Finally, in case a customer checking out at the front counter still has a bit of room left, there is always free candy for the taking.  Really healthy stuff, just like your doctor would want you to have several of---baby Tootsie Rolls and the like.

And---uh-oh---is that a quarter I see on the floor just in front of the cash register?  Best bend and reach for that before I go.

I can’t get to Sonny’s today since it’s Thanksgiving Day and they are closed.  I think  I better have a little something to tide me over until lunch.  I do have some of the chicken vegetable soup in the freezer, however, and I think I’ll thaw out a mug of that to hold body and soul together until turkey time.

Happy Holidays.

Victor

 

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