That's Italian!

"This is as close as you'll find to an Italian deli in New York out here."

Gesturing to glass cases gloriously piled full of dried sausages, Italian salads, Italian desserts, Italian everything, Patrick Lubrano says, "You can't find stuff like this out here. I brought my mother-in-law in here, and she spent $300. It's the closest to home I'm going to find."

He looks and sounds just like the speaker of these words should. A burly Italian-American man with a shaved pate and a graying mustache, his voice is hoarse, thickly accented to his native Brooklyn. He might have stepped, whole and breathing, out of a Martin Scorsese movie.

But this isn't Brooklyn. Lubrano moved to Arizona a couple of years ago, and now works in security at America West Arena.

He has met me for lunch at DeFalco's Grocery and Deli, a bountiful Italian-food emporium that resides unobtrusively in the Arizona Design Center at 68th Street and Thomas in Scottsdale. It's his choice for the authentic good stuff here in the Valley.

I order what he does -- a sub with prosciutto, mozzarella and roasted red peppers. He suggests we split a mushroom salad, but the clerk of the busy deli informs us that they're out, so we settle for a Greek salad. We sit down to wait for it, and Lubrano the Brooklyn expatriate tells me his stories.

While he's never been in a Scorsese film, he does indeed have a show-business background. If you were born in this country before, say, 1968, you've seen him, though you certainly wouldn't recognize him now. One of five sons of a longshoreman father and a mother who worked for St. Vincent's Home for Retarded Children, Lubrano was a successful veteran actor before he was a teenager.

"In 1972, I got an interview for a commercial, and my dad was the kind of person, he brought the whole neighborhood on this interview. He wanted one of us to get it. It didn't matter who, but one of these Italian kids was going to get the part in this commercial! He was very forceful. He knew somebody who worked for an agency, and happened to mention they were casting. A good friend of mine, Phillip Russo, I grew up with him, he was the stand-in, just in case I got sick. But I got the part, I guess by luck."

Lubrano played the cute, wide-eyed son in the Ragú spaghetti sauce commercial whose skeptical father is won over when he tastes the sauce from a jar and declares, "That's Italian!" After the ad aired, Lubrano claims, he was forever known in the streets of Red Hook as "Pattie Ragú."

Lubrano recalls the shoot. "They brought me to a remote house in Paterson, New Jersey, and we filmed for 15 hours. I was never so sick of spaghetti as I was at the end of that day. We did 150 takes, because the guy who was doing the commercial as my dad couldn't just say, 'That's Italian.' He'd go, 'That's Eye-talian!' 'That's Ee-talian!' Overacting, or whatever."

Our food arrives, and it's excellent. The sandwiches are sublime -- wonderfully dry, ungreasy prosciutto and astringent peppers offset by moist, fresh, water-soaked mozzarella. Lubrano gives a told-you-so nod when he sees my reaction to it. "I didn't get this size for nothing," he says.

We eat, and he continues the saga of Pattie Ragú. "I got an agent and a manager, and then you have to join Screen Actors Guild, and I would go on these interviews monthly, with my mother. We'd take the M Train into Manhattan, and take two, three trains sometimes to get to some agency where I had a casting call."

Lubrano found plenty of work. "I did commercials for Peppermint Patties candy, Contact Junior, Kodak, Chemical Bank, and one for Gift America. Then a real good one was Arrid Solid Stick-Ups."

The money he made wasn't a luxury. His father had been sick since Lubrano was 6, so the money often helped his mother keep the house afloat as she raised five boys almost on her own. Both of Lubrano's parents were dead by the time he was 18. By then, he had long since drifted out of acting -- he was past kid roles, and his parents' illnesses necessitated a steady income -- and school. "I left after the eighth grade. By the time I was 14, I was driving a Pepsi truck in East New York." (He later got a GED, however, and since moving to the Valley has completed a year, part-time, at Mesa Community College.)

He wound up back in show business, though not on the performing side, working as a stage hand at the Metropolitan Opera. "I met Domingo and Pavarotti and Beverly Sills, you know, standing right next to them."

His favorite memory of the Met is of the day when "I saw a man walking down the hallway and I said, 'God, he looks familiar.' It was Dom DeLuise. He was playing a small part of the jailkeeper in Fledermaus. And his leg was hurting at the time, so my boss said, 'Pat, why don't you go walk with him, and help him around a little bit?' And we started talking about Italian food. He says, 'Ah, I can't find any decent food here in Manhattan.' I said, 'I'll tell you what. I'll have my brother cook for you. My brother and I will come back here before you go on and have dinner.' And he agreed!"

Lubrano's brother brought DeLuise a tray of macaroni, meatballs and sausage, and a fresh roll of Italian bread. "The three of us sat in his dressing room and ate. He wouldn't even let the makeup people come near him until he was finished."

One way or another, food plays a major role in all of Lubrano's yarns. I ask him, for instance, how he met his wife. He was working as a bodyguard in San Francisco, had come home for his brother Anthony's wedding and noticed her in JFK Airport as he waited for the flight back to California. She ended up in the seat behind him.

"At the time I had lost 120 pounds. And the stewardess was bringing us our food. I was so hungry, and I asked the lady, 'Is this an hors d'oeuvre?' and she said, 'No, that's your lunch.' And this woman from behind me reached out and said, 'Would you like half a sandwich?' And she handed me this huge turkey sandwich from an 18th Avenue Brooklyn deli.

"We talked for six hours, you know, the flight to California. It turned out she was from Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. We had worked in the same building in the same year and never met. And she was going to her brother Anthony's wedding. How weird is that?"

He returned to Brooklyn to get married, but a few years later decided to move to the Valley. He now shares a home with his wife, Donna, their son Dominic, Donna's twin sister Denise, and his in-laws, Ralph and Stella.

With the wreckage of our lunch on the table between us, we decide to indulge in DeFalco's masterly cannoli. One apiece, that is. They're marvelously crunchy on the outside, and the filling within is full-bodied and potently sweet. We both finish our whole pastries. It's nice, for a change, to eat lunch with someone whose appetite matches my own.

Yet, as good as Lubrano acknowledges DeFalco's food to be, he's quick to insist that home is his first choice for dining, thanks to his mother-in-law. "That woman is dangerous in the kitchen. She makes fresh cheesecake, she makes lasagna, she makes me sausage Parmesan, she made me, the other night, fresh clams in spaghetti."

The clearest illustration of the power of food for Lubrano, perhaps, comes when two nubile young women in tank tops pass our table. Lubrano catches me glancing at them, and, aware that I'm a married man, laughs and directs my attention elsewhere. "Look down, man, look down here," he says, pointing at what's left of my sandwich. "It'll be all right. I support you, brother. Just look at the mozzarella, and everything'll be all right."

So I do. And he's right, it is.

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M.V. Moorhead
Contact: M.V. Moorhead