Vinny’s Neighborhood Italian

We rounded the corner on what felt like 2 wheels, headlights cutting a path down the mountain road.

“I swear to god if I don’t find a bathroom soon I’m just going to pee all over your car. And I won’t feel bad about it.”

I laughed, knowing she meant it.

We’d just left the top of Jump Off Rock, a 45-minute drive made in an attempt to see the sunset one last night in the mountains. After a day of house tours, wines and beers, the sun setting over the mountain tops seemed like the perfect end to a much needed girls-trip weekend.

But then the wine and beers caught up to us (specifically her), and unfortunately mountain-tops aren’t equipped with bathrooms. So we made it to the top, snapped a few mediocre-at-best pictures, and were now travelling back down the mountain in a desperate attempt to find anywhere to pee.

“What do we want for dinner?”

“I don’t care, I just need to pee,” she responded.

I pulled up Trip Adviser.

“I want Italian, I could really go for some spaghetti.”

“That’s fine, whatever.” Clearly a near soil-your-pants-and-my-car moment was more important.

We finally find a gas station, whip into what might have been a parking spot, and make our way to the glorious gas station bathroom (a flickering light, cold toilet, and trickling sink faucet: the whole package).

“How about Vinny’s Neighborhood Italian? It’s rated the #1 Italian restaurant in Asheville,” I mentioned once we were back in the car.
“Sounds good to me,” she said, setting the GPS.

Twenty minutes later we pulled into the crowded parking lot of Vinny’s; something you’d expect from the #1 Italian restaurant in the city. We circled around to the back of the building, parked, and made our way around the front and into the chaos.

Vinny’s has an old-fashioned, almost out-of-date feel, something people would explain as “having character”. The walls are lined with vintage portraits in mismatched frames that have no relevance to one another. Some of famous people, some animals, some old product signs and posters. The bar is big and made of dark oak, lit by a single stained-glass Tiffany lamp hanging overhead. The entire place is dimly lit.

“It’s a 35-minute wait,” the hostess said, “what’s the name?”

We took a seat on the bar stools lined up along the wall, facing the door and bar area. Immediately I notice a guy leaning against the bar. He was in his mid-40’s maybe, short and a little round, and bald. He was sporting a 3-piece suit in a tan-grey color, complete with the chain that connects his jacket to his vest (you know what I’m talking about). He has a cane-handled umbrella on his arm, a brown leather duffel bag in his hand, and a fedora that matched his suit on his head. In addition to all of this, he was judging every single person his eyes found.

I leaned in. “Do you see that guy? Watch him, he’s disgusted with everyone,” I whispered and laughed.

As if on command, a family of 6 walked by him in their vacation clothes (I’m not joking, one was even wearing a Hawaiian shirt). His face wrinkled and brows furrowed as he not-so-discreetly watched them pass by. He scoffed and looked around in a did-anyone-else-see-them-and-can-you-believe-it way, as if anyone not dressed in their finest suit and tie at a hole-in-the-wall diner on a Sunday night were the crazy ones. He went back to looking around for the next under-dressed group of people. We wondered what he thought of us when we walked in.

After 15 minutes of our supposed 35 minute wait time, a woman comes in to place an order for take out. She’s also mid-40’s with disorderly hair cropped at her chin. She’s in an old t-shirt, loose capri pants covered in a rainbow-tribal print, and flip flops. We both look at the guy, anticipating how he’ll feel about her. They start talking.

“Oh that’s right, I did your reading! I thought you looked familiar.” She’s a psychic.

They continue talking, her explaining her journey to find the best pizza in the world and this place has it. Finally she gets said pizza and leaves. Almost as soon as she’s gone the guy gets taken through the dining room and around the corner to be seated.

We continue to wait, watching groups of people come in and give their name. Almost everyone that comes through the doors knows someone that’s already there. Loud greetings were exchanged, hugs were dispersed, jokes were passed around. People went into the kitchen to greet the cooks, guests already seated jumped up to a familiar voice. All at once the name made sense: Vinny’s Neighborhood Italian.

Another 30 minutes go by. We observe, we try to get cell reception, we small talk. Moments later, the guy in his three-piece suit walks by us on his way to the bathroom. He stops, smiles. His smile looks as if it’s practiced, like he wants to make sure you know he has all of his teeth.

“You guys are still waiting to be seated?”

“Yep,” we say in unison.

He waits another beat, holding his gaze and smile, then continues his way back to the restroom.

“Do you think he’s the owner?” she says.

“Do you think he’s Vinny?” I say, and we laugh. The rest of the night, he was Vinny to us. We never saw him go back to his table.

After nearly an hour of waiting, we finally get taken to our seats. We pass by the empty tables in the main dining room, through the laughter and familiarity of those who have already been seated, round the corner and I lock eyes with Vinny.

He’s sitting at a two-person table, shared with his duffel bag in the opposite seat. In front of him is another two-person table, accompanied by an older couple, and then our table. We’re lined up against the wall, and I’m facing his direction. If it weren’t for the lady’s voluminous hair between us, I would have had the pleasure of seeing his face all evening.

Our waiter, a shy guy in his late 20’s, takes our first order: waters and mozzarella sticks. He goes to place the order, we notice the couple across the aisle-the only other people in this room- at a four-person table. They’re not talking to each other.

Moments later I see Vinny stand up. He comes up to our table.

“I feel bad that I got seated before you,” he says, the same smile plastered on his face. I nervous-laugh.

“It’s fine, you were here before us,” she says.

“Still,” he says, then makes his way back to his table. He sits down, holding my gaze.

“I feel like he might try to pay for our meal,” I say. We don’t want him to.

We finally get our mozzarella sticks and place our order for food.

The couple beside us looks over at our table periodically, still not talking to each other. The man turns and looks more than once.

The room we’re seated in is painted red and is just as scattered with old pictures as the front of the building. The only difference aside from the red paint is that no one back here is talking, a stark difference from the lively dining room we passed through. Even the waiter is quiet.

Vinny stands up, walks past our table again. I warn her.

Again with the smile and eye contact. His head turns to keep said eye contact as he passes by. Luckily he doesn’t speak.

As soon as we get our food, we ask for it to go. He takes the plates to box the food up for us, returns a few minutes later. The waiter, who hasn’t spoken to us more than he has to up to this point, breaks the silence.

“Are you guys from Asheville?” As soon as he asks Vinny rounds the corner, slowly returning to his table. He’s waiting to hear our answer.

“No,” we say.

“Then where are you from?”

“Ohio.” I say. Luckily, his attention turns to the table behind him who’s asking questions.

We’re waiting on our checks, wanting to leave the restaurant as soon as possible. The eerie feeling that everyone in this restaurant is in on something that we don’t know about is overwhelming.

Vinny is the only one in this back room that has a different server. She rounds the corner and catches my eye. She has the same smile splayed across her face and she watches me as she walks by, no blinking and no crack in her facade. I swear head spun all the way around.When she reaches Vinny’s table she turns to face him and without saying a word, she gives him a thumbs up, and walks away. He gets up to leave.

We’re scrambling to get our checks paid when he leaves. We wanted to get out before him, wanted to know where he was when we left him and this restaurant behind.

The air shifts as he walks by and disappears through the dining room and out the door.

Finally out waiter returns with our receipts to sign and tells us to have a safe night. We scribble our signatures, grab our food, and walk briskly through the restaurant. We scan the tables, the waiting area, and the covered porch on the way out. I sigh, feeling a sense of relief.

He’s gone, thank God.

I thought.

As we round the door frame to head around the back toward our car we see him. Standing in the rain under a single street light, the pitch black of nightfall all around him. And there, in the glistening dark is his smile. Plastered across his face, all teeth and no sincerity.

He locks eyes with me.

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