Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Pete of Pete's Café -- Rest(aurant) in Peace

I was saddened to learn last week of the passing of Pete, owner of Pete's Café on Fordham Road, a diner that I have frequently dined at over the past two decades that I've been teaching at Fordham University.  

I've had many a conversation with colleagues there over coffee, and sandwiches, burgers, salads, and the like.  And most of the time, Pete was there, always ready with a smile and a word of greeting.  Pete was a neighborhood celebrity, and we loved him for giving us something more than just another bland coffee shop of the sort that the TV show Seinfeld made famous.

My colleague, Ron Jacobson, told me earlier today that no less a newspaper than the New York Times ran a story about Pete, under the headline:  Mourning a Diner Man, if Not His Mustache.  The story is dated February 17, it's written by Sam Dolnick, and it features the following photograph:

The caption under the photo reads:   "Anna Nikolopoulos holds a photo of her late husband, Pete Nikolopoulos, founder of Pete’s cafe. He died Feb. 2."   And Dolnick begins the story with a reference to Pete's famous mustache, I suppose that's an irresistible lead for a journalist:

Maybe it was the handlebar mustache that kept them coming back. The perfect curlicues framed an everpresent smile and gave everyone, new customers and old, a conversation piece and a reason to remember Pete of Pete’s Cafe.

For more than three decades, Pete Nikolopoulos presided over his diner on East Fordham Road in the Bronx as the generous host with the funny mustache, the neighborhood uncle who would pour you free coffee, ask after the family, and wink at your girlfriend.

Generations of Fordham students went to Pete’s to soak up hangovers with greasy eggs and fries. Deans discussed office politics over coffee, while neighborhood regulars lingered over tuna melts and gyros.

By the way, I can personally recommend both the tuna melts and the gyros to you, and I'm a big fan of their chicken wrap.  In fact, if you go to my profile on foursquare, a social networking site based on geographical location that I haven't done all that much with, you'll see that among the few things I have done there is post a few tips, the first and foremost reading:  "@ Pete's Cafe: Have a gyro or chicken wrap."  But, to return to the story, and the sad news, as told by Dolnick:

But Mr. Nikolopoulos is no longer there to play host. He died of a heart attack on Feb. 2 at the age of 56 during a business trip to Sparta, Greece. For the past two weeks, as the news has slowly spread through the Fordham community and beyond, members of his enormous circle of friends have stopped by the diner to pay their respects — and eat lunch, as Mr. Nikolopoulos would have wanted.

I'm sorry to say that I have not had the chance to stop by and pay my respects.  Truth to tell, I mostly order in to my office these days.  But I plan on heading on over there.  I hope they still have the Pete's Cafe T-shirts with a cartoon image of Pete on them, I really want one now.  Of course, his mustache figures prominently in the image, and in our memory as well, as Dolnick relates:

On Tuesday, his widow, Anna, sat at the counter accepting the condolences of old customers and retelling “famous mustache stories.” There were the trophies he won in various mustache contests. 

Oh, and there was the woman who accosted him on the street, waving a single piece of hair. She said it came from his mustache, and it had been her lucky charm for years.

“He took pride in his mustache,” Mrs. Nikolopoulos said. “It kept him unique. And he loved standing out.”

And Pete's story is classic tale of the American Dream, as Dolnick explains:

Mr. Nikolopoulos came to the United States in 1976 and worked as a busboy and a dishwasher, first in Manhattan and then in the Bronx, at the diner at the corner of East Fordham Road and Hoffman Street, where Pete’s now stands. The Greek couple who owned the diner liked the friendly young man, and in 1978 they sold him the business, his wife said.

Mr. Nikolopoulos quickly made the place his own. The wall behind the counter is covered in his photographs, mustache always well-coiffed, standing with mayors, councilmen and neighborhood friends.

And the story of Pete and his café is also a Fordham story, as Dolnick reveals:

Everyone who had been to Pete’s more than once, which seemed to include everyone who had attended Fordham University since 1980, remembered his affability and his charm. 

“He went to every single table to say hello,” said Stephie Mukherjee, an assistant dean at the school who has been eating lunch there for 18 years. “As I’m talking, I can still see him with his kindness, talking to everyone.” 

It wasn’t just idle conversation, at least not all of it. Mr. Nikolopoulos met his wife, then a Fordham student, at the diner. As she tells the story, he flirted with her as soon as she stepped inside the diner, before classes had even begun, and he kept at it for months. She finally relented and went out on a date with him. Seven months later, they were married.

“He was a very charming guy,” Mrs. Nikolopoulos said. “He was very charismatic. I wanted a solid foundation, and he was solid.”
The couple had three children together over 23 years of marriage, but she could never persuade him to lose the mustache.
“I couldn’t stand it,” she said, “but it was him.”

It all comes back to the mustache, the mustache was Pete and Pete was the mustache, and so very much more.  Rest in peace, dear Pete, our friend, rest in peace.



Kelly O'Halloran said...

I have gone to Pete's Cafe a number of times in the few years I have been at Fordham. I never knew who Pete was, or why they sold those t-shirts. Now I know that that is because that's Pete. Sad to hear about his passing. I do love getting some classic diner food there.

William said...

RIP Pete, used to give me discounts all the time at his Cafe in Queens after i helped him a few times with photos. Great guy.