Say it ain’t so: Conte’s restaurant is closing?

Posted Oct. 23, 2009, at 5:43 p.m.

They say that bad news comes in threes. This week my furnace died and my mighty Tundra needed more than $2,000 in repairs. That makes two.

Now they tell me that Conte’s, the famous Rockland waterfront restaurant, has been sold and could close any day.

Why don’t they just finish me off?

Conte’s, for you poor devils who don’t know, is the best seafood restaurant I have ever visited, and I have been to a few. The scallops and haddock are the best I ever had. I would kill my sister for the swordfish (don’t tell her).

It was a good place when it was the Dry Dock run by Virginia Larsen with Richard Warner, Nick Boetsch, Billy Cloutier and Albert Richards behind the bar. Spare Change (so named because I would throw money at them after every set) would play through blizzards and hurricanes, and it became everyone’s second living room.

There was the night that Natalie, the beauty queen, crossed her legs at the table, forgetting that she had a heavy cast on one from a skiing accident. Boom went the table. Boom went the glasses. Boom went the bottles. Then there was the night that a cognac-fueled diner opened the sliding glass door and practiced his “paratrooper drop” into Rockland Harbor. Our paratrooper failed to check his tidal chart and landed heavily on the rocks. Bruised and battered, he stumbled back to the front door and his table to find out that no one had noticed save the applauding bartender.

Then a fishmonger from Mount Kisco, N.Y., named John Conte took over. He cooked like van Gogh painted. And he was just as temperamental.

Conte ran the kitchen like his personal pirate ship, and there were nights when naughty words were heard screamed from the kitchen. There were nights when waitresses stormed out and never came back. There was one night when he had just enough and screamed, “No more. We are not serving one more [expletive deleted] meal!” Then he saw me at the door and said, “OK, one more.”

Most nights you did not order. You just walked over to look at the hand-written menu on a butcher paper roll. Conte would yell from the kitchen whatever was the freshest fish. “Sword!” or “Scallops!”

If you had any functioning brain matter at all, you took the hint.

Conte does not look like your usual short-order cook at the Holiday Inn. He comes with a wild look in his eyes and his head wrapped in a towel. All right. He looks a little like Osama bin Laden.

One diner agreed and actually called the FBI last year to report that Osama was cooking at a Rockland waterfront restaurant. The FBI came by with a few armed Coasties to check it out. When Conte stopped laughing, he told the agents that he went to school with their area supervisor. They left empty-handed. No Osama.

When Conte cooked, the fish came out not in dishes but in platters. Even legendary eaters like Cousin Jerry and Boston Leo were dazzled. The steaming platters were served by waitresses right out of Durgin Park in Boston, a legendary rude restaurant.

Janice would ask “Where have you been?” and Jeannie would just say “Go home.” I remember I visited once with a cousin who could actually read and write, a rarity in the Twomey family. When her banker husband didn’t get the beer he ordered, I asked Janice what the problem was and got a single-finger answer. The banker loved it and promised to come back with some more relatives.

You either loved it or hated it. But you left with heavy bags of leftovers.

Generations of diners missed out because the place looked like an abandoned bait shack with no lights and hardly any signs at all. It looked like a place where John Wayne might be shanghaied. It took some nerve to walk in that door. I was always amazed to meet a couple from Ohio or Michigan who just “stumbled in” to the place. Hardy souls.

Now the place has been sold, along with the legendary Black Pearl, to (supposedly) a nationally known Iron Chef.

I don’t care who takes it over. Julia Child could not create the John Conte masterpieces.

We are doomed. No Conte’s? What am I to do if Cousin Jerry and Boston Leo (both aged) ever come back? Where will I take them? Who will give them the finger?

Send complaints and compliments to Emmet Meara at emmetmeara@msn.com.

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