by Claire Corz Tofa
Phil Cerretta and Nina Iorio frequented the Pizza Royale many times over the past ten years. As pre-adolescents growing up in Richmond Hill, Queens, they attended many birthday and confirmation parties there. As young teenagers, they were often part of group dates after a movie at the RKO Keith's, and when they paired off at sixteen two years ago, the Pizza Royale was the perfect place for an innocent nightcap.
Its spacious dining room, whose tables lined an impressive rectangular parquet floor for dancing, was dark but clean. The genial servers were known for teasing their clientele of young adult couples, gently picking up the left hand of the girl and asking, "So where's the engagement ring?" if the finger in question was unadorned. Outside, every quarter hour, the rumble of the elevated railway would grind out a raucous rhythm that wouldn't become popular for another four decades, long after the Pizza Royale would be razed for a KFC.
But on this particular night in 1952, Phil and Nina were insulated from the street sounds, spared the waiters' baiting, and left alone with their pizza, which was generously endowed with sausage, pepperoni, and their favorite topping, anchovies. Phil possessed the era-defining handsomeness: a healthy head of wavy black hair and a robust, hearty swagger than could be threatened by downing too many Pizza Royales. Nina's beauty was ahead of her time. Her ultra short ebony tresses and slim frame were considered harsh and masculine and would become fashionable fifteen years too late.
Nina, polishing off her third slice, spoke first. "So the letter came."
"Yep. It was unmistakable. Return address from Selective Service. Opening salutation from Uncle Sam, "Greetings!"
"How do you feel about going to Korea?"
"I'm a first generation American. Life's been good to me. I'm willing to do my part."
"Yes, Nina." He said this almost on reflex as he was struggling with the biggest slice of the pie. From the time they first met, as grade school kids living a few houses apart on 87th Avenue, he knew her to be a debater and a worrier, a combination that could often be hard to love.
"Phil, this isn't going to be like the last one. This won't be an Andrews Sisters, Betty Grable war. We haven't been personally attacked this time. Public opinion is different. And there's the bomb..."
"Don't worry so much, Nina. We may not have Betty Grable, but I'm sure we'll have Marilyn Monroe. And we Cerrettas are tough. My brother got back OK from Japan, and I'll make it back from Korea."
"I certainly hope so. Do watch yourself. And don't shoot yourself in the foot-you're the dance king of Richmond Hill; remember that!"
"And you're my queen. Do you still have the trophy from when we won the dance contest here last year, doing those steps to Rosemary Clooney's Mambo Italiano?"
"C'mon. You know you practically carried me across the floor. You would have won with a rag doll for a partner."
"Rag Doll. The Ames Brothers. We danced up a storm to that number too."
"I remember. But it was nothing like Mambo Italiano. The girl that you marry had better be a Rosemary Clooney fan."
"It will help."
"So after the war, Phil. What's going to happen?"
"I don't really know. Assuming I return in one piece, I'm thinking of joining New York's Finest. Italians can get into the Academy now, you know."
"Why not law school?"
"Ah, Nina. Who wants to sit in classrooms for another six years or more? It was all I could do to get through Richmond Hill High."
"You were a good student, Phil. The teachers were always impressed with how much you knew about art and opera."
"I got that at home from my father. The knowledge I need for the rest of my life won't come from any books. I was never the scholar that you were, Nina."
"I wish you wouldn't discuss me when we're talking about you." Nina knew that guys were intimidated by girls who were smart. "I know you'd do well, if you'd only apply yourself. For one thing, a law degree would be a ticket out of this crowded neighborhood. Don't you want a place were you could play your either Rosemary or Rossini without angering the neighbors?"
"I don't ever want to leave Queens. I might want to move closer to Manhattan some day, but I think Queens is great."
"Not me. I'd leave tomorrow if I could."
Nina's smile returned. "Actually, I leave next week, around the same time you report to the Army." The mention of Phil's itinerary melted the smile from her face.
Phil finished the final slice, wiped the tomato sauce off his hands and took Nina's small counterparts into his. "Now there -- no long faces. I've thought as much about my future as you have about yours. I'm doing what I think is right, just as you're doing what you think is right for you."
He continued to speak as he massaged her left hand, noticing its calming effect on her: "I won't deny that I'm afraid of the unknown. But I'm also looking beyond my tour of duty. I've got to think positively. When I get back, I plan to pursue my career much as you do. We're both going to be okay."
Nina smiled. "You've got the most velvety voice, Phil. You always could put things in perspective. I know that one day I'll be sitting here having pizza with Detective Philip Cerretta."
Phil matched her smile, and raised it with his two dimples. "And I'll be looking across the table at Nina Lorraine, Mother Superior, Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary. But hey, before we both have to change into our respective uniforms, how about once more, for old time's sake?" And he impishly winked at her.
Nina crinkled up her lips. "Oh Phil, you're incorrigible." And she flipped him a nickel, which he caught en route to the jukebox.
As Rosemary Clooney crooned the slow intro to their song, Phil made one request. "Nina, while I'm away, pray for me. After all, you'll be that much closer to the head office than I will be."
Nina and Phil both laughed as the harpsichord heralded the downbeat, and their feet took familiar steps one last time.