The Obama Announcement

December 1, 2008

I watched in awe as President-Elect Barack Obama announced his national security team. There, as has been leaked, stood Senator Clinton aside the incoming president. It is remarkable in our political lifetime for a president to make such an ambitious pick — and for that pick to accept.

The Obama team faced a considerable challenge during today’s media availability. They had to manage the announcement — and the egos of the personalities involved –in such a way to highlight each member of the team without having it look unruly. It came across, more or less, as smooth. The journalists’ questions were all easily anticipated and mostly focused on challenging Obama on what statements he made about Clinton during the campaign. Other thoughts:


  • Permanent Representative to the United Nations is a good spot for the underwhelming Susan Rice. At the U.N. she can be an outspoken advocate for American values and diplomacy without having much to do with substance — although the elevation of this post to cabinet-level could alter the equation.
  • I could not miss Obama’s reference to the Middle East peace process. I wonder exactly how ambitious his plans are for this area.
  • A interesting spot of the event was Vice President-Elect Joseph Biden. He seemed to be chafing at the confines of his talking points. 
  • Expect some conflict between the presumptive national security adviser, James Jones, who has been critical of Israel, and Clinton. Writes Eli Lake: “When Obama makes that move [on the issues], the Jones-Clinton tensions may reprise the great Powell-Cheney fights of yore.”

Echo Bridge Restaurant in Newton

November 27, 2008

I’ve been promising to write more about food. I’ve discovered a restaurant that offers great value and great food, the Echo Bridge Restaurant. I first heard about the great pizza at Echo Bridge in the snack room of the Boston Phoenix almost a decade ago. I asked where it was, but I could never really place the neighborhood. It’s wedged into Newton Upper Falls, a blue collar patch near the border of Needham, amid a very affluent town.

We sat in the dining area adjacent to the bar (which I’ll get to in a second.) We ordered pizza and a salad. We got a large delicious pizza with a doughy crust and tasty sauce. The pizza cost $8.00. That is not a misprint. Imagine a full pizza for $8.00 with extra toppings only $1.00. I saw patrons in other booths ordering Italian and American meals, such as veal cutlet or steak. The highest price on the entire menu was $13.75 for pasta and two veal cutlets — just one was $9.50.

I got a chance to speak with one of the members of the Virgilio family, which has owned the restaurant since 1962, and learned the restaurant’s story. He said he believes it is important to offer quality food at a low price. Even with the large crowds the restaurant gets, the increase in costs in recent years has put a squeeze on profits. Despite that, he vowed to continue the tradition of having a locally-owned place where families can come for a meal.

I didn’t get a chance to have a drink at the bar, which forms a square, but can say it had a great homey vibe. The patrons all seemed to be in lively spirits and to know each other well. It’s been described elsewhere as a “townie” bar, but I hate to traffic in cliches. The decor was sparse other than an old placard for an Italian festival, a terrific, homemade-looking, collage of Boston Bruins highlights over the last four decades, and a Larry Bird poster.

The restaurant reminded me of another Gitell favorite, one I too rarely visit as it is across the river, Greg’s in Watertown.

Let me know if you have favorite old-school places that offer great value. I have a feeling readers will be looking for that.

Thanksgiving 2008

November 27, 2008

I can’t think of a Thanksgiving in my lifetime that has been so wrought with a national sense of economic insecurity. The circulars in both daily newspapers seem to be offering unnaturally-low prices, so low, in fact, it prompts me to wonder what calamities will befall us if Friday is not a big shopping day. Anecdotal reports of job cuts are growing as companies grapple to deal with a rapidly changing business climate. Stories that Al Qaeda is targeting Amtrak’s rail corridor, used by so many travelers to get to their loved ones for the holiday, only magnify the sense of unease.

Thanksgiving, like July 4, is a purely American holiday with a purpose behind it — allowing us to give thanks for the blessings we do have. I think of my neighbor relaying to me his personal story of coming to our country after being a slave laborer in Nazi work camps.

Even as these times evoke — but do not emulate — the terrible period America experienced in the 1930s, we remember solace exists in community, friends and family. These bonds are unbreakable — although it may take a holiday for us to recognize them.

Roslindale During the Holidays

November 25, 2008

I wrote up a holiday piece about Roslindale Village for the Roslindale Village Main Street organization. I found out a little bit more of the history of Dianne’s Bakery:

Robert Anderson has been baking at Dianne’s Bakery since 1964. During that time he perfected a New England favorite, the butter roll. Rather than paint butter onto dough, Anderson devised a method of layering butter between levels of dough and baking it in a muffin tin. “They go big around holiday time,” Anderson says. “I consider them a must for slopping up gravy.” Dianne’s also offers a collection of holiday pies, apple, pumpkin and sweet potato (from a recipe he adapted from an African American colleague decades ago).

At Boschetto Bakery, customers can find an array of fine cakes and European pastries from baker Joe Murphy. While the bakery sells two kinds of apple pie it is also offers up desserts that can dress up the dinner table, including the intricate and lovely apple tart, the shadow cake, a combination of chocolate and gold cake half-covered with chocolate ganache, and the Boston Cream cake.

Kathy Lacher, co-owner of the Boston Cheese Cellar, which will celebrate its second anniversary in December, recommends a trio for Thanksgiving. “People usually want a soft cheese, a hard cheese, a blue cheese or a goat cheese,” she says, citing Piave Vecchio (a hard cheese,) Nancy’s Camembert (a soft cheese from New York) and Great Hill (a blue cheese from Massachusetts. Lacher customizes cheese baskets as gifts.

Food for the entire Thanksgiving dinner and the rest of the season can be bought at The Village Market. Olives and feta cheese are available at the Roslindale Fish Market. The small plates of hummus or baba ganoush – known as “mezzes” – from Droubi Brothers offer an easy and affordable appetizer option for holiday parties. Organic turkeys can be ordered in advance at the Quality Meat Market. Tony DiBenedictis of Tony’s Market can ready a roast, chops or leg of lamb for a holiday dinner. Vouros Bakery is about more than baklava; its cookies are great for a party. Solera Wine Shop and Alex’s Liquors recommend American wines for Thanksgiving.

Arepas and Kabobs at Washington and Grove in West Roxbury

November 24, 2008

Ask most Bostonians about the Grove neighborhood of Boston and you’ll likely be met with blank stares. I didn’t know about it until I attended my first tree lighting with the city. This neighborhood — not to be confused with Grove Hall in Roxbury — constitutes the far west boundary of Boston at the West Roxbury-Dedham line on Washington Street. The closest landmark is the Dedham Mall.

Amazingly, this foreboding little stretch is blessed with wonderful food. I had been curious about Viva Mi Arepa for some time before checking it out a couple years ago. Over time, I’ve ordered the empanadas, arepas and even the roasted chicken the chef prepares. And, I do mean the chef. The owner-operator is a highly-trained culinary expert for emigrated from Haiti to Venezuela. While cooking at a high-end resort in Venezuela, he also picked up the national cuisine.

When my car was in the shop with transmission trouble at nearby Lee Myles, I gingerly brought up the subject of Viva Mi Arepa. I didn’t know what these old-school guys would think of this Venezuelan food. “That guy…” said one of the Lee Myles staff members somewhat loudly prompting me to worry that he was about to launch into a tirade. “That guy can really cook,” he concluded. He told me that Viva Mi Arepa even offers a special paella every Sunday for customers.

Just down the road from Viva Mi Arepa is the newly-expanded Cristelle’s Restaurant. From the outside this restaurant that now occupies the site of the old Sahara Pita Bakery, looks like an ordinary sub shop. Inside, it’s not just a sub shop but a Middle Eastern paradise. I’ve long been surprised that for a neighborhood with such a strong Lebanese and Syrian presence, aside from Samia’s in West Roxbury, which closes too early to order for dinner most nights, there’s a scarcity of Middle Eastern food. Until now.

Cristelle’s offers up not just outstanding hummus, baba ghanoush and falafel, it purveys the rarest of commodities, the classic Mediterranean breakfast. These are such dishes as a warm chickpea or lentil and olive oil foul, a flat meat-pie. Cristelle’s serves these with an array of pickles, radishes, hot peppers, tomatoes and red onion. Last time I stopped in around lunchtime, I saw a couple men gorging on delicious-looking kabobs on skewers. Unbelievable!

Don’t get me wrong. They sell steak and cheeses, pizza, and even pancakes and crepes for breakfast. But I believe their Middle Eastern food is really special.

Also of interest in the Grove is what is going on at Jeha’s Meat Market. Jeha’s is a great place to get beef or lamb sausages. He also offers hot sausages. For larger orders, I’d call ahead.

With the holidays upon us, I’ll be posting a little more on local food to provide a respite to those overtaxed with cooking festive meals.

Barack Obama Eats and Schmoozes at Manny’s

November 21, 2008

The Happy Place

I’ve been very impressed with Barack Obama’s moves since becoming the President-elect. But this afternoon Obama did something to make me swoon: He had lunch at Manny’s Delicatessen in Chicago. All I can say is that this lean arugla-lover has found some soul — or at least soul food.

Back when started, I included Manny’s on my list of approved delis: “Cantors in Los Angeles, Nate & Al’s in Beverly Hills (catch Larry King at breakfast), Manny’s in Chicago, Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Katz’s Deli on Houston Street, Harold’s in Edison, New Jersey (home to the pickle bar), Smallman Street Deli in Pittsburgh. I cannot neglect to mention Schwartz’s Smoked Meat in Montreal, worth a trip to Quebec.”

In retrospect, I don’t think I provided enough detail on Manny’s, about which I had not heard until I ate there with my sister-in-law and her husband, a native Chicagoan. Located near the historic Hull House, Manny’s is most remniscent of Katz’s on the Lower East Side in Manhattan. We walked in on a frigid January day to find a food oasis. It’s the kind of of pleasantly ungentrified place where the odor of corned beef, pickles and pastrami is embedded into the walls. I had a hot corned beef sandwich with a potato pancake and matzo ball soup. It was one of the first restaurants that disavowed me of the notion that good, authentic deli had to come from New York.

My brother-in-law Mitch, my guide to culinary Chicago, Super Dawg, Italian beefs, deep dish pizza, etc., filled me in. Manny’s, he said, was a place where I was just as likely to find a local alderman, judge or political columnist as I was a hungry Bears fan. Or the president-elect and his top adviser.

President-Elect Obama at Manny's

Sam Adams on Tap at the Boston Public Library

November 20, 2008

Samuel Adams

No not the beer. The political leader, revolutionary and visionary. Ira Stoll will read from his new biography, Samuel Adams: A Life, at the Boston Public Library this evening at 6 p.m. He will be introduced by fellow Harvard graduate and local political history buff, City Councillor John Connolly.

Welcome Back Joe!

November 19, 2008

Back in July I met with derision when I made a proposal in my then-New York Sun column.

One prominent Democrat, however, can save Mr. Lieberman — Barack Obama. Since emerging onto the national scene four years ago, Senator Obama has emphasized his ability to unite Americans across the political spectrum.

If Mr. Obama wants to demonstrate his willingness to change the way Washington does business and to overcome “the politics of division and distraction” — both of which he has vowed repeatedly — he should offer Mr. Lieberman a political pardon and ask Mr. Reid to allow Mr. Lieberman to keep his chairmanship, if Mr. Obama is elected president. While a new president lacks the power to interfere in an internal senate matter, Mr. Obama’s voice would carry weight with the senate leadership.

With the approach of the Republican parley in Minnesota in early September, the issue will ripen. Instead of speaking in favor of purging Mr. Lieberman, Mr. Obama could offer to reserve a decision on the matter until after the election. Then, if elected, he could urge Mr. Reid to keep Mr. Lieberman within the ranks.

Such magnanimity would not reflect the usual political rules of either Washington or Chicago, Mr. Obama’s hometown, where the typical approach to fallen foes is to cut their legs off and bury them so far under that they are silenced permanently. Mr. Lieberman is, after all, campaigning on behalf of Mr. McCain, often at the candidate’s side. And, according to published reports, Mr. Obama, confronted Mr. Lieberman on the floor of the senate after the Connecticut senator participated in a conference call criticizing Mr. Obama’s foreign policy positions. Among Mr. Obama’s concerns, according to Newsweek, was Mr. Lieberman’s failure to successfully rebut the false allegation that he is a Muslim.

As unlikely as an act of forgiveness might seem now, it would be in keeping with the spirit of Mr. Obama’s rhetoric. “There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq, and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq,” Mr. Obama said during his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. “We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.”

Permitting Mr. Lieberman, the party’s 2000 vice presidential candidate, to remain within the Democratic caucus would display Mr. Obama’s commitment to those very words. Mr. Lieberman’s issues with his fellow Democrats, after all, began when his strong support of the Iraq War prompted a primary challenge from an anti-war candidate, Ned Lamont.

Few readers liked this column. Progressive Democrats, furious at Lieberman for his position on the Iraq War and support of McCain, frothed at the idea of welcoming Lieberman back. Conservatives, noting that Lieberman was backing McCain, dismissed the thought that Lieberman would need a post-McCain strategy.

Well, now, at Barack Obama’s urging, the Senate Democrats have done exactly what I suggested. John Kerry was particularly magnanimous on the issue. “”President-elect Obama asked for forgiveness for Sen. Lieberman, the caucus has made a decision to censure his comments and strip of his membership on the EPW Committee, and it’s time to move on,” Kerry’s spokesperson, Brigid O’Rourke, told PolitickerMa.

The comments of both Kerry and Lieberman suggest the leniency came, exactly as I suggested, from President-Elect Obama himself. Here’s what the Globe reports about it: “Lieberman partly credited Obama, who has preached unity and bipartisanship since the election, for the lighter penalty. Lieberman also publicly thanked a handful of senators for their support, including Chris Dodd of Connecticut, who said later that John F. Kerry of Massachusetts also spoke on Lieberman’s behalf.”

Yes We Can…Copy Barack Obama

November 15, 2008

The Gold Standard

Netanyahu Website

My friend Noam Cohen writes a great story in The New York Times today about Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign website (see above) in Israel. While there’s humor in the idea of Israel’s conservative candidate emulating Obama — not his ideological counterpart John McCain, the story reinforces the idea of how revolutionary Obama’s campaign was. It is, for the purposes of political campaigns around the world, the state of the art.

Click on the Russian-language version of the campaign Web site of Benjamin Netanyahu, the conservative Likud leader running for prime minister of Israel, and up pops a picture of the candidate with Barack Obama. On the Hebrew version, Obama is not pictured. But he is, in fact, everywhere.

The colors, the fonts, the icons for donating and volunteering, the use of embedded video, and the social networking Facebook-type options — including Twitter, which hardly exists in Israel — all reflect a conscious effort by the Netanyahu campaign to learn from the Obama success.

“Imitation is the greatest form of flattery,” noted Ron Dermer, one of Netanyahu’s top campaign advisers. “We’re all in the same business, so we took a close look at a guy who has been the most successful and tried to learn from him. And while we will not use the word ‘change’ in the same way in our campaign, we believe Netanyahu is the real candidate of change for Israel.”

Those who created the Obama Web site, including Thomas Gensemer, managing partner of Blue State Digital, say the Netanyahu site is closer than any others they have seen.

“Nothing has been so direct as the Netanyahu though we have seen others with shades of it,” he said, adding that when you are successful, “people are going to knock things off, both in terms of functionality and aesthetic.”

Web sites aside, for liberals in both countries, the idea of Netanyahu as the Obama candidate of Israel seems mystifying. Of the three main contenders for prime minister in February’s election, including Tzipi Livni of Kadima and Ehud Barak of Labor, Netanyahu is the most hawkish and the least interested in the focus on dialogue with adversaries that Obama made a centerpiece of his foreign policy platform. Netanyahu has said he would shut down the current negotiations with the Palestinian leadership.

But it is precisely the break with the current policy that Netanyahu, known by his nickname Bibi, believes will help him take the largest share of votes. The most recent polls show him slightly ahead of his rivals.

Sani Sanilevich, who is managing Netanyahu’s Internet campaign, said the Web is one of the biggest focuses of the campaign, and with good reason.

“The main advantage of the Internet is the ability to communicate with citizens and people directly,” he said. “You can actually hear them and get them involved in this campaign. The whole idea is, together we can succeed.”’s Veterans Day Tribute

November 11, 2008

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial

For this Veterans Day, I’ve decided to post some of my pieces during the last few years on the contributions those who serve our country in the military.

Early in my tenure at the New York Sun, I did a column on Harvard’s Memorial Hall and the military contributions of Ivy League graduates.

Here’s the story of Tung Nguyen, a former Vietnamese refugee who came to America and gave his life as a Green Beret in Iraq. (The link is not to the New York Sun, where the story was first published, as I am having problems with the site.)

He was born the year of the Tet Offensive, the great turning point in Vietnam on two fronts: It was the year the Viet Cong expended the bulk of its resources turning the conflict from an insurgency to a war more directly executed by the North Vietnamese army. It also marked the moment when the American public, surprised by the enemy offensive on Saigon, and elsewhere throughout the country, began to lose heart in the struggle.

Eight months before Nguyen’s birth, in October, Special Forces Company D, headquartered in his hometown of Cantho, fought off an attack. The elite soldiers, the Green Berets, who defended Cantho did so under the Special Forces motto “de oppresso liber,” which is a fancy Latin phrase meaning “to free the oppressed.”

The Special Forces were among the first Americans to fight and die in Vietnam. President Kennedy believed that these unconventional troops could be an important tool in the fight against communism. He visited the Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg, N.C., in 1961, an institution that took Kennedy’s name after his assassination two years later.

I also wrote about Bruce Crandall, a helicopter pilot at the Vietnamese battle of Ia Drang, who save hundreds of lives and received the Medal of Honor.

Colonel Walter Marm, retired, who received the Medal of Honor in 1966, knows about courage. He was the young lieutenant who charged a North Vietnamese machine gun fortified in a rock-hard anthill to help rescue the lost platoon in the Battle of Ia Drang in November 1965. But when enemy fire tore through his jaw, Mr. Marm had to rely upon the heroism of helicopter pilots to get him out of harm’s way.

When I spoke to Colonel Marm on Saturday morning, he was getting ready to head to Washington, where President Bush presented the Medal of Honor at the White House yesterday to the retired [L]ieutenant [C]olonel, Bruce Crandall, who served as a life line to American forces at the battle.

Colonel Crandall, who was then a major, was the tip of the spear for a new American way of war. He served as a helicopter pilot in the reconstituted 1st Cavalry Division.

In what was a grand experiment to expand the mobility of America’s armed forces, military planners transformed a defunct traditional cavalry unit into a symbol of the country’s high-tech struggle against communism in South Vietnam, albeit one that still needed pilots to put their lives on the line. …

Today, it’s easy to envision the ignoble American evacuation from Saigon in 1975 and perceive the entire struggle in Vietnam as a sweeping defeat. But think about that 10-year delay, to which the American soldiers who fought and died at Ia Drang contributed. During that time, neighboring countries, such as Thailand and Malaysia, were able to strengthen themselves and stabilize.

Aside from Cambodia, which was a victim of North Vietnamese aggression, the feared Domino Theory, the idea that the fall of one pro-Western government would be followed by a rapid chain of others in Southeast Asia, never took place in part because of the American effort in Vietnam. It didn’t look like a victory back then, but, in the long view, history sees things differently.

In Massachusetts earlier this month, a horse-drawn hearse carried the flag-draped casket of another helicopter pilot, a casualty of today’s war. Captain Jennifer Harris of the United States Marine Corps was brought to her final resting place in the historic Swampscott Cemetery.

Right now, it’s easy to see Iraq as a cauldron of chaos. But it can take years to recognize the significance of courage, duty, and sacrifice. Long wars are hard wars, old soldiers like to say. It took many years for Colonel Crandall to be properly recognized. In time, we will acknowledge the true courage and import of today’s heroes.

One year ago, I wrote about the lasting importance of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C.

Twenty-five years ago today a simple, sober, monument was riveted into American public life — the Vietnam War Memorial, the distinctive black wall in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial to which the names of 58,000 fallen American service men and women are ascribed.

The story of the memorial, known for its iconic Maya Lin design, begins with one man, Jan Scruggs. An infantryman in Vietnam and then a graduate student at American University in Washington, Mr. Scruggs took his wife to a showing of the 1978 Vietnam War film,“The Deer Hunter.”

I caught up with Scruggs for my New York Sun column.

The Wall lists the names of the fallen in chronological order, which can be disconcerting at first. But veterans can see the names of their fallen comrades together. “It gives them carthasis,” Mr. Scruggs says of Vietnam veterans who come to the wall. “It helps the veterans be able to say goodbye.”

I saw the power of the Wall first hand five years ago in Scottsdale, Ariz., of all places. A touring replica of the Wall was on display, and I happened to be in town for a family gathering with my sister and my parents. We went together. My father, Gerald Gitell, a veteran of U.S. Army Special Forces in Vietnam, rushed to the Wall and searched to find the names of his friends.

We had to look up their coordinates. Major John Arnn. Second Lieutenant Bryan Grogan. Specialist Robert Stepanov. Arnn was his commanding officer who was ambushed. Grogan and Stepanov were his buddies from Fort Bragg who were killed together in the tall grass near Pleiku. “I couldn’t even breathe,” my father, remembering how moving the replica Wall was that day, said.

I can’t forget the story of Andrew Bacevich, a Boston University/ROTC graduate and the son of B.U. professor Andrew Bacevich.

Yesterday I drove down Route 1A for the funeral of Lieutenant Andrew Bacevich at St. Timothy’s Church. I described the scene in my New York Sun column. “Mourners sang “America the Beautiful” as pall bearers wheeled the casket carrying First Lieutenant Andrew Bacevich out of St. Timothy’s Church in Norwood, Mass., yesterday. Before exiting into the bright May sunshine and the sight of the soothing waters of Willett’s Pond, they paused and draped an American flag over the coffin.”