I grew up in Malden, and Tony D’Angelo’s house was just down the street from ours. Some people called him the Tomato Guy, because he tended to a large tomato garden next to his house.
When I was a kid, Tony D’Angelo’s son, Domenic, was my best friend. We went to school together, played street hockey together, did everything together.
My mother had many fine attributes but, being Irish, cooking was not among them. Dommy’s mother, Ida, on the other hand, was and remains a fabulous cook. Over the years, I have spent a fortune at places like Prezza in the North End and Il Mulino in Greenwich Village and never have I tasted anything as good as Mrs. D’Angelo’s pasta.
I had a habit of loitering around the D’Angelo house around supper time. I never had to ask. Mr. D’Angelo would just point to a seat at the kitchen table.
“Mangia, Kevin,” he’d say. “Mangia.”
Mr. D’Angelo gave me my first glass of wine, poured from one of those big Carlo Rossi jugs. He actually looked like Carlo Rossi. I was just a kid, and the glass was really small. The rule was as clear as it was unstated: the wine went with the meal, not the other way around. My first lesson in responsible drinking came from a man who didn’t overindulge.
He wasn’t above giving us a kick in the pants when we deserved it, and we often did. One day, Dommy and I ran around Orsogna Plaza, an Italian social club in Everett, like lunatics and his dad was not happy. But he was a loving guy, never a mean guy.
He was a talented carpenter. He shingled his house, on his own. But he never seemed happier than when he was tending to his tomatoes.
Dommy and I went to Cheverus School, and one day we were on a charity walk. Under an overpass in Revere, we realized that if you yelled it made an echo, so Dommy yelled something uncharitable about one of our classmates.
The Sisters of Providence who taught us would have made good Secret Service agents, because within seconds of Dommy yelling they had surrounded us. And of course, they pulled me aside. While Dommy was a respectful, well-behaved kid, I had a reputation for talking back to the nuns. So the nuns grabbed their usual suspect.
One of them, Sister Mary Eleanor, was furious and threatened to suspend me from school. I hoped she would, imagining myself sitting at home, watching “Let’s Make a Deal,” eating cake frosting from a can, while my buddies were stuck in class.
When Dommy got home, he told his dad what had happened and that I had taken the hit for him.
A short time later, there was a knock on our front door. I opened it and Mr. D’Angelo was standing there, holding a brown paper bag full of beautiful, plump tomatoes.
Mr. D’Angelo wasn’t a big talker, so he just handed me the bag of tomatoes and said something to the effect that I was a good friend to his son.
Then he grabbed one of my cheeks and pinched it so hard that it really hurt. He pulled me into him and hugged me really tight, whispering something in Italian. I was afraid he might crush the tomatoes. Then, without another word, he turned and left.
Tony D’Angelo died the other day. He was 88. He and Ida had 62 great years together. His wake is Friday at Salvatore Rocco’s, right across from Orsogna Plaza.
I like to think that Heaven is a place of our own choosing, that we get to decide where we spend eternity, in a place that makes us happiest and brings us peace.
And so I picture Tony D’Angelo, forever in the place where I first saw him, his garden, checking his tomatoes, humming and singing snippets of “Volare” softly to himself, wondering what his Ida is cooking for dinner.
That, for him, is paradise.Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org