By Ed Staskus
“Where’s the moon now, we’ve been lost for days, we’re on a trip around the sun, food and drink for everyone.” Leningrad Cowboys
The red and white sign in one of the paired windows slanting toward the road said “Help Wanted”. It was morning, prep time at eateries.
“I had gotten out of culinary school, was living down the street, and riding to P-town to look for work,” said Tony Pasquale. As he passed by he got a look-see at Terra Luna and a glimpse of the bright sign. He turned around and rode his bike up to the front door. Raina Stephani, the owner, and he introduced themselves.
They sat inside at a table next to the front door.
Terra Luna is a restaurant on the Shore Road of North Truro on the Outer Cape of Cape Cod. The two-lane road with sand shoulders is Route 6A, in parallel with Route 6, which interconnects most of the peninsula’s towns. The Shore Road was once called the Old King’s Highway.
“When can you start?” asked Raina, who opened the restaurant in 1993, starting the job interview.
“I can start tomorrow,” he said. “But, don’t you want to see my resume?”
“No,” she said.
He went to work in the kitchen in 1997, as a line cook, then sous chef, and finally kitchen manager. Fourteen years later Raina told Tony, ”I’m done. I don’t want it anymore.” Tony Pasquale bought Terra Luna in 2011. Today he is still in the kitchen, the chef, but at the hardware store, too, the handyman, and the office, doing payroll and the books.
“I’m on the line six days a week,” he said. “Everyone contributes, Paul, Marlene, Carla, who is Raina’s mom. She does the baking. But, I do everything.”
It’s old-school style, the owner’s manual written by the skipper.
On the high rise of the Shore Road, before it dives down to sea level on the way to Provincetown, Terra Luna is an Italian Mediterranean Portuguese cottage-style restaurant. It is a seasonal eatery, open roughly mid-May to mid-October. “Our menu, we call it neo-pagan,” said Tony.
“It’s a funky eclectic fun busy small intimate place, fish very nicely done,” said one diner as last year’s season wound down “They feature Absinthe specials and Sazerac rye cocktails, a real treat.”
“It hasn’t changed much,” said Tony. “It looks like it did in 1997, except we built the bar. The landlord has owned this building forever. Sometimes it needs some sleight-of-hand.”
The northwest corner of the floor is slowly sinking. The large painting on the wall, as a result, began to look crooked. “I put a tack under the bottom left corner of the frame, to hold the painting crooked, so it would look straight.”
The building was once the common room for the Prince of Whales cottages on the other side of the parking lot. Inside, the floor is wood, the walls are wood, and the pitched trestle ceiling is wood. There is plenty of coastal air by way of screened windows and doors. Paintings and glassworks by local artists, who moonlight in the busy summer, serving food, pouring drinks, are on the walls.
Two years ago he donated a dinner to the Sustainable Cape Farmer’s Market. “They asked me if I would do a dinner with Mark Bittman. I said, sure.”
Mark Bittman is a food writer, a former columnist for The New York Times, and author of more than a dozen books. His ‘How to Cook Everything’ was a bestseller and won the James Beard Award.
A year later Terra Luna got a phone call. “OK, they said, it’s for July 5th. I asked them, are we cooking together?”
“No,” said the other end of the line.
“That’s what I want to aspire to, be so famous that the thing I donate to charity is you get to take me out to dinner,” said Tony.
They started with their on-again off-again Bait Plate. ”My friend Jason and I had come up with it as a special. It’s all trash fish, smelts, razor clams, squid, sardines.”
Atlantic cod and lobster were long the dishes of choice in New England. But, overfishing and environmental changes have led to sharp declines in stock, especially of cod, and a shift toward more abundant species, like scup and spiny dogfish.
“I’ve complained for years that Cape Cod restaurants don’t strut the Cape’s stuff,” Mark Bittman wrote after the dinner.
“I was served a pile of what were once considered trash fish, all sourced locally. The cooking happened to be perfect, kudos to the kitchen, although that’s the easy part. It’s making the effort to deal with local fishers and ensure the product is genuine that’s tricky.”
“He told us, I will definitely be back,” said Tony. “Which was great, because he can be cranky.”
A native of Montclair, New Jersey, Tony Pasquale attended Syracuse University, graduating in 1990 with degrees in English and Cultural Anthropology. “That basically left me prepared for nothing,” he said.
He came to Cape Cod as a lad in the mid-70s when his family started vacationing in North Eastham. In 1988, at the start of summer, he came back. “There was nothing in Brewster, nothing in Eastham, college kids were still coming here to work. I ended up in a dumpy cottage in Truro. I ended up getting my first restaurant job. I got hooked.”
His first job was frying fish at the Goody Hallett, named after a young woman who turned to witchcraft for revenge in the early 18th century after being abandoned by the freebooter Black Sam Bellamy, believed to be the wealthiest pirate in history. Even though the restaurant has long since been torn down, replaced by a bank, sightings of Goody’s ghost are still spun by eyewitnesses in Eastham and Wellfleet.
Three years later he enrolled at the Western Culinary Institute in Portland, Oregon. “I wanted to go west and they were accredited.” Instead of the two-year program, he chose the accelerated one-year program. “I didn’t need anymore spring breaks.”
The cooking school opened in 1983, the brainchild of Horst Mager, who was a local chef and restaurateur. It has produced many acclaimed cooks over the years, including Matt Lightner and Homaro Cantu.
The program was part kitchen work, applying skills and techniques, and part classroom work, studying food science, as well as concepts in baking and pastry. “The instructors were great when you got into the kitchen, but sucked when they did lectures,” said Tony.
“One day it would be, we have a piece of fish. How can you cook it? You can grill it. You can poach it. You can bake it. The next day it would be, we have a piece of chicken. How can you cook it? You can grill it. You can poach it. You can bake it. I remember turning to one of my friends and saying, fuck it, are we really taking notes?”
After graduating he interned in Seattle, at the Alexis Hotel’s multi-star restaurant. He learned the business of making real food for real people in real time. He also learned he didn’t want to work for a corporate restaurant. “They never tell you in culinary school how many meetings and how much paperwork you’re going to have to do. The head chef got great reviews, but it was a nightmare, super competitive. She used to lock herself in her office. She lost it.”
He divided his time for the next several years between the east coast and the west coast, finally settling on Cape Cod in 1997, the summer he spied Terra Luna. “I love it here,” he said. “It’s still relatively unspoiled, even though it’s getting developed more and more. But, it will get to the point where it can’t be developed anymore, and that’s pretty soon.”
He works in Truro and lives in Wellfleet, both once whaling towns, both towns in woods of pitch pine and black oak, both towns the better part of them being the National Seashore.
Although vegan and vegetarian grub is served at Terra Luna, the menu is largely home on the range fare, pork chops, beef, and fish. The so-called neo-pagan larder keeps its cupboard doors open to organic close to home free-range livestock farming. Tony Pasquale supports environmental issues and organizations.
Not everything is neo-pagan, though. Some of it is closer to pagan, like Terra Luna’s Smoked Bluefish Pate. A neighbor spilled the beans about the unique recipe.
“Top Knot was sketchy, lived across the street, in what we call Cannery Row,” said Tony. “He had a peg leg and eye patch, except he switched the eyes. He came in one day, gave me his recipe, which was a special way of reducing shallots with wine, and it was incredible.”
Pirate’s booty isn’t always silver and gold. Sometimes the treasure chest is full of pate. Eat up me hearties!
The small restaurant is usually busy. In the summer they are even busier. “We were brutally busy last year,” said Tony. In the kitchen there are a chef’s table, two stoves, ovens, sinks and fridges, a salad station, coffee and espresso machines. It is a factory-like space, stainless steel and tools of the trade and exhaust fans, making fine delicious food. “It’s tight, streamlined, and we’re all close together, three of us cooking, and the dishwasher.”
Everybody rarely gets a day off. The hours are early Industrial Age-style. It is hard work. It takes a toll. “Some mornings I get up and, Jesus, that’s not working. You’re on your feet 15 hours.”
In common with many employers on the Outer Cape, especially seasonal employers, Terra Luna faces labor shortages. “When I was in college, I came here every summer,“ said Ken Smith, vice president of Red Jacket Resorts. “Me and three other guys rented a small Cape. For whatever reason, it doesn’t happen today.”
Housing, or what little there is of it, has grown prohibitively expensive, there is the dilemma of making money that in the end goes against your student aid, and the no-status summer job has become a resume non-builder. At the end of the day even the close-to-hand are hard to find.
“It’s extremely difficult to find locals anymore,” said William Zammer, owner of Cape Cod Restaurants, Inc. When Terra Luna lost its sous chef at the last minute it had to buckle down. There wasn’t a replacement to be found, not for love or money.
”There was no help,” said Tony. “There was nobody. We all know each other, the other owners, we’re talking all the time, but everybody was getting ready for their opening weekend. Eric Jansen at Blackfish was opening late, so he sent some people over.”
I need them back next weekend was the caveat.
“I did Craig’s List, the whole BS Internet thing, nothing,” said Tony. ”Finally, I put a sign up, ‘Help Wanted’. A guy going by on his Vespa, who was looking for a night job, stopped. He didn’t have a resume. I said, screw it. He’s from Mexico, a trained chef, and he did specials all summer. He was great.”
Even though motels hotels cottages resorts restaurants advertise for American workers, “we get virtually no response,” said William Zammer. Many of Cape Cod’s seasonal workers are from Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Jamaica. They are allowed to work in the United States on a temporary basis as a result of the H2B visa program, which is tailored for entry-level jobs in hospitality and retail.
Tony Pasquale’s dishwasher, Marlene, is from Jamaica. “She and I have been here the longest. She’s the rock, holds the kitchen together.” She comes to Cape Cod in the spring and goes home in the fall. On the peninsula she lives in Little Kingston, which is what the Prince of Whales cottages are known as up and down the Shore Road. She cleans rooms for a hotel in Provincetown during the day and takes a bus back to Terra Luna to wash dishes at night.
When the Jamaican reggae singer Beres Hammond was booked to play at the Payomet, Tony asked Marlene if she wanted to go to the show.
“No, I have to work.”
“We’ll get Roy to work for you.”
“How am I going to get there?”
The Payomet Performing Arts Center is on the other side of North Truro, on the ocean side. They stage professional theater productions and host live music, from Ruthie Foster to Southside Johnny, in a big, big tent. There is an outdoor dance floor for high stepping to the Genuine Negro Jig of the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
“We’ll get you a cab.”
“I don’t have tickets.”
“We got you front row.”
Sometimes you just have to step up to the plate and no ifs ands or buts lay something at someone’s feet.
Terra Luna barters for tickets, as well as catering some of Payomet’s events. The night the rhythm and blues gospel singer Mavis Staples was on stage the kitchen prepared a shrimp plate for her. “I was in the second row when between songs she said my name,” said Tony.
“Boy, you can burn!” said Mavis Staples. “I didn’t finish my shrimps, but I got a microwave up in my room. I’m going to throw that in and have myself a midnight special!”
Although Terra Luna’s haddock and oysters are sourced locally, all of their cod and shrimp come from far away. “There are a lot of licensed fishermen here, so my oysters come from Wellfleet.” Salmon, a staple on the menu, is not indigenous to North Truro’s neck of the woods. “There’s no shrimp here either. I get it from Chatham Fish. Sometimes people ask me if it’s Gulf shrimp. After BP, I tell them, yeah, Gulf of Tonkin.”
The sardines come from Portugal.
The first time Terra Luna fed a band the band was the Zombies. They are a British Invasion rock group from the 1960s, still going strong. When asked in 2015 about the name, Rod Argent, founding member, organist, and still the lead singer, said they all just liked it. “I knew vaguely that zombies were the Walking Dead from Haiti.”
“They were great,” said Tony. “It was an after-party. The problem was, they announced it from the stage. I left during the encore.”
Back at the restaurant he gathered the staff. “We might be a little busy.” A half-hour later close to a hundred people walked in. The bartender got into the weeds almost immediately. Tony ordered the menus be put away. “It was rum and coke and gin and tonic after that. One of us did wine and one on the tap.“ The kitchen fired up all of its burners, all hands on deck.
“It was awesome. The Zombies hung out all night.”
Sometimes singers stop in by themselves.
“I got a call last minute about Judy Collins,” said Tony.
“We need dinner for her.”
“She’s not on my list. I’m not donating.”
“We’ll pay for it. It’s just her by herself.”
“She came in and ordered the Porterhouse.” The Porterhouse is doubling your dining delight. It is the King of the T-Bones. “She put it down. I eat a 16-ounce steak and I have to take a nap. She went and did the show.”
Sometimes it isn’t a singer.
The Truro Vineyards, one of a handful of wineries on the Cape, is two or three miles away on the downside of the road.
“I know you don’t take reservations,” said Kristen Roberts, who with her mom and dad are the winemakers. “But, my parents are coming, three people at seven.”
“I don’t know. Three people?”
“My dad’s friend, Al Jaffee, he’s 93.”
“Al Jaffee? From Mad Magazine?”
“Come to dinner.”
Al Jaffee is a cartoonist who has drawn satirical cartoons for Mad for more than sixty years. “Serious people my age are dead,” he said. Between 1964 and 2013 only one issue of Mad was published sans one of his cartoons. ”I grew up with Mad. He did the back page fold-in,” said Tony.
“We’ve got to do something special,” said Luke the bartender. He mixed up a new drink and called it The Fold-In.
“Al Jaffee rocked the pork chop and two Fold-In’s,“ said Tony.
The next day Dave Roberts stopped at Terra Luna with a copy of Mad.
“I know you did this for us,” he said. “I went out and bought the new issue. Al Jaffee signed it.”
At other times it isn’t a singer or a cartoonist. Some people, including Tony Pasquale, believe the building that houses Terra Luna is occasionally haunted.
“The jukebox didn’t work for weeks,” he said. “One day, getting ready for service, we heard woooooo all of a sudden. It was the jukebox turning itself on. It started playing ‘I Put a Spell On You’ by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. We all stopped what we were doing. Everybody was freaked out.”
Another day Tony was in the kitchen in the middle of the day, alone, prepping for the dinner crowd. ”I had music cranking, doors locked, when all of a sudden I got that feeling that someone’s staring at you. I looked up. It was an old lady. She smiled and I smiled. I went back to work. But, then I thought, oh, fuck, there’s someone in here. When I looked up again there was nobody. I’m a hairy dude. All the hair on my body stood straight up. I had to go sit outside for a while. At least she was friendly.“
In the spring Terra Luna is smudged. “My buddies come in, burn some sage.” Sage means to heal and when burned it’s believed to clear away all things negative real and imagined, a balm and seal for the mind and spirit.
Cape Cod is the chin of New England, sticking its neck out into the Atlantic Ocean. When hurricanes roll up the seaboard the peninsula takes it on the chin, taking the brunt of high wind and high water.
“I see a bad moon a-rising, I hear a hurricanes a-blowing, I know the end is coming soon,” Credence Clearwater Revival, guitars jangling and drums steady as a heartbeat, sings out loud and clear in a backwoods yowl on the Provincetown radio show Squid Jigger’s Blend.
Route 6, about a mile from Terra Luna, is the Hurricane Evacuation Route. In 1996, in advance of Hurricane Edouard, state officials declared a state of emergency. An eight-hour 40-mile traffic jam ensued, stretching from Orleans to the bridges crossing over to the mainland.
The peak of the New England hurricane season is early September. If a hurricane were to blow in on any day except Monday, when they are closed, a good place to wait out the end might be Terra Luna on the high side of 6A, rather than 40 miles of gas fumes on Route 6. They have candles in case the power goes out, the roof might leak, but probably won’t blow away, there are ghost stories to go around, and they always have plenty of food and drink.
Terra Luna on the Shore Road, on top of that, has a skipper at the ready who makes the moving parts happen – the self-made year-roun-dah in the black chef’s coat so the blood won’t show when he steps out of the kitchen – who is more than capable of staying the course, help when wanted, foul weather and fair.
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.