Looking well-fed and rejuvenated, Tommy Lasorda clapped his hands a couple of times and then yelled out with encouragement, “Remember guys--just work hard and get the job done.”
It was the home opener of sorts for the Dodger manager. And the audience of smartly uniformed men responded with appropriate game-day nods of appreciation.
As is frequently the case whenever Lasorda is in public, a crowd begins to gather to watch the antics of one of baseball’s most familiar personalities.
Except this time his trademark silhouette was not prowling the turf of a baseball diamond or stadium dugout. Instead, he was in the kitchen of his new restaurant exhorting several white-clad, toque-topped chefs to concentrate and keep their eyes on the ball, so to speak. The pep talk came as the three cooks were in the midst of alternately juggling servings of linguine, tomato sauce and meatballs onto dinner plates with the precision of infielders turning a finely tuned double-play.
The kitchen visit came in the early innings of the recent grand-opening party for Tommy Lasorda’s Ribs and Pasta restaurant in Marina del Rey. This was one contest that was a breeze for Lasorda, who was surrounded by hundreds of admirers, friends and ballplayers. They all gathered to celebrate the pairing of a great appetite to a restaurant built in its image.
Lasorda’s reputation as one of America’s insatiable eaters makes him a natural for the part of restaurant owner. As it is, his picture is on almost as many restaurant walls throughout the country as Colonel Sanders.
As he continued his good-will journey through the kitchen, Lasorda broke into fluent Spanish when prompted by several employees who were preparing ribs. He discussed his high standards and the importance of good food. They listened politely and then quickly asked about Dodger pitcher Fernando Valenzuela.
After the kitchen stop, Lasorda made his way out to an informal receiving line where he greeted newcomers, fired off one-liners and introduced virtually everyone to each other. It seemed he had time to talk to all those who came for the festivities in the spacious restaurant and cocktail lounge.
Asked, for instance, how things looked for spring training in Vero Beach, Fla., Lasorda didn’t miss a beat.
“Whenever someone asks me that, I say I got a ‘weight’ problem. I can’t wait to start,” he said, stretching out each word like bread dough for extra emphasis.
Lasorda’s enthusiasm increased a notch on prospects for this year’s upcoming season. Things looked great, he said, couldn’t be better.
The upbeat mood was contagious at the green-and-white dockside restaurant at 14130 Marquesas Way. The good will was fueled by generous samplings of food that flowed from three large buffet tables set up especially for the occasion.
The opening gala was two years in development and actually is the result of a partnership between Lasorda and Oscar B. Grubert, who also owns a chain of restaurants in the Midwest and Canada.
A mutual friend, former Kentucky governor John Brown, was responsible for introducing the two men. Once in contact, all the pieces quickly fell together even though the idea of lending Lasorda’s name to a dinner house had been considered--and rejected--many times before. However, the previous proposals always came from people who either had no restaurant experience or no money, according to Grubert.
Having agreed to proceed, Lasorda naturally played a role in the menu development, which now includes three of his family recipes--all of which are Italian. He is proudest of a dish listed as greens and beans-- the exact formula of which was imported from Philadelphia where Lasorda’s brothers also operate a restaurant. The dish is actually a combination of Swiss chard, collard greens, great northern beans and pepperoni cooked together and flavored with garlic, fresh herbs and olive oil.
Reconstructing what is now called Tommy Lasorda’s favorite beans and greens took some doing. The restaurant chef, Richard Roland, said no one on the staff had ever heard of the dish before, let alone tasted it.
“I thought it was something from the Deep South,” Roland said.
Lasorda also had a hand in the creation of the restaurant’s pasta fagioli, an Italian soup. When Grubert presented the Dodger manager with the finished product, Lasorda complained that there wasn’t enough pasta in the dish and ordered that more be added.
The restaurant also offers linguine--his signature entree--in five versions.
“A Tommy Lasorda’s restaurant without pasta is like, like, ah, me not going to church,” he said, grasping for the proper spiritual analogy.
During a break in the handshaking, backslapping and joking of opening night, Lasorda gave some thought to what a lifetime in baseball can add to success in the food business.
“I tell the Dodger players that we have a commitment to the fans to give them exciting and winning baseball,” he said, in almost reverential tones. “Well, I want to have the same traditions here. I hope that people will want to come into the restaurant ‘cause I enjoy good food and this place will provide it to everyone else.
“I didn’t put my name on this place to make money--I don’t need the money if you know what I mean. I did it because I want people to have service that is outstanding along with quality food.”
Lasorda even extends the welcome mat to all his National League adversaries when they are in town as the visiting team in Dodger Stadium. That invitation also applies to the World Series champion New York Mets, whose recent appearances in Chavez Ravine have sparked a new rivalry.
All Teams Are Welcome
“Sure, I want the Mets to come here to eat. All the teams are welcome,” he said.
Lasorda had no problem being peppered about baseball and food, his two favorite topics. During the nonstop discussions, it was pointed out that one of his passions, oysters-on-the-half-shell, were omitted from the menu.
When the subject came up, Lasorda slipped into one of his anecdotes about great eating sessions.
“Oysters? Did someone say oysters? Hey, I ate 500 oysters in three days once. Don’t worry, we’ll have oysters-on-the-half-shell here sometime,” he said.
The idea of shellfish then brought to mind the topic of sushi. Lasorda said he would be out of town for some time during spring training, but that when he returned he was going to Little Toyko in downtown Los Angeles for another consumption milestone.
“Did you know I ate 62 pieces of raw tuna one night?” he asked the assembled crowd. “When I come back I’m going for the new record. I’m going to eat 100 pieces of tuna. That’s right, 100 pieces.”
There was some discussion as to whether Lasorda ate the raw fish in the sashimi style (without rice) or in the sushi style that features each piece of fish atop a small cluster of rice.
“That was with the rice, 62 pieces of tuna sushi with the rice. Come on, anyone can eat 62 pieces without the rice,” he said, slightly offended that someone might question his eating prowess.
Several of those in attendance talked about whether having a restaurant might change Lasorda’s style.
Different Food at Clubhouse
Dodger third baseman, Bill Matlock, said there might be a difference in the types, but not the quantities, of food that are regularly delivered to the team’s clubhouse before and after each game. These pre- and postgame meals are rituals inaugurated and presided over by Lasorda.
“There may be less burgers and more ribs and pasta this season,” Matlock said. “But then again, knowing Tommy, he’s already getting all that food free from the other restaurants anyway. So, he’ll probably keep that coming. And that way he’ll get away with ordering a little less from here. Because if he orders food from his own restaurant then, I guess, he has to pay for it. But who knows, he doesn’t pay for anything anywhere.”
Another third baseman, George Brett of the Kansas City Royals, was also at the opening and thought that Lasorda would do well in the restaurant business.
“As many people as Tommy knows, he should be real successful,” said Brett, who speaks with experience considering his part ownership of C. J. Brett’s restaurant in Hermosa Beach. “With his personality--it’s perfect for him.”
Amid all the congratulations, a few words of caution were expressed by Lasorda’s wife, Jo.
“I hope (the restaurant) doesn’t make him any busier than he is now, but it may make him happier,” she said. “If he does start spending a lot of time here then I’ll be with him.”
So, will Lasorda spend too much time at his own restaurant?
“I’ll come down here on the way to the ballpark,” he said. “But during the season, not too much. Maybe after the games, I will.”