John Travolta ate there the first time he was hip. Angelo’s was the restaurant, in Little Italy, where the former sweathog, disco king and urban cowboy could get fettuccine Alfredo cooked up by a budding soccer player.
Raffaele Ruotolo dealt the dish. Only 17, he had returned to New York City from a 12-year stay in Italy. Within a year, he would be a professional playing indoor soccer at arenas around the country. A decade later, he would be the Splash’s only true playmaker.
But back then, he learned how to set a different sort of table.
“Cooking is my biggest hobby,” Ruotolo said, his voice still heavily accented. “I love to have people over and cook for everybody.
“My dream is always to open an Italian restaurant.”
Those are the days Ruotolo recalls fondly, even though he is coming off his best statistical season; he had a career-high 31 goals and 37 assists, and got honorable mention when it came time to name the All-Continental Indoor Soccer League teams.
But success can be fleeting. Whereas Ruotolo, a midfielder, set an indoor record for most consecutive games with an assist (29) over most of 1994 and the first two games of 1995, he has had difficulty finding a groove this season.
He has showed signs of breaking out recently, and scored a goal in the Splash’s 8-5 victory over Detroit Thursday night.
He hopes to continue that run tonight when the Splash (8-7) plays at San Jose.
“Last year I started fast and slowed down at the end of the season; this year I hope to reverse that,” Ruotolo said. “I’m worried now that I do the best I can to bring the team to the point it needs to be.
"[Coach George Fernandez] knows I’m a little frustrated, but I’m going to come in and do whatever I can to make sure the team wins. I love going out there and making someone else score.”
Ruotolo also has been slowed by nagging injuries, especially one to his knee. Still, he has been a good find for the franchise, which resurrected his career after he stopped playing professionally in 1988. His journey has been, at best, odd.
Ruotolo worked at Angelo’s for eight months--it was his first job, and he also met Robert Redford--before moving to San Diego and joining the Sockers of the Major Indoor Soccer League.
There, he languished behind some of the best indoor players in the game (Kaz Deyna, Brian Quinn, Hugo Perez, Jean Willrich) on the most successful franchise in history. He could never crack the starting lineup, and the league’s dwindling salary cap didn’t make it prudent for Coach Ron Newman to keep him.
Fernandez, now his coach, was a teammate then, and also was fighting for playing time.
“He was young, immature, his game wasn’t polished, but you could see he had something there if [the Sockers] would give him a little bit of time,” Fernandez said. “We were young kids trying to make the best team in the league--the best franchise in indoor history.”
Ruotolo was just a minor player, and despite three indoor championships in four years, they meant little if he couldn’t contribute. At 22, he dropped out of sight.
Ruotolo looks back now and sticks to his guns, that he never got the chance he deserved. But after leaving the game, he made the sport work for him. He got involved in the community. Still living in San Diego, he ran youth camps, coached high school girls and played in amateur leagues.
By the time he was 27, he was all but forgotten as a once-promising indoor talent. Then came the phone calls--out of nowhere, really--from Gus Mokalis, coach of the Los Angeles United. Mokalis wanted Ruotolo to play for the fledgling CISL.
Ruotolo turned him down. But Mokalis badgered Ruotolo, and after four refusals, Ruotolo gave in. His 24 goals in 19 games that first year surpassed his entire four-year total in San Diego. His 33 points was only five fewer than he accumulated for the Sockers. When the United moved to Anaheim last year, Ruotolo improved even more.
He had the best season of his life, showing the consistency he is capable of achieving.
Or did he?
This season has been a disappointment. Ruotolo, 30, has been dogged by a bad leg and hasn’t been close to the player he was a year ago. Through 12 games, Ruotolo’s 10 goals and 11 assists are 60% of what his stats were a year ago at this time--17 goals and 18 assists.
“There’s no question I came into training camp out of shape conditioning-wise,” Ruotolo said. “And then training camp wasn’t that intense because we had a lot of people injured.”
He, more than anyone on the team, has missed Rod Castro--who has played on an as-available basis. Castro is an intern at a law office and has played only four games this season. In those four games, Ruotolo has 10 points (four goals, six assists); in the eight games Castro has not played, Ruotolo has 11 points (six goals and five assists).
“I got so used to playing with Rod last year,” Ruotolo said, “and this year he wasn’t there. I am trying to click with Jose [Vasquez, who has filled in for Castro], but Jose is new to indoors and we haven’t developed a chemistry yet.”
Fernandez said Ruotolo is about 80% of where he was last year.
“In the last two games he’s shown signs of being sharp,” Fernandez said. “His passes are crisper, he’s enthusiastic, he wants the ball, he’s asking for the ball, directing.”
Ruotolo’s assist streak was a burden he was glad to bury: “I think [losing it] takes some of the pressure off of me. It was nice while it lasted.”
Ruotolo, who commutes 200 miles daily from San Diego to Anaheim, lives for soccer. He has taught soccer camps the last eight years, and manages to coach four club teams during the Splash season.
In five years as coach of the San Diego Patrick Henry High girls’ team, he has been to the San Diego Section quarterfinals twice, the semifinals once and the final in 1995. He also coaches the women’s team at San Diego City College--a bunch of “softball players,” he said, which won one-third of its games in 1995 in the first year of the program.
“That’s pretty much what I do--I love soccer and I love doing stuff for the kids,” Ruotolo said. “This is a way to give something back to the community.”