‘When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore. When the world seems to shine like you’ve had too much wine, you’re in love.’
Dean Martin’s voice echoes from the scratchy 45rpm record on my turntable, filling the room with nostalgia. His hit song “That’s Amore” – or, as we used to call it, “the pizza song” – brings back memories of the early 1950s.
Back in those less complicated days, a promise from Mom and Dad to take us to a Martin-Lewis film Friday night at the Garden Theatre was enough to keep us on our best behavior all week.
Dean Martin’s charisma appealed to all types and ages. The ladies were attracted to his dark good looks and romantic singing voice. Youngsters adored his silly shenanigans with partner Jerry Lewis. But it was Martin’s bon vivant lifestyle that earned the envy of every man. The handsome, sleepy-eyed singer was second in command in Frank Sinatra’s famed leisure club, the Rat Pack.
When the clan held its celebrated summit meetings Dino was the straight man to the Chairman of the Board. Martin’s longtime association with his renowned cronies appealed to fans worldwide and served to enhance Dino’s legendary devil-may-care image. Despite Martin’s public facade, he was quite the family man privately and the proud father of eight.
To the children of Italian immigrants, like my own mom and dad, Martin’s success was especially meaningful. Martin was born Dino Paul Crocetti and grew up in a multicultural part of town in Steubinville, Ohio, during the Depression. His youth paralleled the lives of many second-generation Italians. And so it was only natural that they would especially relish his good fortune and fame.
On our annual family vacations to Los Angeles, the first thing we did upon arrival was drive past Dean Martin’s two-story rambling estate in Beverly Hills, always with hopes of catching a glimpse of the superstar.
I’ll never forget the year, 1958, that we passed by Martin’s home and Dad decided to drive into Martin’s driveway for a closer look. Peering through the gates we were surprised to see, amid the plush landscape, a small, well-tended vegetable garden. Tomatoes, fava beans and long green Italian peppers filled a small portion of the star’s back yard. We were all so enthralled by the discovery of Dino’s Italian vegetable garden that we almost didn’t notice the dazzling red T-Bird that had pulled up behind us.
A moment later we were elated to discover the driver was none other than Dean Martin himself!
He had paused to collect his mail and was waiting patiently for us to move our car so he could get into his driveway.
Martin’s attractive wife, Jeanie, and young son, Dino Paul, came out to greet him at the gate, adding to our thrilling moment. Noticing our excitement, Martin generously walked over to our car, signed autographs for Mom and me, shook hands with Dad and exchanged a few words in Italian. I couldn’t help but notice the star’s large, awkward hands as he signed my autograph book, reminding me of his early years of prizefighting as a welterweight in his hometown.
That year we drove home on cloud nine, reliving the excitement over and over again.
I was so saddened on that Christmas Day to hear the news of Dean Martin’s passing. I felt as if a distant friend had left me. The songs of Dean Martin will always rekindle happy memories in our lives, and for that his fans will always be grateful.