A History of the World According to Gurney’s
It was as if it were a moment frozen in time; a 16mm film looped to repeat itself over and over in the same scene; a book of a thousand pages each one with the same words on it; a moment focused on a great big man with a great big grin and an unforgettable handshake. “Buon Giorno!” he bellowed as he swallowed up my hand in his and shook it vigorously. The man was Nick Monte, ‘Keeper of the Inn’ and the moment was my first encounter with him on a fresh crisp day in May of 1975.
It was surfing that drew me to Montauk that year and it was a girl at the Front Desk at Gurney’s Inn, with a big smile and blonde braids that got me to stay. She seemed friendly and accommodating, as one would expect at a gracious resort like this one and after a quick hello, my future wife Phyllis directed me to the restaurant to check on a job. Innocently and with trepidation I was led to the Maitre D’s desk, all the while soaking up the entire scene. I often reflect on that brief encounter, looking for any telltale signs that might have indicated how we would wind up spending the next 38 + years together, sharing all and giving all.
Angelo Monte, Phyllis’s father and the Innkeeper’s brother, pretty much ran things from the ‘battlefield’ while his brother Nick directed things from ‘Headquarters’. Angelo worked with his wife Gladys and together they kept the place functioning while governing the day-to-day operations. Working together all day and raising a family at the same time made the two of them experts at seeking out individuals without family or friends, to invite them to eat dinner with them. Gladys loved these ‘strays’, as she called them, and would always have several empty chairs with place settings at the table just waiting for the unexpected arrivals. Needless to say, this menagerie often included some unusually colorful characters. Take for instance Jerry, one of the night auditors at the Inn, who was known for having nine lives due to all the near death experiences he had throughout his employment. Then there was daytime bartender and Soprano wannabe Tony, who would preside like a Mafia Don, giving advice and telling a lot of off-color jokes. And then there was chef Danniello, who professed to construct the largest Easter Egg on Long Island, worked on it all winter long, decorated it as ornately as a Fabergé egg, only to discover that his egg wouldn’t fit through the bakery doors. It was then that my wife Phyllis spoke up after observing all the ruckus saying “Why is it Danniello, that when you take your chef’s hat off, your brains go with it?”.
The dinner table was also the scene of detailed story telling in the same way a psychiatrist’s couch serves its patients during therapy. One such story concerned an episode where Angelo was called to the Front Desk to talk to an unhappy guest who wanted to complain to management. Upon greeting the disgruntled visitor and asking how he can assist, Angelo listen as the guest said “I’ve been here for three days now and it has rained incessantly. I have had a terrible time with nothing to do and I would like a complete refund of my expenses!” To which he responded, “My dear sir, my name is Angelo Monte not Jesus Christ. I’m sorry but I cannot control the weather.” Then there was the five dollar man, who upon checking into the Inn, started handing out crisp new $5 bills to everyone in sight. It wasn’t long before the word spread to other departments and he quickly became like the Pied Piper with lines of employees queuing up to get their share.
Gurney’s had always been home to the rich and famous and sometimes the infamous. Stories about the antics of such guests had become legendary and more likely than not, celebrities asked to remain under wraps but you could always read about their stay in the NY Post on “Page Six” after they left. On one very delicate occasion, Angelo was called on to ask Raquel Welch to leave the premises when she appeared to check-in with her trusty “little” Doberman. Angelo handled the situation diplomatically and his eye level gaze at her bodacious features gave him no indication that the attack dog below was ready to tear him apart. The end result was an early but friendly departure for the dynamic duo.
One of the most colorful and perhaps infamous guests ever to pick Gurney’s as his destination was the guy we knew as “Jonny Balloons”. Of course in the real world he was known as “The Teflon Don” or John Gotti and he and his entourage made quite a splash each time they arrived.
In those days Gurney’s was growing in popularity in the 12 years since the Monte’s bought the place from Maude Gurney and it was time to expand the management team to include the rest of the family, which ultimately led to the five children, their spouses and the grandchildren. It was always a special place in many people’s hearts due to the unique management style of the entire Monte family and extended family of treasured employees. You always had the feeling that you worked with your brothers and sisters, mother and father instead of in some convoluted corporate environment. It was also well known that if you got a job at Gurney’s, then at some time or another your spouse and/or children had an open invitation to do the same.
With five children and eleven grandchildren there was always the support system in place and necessary to keep Angelo occupied and on his feet. He was still an integral part of the organization and came to work diligently at 8am each day to keep order in the wine cellar until his passing in 2008 at 89yrs. Amazingly, he even showed up on days when there were two feet of snow on the ground while others were calling-in as the first flakes were falling. In contrast to his idealistic brother Nick, Angelo was the go-to guy when things needed to be sorted out or solved in a quick way. On the other hand, people were always amazed with Nick’s vision as he was miles ahead of everyone with his love of natural cures and therapies, thus after years of planning and frustration, his dream of a Marino Therapeutic Thallasso Spa came to fruition in 1979. After 5-way bypass to relieve a lifetime of restaurant business abuse and stress, Nick took the doctor’s advise and adopted a vegetarian diet combined with raw juice therapy and exercise. Our receiving clerks were amazed to find boxes of live buzzing bees arriving, so that Nick could pursue anti-arthritis therapy through bee stings. Maintenance crews could be seen rowing out to sea early in the mornings to retrieve fresh sea water, so that Nick could consume his ounce-and-a-half shot per day. “It’s the closest compound to human blood: we came from there and one day we shall return” he was heard saying often. Nick survived till 91 years of age and we discovered that along with his dayly seawater regimen, he also consumed a shot of Fernet Branca, a bitter, aromatic Italian spirit made from over 40 herbs.
I have proudly been associated with this family for over 38 years and have always felt that I was an intricate part, playing my role in sync with the others to help keep the business going and improving. We had seen the highs and the lows that any business faced and together had somehow overcome the hurdles. During 89 years of its existence and the 56 years of the “on-premises responsive Monte family management” I feel that this was truly a celebration of success, happiness, hardship, pain, cooperation and continuity. It was more than a business; it was a living example of humanity, heart, understanding, cohesiveness, tolerance and vision. In my opinion, it was a slowly dying breed of a business model in a world of ‘globalization’ and ‘corporate mergers’. As we have seen recently, Gurney’s and Montauk have undergone some serious changes in demographics and business models. We are proud to say that we did the best we could until our very last day.
We are still a very close knit family and decided to carry on our hospitality tradition in the Hudson Valley in Amenia, small and quaint as Montauk was back in 1975. Check us out on the web at http://www.monteskitchen.com or come and visit us at Monte’s Local Kitchen and Tap Room, 3330 East Main St, Amenia, NY. It’s the last stop on the Metro North just as Montauk is the last stop on the LIRR!