One in an occasional series about the childhood memories, sparked by a particular dish, of notable people in the food world.
When Bruce Bozzi Jr. was growing up, he rarely saw his father, who was always at “the store,” his family’s name for its business, the original Palm restaurant in New York City. “I saw him on Sundays, but that was it,” Bozzi said recently. “When I got up during the week, he was sleeping, and when I got home from school, he was at work.”
For Bozzi, eating at the restaurant was also rare. “The special dish when we visited Dad was Chicken Bruno,” he said, describing it as “glamorous chicken nuggets.” The waiters learned to watch out for him. “In the bread baskets,” he explained, “they used to have a small loaf with a crust on top. I would scoop out the soft white bread underneath, which left a big hole. They would check the baskets and say, ‘Bruce is here.’ ”
Bozzi is the great-grandson of Pio Bozzi, who in 1926 opened an Italian restaurant with John Ganzi, a fellow immigrant from Parma, Italy, intending to name it for their home town. Accents being what they are, the official issuing the license mistakenly heard Palm. It all worked out because once the place opened on Second Avenue in the East 40s, near a number of newspaper offices (the cartoonists ate free in exchange for drawing caricatures on the walls), its clientele preferred steak to spaghetti. The founders’ sons, Bruno and Walter, started at the Palm as bartenders before taking over the dining room, and their sons, Bruce and Wally, succeeded them and expanded the business.
Bozzi, the fourth generation, is now an executive vice president of Palm Management Corp., which owns 21 branches nationally. He met me at the Palm’s corporate headquarters, not in New York, but in Washington. It turns out that when George H.W. Bush was the ambassador to the United Nations in the early ’70s, he was a regular at the original Palm. He and Wally Ganzi became good friends, and when Bush moved to Washington, he persuaded Ganzi to open a Palm here in 1972. Ganzi also became a major Bush fundraiser.
“The Ganzis have always been Republicans, and the Bozzis have always been liberal Democrats,” Bozzi said, smiling. “We’re a family business with two families.” By the early 1990s, the Palm had opened its offices here. “We had 10 or 12 restaurants by then, with no systems in place, so we needed to centralize,” he said. “Then Bush served one term, Wally left, and we’ve been in D.C. for more than 20 years.” He shrugged. “It costs to move it.”
Bozzi learned the business in New York but has been based in Los Angeles for a decade. In 2006 he began the process of becoming a father via a surrogate; a few months later, he began dating Bryan Lourd, a managing partner of Creative Artists Agency. Lourd is the father of Billie, now 25, from a relationship he had with the actress Carrie Fisher. Bozzi’s daughter, Ava, whom Lourd later adopted, was born in 2007. The two men married in 2016.
For Bozzi, 52, being the gay son of an Italian Catholic immigrant family that built an empire on a tough-guy steakhouse that started as a speakeasy during Prohibition was anything but simple. But he makes it look easy. Palm customers in New York and Los Angeles treasure his personalized welcome: The only person who’s ever been this glad to see you is your grandmother. His superhero looks don’t hurt, either. Although he tried, and failed, to become an actor, his very best role is playing himself. But it took a long time to get here.
“I was a quiet kid,” he said. “I was never a boy’s boy, never athletic. My dad and I didn’t really connect. I was closer to my mom. In Catholic school, by sixth or seventh grade I knew I was attracted to boys, and there was some bullying going on. I learned how to walk around a block or take a different set of stairs.”
He decided to attend the University of Southern California. “I romanticized California based on TV, ‘Charlie’s Angels,’ ‘Three’s Company’,” he said. “It meant freedom, glamour, celebrity.” But his move west coincided with his parents’ anniversary: His mother would stay home in New York to plan the party; his father would take him, instead. “I said to her, ‘What do you mean’?” Bozzi recalled. ‘The minute you leave the room we don’t talk to each other.’ But it turned out that those three days changed our relationship forever. . . . We became friends.”
After graduating, Bozzi stayed in Los Angeles, seeking work in television. “It was really about becoming comfortable with my sexuality,” he said. “I could be far from my family. But even though the process is coming out, my mother was pushing to get in. We were on the phone, and she mentioned a friend, who was a real yenta, and said, ‘She wants to know if you’re gay.’ And I just said yes. Which was not well received. I said, ‘Let me tell Dad.’ I’m sure she told him first. I went to New York, and he said, ‘I think you’re a good man, a good person. I love you, and if you’re happy that’s the most important thing.’ ” Bozzi moved back from California.
He resumed working at the Palm and the neighboring Palm Too, but not before sounding out his father: “ ‘If you’re uncomfortable with me working here because I’m gay, I understand. It’s a bastion of heterosexuality,’ ” I said. “And he answered, ‘Of course I want you here.’ I was still kind of quiet, and it was always a little awkward. Customers would say, ‘I have a daughter I want you to meet,’ and it took me a long time to skate through that.”
By 1999, Bozzi opened the Palm West in New York’s theater district, where he was an instant hit. After three years there, he spent four years as Northeast regional director of operations, overseeing nine Palms. In 2006, he came to Washington as an executive vice president in charge of marketing and human resources. After Ava was born, he spent two years commuting cross-country.
Once he settled in Los Angeles, he turned his attention to the Palm in West Hollywood, which opened in 1975 and was showing its age. He moved the restaurant to Beverly Hills, taking only a few caricatures and covering the main wall with murals, instead. The room feels like a Palm even as it mirrors its tony community: You know it’s had work done, but it’s so good, you can’t figure out exactly what.
Bozzi often works the lunch shift there, but Ava is his first priority. “I am not going to miss this kid’s life,” he said. “She doesn’t have a mom at home. She has another dad who works more than I do. I’ve earned my stripes to take her to school and pick her up every day, and I don’t take that for granted. As a fourth-generation family member, my role now is more of a brand ambassador. We don’t have a celebrity chef, so I’m as close as anything to putting a face to the company. And it’s such a small corporate office, I’m involved in every conversation.”
We walked over to the restaurant to meet Bozzi’s uncle Tony Tammero, his mother’s brother, who is executive corporate chef of the Palm. He had flown up from Miami to make the Chicken Bruno, which fell off the menu in the past 15 years or so. It was made by cutting a chicken into 20 pieces, essentially chicken nuggets on the bone. The bones added flavor, but the pieces were harder to eat. Although it is pan-fried, it gets a last-minute bath in butter and garlic. Bozzi said he would eat it with his hands and get butter on his face, which was part of the fun.
“In 1977, when I was 11, I visited Wally in L.A.,” he recalled. “He knew Cheryl Ladd, who had just replaced Farrah Fawcett on ‘Charlie’s Angels’ and arranged for me to have lunch with her, spend a day on the set. I asked him to bring Chicken Bruno, so I could give her something I loved. He brought a huge tin. She ate it, everyone loved it.”
We sat down to try the chicken in the empty dining room in the lull before dinner. The combination of bread crumbs, oil and butter was as welcome as its taste was distant; I’m sure there’s a reason we don’t eat like this anymore, but maybe we’re wrong. Tammero cut the chicken in tenths, which didn’t seem to hurt it. When Bozzi Jr. tasted it, he closed his eyes. “It’s so good,” he said quietly. “We should bring it back.”
His reverie was soon interrupted. A late-arriving chef came over to say hello. A manager had a question. An old-timer sitting at the bar heard there was Chicken Bruno in the kitchen and wanted a taste. The waiters hadn’t assembled their bread baskets yet, but one thing was certain: Bruce was here.
Witchel is a former staff writer for the New York Times Magazine and the author of “All Gone: A Memoir of My Mother’s Dementia.”
It’s helpful to have an instant-read thermometer for monitoring the chicken.
Adapted from a recipe by Bruce Bozzi Jr., executive vice president of Palm Management Corp, whose headquarters are in the District.
One 4-pound whole chicken cut into 10 pieces: 2 legs, 2 thighs, 2 wings, 4 pieces total from 2 breast halves (may substitute 4 pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken parts)
1½ teaspoons kosher salt
¾ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
5 large eggs
1 cup flour
4 cups Italian-seasoned dried bread crumbs
1 cup canola oil
10 cloves garlic, crushed
3 sprigs fresh oregano, leaves from one of them chopped
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 lemons, one cut in half, one cut into wedges
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Season the chicken pieces well with the salt and pepper. Beat the eggs in a shallow bowl. Place flour in a bowl large enough for dredging and place bread crumbs in either a large bowl or baking pan. Coat each piece of chicken in flour, coating completely and shaking off excess. Then dip the chicken in the egg wash, then in the bread crumbs, coating completely. Let the coated chicken sit in the bread crumbs for 10 minutes. Discard any remaining egg wash, flour and bread crumbs.
Line a plate with paper towels. Heat the oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add half the garlic and 2 sprigs of oregano to the oil to infuse it until the garlic is browned, then discard those solids.
Working in batches as needed, add the chicken to the oil and fry it for about 10 minutes, until golden brown on both sides, turning as many times as necessary with a large fork (because tongs can dislodge the breading); it will not be cooked through. Transfer the chicken to the lined plate; let it rest for 2 minutes to drain, then arrange that chicken on a baking sheet. Bake (middle rack) for 15 minutes, or until full cooked through; a meat thermometer inserted into the center of the meat and away from the bone should register 155 degrees. Transfer the baking sheet to a wire rack.
Combine the butter, the remaining garlic and the chopped oregano in a large saute pan over medium heat. Once the butter has melted, cook for a minute or two, then add the rested chicken pieces, turning to coat with them evenly while you are being careful not to break up the crunchy exterior.
To serve, transfer the pieces to a platter; discard the garlic. Squeeze the lemon juice from 1 lemon over the top, and garnish with lemon wedges.
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