FIRST PERSON: THE MELLOW MR. MARTINO

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Photograph: ©lily-fotolia.com

A quieter, calmer way to ring in 2015

By Joy Manning

New Year’s Eve is my favorite of all the winter holidays. It’s not just for the fresh-page feeling of my many resolutions or the dawn of a new year. After the complicated strategizing required to balance the other, more significant holidays among various factions of my family, New Year’s Eve has taken on a warm, steadying, low-key quality that, for me, marks the end of Christmastime chaos.

As I entered my 30s seven years ago, I stopped trying to make December 31 into a glamorous extravaganza of too many people and too much booze. I gave up parties and prix fixe dinners, tired of spending too much money for not enough fun and a hangover that spoils the Mummers Parade.

It was New Year’s Eve 2007 when I first celebrated the occasion at Mr. Martino’s Trattoria—a practically unmarked East Passyunk Avenue restaurant that predates the buzz of this now-celebrated strip. After that first experience, I committed myself to NYE dinner there for as long as the restaurant would have me.

Mr. Martino’s does New Year’s Eve differently. There’s no five-course tasting menu with Champagne toast. There’s no DJ or dancing or noisemakers. In fact, I’m pretty sure the BYOB ushers every guest out the door by 11:45; you need greet the stroke of midnight elsewhere. Instead of expensive specials, Mr. Martino offers the same bargainpriced laminated menu of Italian-American classics it has every time

I’ve visited. Some years, there’s been one special based on black-eyed peas, for the good luck that ingredient supposedly brings. I always order the same things: a cup of brothy, rosemary-scented white bean soup; a generous square of basic spinach lasagna layered with fresh, creamy ricotta and bright tomato sauce; and the tartest wedge of lemon curd pie I’ve ever had in my life.

The restaurant doesn’t book more than one reservation per table for the night. We’re never rushed through our pasta or discouraged from lingering over the bottles of Chianti and prosecco we’ve brought along to toast the year ahead. This unhurried hospitality, the straightforward home-style cooking, and the dark-wood-paneled, antique-cluttered atmosphere make it, for me, the ideal venue for New Year’s Eve with a few close friends.

In 2012, when I called to make the annual reservation, the owner and host, Marc Farnese, told me he had decided not to open for New Year’s Eve that year. I reeled with disappointment, but in the next few days, I planned an alternative: I would cook a Mr. Martino’s tribute dinner and invite friends to my house to celebrate.

But before I could put plan B in motion, Marc called me back. He and his wife, Maria, the restaurant’s chef, had changed their minds. They’d be open on New Year’s Eve after all.

Apparently, in 2011, someone had behaved in a manner unbefitting of Mr. Martino’s, making Marc and Maria want to cancel New Year’s Eve altogether. But after hearing the heartbreak in their regulars’ voices, they decided to open—but only for those who had dined there on New Year’s Eves past. We were in.

As of this writing, it’s too early to know what they’ll decide for 2014. I hope to make it my eighth year in a row walking through the restaurant’s unmarked door into the convivial, warm shelter that Mr. Martino’s has always been for me.

But if not, at least I know what I’ll be cooking at home: white bean soup, basic lasagna and lemon tart. At this point, I can imagine no other meal that says a proper goodbye to a year of my life.

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