Yes, I know that’s not the name of the song. Before you yell at me ask yourself how many people that song about high school sweethearts introduced by a song about ordering wine at a restaurant was called “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant”? I needed to make sure those music lovers had some idea what I was talking about. So here we go again with a Billy Joel song.
“Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” is one that confused me because I couldn’t understand what those other two songs were doing bookending “The Ballad Of Brenda And Eddie” (the official name of the song that takes up the majority of “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant”). Why couldn’t that song stand out on its own? As in times past this led to a Sing Me A Story article so I could take time to find out. Coming off of Joel’s 1977 album The Stranger, it’s actually three songs in one. The title piece, officially just “Italian Restaurant”, is the opening and closing of the song, about ordering wine. After that comes an unnamed piece that bridges “Italian Restaurant”and “The Ballad Of Brenda And Eddie” (a reworking of a song that Joel made long before The Stranger). What is the point and does it affect the actual story here?
To be honest I never really paid much attention to “Italian Restaurant” because to me the actual story was “The Ballad Of Brenda And Eddie”. As far as I knew the segment was a host, like in one of those anthology shows where the narrator would come on and talk about some nonsense connected to the story before getting into the story. It’s mostly TV horror shows that do that but I don’t watch a lot of horror so I can’t give you an example. Instead it’s about someone meeting somebody at an Italian restaurant they both used to frequent. I went to Songfacts to learn the history of the song as a whole, and learned there is some history behind this piece.
The restaurant which inspired this song, since closed, was the Fontana di Trevi at 151 West 57th Street in New York City, right across from Carnegie Hall. Joel recalled in USA Today July 9, 2008: “It was for the opera crowd, but the Italian food was really good. They didn’t really know who I was, which was fine with me, but sometimes you would have a hard time getting a table. Well, I went there when the tickets had gone on sale for (my dates at) Carnegie Hall, and the owner looks at me and he goes (in an Italian accent), ‘Heyyy, youra that guy!’ And from then on, I was always able to get a good spot.”
On an A&E special, Joel said he came up with the “Bottle of white bottle of red” line while he was dining at a restaurant and a waiter actually came up to him and said, “Bottle of white… bottle of red… perhaps a bottle of rosé instead?”
The “Things are okay with me these days…” part was an old piece of music he had written a long time before The Stranger album – he just changed the words around to update them. The third part of the song is an old song he had written called “The Ballad of Brenda and Eddie.”
Joel has also said that Fontana di Trevi is the main but not only inspiration for the restaurant. The song has a story as well, according to Wikipedia, about two old classmates getting together at a favorite eating establishment. Although, from the music, the instrumental, and being tied to “The Ballad Of Brenda And Eddie”, sure it could be a story they’re sharing given the bridging piece, but I think it would be more interesting to have it be the former lovers getting together to share old memories, since they did part as friends. I think it would fit much better but that could just be me. The shared story about a couple they knew with Joel’s character updating his old friend works too since it means a third party shows up to narrate their story. Either way the piece does connect the two “sub-songs” (my term) quite nicely.
This song is about people who peaked too early: the popular jocks in class who went nowhere in life. Like most of Joel’s songs, he composed the music first, which in this case was inspired by The Beatles, specifically the suite of songs on their Abbey Road album where a few unfinished tunes were put together to create one coherent piece.
Joel outlined to USA Today how the Beatles inspired this song: “I had always admired the B-side of Abbey Road, which was essentially a bunch of songs strung together by (producer) George Martin. What happened was The Beatles didn’t have completely finished songs or wholly fleshed-out ideas, and George said, ‘What have you got?’ John said, ‘Well I got this,’ and Paul said, ‘I got that.’ They all sat around and went, ‘Hmm, we can put this together and that’ll fit in there.’ And that’s pretty much what I did.”
Okay, that explains the song fusion, but since “The Ballad Of Brenda And Eddie” is the part of the song we all come for, and is probably the majority of the song anyway, why not work to connect them as well from a narrative perspective like he did with the music? Brenda and Eddie divorced as close friends (a rarity for divorce in a song by the way as it’s usually either very bitter, one side really not wanting to, or both sides not wanting to while even more rarely explaining the reason they are), so why wouldn’t they both be in town and decide to visit their favorite eating establishment? Joel’s character got married again so I don’t know if his wife would be comfortable with this (spouses and even boy/girlfriends usually get concerned when their current meets up with his/her ex for dinner) but from the story angle it would have worked much better.
I’m not trying to knock the thing mind you. All three segments could have had the makings of a full song each but I guess Joel wasn’t inspired enough to create a full piece and decided not to let good ideas go to waste, which I can get behind. “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” is three good songs merged into one and there are easily worse things on the radio.