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Pete Napolitano’s Got a Theory

The iconic Melody Lanes bartender on bartending’s “mathematical signature” and what he’s learned from 30 years behind the bar.

Though diminutive in size, Pete Napolitano stands out in his white tuxedo shirt, red bow tie, oversized glasses and the best set of muttonchops this side of Chester A. Arthur. After a couple beers, however, you realize his look is the least remarkable thing about the long-serving bartender at Melody Lanes, a raffish and occasionally rowdy bowling alley just across the street from Green-Wood Cemetery, in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

Finding a lifer bartender of the old-school sort is difficult these days. Finding one who has spent all his career at a bowling alley bar is harder still. And finding one who has a philosophical bent? Well, let’s just say Napolitano is one of a kind in New York, the country—maybe the world.

He asks the name of every glassy-eyed bowler who enters the bar looking for a pitcher of suds. Once he learns it, he says, “I’m Pete,” and shakes the person’s hand. His bartender patter never ceases, but it has nothing to do with sports or the weather. Listen long enough and you’ll begin to stitch together the gonzo personal philosophy he’s been working through over the years. Those encountering Napolitano for the first time blink warily at this prattle, the way New Yorkers do when measuring the sanity level of a stranger. Those familiar with it smile and engage jokingly in the back and forth. The hard-boiled regulars, who are most accustomed to the show, have names like Smitty and resemble refugees from a play by O’Neill or Saroyan and pay it no mind whatsoever.

Whether Napolitano’s serious about it all is difficult to gauge, but what’s for sure is that he’s bent on making certain everyone who enters his bar exits it happier, or at least amused. “You’re here to observe,” he said to me on a recent night when I asked if he’d be willing to answer few questions. “You’re here to create an equation—what I call a triangulation. There will be a moment of claritivity. You are the A, I am the B; we will come to a C.”

That moment of “claritivity” can be elusive. But, after a few hours and a few cold ones at what he calls “Pete’s Table of Honor,” I separated out some gold nuggets from all the silt. Napolitano noticed. “I talk,” he said. “You picked up some pieces. That’s my job.”

How did you find your way behind the bar?
I don’t count time like everyone else. It’s every day. There’s no drudgery.

What do you think makes for a good bartender?
It’s not making drinks. You have understand the ability to associate with everyone who walks in the bar. I respect and understand the relationship with everyone who walks in. But I have a place. See, I wrote a paper once called “The Associative Multi-Dimensional Transposition of Creative Properties of the Self.” And I use that. It’s a very good paper. It gets more and more credibility as I go along.

On the tiny snifter-shaped glass he uses to pour out shots of Remy Martin, which he does constantly.
I use this so people can see. You see, balance is never 50-50. Your understanding of the way things are today—size, color, shape, everything—this cuts through it. It’s an algorithm of one moment, one second. It’s a one-take shot. It’s an association. That’s all it really is. Everyone gets the same thing in the end.

How has bartending changed over the course of your career?
For me, it has. You see, the way I conduct myself, it has to do with the mathematical signature. There’s a rhythm to it. I’m a night person. Always been. I sleep in the day. Before I get here for a Friday or Saturday shift, I get nine to 10 hours of sleep. Because the equation calls for what?

I’m not trying to be evasive or funny. What I’m trying to say is this: The equation is, I’m 66 years old; I don’t move at my pace, I move at the pace of the people who come at me. Solution? Sleep 10 hours and get plenty of oxygen. That’s a one-take! Everything is based on the amount of oxygen. The identity of this is the amount of oxygen you have in your body becomes your mental and physical state. See, cells have memories.

What’s something you’ve learned behind the bar?
[In] 2006 or ‘07, I won a national award. Bartender of the Year. Did you know you have to insure a national award? Neither did I. They hit me for a hundred bucks!

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