When Dion DiMucci was attending junior high school in the Bronx, not long before he became a rock and roll sensation with the Belmonts—named for Belmont Avenue, near his home—his grandfather came over every morning to perform a ritual with a wooden spoon and tin cup. “My mother’s father, Tony [Campanile], made zabaglione for me, seemed like he did it for years,” says Dion in a phone conversation with the Voice, his New York accent making the pronunciation zah-bah-leh-oh-ne (depending on whose kitchen you’re in) sing. Then he adds, “Do you know what zabaglione is?”
It’s a story Dion has told often, as he did at the podium in 2011 while accepting an award from the National Italian-American Foundation, where Barack Obama, known to eat up to half a dozen eggs with potatoes for breakfast, was in the audience. Dion related that his nonno “put three egg yolks in a cup with three tablespoons of sugar, maybe two. And he would beat it, beat it, beat it for 20 minutes. All through school, that was my alarm clock. Then he’d put some wine in there to kill any impurities. It was brain food, you could have taught me trigonometry. I was buzzed, man.” Clean and sober for more than half a century now, the kid from East 183rd Street who wrote “(I Was) Born to Cry” in the days when he wolfed down that brain food hasn’t been buzzed on anything stronger than Robert Johnson’s blues for a long, long time.
Zabaglione is old-country fare, a peasant restorative that Italian mothers imposed upon their children the way American moms once spooned cod liver oil into theirs. “To ‘make-a you strong,’” is the way John DeLutro, the Mulberry Street “cannoli king” at Caffé Palermo, remembers his grandmother saying. “She beat the yolks with sugar and poured it into espresso every morning.” (The confection tastes like eggnog fortified by Ernest and Julio Gallo.) DeLutro dined with Dion a few years ago, during a New York Columbus Day celebration. “I have all of his 45s in my closet,” he says. When the pastry chef was growing up on Mulberry Street, he was told zabaglione “would coat your soul.”
Ah, “Bronx soul.”
That’s the way Lou Reed introduced Dion —of “Runaround Sue,” “The Wanderer,” and “Abraham, Martin and John” fame—when DiMucci was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, in 1989. Both solo and with the Belmonts, Dion has charted 11 singles on the Billboard Top 40, beginning with “I Wonder Why,” in 1958. But he did not make it to Cleveland’s hallowed hall as an oldies act. Once upon a time, he was a heartthrob, but the long-ago “Teenager In Love” (No. 5 in 1959) is 83 now, born four years after Elvis. Dion says he met the King just once, when they were performing at different hotels in Las Vegas. “It was happenstance, we sort of brushed through a quick introduction,” he recalls. “He said he liked ‘Ruby Baby’ [No. 2 in 1963], but he never recorded it.”
Speaking of rockers born before World War II: Did Frankie Avalon ever open for Frank Zappa? Frankie Valli? Nope. But Dion did, in 1974. “I was doing coffeehouses with my guitar and he liked it,” he says. “We took a private plane to maybe a half-dozen gigs with him and George Duke.” Zappa’s fans, says Dion, were somewhat confused by a folk act opening for the orchestral madness that was the Mothers. At the Indianapolis Convention Center, in May of ’74, the Zappa fans were downright rude to the opening act, according to a blog post by Taylor Martin, who was at the show. Dion, as always, soldiered on.