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Jim Condon and Louie Manno are back at the mike - this time with meatballs

Published March 21, 2001 at 7:21 p.m.


Chris Coolidge is shopping at Radio Deli for the first time when he pays the co-proprietors, Louie Manno and Jim Condon, a not-so-rare compliment: “My wife was a big fan of your show.”

“Oh, she’s the one,” Condon shoots back, to the delight of the customer.

They are referring, of course, to the witty, decidedly un-p.c. program the duo co-hosted for 15 years on Burlington area airwaves. When WKDR owner Ken Squier dropped the “Manno and Condon Show” in favor of an all-news format last year, the hosts decided to abandon broadcasting altogether.

In January, the combo cooked up a new scheme: Radio Deli. Here the simple meatball — an ancestral Manno recipe — gets all the attention. “The meatball is the center of our strategy,” Manno explains during a recent lunchtime rush of people who all seem to be ordering meatball grinders to go.

On April 9, however, the new place will live up to its name when Manno and Condon return to the radio, resurrecting their gab sessions from the 1200-square-foot store on the corner of Pearl and Pine streets. “When Ken asked if we’d like to come back, it blew me away,” Manno says.

Squier contends the decision to give Manno and Condon the boot once WKDR switched to news was “strictly economic, it had nothing to do with their talent. We had to make some changes; something had to go. For me, this new idea is perfect. It’ll be unlike anything else on radio in this region.

“A live deli show!” Squier exclaims. “Check your meatballs for microphones.”

While seated at a small table in front of coffee urns, the talkative twosome will once again interview guests, debate local politics, render pithy observations and sometimes get a little silly weekdays from 3 to 4 p.m. “We’re a cross between Howard Stern and ‘Nightline,’ but we’re never unkind to people,” says Manno, in a deep, New York-accented voice. “It’s completely honest and spontaneous, never forced. Sometimes we discuss personal problems: I’ve talked about the fact that I’m manic-depressive. Real emotions equals real radio.”

The logistics of the newly configured program could be challenging, considering how packed the place gets when a line of customers winds around shelves of canned goods. At the peak of their business day, Condon mans the cash register near the door, a tall and hefty Hardy to Manno’s shorter, wiry Laurel dressed in a white apron behind the adjacent deli counter. Despite this archetypal pairing, their hip banter is more avuncular than mocking.

For Manno, “owning a delicatessen is a lot like doing radio. If people don’t like our meatballs anymore, it’s the same as if they tell us, ‘You guys used to be funny.’”

Next to meatballs, humor is the raison d’être for the twosome and their chef, old pal Pasquale Amedore. They kibitz constantly with each other and with the cross-section of humanity that has patronized the place since it opened: friends stopping by to chat, newcomers hoping to meet the celebrities in person and just-plain-hungry folks from the ’hood.

“I’m back for more meatballs,” says Rick Carlson, who was once the landlord of a building that housed WKDR.

“Did you enjoy their hallucinogenic properties?” Manno quips.

If the meatballs are psychedelic, Carlson should blame — or thank — Manno’s mother, Mary. It’s Mama Manno’s recipe, handed down from her mother in the Old Country, that now lures Vermonters to the Radio Deli.

“My mom used to get up before six Sunday morning to start making the meatballs for dinner, which we had after church. So, I’d wake up to that wonderful smell and eat them for breakfast,” Manno recalls.

He credits Amedore, a former cook at Café Shelburne and Alfredo’s, with many of the store’s other great dishes and soups. “Pasquale holds this place together. He’s got a million recipes in his head and a work ethic that doesn’t quit.”

The trio has been putting in 50 to 90 hours each over a seven-day week. “Louie gets here at 6 a.m.,” Condon says. “I come in at nine. We normally close at 8 p.m. Eventually, we hope to hire some help.”

Some has already arrived in the form of John Wilson, a WKDR reporter whose part-time labors at the deli will allow Manno and Condon the luxury of doing their daily show.

Even after the lunch rush, the door continues to open every few minutes, and the phone rings frequently. “Make sure to save some lasagna for Mrs. Parker,” Condon announces after one call. “She’s waiting for the guy to come fix her refrigerator.”

Mrs. Parker is surely glad to have these retired radio gods running the kind of homey mom-and-pop grocery that is fast disappearing in Burlington.

“You guys need more non-meat stuff during Lent,” suggests Mark Haverty of Burlington. “I was brought up a strict Irish-Catholic.”

“Me too, bro,” Condon tells him, as they begin to discuss the finer points of corned beef and cabbage.

His own Catholic upbringing led Manno to convince customer John Goodrow — an aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy who had worked with them at WJOY in the ’80s — to eschew meat on Ash Wednesday. Goodrow decides to honor the custom again on the following Friday. “This is where you come for food and guilt,” he jokes.

To ward off the winter chill, Howard Jaentschke orders a second cup of Amedore’s clam chowder before continuing his rounds as a parking-meter watchdog for the Burlington Police Department. “I’m from Nicaragua and this is the best place I’ve found to eat here in 10 years,” vows Jaentschke, who was a guest on the WKDR show last year. “They make you feel at home. They have amazing charisma.”

Part of the Radio Deli’s cheerful ambiance is created by the tchochkas included in the décor: Among many other artifacts from the Manno collection are a “Lost in Space” lunchbox, “Star Trek” action figures, the decidedly non-action figures from “The Simpsons,” a Gumby, The Movie poster, and framed cast photographs — some with autographs — from old TV programs such as “The Honeymooners,” “Mr. Ed,” Green Acres,” “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “The Odd Couple.”

Manno and Condon, both 42, are children of the Television Age who chose radio as the best outlet for their boisterous creativity. “TV made me want to get into some kind of show business,” Manno recalls. “My whole family used to sit around watching and laughing. I wound up liking radio better because it’s less corporate.”

That was then; this is now. “Most radio is like factory work these days,” Manno points out.

Both men were already immersed in the business by the time they first met in the early 1980s. That’s when Manno, then based in Pennsylvania, sent a demo tape to the Connecticut station where Condon was working as news director. “I told him I wanted to be famous but obscure, like Larry Hovis, who played Sgt. Carter on ‘Hogan’s Heroes.’ And he knew exactly who I was talking about. Before long, we could finish each other’s sentences,” Manno says.

“I could tell he was a fast thinker. We became best friends,” explains Condon in a voice a bit higher and more melodious than his partner’s.

When that station went kaput, they parted ways — but not for long. Condon relocated to WJOY-AM in Burlington and recommended Manno for an on-air job helping him host a morning show on WQCR, the FM arm of WJOY.

After three years there, the format began changing to more music, less talk. So Manno and Condon landed at WKDR and, in the early ’90s, became part of a group that bought the station. At first it seemed a charmed life; they were their own bosses; they won all sorts of awards; their ratings soared.

“We saw the potential,” Manno says of their impact. “I think we changed media in Vermont by forcing everybody else to be funny, to do talk radio. We had the highly sought-after audience of males from age 25 to 54.”

Amedore even joined them for a brief stint with a weekly cooking show, “Mangia Mangia with Pasquale.”

But WKDR was undercapitalized and, after a brief partnership with the company that owns WIZN and the Buzz, was purchased in 1999 by radio mogul Squier. It wasn’t long before the lads found themselves unemployed. “I was disappointed and a little hurt for a while. I didn’t like the way our 20-year careers had ended, like a light being turned off. We left the station in a friendly manner, but there was no closure,” Manno explains. “But then I realized I could still be me without radio. I’m me in the store.”

Still, with all that radio experience, why turn to food? “There’s something nice about feeding people,” he suggests. “I really go to bed feeling good. As middle-aged guys, we knew that in our field we wouldn’t find work that was acceptable. Jim’s an adaptable, affable fellow, but I don’t think I could work for someone else again.”

With a budget of about $50,000, Manno invested his own money, borrowed from the Northern Vermont Lending Partners and raised funds from well-to-do friends to start Radio Deli. He and Condon decided to open the business in a section of Burlington that has seen better times. “I’m a Brooklyn boy,” Manno says. “We wanted to establish a certain neighborhood camaraderie that’s possible in this part of town.”

Now, as they attempt to re-conquer the competitive radio market as sandwich sultans, the pair will no doubt attract a dual following. “We can take advantage of this high-traffic area and fold whoever comes in the store into the show,” Manno says, ladling tomato sauce on layers of pasta to make lasagna. “We’ll have wireless mikes so we can go out onto Pearl Street. Maybe we’ll have live bands out there once in awhile. The focus can be a little more local than before. I want to say, ‘We’re coming to you from the heart of the Enterprise Zone.’ This is such a great neighborhood that the city is improving without gentrifying.”

Before World War II, the Queen City was divided into ethnic enclaves. Until the disruption of urban renewal projects in the 1970s, Italian-Americans still laid claim to the area just north of downtown. At the 110-year-old Radio Deli site, Izzo’s Market flourished for half a century and the M&M Market, which Manno calls “a local treasure” operated by the Merola family, fed the masses for almost three decades after that.

Manno had no interest in a Church Street location, or in a deli with tables and chairs. “Here, we get a lot of characters, a lot of genuine people, and this neighborhood needed a grocery store more than it needed a restaurant. We have the staples that people need at very reasonable prices,” he says, pointing out a $1.39 can of baked beans, a $1.19 tin of tuna and packages of Ramen noodles at five for a buck. “Not bad for a little store. We have a modest margin, but we don’t have to gouge anyone.”

When a customer named Bob St. Peter wins $38 on three Hot Triple Action lottery tickets, Manno offers an aside: “Of course, we want him to reinvest that money at the Radio Deli…”

“…where the savings seldom cease,” Condon adds, evidence that they are still finishing each other’s sentences with snappy promotional flourishes.

Customers provide the testimonials.

“I’m getting a meatball sub, which I hear is outstanding,” says Brent Raymond of Williston.

“It’s made from the old Manno family recipe, which I’ve been eating for 20 years. So, look at me,” Condon says, arms extended to show off his girth.

“I’m looking for some of those meatballs I’ve been hearing about,” announces Gregory Hart of Fairfax. “But they have to pass my wife’s test. We’re Italians from New Jersey.”

Manno grins and hands him a sample of the cuisine. “We accept that challenge.”

After a few bites, Hart proclaims the meatball delicious and buys a dinner-sized portion to take home to the missus. “I’ve been listening to you guys for, like, 10 years,” he tells them, while paying at the register.

“Oh, you’re the one,” Condon wisecracks once again.

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