TRURO — Many mournful diners bid farewell last week to a favorite joint tucked away on the bay side of Route 6A in North Truro. Terra Luna was always more than its innovative cocktails and stunning pork chops. Stained glass glinted in its wood-beamed main room, paintings by local artists hung on its walls, and, for over a decade, patrons smiled as they pried themselves from their cozy tables for the lavatory. They went, even when nature hadn’t called, for the fun of it.
Owner Tony Pasquale recalls groups of giggling diners emerging from the restaurant’s larger bathroom, presumably just post-photo-op, ready to return to their salmon.
The bathroom was an homage to Pasquale’s late Grandma Carmel. Born Carmela, she nixed the final “a” in an effort at self-Americanizing, says Pasquale. “I don’t know why that sounded better,” he says. Carmel was a cosmetologist in Paterson, N.J., with a loyal every-other-week clientele. “Hair and nails,” says Pasquale, “for all the old ladies in Paterson.”
Front and center in the Terra Luna bathroom stood Carmela’s Shelton Master hair dryer, whose deafening burst of hot air could set any lady’s curler-dappled new do. The stocky metallic contraption looks like it could just as easily slurp up a human as dry her hair.
A revolving group of neighborhood ladies sat under the machine through Pasquale’s early life. They trusted Carmel because she was certified. On the walls in the w.c. are blown-up images of her licenses from the state as an “operator of beauty culture.” One, for Carmel Pacilio, earned in 1940; the other, for a more tightly coiffed Carmel P. Montagna, issued in 1944.
Carmel’s marriage to Michael Montagna, Pasquale’s grandfather, led to a move one block over in Paterson, from East 16th Street to East 15th, where Carmel’s basement beauty setup thrived. Not only did she spray enough Aqua Net there to burn a hole in the ozone layer, says Pasquale, but her place was a hive of chatter and advice.
Pasquale remembers descending with his brother to the basement for his own haircuts. “She’d ask us what we wanted, and then she’d do whatever the *@#! she wanted,” he recalls. Carmel taught Pasquale more than just artistry in the kitchen, he says. “She knew how to swear — I’ll give her that.”
On visits home from college, when he went in for a cut, the women would pause their usual flow of conversation to dispense “college boy advice.” Pasquale’s Aunt Connie was one of Carmel’s regulars. Once, too deafened by the Shelton Master to hear herself speak, Aunt Connie gave Pasquale a morsel of wisdom that has stuck with him to this day, he says. “Remember,” Connie hollered over the dryer’s forceful hum, “always put a jacket on your racket.”
Carmel doled out similar, if more subtle, advice. When Pasquale called her from the Truro pay phone in college, she’d tell him to “stay out of trouble and watch out for the ladies,” he says.
A green plush stool was another element of the Terra Luna bathroom décor. It was the same one Carmela used as she did the ladies’ nails. “That’s what she’d sit on while they were soaking,” says Pasquale, stretching out the “s” and raising his hands like two arch-backed cats.
Vintage cosmetology posters hung alongside Carmel’s beauty operator certificates, hinting at the stylistic landscape in which Carmel curled, fluffed, and trimmed. A thickly mustachioed man stares from an advertisement for Wella Balsam Shampooing Conditioner. His lush, side-parted bob is a testimony to the product. There’s an ad for “modacrylic fiber capless stretch wigs” on another poster. “Looks and feels like real hair — you’ll mistake it for your own!” the ad declares. Carmel’s 1940s bouffant was not so different from wig Style C136.
Pasquale plans to move the Carmela memorabilia to his own bathroom in Wellfleet now that Terra Luna is closed. It’s a reminder, he says, of his grandmother as a red sauce-making “big personality” who built a strong sense of family. “She was a great cook,” he says, and part of the inspiration for his own culinary path.
Carmel died 21 years ago, three years after she lost her husband of 65 years. She kept her youthful, loud-mouthed vitality to the end. On a visit home, Pasquale comforted the recently widowed Carmel, telling her that everything would be okay.
She sighed. “I just always thought we’d grow old together,” she said.
“You’re, like, 90,” Pasquale remembers thinking. “I think you did it. Silver Star.”