Never mind that just about everyone has worked a long day and it’s the middle of the week. The door of Casa del Campo Dominican Restaurant in North Babylon is locked to the public and the restaurant staff-turned-Christmas elves are buzzing around, laying long tables, hanging balloons and streamers, and setting down hefty pitchers of mango and passionfruit juices so that family, friends and staff—and note: this is a Dominican restaurant, so just about everyone, from owners to servers to cooks, is family or friends or godparents or godchildren and sometimes all of the above—can kick off the Christmas season right, with live music, dancing, plenty of rum-laced tropical drinks and food, food, food.
It is a holiday party in New York-Dominican Republic-style, and one that is a long time coming. Co-owner Tony Ramírez says before COVID-19, the restaurant’s holiday parties had become legendary, getting so big that he had to rent an outside venue to accommodate everyone in the extended Casa del Campo family. Tonight’s event is a bit more modest, a warm-up for the return to form, but the excitement is palpable, with folks knocking on the door at regular intervals, some dressed up in spiky heels and form fitting cocktail dresses, others in fashion-forward torn jeans and others still in whatever they wore to work that day. Grandparents, infants and toddlers and everything in-between are more than ready for a bit of a blowout.
To an outsider it might just look like a holiday party, but underneath is something more; it is a celebration of how far these tight-knit compadres have come from a tiny mountain town in the D.R. to success in the United States through incredibly hard work and by sticking together, and it is also a reaffirmation of their culture which they proudly embrace and share with their fellow Long Islanders.
A few days before the event, I sat down with Tony, 47, and his business partner, Amable Ramirez. Amable, 60, tells me he was one of 18 siblings from a place that no one’s ever heard of, a small town called Calaverna in the mountainous municipality of Jánico.
“My father was a farmer and every day he went out to the conuco (small parcel of land for cultivation) to work. If it rained he went in his boxers to not get his clothes wet. Since he farmed, there was always food. If we didn’t have oil, we used pork fat. But we always had food.” He remembers how hard his parents worked. “I remember seeing my mother go to wash clothes in the river holding a child in each arm, with a big bucket balanced on her head, pregnant. Parents went through a lot of work in those days.”
The conditions led many young people to find their fortunes elsewhere. Amable Ramirez’s first years in New York were in the traditional Dominican enclaves of Washington Heights and the Bronx. “I got here when I was 19 years old. My first job was as a busboy where my brother worked, then I was a dishwasher.”
Enter René Ramirez, Tony’s father and Amable’s cousin, also from tiny Calaverna, and one of 17 siblings himself. He too worked in the restaurants in the city, but he had bigger ambitions.
“Back then there were no Dominican restaurants on Long Island,” Tony says. “My dad was the first to open a Dominican restaurant here, Sabor Dominicano in Freeport in 1986. His sister told him to get a little six-foot steam table because she was afraid it wouldn’t take off. But he put in a big 15 foot table. My aunt laughed and said, ‘You aren’t gonna make it.’ But he made it.”
René Ramirez went on to make it again and again, opening multiple Dominican restaurants across the island, several of which still exist under different ownership. Not surprisingly, a few have been bought by former employees, some of whom are also family and/or also hail from the same little home town.
The extended family established its own enclave in Copiague where the next generations keep appearing and staying. Tony went into business with his dad and together they opened Casa del Campo, the first time they abandoned the steam table that was the backbone of their business model and established a fully sit-down table service in a neighborhood that wasn’t particularly Latino. Funnily enough, this time it was René who wasn’t sure they were “gonna make it.” But Tony prevailed and the restaurant has been flourishing for more than eight years now, with a diverse and devoted clientele whose support for their fully take-out mode during the pandemic kept them going and even opened the opportunity for renovations—done by Tony and family—to make the popular bar area bigger and to make more room for tables and a band.
Sadly, Tony’s dad passed away just a few months after Casa del Campo opened, so he didn’t get to see Tony “make it” in the long-term, but his legacy is inscribed on the glass front door: “Making You Feel at Home Since 1986.”
His legacy is also inscribed in the values Tony and Amable and the rest of the clan continue to uphold.
As the party warms up, Ray Ferreira, Tony’s childhood friend, gets behind the bar to serve up frosty pink guava drinks, heady with Dominican rum. He may not be a blood relative, but his family is from the same area as Tony’s, and his father is the godfather of the brother of Jenny Rodriguez, who is sitting at the bar with a cocktail and who I think is the mother of one of the musicians, but I am not sure whom she is related to, because everyone is related to everyone and, well, I am halfway through one of those heady guava drinks that Ray keeps handing out.
“I was a server for Tony’s dad since I was 15, and I have been a server here since day one,” Ray says proudly. He and Tony start reminiscing about the epic rainstorm that flooded them that first day and how they were in the weeds and they thought it was a soft opening but word got out and there were 50 people waiting by the bar and it was just hell, but great at the same time.
What Ray especially loves—aside from working with his lifelong buddies—is the atmosphere. “This restaurant is like the U.N.,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if you are Black, white, Asian or Jewish; everybody comes here and sits side by side.”
And the time to sit side-by-side is coming. The food is up!
Dominican holiday food is similar to what you will find on the other Spanish Caribbean islands. Each dish is a direct reference to the Columbian Exchange—the transfer of biology and culture that happened when the European and African continents met the Americas for the first time.
Pork is the centerpiece—introduced to the islands by the Spanish with Columbus’s very first voyage, the pig was relatively easy to keep in small spaces and using every part could provide a year’s worth of meat for a family. There were no large mammals that could provide large quantities of meat until the pig came, so it was a game-changer.
If you can’t roast a whole pig, you can still make a pernil: roasted leg, butt or shoulder that can feed an extended family like Tony and Amable’s.
“We marinate it for three or four days,” Tony tells me, as he starts to pull the intoxicatingly fragrant pernil out of the oven. He won’t give away restaurant secrets, but the marinade includes those Spanish Caribbean stalwarts: oregano, garlic, cilantro and olive oil. The slow roast results in meltingly tender meat while the fatty skin becomes a salty, crispy, juicy delight.
Arroz con gandules, a hearty yellow rice dish flavored with tomato and homemade chicken stock, is another iconic dish that represents a culinary crossroads: Arroz is rice, originally from Asia and Africa, introduced to Europe probably by Alexander the Great by way of the Middle East and brought to America in the late 1600s. Gandules—called peas or gungo peas in other parts of the Caribbean—grew wild in Africa but was first cultivated in the Indian subcontinent and transported to the Americas in the 1800 in the slave trade; its ability to tolerate drought, grow at all sorts of altitudes and provide both flavor and nutrition made it a staple. Many a companionable night is spent around Caribbean kitchen tables, shelling gandules and telling stories.
Potato salad, white rice, beans and maduros (fried sweet plantains) round out tonight’s table, with one extra-special dish that you won’t find on the Casa del Campo menu: oxtail. Once considered by the colonial masters a throwaway part of the animal, the enslaved cooks made it into a slow braise that has recently become mainstream popular—so much so that it has gone from cheap to expensive over the last few years.
So as everyone sits down to the family style dinner, the oxtail is quick to disappear and no one hesitates to pick up the bone and nibble on every single last bit because it is very, very finger-licking good.
No Dominican celebration would be complete without music. Bad Bunny and other Latin pop hits have been on the playlist all night, but it is the live performance of perico ripiao aka trío típico that gets everyone up on the dance floor. A simple threesome (although band members can go up to ten or more for bigger occasions) of a tambora (cowhide drum with a mahogany barrel, which once upon a time would have been a rum barrel); a güira (a sheet of metal perforated with hammer and nail for scraping; the same principle as a washboard in folk music, only shaped into a handheld tube) and an accordion, playing the earliest form of merengue. You might think that this would only appeal to the older folks, but no, as soon as they start playing virtually everyone in the room grabs a partner and crowds the dance floor.
The band confirms what I already know: far from fading into folkloric nostalgia, Dominican culture—food, music, family—continues to be relevant to each generation, strengthened by the closeness of the families and the commitment to multigenerational events. Randy Aristy on the drum and Harley Rodríguez on the güira are just 23 years old, Copiague High School buddies, who have been playing this music since the ninth grade—not just at family parties, but at clubs. They share the stage with accordionist Dionisio Tavares, an old friend of Amable’s; they milked cows together back in the D.R. and Amable’s parents were Dionisio’s godparents.
While the party bounces on, Tony Ramirez takes a moment to reflect on what it all means. He reminds me of something he said earlier. “This restaurant has never let us down. Every day is a beautiful mix of people, but they are listening to our music, eating our food, enjoying our ambience,” he says. “We are welcoming, comforting people, who like to have fun. People tell me they love coming here, because they feel like they know everyone; It’s like Cheers, only Latino.”
He continues. “Everyone’s having a great time,” he says, leaning against the bar and hugging and kissing those arriving and leaving. “I am a host; I want to make sure there are smiles everywhere; I want everyone to feel that when you come here, that you are part of the family. It’s the way we are, the way we were brought up.”
As I take my leave—belly full, heart happy and, yes, after meeting the parents of my hairstylist Gabbi Rivas, who turns out to be Tony’s cousin, because everyone is indeed related—I feel like family too.