On warm spring nights, the place to be is the corner of Vine and Court streets downtown. Universal Grille has tables set up along the sidewalk, roped off so they can serve alcohol outside legally. When it's too early for air conditioning and too warm to stay inside, the block is full of people -- some sitting and some just passing by, eager for company after the long, isolating winter months.
I sometimes go by Tom's Chicken Pot Pies and sit and talk to Tom Wolfe, the proprietor. We watch the passing scene like two old folks on the front porch. The early spring air can be intoxicating and, like champagne, it loosens the tongue and lowers the inhibitions.
People stop to chat. Jim Tarbell whizzes down Vine Street on his scooter. Customers come and go from Scotti's Italian Restaurant.
Once they had a wedding party. The brother of the groom came outside and scratched my dog, Sister, behind the ears. She stretched her neck toward him, then rolled over on her back so he could rub her belly.
"Slut!" Wolfe said, but Sister didn't care.
We sometimes sit in front of Wolfe's new window display case. His pies are lined up on the shelves, with perfectly browned, peaked crusts and an aroma that literally makes your mouth water.
They're delicious. My own favorite is the Chicken Pot Pie Alfredo, full of chicken breast chunks and crisp, fresh broccoli, but it's so rich I can eat only half. I save the rest for later.
"The only thing I do well is chicken pot pies," Wolfe says ruefully.
That's not really true. Wolfe makes a friend of everyone he meets. He can talk about almost anything yet remain kind and respectful.
He's tall and lanky, 6-foot-5. His arms are long, like a basketball player's, and he has a winning laugh.
He's been selling chicken pot pies for more than 25 years.
He has a restaurant at 915 Vine St., but the entire region is his venue. He delivers pies to offices, to late-night bars like the Blue Wisp and to clients as various as the Ringling Brothers Circus. Most recently, he delivered pies to the cast members of Sweeney Todd at the Aronoff Center, and he still feeds the Cincinnati Reds, even though his favorite consumer, Joe Nuxhall, is no longer waiting eagerly for his pie.
"I like to feed people," Wolfe says, "and I love baseball, so it's a winning situation for me."
Years ago, he was bartending at El Coyote and the Reds asked a few restaurants to feed the team. Wolfe tried Mexican food, but it didn't work out.
"I came up with chicken pot pies because they're portable," he says. "I could slide them into a warmer, go in and catch part of the ballgame, then serve up the pies."
Wolfe liked his product, and so did others. He made the pies in his own kitchen and delivered them out of his Jeep. Business was good and got better, and he soon had to find professional kitchens to work in.
By September 2001, he had negotiated a deal with Ted Gregory of ribs fame to use his restaurant kitchen and with Reds management to sell his pies in the stadium.
"But then," Wolfe says, looking sad for just a moment, "they rammed those planes into the towers in New York..." He shakes his head.
After that, there was no more baseball for a while, and life dealt him a "one-two punch" when his sister and then his mother died. It took him years to get back to where he wanted to be.
Still, he continued to make pies, and last year he found a retail outlet for them on Vine Street.
The storefront is cheerful at 915 Vine, with red-checked tablecloths, a large sign in the front window saying "Open" and Wolfe's yellow logo of a cartoon chicken carrying a steaming pie. The coolers are stocked with soft drinks and green tea, and he's added individual fruit pies topped with whipped cream for the desert crowd.
I watched him make the pies late one night in his restaurant. He cuts up chicken breasts into strips, then into chunks, and boils them in an industrial pressure cooker. The chicken doesn't take long to cook, and when he removes it from the pot he pours out some of the boiling water and strains it to make a rich stock, then transfers the chicken pieces to a heavy plastic container.
A large wreath of steam surrounds him in the low light. He's concentrating, or "in the moment," as the motivational speakers like to say: a tall man in a chrome kitchen doing what he does best.
One night last winter I was walking Sister down Vine Street toward the main library when I ran into Wolfe, loaded down with a tray of chicken pot pies. It was a dark night, and he'd turned off the lights in his restaurant.
"You look stealthy!" I said, a little startled to see him. "Where are you going with those pies?"
His smile was a little sheepish, and when he spoke it was in a hushed voice, almost as if he were looking over his shoulder.
"I'm delivering pies to some strippers in Newport," he said. "I'll see you later."
He didn't come back that night. I could tell because the "Open" sign was still in the window -- and that's where it stayed for a couple more days.
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