Joey Ziegler shakes seasoning salt onto a thick piece of steak, throws it onto a sizzling grill and turns toward the counter to face Pete Muscala. Now Joey’s really feeling the heat.
“Fifteen-six, fifteen-eight, fifteen-10, fifteen-12,” Pete counts.
Joey shakes his head.
“I’m losing this one,” he says.
Every Monday afternoon for an hour and a half, Joey, 33, and Pete, 92, meet for a friendly but competitive game of cribbage at the Our Kitchen diner in south Minneapolis. The tiny, tasty spot has served up short stacks with bacon, plus other made-from-scratch culinary comforts since 1941 — about the time Pete was learning to play the multi-faceted card game using a board and pegs.
“You play in World War II?” Joey asks Pete as he deals out a new hand.
Pete, who grew up in northeast Minneapolis and sold insurance, isn’t sure. But he’s played cribbage for a long time, and has a 1955 trophy to prove it.
Our Kitchen waitress Sue Muscala couldn’t be more grateful for Joey, the diner’s cook, who flips burgers and cuts the deck with her father-in-law without skipping a beat.
“I tell Joe he’s just a godsend for doing it,” Sue says.
Of course, Joey gets something out of the deal. He gets Pete, one of the few cribbage players who can beat him.
“Big crib there, Pete?” “I got 8,” Pete says.
“Pretty good,” Joey says kindly.
Widowed after 62 years of marriage, Pete moved in with Sue and her husband, Tom, of Minneapolis, about a year and a half ago. Tom started driving his dad to Our Kitchen on Mondays for lunch and a match. Pete hasn’t missed a single Monday since, nor an opportunity to tell a corny joke.
“I ran into my doctor,” Pete recounts, “and he says, ‘I haven’t seen you in a while.’ I say, ‘Doc, that’s because I’ve been sick.’ ”
Joey is married and the father of three young children. His brother, Danny, who owns the diner, taught him cribbage when he was about 12. It’s one of his favorite games, he says, “even though Pete tries to cheat me.”
Pete laughs, his blue eyes sparkling behind wire-framed glasses. “I miss my pen pals,” Pete says. “That’s because I was in the penitentiary.”
With a massive pot of slowly boiling potatoes behind him, Joey deals again. Cards fly, pegs leap forward, tallies rise. A 16-point hand gets Pete within three pegs of victory. But this one goes to Joey, who isn’t worried in the least about collecting his dollar in winnings.
“Pete,” he says, “pay me back next week.”