Written by Billy Joel
Videos by American Songwriter
Billy Joel can always set the scene in his songwriting. Throughout his legacy career, he has been the kind of storyteller to depict even the mundane experiences with full-flavored details which completely immerse the listener. With his song “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” a seven-minute epic found on his 1977 studio album The Stranger, he not only recounts an evening out at his favorite joint, but it blossoms into an examination of life.
“A bottle of white, a bottle of red / Perhaps a bottle of rose instead,” he croons on the first verse. The song begins as a simple piano ballad, a story song dressed up from a real-life encounter, and later erupts with a choir of horns. “We’ll get a table near the street / In our old familiar place / You and I, face to face.”
The restaurant in question is allegedly the now-shuttered Fontana di Trevi, which stood on West 57th Street in New York City, across the street from Carnegie Hall.
In 1994, Joel gave a Master Class at Princeton, delighting the crowd in both stories and music. “That song started out as… the middle part was called ‘The Ballad of Brenda and Eddie.’ I think we debuted this part in Philadelphia at the Academy of Music (or something),” he remembered before launching into a playful musical interlude. “That [section] is the main course. I use a lot of food analogies. I’m a food oriented guy. What I was trying to get across is we all know, I’m sure, there were people who peaked a little too early in life.”
“When we were in high school, there were the people we thought who were so cool,” he continued. “I thought, ‘Man, I wish I was that guy. He had the perfect pompadour. He always had great clothes, the coolest shoes. He always went out with the coolest girl, and he was always the most popular guy. Then, I saw him at the 10-year union, and this guy was like a caved in ashtray…”
As the song shifts style, the second verse begins unraveling “The Ballad of Brenda and Eddie”:
“Brenda and Eddie were the popular steadies / And the king and the queen of the prom / Riding around with the car top down and the radio on / Nobody looked any finer / Or was more of a hit at the Parkway Diner / We never knew we could want more than that out of life.”
In piecing together the story, Joel questioned if the songwriting was “too preachy” in tone and soon came up with the “bottle of white” intro, which didn’t feel like a song in and of itself. “It’s a prelude to something,” he noted. He then took a cue from The Beatles’ iconic Abbey Road record, referencing “Golden Slumbers” from side two, specifically. Particular chords and other bits and pieces slowly came together to eventually culminate in one of Joel’s most enduring classics, produced by Phil Ramone.
The Hollywood Reporter reported in late 2019 that the song would become the basis for a new TV series. Various lyrics from his impressive catalog will then be spun into episodes. The series is still in the works for MGM Television.
The legacy of “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” lives on.