For those who think accordion music is just for Oktoberfest celebrations or doing the polka with someone who watches reruns of "The Lawrence Welk Show," the Long Island Accordion Alliance is out to change your mind.
Sure, there's always some lively dance music when the group performs, but the tunes they play at an East Northport restaurant once a month also come from operas and Broadway shows. Some have an international flair as well.
The eight musicians, who range in age from their 50s to their 90s, play on the first Wednesday of every month except December at La Villini on Larkfield Road. Their next date before the break is Nov. 4. During the four years since their first engagement there, they have built a fan base of regulars who return for the food and music and often fill the restaurant with about 80 diners, says La Villini owner Frank Catania. "It's been pretty great for me," he says.
Philip Franzese, a member of the group who has been playing the instrument for 76 of his 85 years, recalls when accordions were considered cool. "When I was a kid, it was the instrument of choice," says Franzese, who lives in Garden City and usually hosts the once-a-month rehearsals.
Other members agree, saying the accordion was the electric guitar of their youth; the popular instrument at nightclubs and in bands. At home, they say, accordion music was played in the living room after Sunday dinner. Most of the men in the group learned the instrument when they were boys.
Dominic Karcic, 72, a professional accordionist who founded the Long Island Accordion Alliance and who sits on the governing board of the Connecticut-based American Accordionists' Association, enjoys playing with this group.
"The older guys [in the group], they love it," says Karcic, who started playing when he was 10. From the beginning, they've been drawing good crowds at La Villini, he says. "People love the accordion. The first time we played, 35 people showed up."
Ray Oreggia, 64, of Syosset, also serves on the American Accordion Association's governing board and enjoys playing before diners who appreciate the entertainment. "It's always nice when there's an audience," he says. "It's fun to see live music. It's how it used to be."
The 'boys' pack them in
The dining room at La Villini is long and narrow, but at their performance last month, the men fit in nicely, even with their accordions strapped to their chests. There are usually eight members who play each month, but that night, one couldn't make it. Waiters do a tango, sliding by to serve the tables. Diners clap to the beat of the polkas, or sway to "The Breeze and I," a classic mid-20th century song with a Cuban flair.
The "boys" -- as they often refer to themselves -- flow right into "Don't Cry for Me Argentina," from the Broadway show "Evita." They're all dressed in the alliance uniform of black pants, white shirt and red tie.
When the group's president, Joseph Campo, sings "Wooden Hearts," accompanied by the musicians, the entertainers are rewarded with hearty applause. For some diners, the ensemble's music brings back memories. "We would go to my grandmother's for Sunday dinner, and someone would play the mandolin and the accordion and someone would be on the guitar," says Lisa Loretz, 54, of Commack.
Often, a special guest accordionist takes the stage after the alliance plays their half-hour set, but on this night, regular members Oreggia and Karcic grab the spotlight to play the Israeli folk song "Hava Nagila," the French waltz "Domino" and the pasodoble favorite, "España Cañí."
Thomas Staudacher, of Port Jefferson, says he, his wife and friends make it a point to see the accordionists perform. "They make a great sound," says Staudacher, 73, who owns Frank & Camille's piano store in Melville.
Restaurant owner Catania says the accordion players usually pack the house. "It's great," he says.
A passion rediscovered
There's a deep friendship among the musicians, reflected in their easy way with each other and the fluidity of their music. "I call these fellows my accordion buddies," says Robert La Bua, who helps organize the group when he's not working as a project manager for a recycling company.
Most of the members started playing the instrument when they were in their teens or younger. As they got older, jobs and family took priority and the accordions were put away -- only to be rediscovered years later when there was more leisure time. And once again, they say, it's become a big part of their lives.
"As long as I have an accordion," says La Bua, 78, "I will never be bored. Whenever I have free time I just reach for my accordion." The group is compensated with a free meal for performing and they often run a 50-50 raffle, splitting the proceeds, which basically amounts to gas money, he says.
Karcic came up with the concept of a regular group that plays on Long Island to bring amateur accordionists together with professionals. "Everybody just loves to play," he says. "We fill the room just about every time. It's a festive instrument. A happy instrument."
Santo Endrizzi, 94, was ill and couldn't play with the guys for their October show, but he hopes to be there Wednesday. Keeping up his skills with the accordion has sentimental value, he says. Years ago, he would play the keyboard and his wife would sing. She died a few years ago and now he plays the accordion with the group. "It's what keeps me busy," he says.
More than that, says president Campo, "It's a deep friendship. There's a camaraderie among us."
Meet the players
Dominic Karcic, 72, Commack
Years playing 62
Favorite song All types of Continental music
Joseph Campo, 56, Wantagh
Years playing 47
Favorite song Anything by Charles Magnante
Santo Endrizzi, 94, New Hyde Park
Years playing 77
Favorite song "Come Back to Sorrento"
Philip Franzese, 85, Garden City
Years playing 76
Favorite song "Fascination"
Robert La Bua, 78, East Northport
Years playing 71
Favorite song "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing"
Ray Oreggia, 64, Syosset
Years playing 56
Favorite song "The song that I'm playing at the time"
Philip Prete, 88, Bethpage
Years playing 78
Favorite song "On the Trail" from "The Grand Canyon Suite"
Gregory Zukoff, 51, Bellmore
Years playing 42
Favorite song "Minor Swing"
To catch the Long Island Accordion Alliance at La Villini on Wednesday, Nov. 4, be sure to make reservations (288 Larkfield Rd., East Northport; 631-261-6344). The band starts promptly at 7 p.m. and plays for about 30 minutes. The second part of the show usually features an accordion soloist or duet, offering another 30 minutes of entertainment.