There's nothing occasional about "Occasional Ray."

Defying his nickname, 86-year-old Ray DeForest has shown up nearly every night for six years at the piano in Caffe Portofino in Northport, where he plays standards long ago learned by heart.

The small binder propped up on the piano is filled with song titles, but no sheet music -- DeForest relies on memory.

"I play in two keys only," he said between tunes last week. "I tell people who come in, 'I'm not a professional.' "

Still, DeForest, who plays for free and doesn't accept tips, has attracted an appreciative audience at the coffee shop, including artist Maria Dabo-Peranic, 77, of East Northport.

"I love his music," Dabo-Peranic said as she listened to DeForest. "I come here almost every night because at 6 p.m. I know he's here."

DeForest, who plays from 6 to 8 p.m., started his ongoing gig at Portofino by chance.

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"I came into this place, and here was this piano [with a sign] that said, 'Play me,' " he said.

DeForest mostly plays sentimental songs -- "Misty," "As Time Goes By," and "Someone to Watch Over Me" are a few of his favorites. He said he used to perform at the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center, but had to stop playing his favorites after the staff noticed a change among the patients.

"They'd have to advise me -- don't play the sentimental stuff," DeForest said. "They'd get weepy."

DeForest, a slight, trim man wearing bright white sneakers and a blue sport coat, has lived in Northport since 1969. He taught English, social studies, Latin and art in the Cold Spring Harbor Central School District for 26 years.

He grew up in Fitchburg, Mass., and said he's been playing piano since he was 5 -- learning by ear, the way his father and brother had.

"There was always a piano in the house," DeForest said.

He still has a piano in his home but prefers to play at Caffe Portofino on Main Street.

"I love the place," he said. "I love the people who come in here."

He admits to sometimes forgetting which song he's playing at any one point, but his audience doesn't seem to mind.

"A lot of the songs are very much alike," he said, adding that he also likes to improvise.

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Stella Harris, whose daughter Lisa Harris owns Caffe Portofino, said DeForest is a welcome addition to the cafe.

"A lot of people come in to hear Ray," Stella Harris said. "We really like it very much that he plays."

DeForest said although he's starting to feel some arthritis in his hands, he plans to keep playing at Caffe Portofino until he can no longer drive there. It's hard for him to stay away.

"It makes me feel good," DeForest said as he sat at the piano. "It gives me energy. It's my therapy. And it beats going to . . ."

But the music overtook him once again, and, trailing off, he lifted his hands to the keys and began to play.