Tony, the accordionist at Emilia's restaurant, likes to be sardonic with his audience. After half an hour of playing "Eh Cumpari," "Hava Nagila," "The Beer Barrel Polka," "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" and "Muss I Denn," he pauses and mutters into the microphone, "For this, I studied at the Berklee School of Music."
"Last week you said it was Juilliard," somebody in the audience shouts.
Tony drowns him out with "Finiculi, Finicula," quickly followed by "Meadowlands," "La Cucaracha" and "New York, New York." The audience vigorously claps in time, loudly singing along on some of the songs and once in a while demanding the cordless microphone for solos.
There are actually two Tonys at Emilia's. Tony Tortarelli is the accordionist, and the other Tony, who prefers to be known as Tony Tony, is the owner, a wiry, jittery wisecracker who says ironically, "I run this place for the peace and quiet," whether you come in on a slow night--meaning a Monday or a Tuesday, when there's no music and the place may look like it's going broke--or when the roof is coming off the place.
Having the roof come off is the whole point at Emilia's (the place is named for Tony Tony's sister). It's cluttered with outrageous whoopee decor: plastic geese, stopped clocks, quaint signs (We No Longer Offer Valet Service), bushels of plastic grapevines, a forest of helium balloons.
Along with the siren and the rather piercing bell (ding ding! ding ding!) mounted near the conga drums, which Tony the accordionist disdains to play, there are naturally noisemakers for the patrons.
"Wheeoo!" goes the siren. "Ding ding!" goes the bell. The blue light in the ceiling flashes, the madness rises, and sooner or later some people start to dance, though you wonder how they find the room in the clutter--probably it is the lack of room that often leads a conga line to dance out the front door and back in through the kitchen.
Sometimes Tony Tony takes the microphone to sing in a surprisingly strong voice. Sometimes he first ties knots in the corners of a table napkin to make a rustic Italian workman's cap, and sometimes half the men in the room do the same.
Tony Tony has been presiding over this kind of bacchanal for eight years, since he started his original Emilia's in Garden Grove. Three years ago he moved to Santa Ana, into an unprepossessing location that was doubtless a motel coffee shop in its earlier life, and started work on his current place.
For the record, since technically Tony's is a restaurant, the food is pretty good. There's no menu--it's always "at the printers" and what you get is likely to be decided by whether your table happened to ask for red or white wine--but it's likely to be antipasto, salad, fried zucchini with marinara sauce, eggplant parmigiana, pasta with cream and mushrooms, veal marsala, and for dessert fresh fruit and some chunks of coconut flan.
And technically, you could come for the food alone, because there's a dining room hidden in the back that isn't part of the party. But the real reason to come is--ding ding!--the "peace and quiet."
Emilia's, 2101 E. 1st St., Santa Ana , (714) 542-3131. Open for lunch and dinner daily.