Veteran Mike Russo eats ziti and meatballs for lunch with his grandson Robbie Russo, 4, at Salem Food Market. Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe
By Bella English
March 22, 2015
When I heard that Fred Zagami, owner of the Salem Food Market in Dedham, had started giving away free lunches to fellow veterans on the first Tuesday of each month, the name rang a bell. It turns out I’d written about another veteran named Zagami back in 2010: Jonathan Zagami, who was still a teenager in May 2002 when he shipped out with the first ground forces that invaded Iraq.
“Jon’s my cousin, and one of the reasons I’m doing this,” Fred said the other day, explaining why he is buying lunch for veterans despite taking a huge hit in his sales during the recent snowstorms.
Four days after he turned 18, Jonathan joined the Army Reserve. In Iraq, he cleared minefields, did demolition work, and built camps and guard towers for the soldiers. He returned to Needham two years later with post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury. He suffered a stroke, and had an enlarged heart from untreated high blood pressure. He was barely 20 years old.
With the help of his beloved sister, Jaime, who enrolled in classes with him and kept a close eye on things, Jonathan managed to finish University of Massachusetts Amherst. I remember being impressed with the bond between brother and sister. At graduation in 2008, they stood side by side, arms linked.
I had found them through the then-fledgling Home Base Program, a partnership between the Red Sox Foundation and Massachusetts General Hospital to treat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan dealing with PTSD and traumatic brain injury, the two signature wounds of the wars. Home Base has since gone on to help countless veterans and their families in New England.
I asked Fred how his younger cousin is doing these days, and he reported that Jonathan is living in Tennessee and working for Caterpillar Inc. “He had a rough time for a while, but he’s doing really well,” Fred says.
Fred, who is 39, spent eight years in the Army National Guard, and was stationed in Panama as the canal was taken over by the Panamanian government in 1999. “There was a lot of violence,” he recalls. “We went there for support.”
But in 2001, shortly before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he got out of the Guard. “I found out I was having a daughter,” he explains. “But I still have friends in the unit who have been deployed three or four times already.”
Five years ago, he bought the Salem Food Market from a friend. He jokes that the friend’s mother came with the deal; or at least her home cooking did. That would be Lina Ballarano. “I worked for her when I was 17 years old, and now she’s working for me,” Fred says.
Ballarano is the one who makes all the daily specials at the Italian restaurant, which include things like baked stuffed chicken with mac and cheese. “She’s from Italy; she’s amazing,” says Fred. “The way she cooks here is the way she cooks at home. She’s authentic.”
Zagami is big on giving back to the community, offering free lunches every Sept. 11 to all public safety workers such as police and firefighters, and to all vets each Veterans Day. A cause dear to his heart is DorkStrong, a nonprofit created in memory of his friend, Boston firefighter Michael R. Kennedy, a Marine Corps veteran who died a year ago while battling a nine-alarm blaze in the Back Bay. Kennedy’s nickname was “Dork.” Killed along with him last March 26 was Lieutenant Edward J. Walsh Jr.
“I want my brothers and sisters in arms to know that I haven’t forgotten their sacrifice that they make or made each day,” Fred says. He also wants his daughter, who is now 12, to know the importance of giving back to others, especially those who “provide our country with security and freedom.”
The next veterans lunch is April 7. At the first one, earlier this month, a boot camp buddy surprised him and showed up. “It was a good turnout, and I hope other businesses will start their own campaigns to help veterans,” Zagami says.
I’ve always been impressed with what the food community does to help causes, from throwing fund-raisers to donating to food banks to making meals. Whether it’s a five-star restaurant or the Salem Food Market, the act of feeding someone is an act of love. As Cesar Chavez put it: “The people who give you their food give you their heart.” Fred Zagami, in the name of his cousin and all other veterans, is giving both.
Bella English writes from Milton. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.