You Cannoli Die Once
It was 11:53 p.m., and the late-night regulars showed no sign of leaving.
As I lovingly dried my utility knife, I shouldered open the kitchen’s double doors and peeked into the dining room of Miracolo, our family-owned Italian restaurant. My great-grandfather had opened it back in 1937, and to hear the stories, you’d think he arrived by covered wagon instead of in a 1931 DeSoto.
Apparently Great-Granddad Alberto Camarata just had to get out of the wilds of Brooklyn and travel across the hostile territory of New Jersey before settling in Quaker Hills, Pennsylvania, forty minutes north of Philly. He felt such deliverance from whatever was driving him to leave New York that he named the place Miracolo, “miracle.”
And the miracle business has been driving successive generations of cooking Camaratas and Angelottas crazy ever since. I now watched my grandmother, Maria Pia Angelotta, single-handedly provide the atmosphere here at Miracolo. To get the picture of Maria Pia, think Anne Bancroft with more wrinkles and bigger boobs. At nearly midnight, after a ten-hour work day, my seventy-six-year-old nonna—Italian for grandmother—was dancing.
This consisted of swaying her hips and waving her arms experimentally, because she’d once watched a movie about Isadora Duncan. “Che bella ragazza”—what a beautiful girl—she opined, “even if she wasn’t Italian.” Nonna didn’t wear the perpetual old-world widow’s weeds that pretty much resemble a Hefty bag with a white lace collar. Her black-clad hips were much more fashion forward, making it all the way to 1955 and those belted, full skirts sported by Lucy Ricardo.
I watched contentedly in the afterglow of my saltimbocca alla Eva—that’s me, Eve Angelotta, head chef here at Miracolo—the veal special that had sold out early. It always does, which I attribute to the fact that I substitute tarragon for sage. Tarragon is user-friendly. Sage is . . . well, like a dancing grandmother who believes your purpose in life should be to find a nice Italian boy, get married, and produce future chefs for Miracolo.
While I inhaled the lingering aroma of the caper-tarragon gravy, Leo, one of the regulars, launched into a mandolin version of “Three Coins in the Fountain.” This was bad news, because that song always undid Maria Pia to the extent that she’d start flinging herself around the dining room in full circles, which was alarming if you happened to be glassware.
“Is she weeping yet?” My cousin (and sous chef) Landon Angelotta slipped behind me, craning to peer into the dining room.
“Almost.” Nonna always sobs at the line “Each heart longing for its home.” Two lines later the songwriter rhymes home with Rome—that place in the south—so we suspect she must have had her heart broken by a Roman.
Landon reported: “And . . . there she goes.”
But then our aged bartender, Giancarlo Crespi, dressed in his traditional red jacket, stepped out from behind the gleaming teakwood bar and stiffly approached my grandmother with a white linen napkin in his left hand. Some of the late-nighters whistled and pounded the tables that they always rearrange for the entertainment, and they all chimed in, singing the lyrics, a game I refer to as Find the Key. Was Giancarlo surrendering? Was he a matador with a death wish, approaching the bullish Maria Pia?
But no. Like the proud Genovese immigrant
he was, he caught Maria Pia in a one-armed clasp, saving our glassware, and they improvised some wannabe sexy spin, circling his white linen napkin overhead. A real crowd-pleaser.
My friend Dana Cahill, who usually sings with the grappa-drinking music makers, was absent that night. When she’s there, roaming around with her cordless mic, she and Maria Pia end up as dueling divas, their smiles frozen in place, but really trying to top each other with boisterous renditions of “Those Were the Days.” Most evenings there are a couple of acoustic guitars, a mandolin, a homemade string bass, a tambourine, and bongos. Occasionally the clarinet shows up.
I gave skinny, dear Landon a quick hug and sent him out through the double doors. “Buona notte, bellissimo,” I whispered. He melted as nicely as the butter in his saucepan.
Dancing quickly across my beautiful black-and-white-tiled floor, I dreamed about my upcoming trip to the American Culinary Federation’s annual convention in Orlando in three weeks. Nonna had seemed positively airy and magnanimous when she told me she’d pay for me to go.
As I placed my precious utility knife back in the block, I happened to glance out the long window behind the cavernous stainless steel sinks—and couldn’t believe my eyes.
In the light of the half-moon, a man in floral swim trunks was standing on top of our compost bin. The five-foot-high wood enclosure is at the very back of the property, behind some flowering bushes at the end of the expansive dining courtyard that we open for dining every June first.
It looked like the guy had pulled over a wrought-iron patio chair to help himself up. And, from what I could tell, he was barefoot and edging his way around the front of the bin with something in his hands.
I silently opened the back door. The thumping bass from the open dining room windows, and the group bellowing a big finish to the Fountain song—“Make it mine! Make it mine! Make it mine!”—was why the compost man didn’t hear me creep up on him, armed with the first thing I could grab near the kitchen door.
“What the hell are you doing?” I barked in the voice I usually reserve for housebreaking pets.
He whirled, lost his footing, and went over with a whoop. Whatever he’d been holding in his hands clattered to the patio.
I pulled a tiki light over and saw him clinging to the inside rim of the compost bin. “I see you,” I actually said.
“Well, I know you see me.”
“Get out of there this instant.”
His bare back was resting on what looked like rotting lettuce and potato peels from a couple of days ago. “Can you give me a hand?” he sputtered.
“You got yourself into this mess,” I told him, stepping back and crossing my arms.
The next thing I knew, he was trying to haul himself up with a majestic grunt. In the moonlight there was something sinister in the way he slapped first a forearm and then a leg—a nicely shaped one, I might add—over the top of the bin. I held my breath as the rest of him came into sight like some creature emerging from the kind of sludge in those movies where everyone’s hysterical in dubbed English.
“I’ve got a weapon!” I warned.
He squinted at me. “You’ve got a parasol.”
I looked at my right hand. So I did—the pretty paper and bamboo one my dad had given me after a business trip to Japan, when I was fourteen. I scrambled over to his own weapon that had fallen onto the patio, and picked up . . . a metal detector. He was going through my compost in floral swim trunks with a metal detector? What kind of roving weirdo does that? I held on to the metal detector just in case.
As he rested on the rim, he asked, “Could I have the chair, please?”
Hmm—was that safe? Well, whatever was going
to happen was going to happen. In the time it took me to run inside for the phone, he could be all over me. Besides, there was something about his comfort with the word parasol that worked in his favor.
I tugged the patio chair over with my leg, hopping on my other foot. I thought he said thank you, but only the compost could say for sure.
“Are you hurt?” I didn’t want a headline like that one a few years ago, where a burglar sued the homeowner because he got hurt during the commission of the crime.
“Well.” I widened my eyes at him. “And who brought that on?”
“And frustrated.” He let out a huge sigh.
“Look,” I said, shoving the chair right underneath him, “I don’t know what kind of fetish you have going on, but I want you to stay out of my garbage. Are we clear on that? You’re trespassing—”
He showed a certain amount of grace—and an attractive bare chest—as he lowered himself to the chair. “Am I really, Eve?” He gave a quick push through his short hair, then looked me straight in the eye.
Violins blared like sirens. Hitchcock films crowded around. “How do you know my name?”
“You’re Eve Angelotta, Miracolo’s head chef.”
Did he catch me on that Good Neighbors show on WYBE TV 35? Was I famous?
Then he went on kind of sheepishly, “To tell you the truth, I was here last night.”
“What are you talking about?”
“With, well, you know, your cousin . . . ”
Ah, my cousin, the organic farmer Kayla. I should have known.
Unless he meant Landon. I eyed him.
Brushing coffee grounds out of his hair, he told me his name was Joe Beck, lawyer brother of the hunky florist James Beck three doors up from Miracolo. (He didn’t actually say “hunky.”) He had just moved out from Philly a couple of months ago and was helping in the shop this week whenever he could fit it in between clients. He had met my cousin Kayla during one of her early-morning power walks. I didn’t want to tell him that Kayla had probably seen him around, fancied him, and spun him a tale about regular exercise that I knew never happened.
“One thing led to another—” he said.
“And you ended up here.”
On the leather couch in the office, was my guess.
He squinted at me in the glare of the tiki light, but since I stood in the shadows, he wouldn’t be able to see my face clearly. His own was pretty
good, if you overlooked the bit of zucchini on his forehead. Everything about him was wry—the mouth, the eyes, even the nose, which veered off a little at the end. The hair just did a trim dark blond thing with a golden assist from the moonlight.
“Well, it’s kind of embarrassing.”
“For you, maybe.”
“Kayla didn’t think you’d mind,” he said.
“No, Kayla didn’t think I’d know.” She just might lose key privileges over this. “How many nights?”
He seemed to study the trumpet vine on the stockade fence. “Three.” Then he said, “It seemed to run its course,” which was an uncannily accurate way of describing my cousin’s viral love life.
I finally handed him his metal detector. “What were you looking for?”
He slung the metal detector over his shoulder, then gave me a two-fingered salute. “My wedding ring,” he said, and disappeared through the gate.
I twirled my pink paper parasol and headed back to the kitchen.
From inside the dining room came the opening finger picks of “My Heart Will Go On,” played on two guitars. It sounded like someone had actually brought a pan flute—although I had often
witnessed the mandolin-playing Leo cup his hands to his mouth and make a sound like a loon. Pretty, either way.
On the morning of May 27, my life seemed to be scored by an Oscar-winning composer:
A good-looking compost invader at midnight.
A job I loved, although I’d never admit it to Nonna.
A new satin-and-lace camisole in chocolate brown from my favorite boutique down the street, Airplane Hangers.
A new shampoo that delivered shine, volume, and coverage—everything I like in a man but with fewer complications.
So it felt particularly unfair when I let myself into Miracolo at 1:21 p.m., singing Lionel Ritchie’s “Endless Love” in a lavish falsetto, and strode into my kitchen. Whereupon something looked terribly out of place.
Maybe it was the body on the floor.
What looked like an older man, sprawled on his stomach, wearing khaki pants and a yellow short-sleeved summer shirt. When I tried to see past all the blood, I noticed that his head was bashed in. Skulls that look like that are pretty much done
working the Times crossword puzzle, not to mention finding any kind of a hat that fits.
I started shaking.
I staggered over to the wall, where I meant to turn on the lights, but flipped the switch that started the loop of Sinatra music. “My Way” started, and my eyes slid back to the dead guy.
Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention . . .
Melting against the wall, I killed the music and looked around the empty Miracolo kitchen, trembling.
Who did this? And why here, in my place?
My nonna might own the restaurant, swanning around chatting up the regulars and sampling my sauces while trying to convince me I’ll never “catch a man” wearing pants (to which I counter, “How about one wearing a skirt?”), but Miracolo felt like mine.
I pushed myself off the wall and looked more closely at the dead guy, afraid it was somebody I knew—some delivery guy, a regular customer, ex-boyfriend, or maybe even my so-called father. He’d been gone for so many years I wasn’t sure I’d recognize him. We were pretty sure his farewell note, “I can’t take her anymore,” referred to his mother, Maria Pia.
The guy had short, thick white hair and his face had a kind of hard, rubbery look. His eyes were
glazed, like he was trying to look out from behind frosted glass. And his mouth was frozen in a look that seemed to say, I’m not sure this is quite what I had in mind for today.
One thing was for sure: I didn’t know him. Had never seen him before.
This was an immense relief.
So why were my hands still shaking?
Just tell yourself it’s like having a misdelivered package. Call someone who can come take him away, preferably in the next five minutes, before Landon—
“Someone’s in the kitchen with E-e-eve,” sang out Landon.
“Someone’s in the kitchen, I know-oh-oh-oh.” Then he flipped on all the overhead lights . . . and shrieked.