Paisan's Pizzeria Lost and Flounder

by Sherri Miller
A few months after opening their family style restaurant, owners Tony and Paula Datillo managed to rid Paisan’s 19th century brownstone of the faulty wiring that blew so many fuses during dinner service.  Paisan’s Pizzeria was now rewired and central air conditioning installed in the hopes of drawing in hungry customers seeking refuge from the unrelenting July sun.  However, customers who sat at the cozy booths topped with red and white checked tablecloths did not order many cheese filled pasta entrees or meat laden pizzas, and selling pitchers of tea and beer alone would not generate much income for the small bistro.  Tony knew something had to be done to generate more business for the rest of the Summer.

At the end of a slow Saturday night, Tony collected the evenings’ receipts to take with him into the kitchen to discuss a plan of action with Gino and the other chefs while wife Paula and Paisan’s four waitresses cleaned and closed the restaurant.   Tony shook his head while thumbing through the days’ receipts as he pushed through the swinging door and into the kitchen.

“Hey guys, can you stop what you’re doin’ for a minute so’s we can talk ‘bout somethin’?  We got a little situation here,” said Tony as he stood in front of the food prep island, tapping his right foot on the black and white tile floor.  “Now I’m not incineratin’ that it’s anyone’s fault, but we all gotta work together here.” Gino and Steve sat down the wine glasses they were drying and joined Tony at the prep table, with Sean following behind them after locking the walk-in freezer for the night.

“If it’s the salad, Tone, I can explain,” offered Sean.  “People have been ordering them like crazy, and I had to skimp a bit on the lettuce ‘cause I was worried we’d run out.”  Sean grabbed one of the clean glasses from the dishwasher rack behind him and turned to the ice maker to the left to fill it with crushed ice and water.  “Anyone else?”  he asked, after which both Tony and Steve raised their hands.  Gino smiled and shook his head, holding up his cold can of Coke for all to see.  Sean filled two more glasses with crushed ice and water and sat them on the food prep table.

“No, Sean, it ain’t that,” said Tony as he wiped his forehead with a dirty kitchen towel and took a long gulp from his glass of ice water.  “but it does have something to do with salad,” he continued.  “Salad, iced tea, beer, and cold shrimp cocktail.  These are the foods people are orderin’ now, and we ain’t makin’ enough dough.”  Tony spread out the customer receipts on the table, pointing out the sparse orders.  “We gotta come up with some ideas for Summer food, something different from all of the other Italian restaurants nearby.”  Tony looked up at Gino, waiting for a reply from his head chef, who along with Tony and Paula chose the dishes on Paisan’s menu.  Being unique as an Italian restaurant in New York City’s “Little Italy” would not be easy, and this was Paisan’s first Summer.

“People seem to like grilled foods in the Summer,” said Gino while pulling on his coal black goatee.  “We could serve grilled Italian sausage, and make our salads more like meals by putting fruit, nuts, and crumbled mild Italian sausage in them,” he continued.

“Hey, that’s a great idea,” interrupted Steve.  “What a cool way to attract hot chicks – a sausage fest!  We could get rid of those stuck-up waitresses and serve it up ourselves.  We could wear red Speedo bottoms and matching wife beaters to show our rippling muscles of masculinity.”  Steve and Sean laughed loudly, while Gino searched Tony’s face for an explanation.

“Will you two shut up?  You won’t be laughin’ when you’re laid off.  Let Gino finish,” Tony demanded.   Sean and Steve quit laughing, and Steve took a drink of water while Sean chewed on an ice cube.   “Go ahead, Gino,” said Tony.  “What else do you have in mind?”

“Well, how about introducing some hoagy sandwiches, like a grilled Italian beef hoagie?   And how about a grilled fish hoagie with onions, butter, and garlic, and a meatball hoagy with melted mozzarella?  I could come up with a half dozen Italian style hoagy sandwiches, each served with a pickle and chips.”  Sean rubbed his hands on his stomach, smiling at Gino’s suggestions, while Steve nodded his approval as well.

“That sounds great, Gino,” said Tony as he patted Gino on the back.  “Maybe we could add an Italian version of that cold Pachinko soup to our lunch menu as part of a combo special for soup and salad or a soup and sandwich deal?  You know, price each combo a couple dollars less than if the food was ordered individually,” Tony suggested.

“You mean Gazpacho soup,” said Gino gently. “The cold, raw tomato soup with spices, bread, and vinegar from Andalusia, in southern Spain, right?”  

“Yeah, that’s what I said,” Tony replied.  “Well, whatta ya think?”

“I think it would make for a tasty and unique addition to our Summer menu,” Gino said, as he began making notes in a small spiral notebook he kept in his apron pocket.

“That’s a great idea, Tone,” said Steve, stifling a laugh.  “But what about entrees for dinner?  People don’t want to eat hot, filling food like lasagna when it’s ninety degrees outside.  And hoagie sandwiches and cold soup won’t offer enough variety.”  Steve looked at Sean, who, shaking his head, agreed with Steve.

“And I haven’t had many orders for pizza, either,” said Sean.  “But when I do, it isn’t for our ‘meat lover’s monster’ or our ‘cheese stuffed double crust’.  It’s usually a simple cheese or pepperoni pizza.”  Sean leaned on the table, playing with the remaining ice cubes in his glass while all three men looked to Gino for the answer.

“How about a shrimp and angel hair tagliarini?”  Gino said.   “Another idea I have is cubed ham and zucchini baked in a light white sauce.  One of my favorites is grilled salmon topped with a creamy cucumber sauce, served on a bed of angel hair with an artichoke, olive, and pepper medley on the side.  A Sicilian favorite of my grandmother’s is baked Italian flounder, served over mushroom risotto and topped with a lemony white wine sauce.  You know, something light and tasty for the hot Summer nights. What do you think, Tony?”  Gino paused to gauge his co-worker’s reactions.

“That’s it!  We’ll call our new menu ‘Hot Summer Nights’, and we’ll mention that it’s for a limited time only,” exclaimed Tony as he raised his hands in the air as if he were cheering for a winning baseball team.  Sean and Steve smiled, and Gino let out a deep sigh of relief.  Tony placed his hands in his white apron pockets and smiled.  “I think you’re a genius, Gino.  Make sure to write all of this down and give it to Paula just as soon as you’re done.  She’ll type it up tomorrow and we’ll go shopping for the new ingredients.  Let’s have one specialty entrée for each night.  This way, diners will keep comin’ back for more.”  Tony looked to his three chefs for approval, and all agreed on the new menu choices.

After a few weeks had passed, Paisan’s Pizzeria was full again every night as it had been in the months before, and the “Hot Summer Nights” menu was a success.  Regular customers frequented the family bistro more often, and many new customers and tourists enjoyed Gino’s Summer menu creations.

At the end of a particularly busy Friday night, a shapely dark haired woman wearing a white tailored jacket and matching short satin skirt and heels approached the kitchen door, her scarlet painted lips matching the silk chemise she wore under her suit.  Too short to see through the small round window, she stood on her tip-toes in an attempt to see inside the kitchen. Tony saw her from the front of the restaurant and walked toward her to see if she was in need of assistance.  The twenty-something year-old woman with oversized brown eyes blinked her long, black eyelashes as she twirled her shoulder length wavy hair and smiled as Tony approached.

“May I help you with somethin’, ma’am?” he asked, bowing slightly with his hands folded in front of him.

“Yes,” she said, smiling a broad, pearly white, toothy grin.  “Are you the chef that prepared the flounder tonight?”

“Is there a problem?” replied Tony, folding his hands across his chest as he awaited her answer.

“No, of course not!” she exclaimed.  “It was the best I’ve ever had.  I’d like to congratulate the chef, that’s all, if you don’t mind.”  She continued to smile and placed her hands on her hips.  “If that’s okay.”

“Well, sure, why not.  I’m Tony, the owner, by the way.  I mean, along with my wife, Paula, up front.”  Tony pointed to the front podium where Paula stood, waving goodbye to the last diners that remained after eleven o’clock.

“I’m Valentina, nice to meet you,” she said, extending her arm out to Tony.  “This is my first visit to Paisan’s, and after that flounder, I’ll be back again,” she continued, as she shook Tony’s hand.  “I can’t wait to meet the chef.”

“Oh, yeah, right.  Come on back,” said Tony as he held open the door and followed her into the kitchen.  

“This,” he said loudly, pointing to the stove, “is Gino.  Gino, this is Valentina, and she’d like to speak to you about her dinner tonight.”  Gino turned and dropped the spatula he was holding as his eyes locked on the shapely woman.   Gino squatted down to pick it up and tossed it into the soapy dishwater in the sink behind him.  Tony raised his eyebrows several times as he smiled and looked at Sean and Steve, nodding his head toward the curvy young woman as he exited the kitchen.

“Er, hi there, I’m Gino, the head chef.  How can I help you?”  Gino replied, his hand trembling as he wiped the sweat from his forehead with his sleeve and adjusted his toque.  Steve and Sean stopped putting vegetables and salad away in the walk-in refrigerated unit and stood silently, staring at Valentina.

“I just wanted to let you know that the flounder I had tonight was the best I’ve ever eaten.  I’m a bit of a cook myself, but I can’t make flounder like that,” said the smiling woman as she tapped her inch-long red painted nails on the prep table.  

Gino stood silently with his mouth open, his jaw dropped.  Valentina continued.

“Most of my family is quite talented at cooking, except for me.  My older sister Gloria is a pretty good cook, but even she couldn’t pull off a flounder like yours.”  Valentina licked her lips and inhaled deeply and then exhaled.   “Mmm…my mother has always said that I need to learn how to cook fish better.  I just can’t seem to get the hang of it.  Is it really that difficult?  Is there some simple secret you can show me?”  Valentina tilted her head to one side and batted her eyelashes as she continued to smile at Gino.

“Well, uh, um, no, it isn’t that simple, I mean, no, it is hard, I mean…sure, I could show you sometime,” Gino stuttered, keeping both trembling hands in his apron pockets.

“Great!” announced Valentina to the room, clapping her hands in front of her chest, her tongue touching her scarlet lips.  “I was hoping you’d volunteer!  Why don’t I come over to your place on Sunday.  I’ll bring the food, and you supply the talent.  If nothing else, we’ll enjoy a great meal together.  That is if you’re wife or girlfriend doesn’t mind.  I mean, I don’t want to impose or anything…”  Valentina bowed her head slightly, opening her eyes even more widely as she looked up and stared into Gino’s, awaiting his reply.

“Um, no, my girlfriend won’t mind.  I mean no, I don’t have a wife…or a girlfriend.”  Gino took a deep breath and reached under his starched white toque and scratched his head as he exhaled.  “Sure, I’ll show you how it’s done.  I just live around the corner at 145 Mulberry Street.   What time would be convenient for you?”

“Noon would be best, really.  This way you’ll have plenty of time to teach me, and maybe if I’m good, you’ll show me how you made that perfectly moist mushroom risotto tonight.  I’ve never eaten such a tasty risotto without any clumps or stickiness!” she exclaimed.  “Even my mother would be surprised.”

“Sure,Valentina.  Noon on Sunday will be fine,” Gino said.  “Don’t worry about bringing any ingredients, though.  I believe I’ve got everything we need.  I planned on making some grilled flounder and scallops this weekend, and we can use what I’ve got to re-create the white wine and lemon flounder instead.”

Still standing in the corner just outside of the walk-in, Sean and Steve were staring at the curvaceous woman, setting a record for their speechlessness.

“Oh, thank you so much,” she said, as she took a step forward and gave Gino a quick but tight hug, along with a short kiss on his left cheek.  “I’ll see you Sunday.  Don’t forget!” She waved to the three men as she pivoted around on her four-inch high heels and gracefully walked out of the kitchen.

Sean was the first to break the silence.  “I wonder what that was about?”  he asked, staring at the kitchen door as if Valentina’s image were frozen on its white panel.  “That’s a little bit strange, don’t ya think?”

“What, that a beautiful woman invited herself to Gino’s apartment, or that a beautiful woman kissed Gino,” Steve laughed.

“You two always have to make something out of nothing.  She simply wants to know how to make a tender flounder, nothing else.  Fish is an Italian staple, after all.  Nothing could be simpler than an Italian woman wanting to know how to make Italian food.”  Gino resumed putting salad ingredients in storage containers and stacking them on the counter.  “Come on, Sean, put these in the refrigerator please.”

“Yeah, right,” said Sean as he obeyed his boss’ order.  “Nothing could be simpler than an Italian woman wanting to know how to cook Italian food,” he mimicked in a high falsetto with his hands on his hips.   Steve and Sean laughed, after which Sean returned to his regular speaking voice to register his doubts about Valentina’s motives.  “If that’s true, why aren’t there hoards of lanky lasses waiting in line for me to show them how to make the perfect shepherd’s pie?” he asked.

“Well, for one thing,” said Steve.  “You can’t cook a perfect shepherd’s pie.  And for another , you’re short, ugly, and married!”  Gino smiled as Steve laughed and dodged an empty plastic storage bowl that Sean hurled at him.

“But the women wouldn’t know I’m married!” he protested.

“So you admit being short and ugly, as well as being a bad cook then?” laughed Steve.

“Come on, you two,” said Gino. “I, for one, want to get out of here early tonight.  I have a lot to do tomorrow and early Sunday morning as well.  My apartment is past due for some Spring cleaning.   Put the rest of the food in the refrigerator so we can finish up and go home.”  Gino began washing a few dishes, as Steve brought over the last two dirty plates from the ready window left by the waitresses just before leaving.

Steve picked up the second stack of sealed storage bowls and joined Sean in the walk-in refrigerator.  “All joking aside, mate,” said Steve as he entered the eight foot by ten foot forty-degree room.  “You gotta admit there’s something funny about that woman.  Since when has Gino had a woman over to his place?  How many beautiful women have you ever seen with him?”

After placing his food containers on the shelf designated for salad ingredients, Sean stood erect and answered Steve.  “You’re just jealous because you don’t have a beautiful woman in your life, that’s all,” he blurted out.

“That’s really cold, man.  I’m just lookin’ out for Gino, and you gotta go and attack me personally.  So what?  Just because I haven’t gone out on a date since last Labor Day, you gotta rub it in, don’t cha?”  Steve slammed his containers down on the table next to Sean’s.

“I’m sorry, dude.  I wasn’t thinking,” said Sean.  “I guess you do have a point.  Gino is so shy, he never even talks about women, much less about asking one out on a date.  But what could this Valentina want from him other than a free cooking lesson?  I gotta admit, she is one hot babe.”  Sean let out a deep breath and said “whoo” as he wiped his forehead with his hand.

“Yeah, she really is sexy.  Maybe it’s nothing more than her wanting to surprise her parents with a good dish of fish and risotto.  On the other hand, even you have a beautiful wife, so I guess there’s hope for all of us, you crusty little leprechaun!”  Steve ran out quickly and put his weight against the door from the outside so Sean could not exit.  After a few muffled screams and an expletive from Gino, Steve released his long time friend and the men closed down the kitchen for the evening.

*

On Monday morning just before ten o’clock, Steve pulled into Paisan’s parking lot, with Sean pulling in behind him.  Steve parked and walked over to talk to Sean as he was getting out of his car.

“You’ll never believe what I did yesterday after Gino’s cooking lesson,” he said.  Steve tossed his car keys in the air and caught them in his right hand as he placed his left hand on his hip.

“Oh, I bet I can,” answered Sean.  “You followed Valentina after she left Gino’s place, didn’t you, just like you followed that waitress last year?”  Sean caught Steve’s keys in mid-air after Steve tossed them yet another time.   Steve opened his mouth to protest, but Sean continued.  “You just can’t leave well enough alone, can you?  What’s so strange about Gino having a girlfriend?  He’s older than the both of us, and it’s about time he found someone special, don’t you think?”  Sean tossed Steve’s keys back to him as the two began to walk to the front door of Paisan’s.

“First of all, I did not follow Jemma last year,” Steve protested.

“Then why were you peering around the corner of a building on Tieman Place and Broadway where she lives last Fall?”  Sean crossed his arms over his chest and smiled as he leaned against Steve’s car.

“I just happened to see her there when I was um, going over to the Manhattan School of Music to meet my sister for lunch when her classes started up again.  Yeah, that’s right,” Steve said as he looked at Sean, whose grin broadened.  

“I thought your sister graduated last May, didn’t she?”  Sean took out a black plastic comb from his pocket and turned to tidy his hair as he looked in Steve’s left side mirror.

“Yeah, she did, but she must’ve been there for somethin’ else then,” said Steve.  “How’m I supposed to remember some insignificant thing I did from almost a year ago?  How’d you know I was over there, anyway?  Maybe you were spyin’ on me!

“I just heard Jemma and Sally laughing and talking about it around Christmas last year, that’s all.  I’m sure you’re right, though.  Besides, you dumped her, right?”  Sean looked at his watch and began to walk toward Paisan’s front door.

“Yeah, that’s right.  Anyway, about Gino, yeah, that’s what I did, because I suspected that this Valentina woman was up to somethin’, you know, somethin’ she didn’t mention the other night,” Steve said as he followed behind Sean.  “It seems she forgot to tell him one tiny little detail when she mentioned she could cook.  Not only can she cook, but she also owns a new restaurant, right here in Little Italy.  An Italian restaurant.”   Steve stopped walking and stood with his hands on his hips as he awaited Sean’s reply.  Sean also stopped and scratched his head.

“Are you sure?”  Sean furrowed his brows and cocked his head to the right.  “That doesn’t sound right.”

“Yeah, I’m sure,” said Steve, as the two men continued to walk from the back parking lot toward the front door.  “I followed her when she left yesterday around five o’clock and watched her enter what used to be Grimaldi’s Grocery, you know, on the other side of Mulberry Street.  Anyway, it’s all fixed up now and called Vitelli’s.  It has red and green striped streamers all over the front windows and they have one of those fat Italian chef statues in front of the door.  You know the kind, a short, balding chef with a long, black mustache and a big gut, holding a menu.”  Steve stopped talking and grabbed the doorknob to Paisan’s to enter the building.  Sean grabbed his arm and removed Steve’s hand from the doorknob.

“How do you know she owns it, and what…” Sean peered in Paisan’s front right window and then looked around the side of the building.  Alone with Steve in front of the entrance, he continued.  “…did you do next?”

“Well, they got their phone number on the window of the front door, so I called it on my cell phone.  Some guy answered, so I asked for the owner.  A woman came to the phone and answered “Valentina Vitelli” and again, I asked for the owner.  She stated she was the owner, and I acted like I wanted to know what the special of the day was.  She said that they were closed, but that the grand opening is today.  I thanked her and hung up.  So now whatta ya think?”  

Sean turned Paisan’s doorknob and opened the door to enter, followed by Steve.  “I’ll tell ya what I think .  I think all it means is that she owns a restaurant, and as a fellow chef, she respects Gino.  You gotta admit, he is one helluva cook,” Sean said, raising his eyebrows.  Sean entered the kitchen, and let go of the swinging door, which Steve caught as he entered behind Sean.  “He’s one of those guys that can take any food, no matter how awful it is, and make it into something good.”

“I agree with that,” said Steve as he walked to the sink beside Sean and Gino and began to wash his hands.  “But you’d think she woulda mentioned this last night when she invited herself to his home for free cooking lessons,” he whispered into Sean’s ear.

“Who are we talking about, if I may ask?” said Gino, as he began chopping fresh herbs for his sauce.  Gino began singing Dr. Hook’s “When You’re in Love with a Beautiful Woman” and spinning around on his right foot between the refrain and verses.  “When you’re in love with a beautiful woman, you watch your friends,” he continued.

“We’re talking about you, man, and wondering how your little cooking class went yesterday,” answered Steve.  “That was one hot dish you had, eh Gino?”  Steve elbowed Sean, who was smiling broadly.

“No, actually, the lemon flounder is rather mild and not spicy at all,” he said.  Sean and Steve laughed as they tied their white aprons.  “When you’re in love with a beautiful woman, it never ends,” Gino sang as he continued to chop oregano.

“I was talkin’ about Valentina,” said Steve.  So, what does she do for a living, Gino?”

“Like she said the other day, she’s a cook,” Gino answered.  He set the chopped oregano aside and began to peel and chop some carrots.  “She wants to learn a variety of traditional Sicilian recipes,” he continued.  Gino collected his chopped oregano and the carrots, spun around, and placed the ingredients in a pot of simmering tomato sauce, stirring it gently.  He then picked up three medium size cloves of garlic and cut off the ends and began peeling them as he sang Olivia Newton-John’s “Hopelessly Devoted to You”.

“So she doesn’t work anywhere now, or own a business?” asked Sean.  He and Steve began filling the topping trays with pepperoni, mushrooms, and other ingredients Paisan’s put on their pizzas as they nosed into their boss’ personal affairs.

“What’s with all the questions?  She has a big family, and apparently everyone in her family can cook well.  She has an older sister, Gloria, and says she is the best cook in the family.  I think she’s a bit jealous of her.”  Gino sprinkled the thinly sliced garlic over the olive oil already simmering in a pan on the stove and then held his right hand over his heart and continued singing  “But baby can’t you see, there’s nothin’ else for me to do, I’m hopelessly devoted to you.”  Gino continued serenading and cooking as Steve and Sean looked at each other and smiled.

As the Summer days passed them by, Sean and Steve became accustomed to the daily ritual of Gino singing and dancing as he cooked, and Gino’s happiness became contagious.  Tony barked fewer orders than usual, Paula kept the front reception area running smoothly, and even the waitresses smiled and said ‘hello’ to Sean and Steve from time to time.  Exactly three weeks had now passed since Gino told Steve and Sean about his first home cooking lesson with Valentina Vitelli.

“So how’re things goin’ with Valentina?” asked Steve.  “Are you still teaching her new recipes?”  Sean and Steve stood at the end of the prep table, folding pizza boxes for take-out orders and storing them beneath on the shelves.

“Things are going very well, thank you,” said Gino.  He began singing Frank Sinatra’s “Love and Marriage” as he filleted flounder on the prep table.  “I’m proud of her, actually.  She can now make most of the entrees I create for our Summer menu.”  Gino smiled as he sang “…love and marriage, it’s an institute you can’t disparage…” so what do you fellows think about that?  Isn’t that wonderful?”  Gino set down his knife and wiped his hands on a dish towel as he glanced at his two assistants before placing the fillets on the grill.

“So how long you gonna keep teachin’ her?” asked Steve.

Gino stopped singing to answer his sous chef.  “Well, it may take a bit longer than I originally expected, but she’s working hard, and has begun writing down all of my recipes and techniques.  This weekend she’ll be coming over to learn recipes for Autumn, so I really don’t know how much longer.  Besides, I’m enjoying it.”  Gino began humming the Sinatra tune as he coated the fish with a thin layer of cornstarch, and then sprinkled spices on the flounder.

“That sounds great, Gino,” said Steve.  “Hey Sean, would you help me carry out some fish and chicken from the walk in?”  With Gino’s back to him, Steve quietly used his head to motion back and forth to Sean to follow him to the walk in refrigerator as he mouthed the words “come on”.

“What’sa matter tough guy?  You can’t carry out the food by yourself?”  Sean said as he placed another stack of unfolded boxes under the table, oblivious to Steve’s attention getting maneuvers.

Steve stepped squarely on the toes of Sean’s right foot.

“Ow!  What was that for?”  Chopping and singing, Gino ignored the two men.

Steve grabbed Sean by the arm and pulled him around the corner to the walk in refrigerator.

“Get in here,” he said as he opened the door.  “We gotta talk!”  Steve shoved Sean in and shut the door after he followed behind him.  “Aren’t you worried about Gino?  It’s obvious that this woman is lying to him and hasn’t told him she that she wants his recipes for her new restaurant.”

“How do you figure that?” asked Sean, rubbing his right upper arm where Steve had pulled him just moments before.  “Maybe she does want to learn how to cook better for the sake of cooking well.   So what if she didn’t tell him she owns a restaurant?  Now let me outta here,” the diminutive prep cook demanded.

“So what?  So what?” repeated Steve.  “Hasn’t it occurred to you that she could be trying to steal Gino’s recipes for her own restaurant?  Yeah, Gino is a great chef, but if Valentina’s entire family can cook well, why would she need him to show her how to cook?  She’s sizing up her competition, I tell you, and that’s bad for all of us!  What about Tony and Paula, and Paisan’s?”  Steve stood with his arms crossed over his chest, blocking the door.

“Okay, you may have a point.  That would be bad for Gino, whose heart will be broken, as well as Tony and the rest of us.  But what can we do about it?”  Sean shook his head slowly from side to side.  “Women…I tell ya, never underestimate ‘em!”

“Now listen, here’s my plan.  We tell Tony what’s goin’ on, and ask him to fill in for Gino for an hour or so tonight while I take Gino over to Vitelli’s so he can see it for himself.  I’ve called Vitelli’s several times over the past couple of weeks, and found that Valentina is always there by six o’clock.  We’ll drop in on her just around seven o’clock tonight.  I heard Tony say that today is Gino’s birthday, so we can treat him to a surprise birthday dinner at Vitelli’s.”

“Some surprise!  Besides, that’s right in the middle of dinner service,” said Sean.   “Tony will never let Gino leave then.  But why you and not me?  I could just as easily go with Gino instead.”  Sean folded his arms across his chest and tapped his right foot.  

“I’ve got it all worked out.  When Tony hears what’s at stake, he’ll let Gino and I go for an hour, believe me.  Remember how upset he was at the casino when Gino wanted to go see his cousin Angelo who works there at an Italian restaurant chain?”

“Yeah, but that’s because Tony was afraid of losing him,” said Sean.

“Well, Tony knows that losing Gino and losing business is the same thing, and if Gino’s heart is broken, he won’t be of much use here.  Let me worry about talkin’ to Tony.”

“But why do you have to be the one who takes Gino?” repeated Sean.

“Because I’ve done all the planning, scoped out the place, followed her around, and called Vitelli’s several times,” said Steve, counting each intervention he’d made on his fingers.  “And most importantly, because I’m a paisan, dude.  It’s just one of those things.  You understand, right?”

“Yeah, I guess so.  But don’t think for a moment that I’m not as concerned about Gino as you are.  I don’t want to see him get hurt.  He’s been so happy these past few weeks.  Who knew he had such a great singing voice?” asked Sean, shaking his head.

“Yeah, right, I knew he liked opera, but who woulda guessed he could sing like ‘Ol’ Blue Eyes’ himself?  Look, the longer this fisherwoman casts her line, the deeper she’ll have her hooks into him.  I’d like to tell her to go fish somewhere else and spare Gino from being reeled in by the likes of her.  We gotta do somethin’ before she dumps his carcass and he drowns in a sea of sorrow.  At least this way, he can confront her, and he’ll have the dignity of being the one who ends it,” Steve explained.

“Good idea, I never thought of it like that.  Yeah, the dignity of ending it.  You talk to Tony, and I’ll do whatever is necessary to keep things movin’ back here in the kitchen.  Just give me a sign to let me know if we’re on for tonight or not,” said Sean.

Steve turned around and opened the door to the walk in.  “Okay, I’ll go hunt Tony down and have a word with him now before the lunch crowd rushes in.”  Steve and Sean walked out of the walk in refrigerator and Sean returned to folding pizza boxes.  Steve left the kitchen to find Tony.

“Where’s that fish and chicken you two were going to bring out?” asked Gino.

“Oh yeah, sorry Gino,” said Sean.  I’ll get it.  You want it on the prep table here?” said Sean, pointing to the large table in the middle of the kitchen.

Still humming, Gino nodded.  Sean made several trips to the walk in and brought out the fish and poultry for the day’s meals.  Minutes later, Steve returned to the kitchen and gave Sean the ‘thumbs up’ sign while Gino busily made his lemony fish sauce.

“Change of plans,” whispered Steve to Sean.  “Tony’s already planned a special dinner for Gino back in the private dining room tonight, and has invited Valentina to attend.  He says she’ll be here around six-thirty,” Steve explained.  Sean smiled and returned the ‘thumbs up’ signal to Steve.

Several hours passed, and at six-thirty that evening Tony entered the kitchen.

“Gino, buddy, let me take the reins for an hour or so.  We’ve got a surprise for you,” said Tony.

Gino squinted and tilted his head as he looked at his employer.  “You mean stop cooking?  Tone, I got a dozen or so orders I’m in the middle of preparing,” he answered.

“Great!  That’ll give me a chance to flex my chops behind the stove again,” Tony said as he washed his hands and dried them.  “I’ve been outta the kitchen for too long, and as it is your birthday, I’m treating you to dinner tonight,” said Tony as he picked up some freshly rolled pizza dough and began to spin it.   “Check this out.  I can toss the dough with my right hand, or my left hand.  I’m amphibious!” he exclaimed to his smiling employees. “Anyway, we’re gonna treat you to a special birthday meal Gino,” he said as he placed the dough back onto the flour-topped board.

“But in the middle of dinner service?” Gino protested.  “At least let me finish…”

“Nope, cease and desist right now, and that’s an order,” smiled Tony as he interrupted.  Gino began removing his gloves as Tony stood behind him and untied his apron.  Gino turned and faced Tony, and Tony removed the starched white toque from Gino’s head.

“Paula and I really appreciate what you’ve done for us all and how you’ve made our ‘Hot Summer Nights’ a big success.   We’re treating you to dinner at a new restaurant right here in Little Italy,” said Tony.  “After all, a free meal at Paisan’s isn’t free if you have to cook it, right?”  Sean and Steve laughed, while Gino nodded in agreement as Tony continued.  “Since it’s your birthday, I’ve had this special meal brought to you.  You deserve to enjoy yourself and relax a bit on your birthday after all,” said Tony.

Sean looked at Steve and shook his head, grimacing.  “He’s gonna be surprised, alright.  I’m not sure I like this set up,” he whispered in Steve’s left ear.  Steve whispered back as the two followed behind Gino and Tony on the way to the private dining room.  

“You think we should tell him before he enters?  No matter what, we can’t stop his heart from breaking,” said Steve.

“I don’t know, but I’d sure like to strangle that conniving broad,” said Sean.  “If it was me, I’d a seen her comin’ a mile away.  Women like her really know how to pick ‘em.  You know, nice, decent guys like Gino.”

The four men reached the private dining room in the rear of the restaurant, and Tony opened the door.

“Surprise!  Happy Birthday!” cried Valentina, as she stood just inside the door.  She hugged Gino tightly, followed by another short, curvaceous brunette who not only hugged Gino, but kissed him firmly on the lips.  Stretching from one end to the other along the back wall of the room was a red cloth covered rectangular table, topped with a colorful array of Italian foods.  A table for three was placed in front of the windows at the left of the room.  The white cloth and glass topped table was decorated with one white and one red rose in a small green glass vase.   Orange and yellow flames stretched out from a short, multicolored Murano glass candle holder and flickered a delicate dance of light across the glass topped table.

“What did I do to deserve all of this?” Gino asked, smiling, his cheeks as red as Valentina’s painted lips.

“Yeah, what did you do?” asked Sean.

“I’ll tell you what you did,” said Valentina.  “You helped my sister and I start a successful restaurant, made our parents proud, and helped make our dreams come true,” she explained, letting go of Gino as she wiped tears from her eyes.

“We’ve made every recipe you taught us for your birthday dinner tonight,” said Gloria.  Wearing a light blue silk dress with a Mary Jane collar, pearl necklace, and black strappy pumps, she was a slightly older but even more beautiful, subdued version of Valentina.  “It’s the least we could do for all you’ve done for us.  Oh, I also made one of your favorite desserts – Amaretto Baklava.”  Gloria kissed Gino on his right cheek.

“I don’t know what to say.  Oh guys, by the way, this is Gloria Vitelli,” Gino said to Sean and Steve.  “She’s   Valentina’s sister and my...”

“…girlfriend,” interrupted Valentina.

“Right, my girlfriend,” Gino continued.  “And Gloria, this is Steve Silverio and Sean Kelly, my sous chef and prep cook, respectively,” said Gino.  Well, don’t just stand there with your mouths hanging open and blocking the doorway, come on in for a minute,” he said to the two men.

Steve entered the room and held out his hand to shake Gloria’s.  “But Gino, I thought you and Valentina were um…I mean, I thought you were teaching her how to cook,” he said, pointing at Valentina with his left hand.  

Sean approached Gloria and held out his hand to greet her.  “Hi, I’m Sean.  I guess Gino’s told you all about me,” he said, smiling and forgetting to let go of her hand after a few seconds passed.

“No, not really,” she replied, letting go of his hand.  “Gino’s pretty much all business…when he cooks, that is.  Oh, and also when he teaches,” she said, laughing.  Sean and Steve smiled.

Well, Steve, I was teaching her how to cook, and Gloria, too.  Valentina brought Gloria to all of her lessons.   It made sense for both of them to learn how to prepare all of the recipes they wanted to serve, so I taught them both.  It was great fun.  Each was already an excellent chef de cuisine, a capocuoco, so all I had to do was teach them some traditional Sicilian recipes, which was very enjoyable.”  

“Yes, it really was,” said Valentina, with Gloria standing next to her, nodding in agreement.  “But Gloria had the most fun since she got to stay after class for some ‘extra credit’, si, mia sorella maggiore?”  
Valentina nudged her sister in the arm with her elbow, and both women laughed.  

“Usually, she refers to me as her little sister, especially when she wears those stiletto heels,” Gloria responded red faced, pointing to the tapered four-inch heeled sandals Valentina was wearing.  The dark-haired beauties turned and watched Gino as he walked over to the long table to inspect his birthday dinner.

“So that’s what happened,” Steve whispered to Sean as Gino, Valentina, and Gloria stood in front of the food table, facing away from the two men.  He folded his arms against his chest and shook his head.  “I wasn’t there when they arrived, and I only saw Valentina leave Gino’s at five o’clock that Sunday.  Gloria must’ve stayed later, so I had no idea that there were two of them, and…-”

“You idiot!  Now we both look like fools,” he whispered back, smacking Steve on the shoulder with the back of his hand.

Gino picked up two spoons and placed a sampling of food on one of a stack of white, six- inch porcelain plates in the middle of the table.  “You’ve got to taste this, Steve.  It’s excellent!  It’s traditional Sicilian cooking at its best.  You’re going to love it,” Gino proclaimed.   “Just take a bite of this Bucatini with cauliflower and raisins,” he said as he took a large spoonful of food and turned to Steve, who barely opened his mouth in time for the unsolicited sample.  “Here Sean, you’ve got to try it, too,” he said, as he offered a separate, clean spoonful to Sean.  Gino returned to the table and tasted a forkful of baked pasta with anchovies as Gloria motioned for him to take a seat at the table by the window.

“Some people have all the luck,” Sean said to Steve as he remained standing next to him.  

Steve didn’t answer but instead watched Valentina walk over to the little three seater table in her four-inch black stiletto heels and matching silk halter dress.  She gracefully swooped down to pick up a packet of sugar that she had dropped, and Steve audibly groaned.  Sean interrupted Steve’s gaze, turning his reverie into a nightmare.

“You guys aren’t gonna believe what Steve thought,” Sean said as he pushed against Steve’s shoulder, knocking him off balance.  Valentina held a chair out for Gino while Gloria prepared him a sampling of food they made.  Gino sat down at the table and picked up the fragile green glass vase.  He held it just beneath his nose and inhaled the roses through it, smiling, and replaced it on the table.

“Come on, man, cut it out,” Steve interrupted.  He began to walk toward the door, leaving Sean to stand alone in the middle of the large room.

“No, please wait, Steve.  What do you mean, Sean?” Gino asked.  Valentina opened a bottle of red wine and set three glasses on the solitary table.  She then pulled the chair out next to Gino for her sister, and sat in the one across from him.  Gloria placed a gold-rimmed white china plate filled with samples of appetizers, fruit, and entrees in front of Gino and sat down to the right of him.  Gino took a bite of a zucchini stuffed sardine and mumbled “bellissimo” between bites as the Vitelli sisters smiled.

“Well, as you may remember, Steve and I were in the kitchen the day you made a date with Valentina for her first cooking lesson at your place.  Steve took it upon himself to follow her after she left, and saw that she went straight to their new restaurant down on Mulberry Street.  He told me how it had all these colorful streamers, and a big grand opening sign.  Well, Steve put his version of two and two together, and came up with Valentina using you to steal your recipes and techniques to compete with Paisan’s and shut us down.  He really had me worried about you, Gino!”  Sean wiped his forehead with his sleeve as he shook his head and rolled his eyes.

“Oh yeah?” said Steve, still standing by the door.  “Well who was it that said ‘I’d like to strangle that conniving broad’ just a few minutes ago?  It wasn’t me,” he said, walking toward Sean as he threw his head and chest forward.  Gloria and Valentina both gasped.  Gloria held her hand over her mouth while Valentina shook her head.

“You’re crazy.  I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about,” lied Sean, who took a swing at Steve’s head as Steve continued toward him, but missed.  “If brains were dynamite, you wouldn’t have enough to blow yer nose!”

“Why, you little freckle-faced finook!” Steve exclaimed, grabbing Sean’s right arm and twisting it, while Sean landed a left hook in Steve’s gut.

Gino stood and threw his napkin down on the table.  “There are ladies present!” he shouted.  Before he could say anything further, the screeching sound of Paisan’s smoke alarm assaulted the eardrums of everyone inside the restaurant.  Steve let go of Sean and ran out the door and to the kitchen, followed by Sean and Gino.  As the three men entered the kitchen, they saw Tony standing on a chair, fanning the smoke detector over the oven with a menu.

What’s going on, Tone?” asked Gino, while Sean and Steve began coughing from the gray smoke in the kitchen.  Gino opened the back door and propped it open with a metal garbage can.  Tony pointed to a mass of smoldering black food in the kitchen sink, no longer recognizable as the meal it once was.  The screeching from the alarm stopped as the smoke dissipated.  Tony came down off of the chair and waved the back door back and forth a few times before closing and locking it.

Paula popped her head in and around the kitchen door, but Tony waved her away and she returned to the dining room and a house full of startled customers.

“Sorry to disturb your meal, Gino.  I forgot about a dish I had baking in the oven, that’s all,” Tony said, his cheeks reddened.

“That’s okay Tone.  That’s not what’s disturbing me,” Gino said, turning to look at Sean and Steve, standing behind him.  “Can you believe these two buffoons actually thought I was so naïve as to let someone steal my recipes and techniques, or that I’d let anyone try to shut us down?  I’m really shocked by your language and your behavior,” Gino said to the two men as Tony looked on.

“Amazing, ain’t it?” Tony said, shaking his head, still fanning the air in front of the oven.

“You mean you knew what was going on all along?” asked Steve.  “That Gino was teaching both sisters, and wasn’t romantically involved with Valentina?  

Tony smiled and nodded.  “Of course I did.  Why do you think I planned such a special evening for him?”

Why didn’t you tell us?” Sean asked, as he and Steve both stared at Tony.

“For one, if Gino wanted you to know his business, he would’ve told you.  And two, miss out on watchin’ you two monkeys go at it like a couple of old gossipin’ washer women?  Not on your life,” laughed Tony.  The two men turned to look at Gino, standing behind them.

“Well, why didn’t you tell us, Gino?  I mean, you know we must’ve been thinkin’ something strange was going on,” said Steve.

“Strange?” asked Gino, as he crossed his arms in front of his chest and pursed his lips, blinking as he waited for Steve’s explanation.

“Well, I mean, the way she dressed and came on to you…I mean, you know, you are you, and she is, well, come on, Gino!  Are you blind?” asked Steve.    “And Gloria, too…how often do you see such gorgeous Italian women, and sisters, at that, interested in…you?”  Steve held his hand over his mouth as soon as the last word escaped his lips.  

Unknown to any of the men in the kitchen, Gloria and Valentina had been listening from the other side of the kitchen door.   As Gino pounded his right fist on the food prep table, they entered the kitchen and stood behind Gino.

“Oh, I get it,” said Gino.  “Because I’m some kind of an ugly nerd, a hermit or even a troll, an intelligent, attractive woman wouldn’t give me the time of day?  Is that it, Steve?”  Gloria took Gino’s left hand in hers, and laughed.  Valentina stood on the other side of Gino, and put her arm around him.

“An ugly hermit troll?” Gloria repeated.  “With that thick, curly dark hair, a strong, aquiline nose, and sparkling eyes that smile with the rest of your face?   You’re no troll, sweetheart.  You’re my tall, dark, and handsome dream come true!  And you made both mine and Valentina’s dreams come true!”  Valentina nodded in agreement.  Each standing on either side of him, they simultaneously kissed him on the cheek.

Steve stood in the middle of the crowded kitchen with Tony and Sean behind him, and Gino and the Vitelli sisters in front of him.  He stood silently, looking down at the black and white tile floor as Sean suddenly peered over his right shoulder from behind.

“See, I told you it was all Steve’s fault,” Sean said to Gino and the two women.  

Steve  turned around to his right and broadsided Sean across the chest with his right arm, nearly knocking him down.  Sean caught his balance and stood behind Tony.  

“Look, Gino, girls, I’m sorry, really,” Steve explained.  “I was just lookin’ out for my buddy Gino here,” Steve said.  “I’d never seen him so happy, you know, singing and dancing and everything.  I’ve known you a long time, Gino, and was just worried about you getting’ hurt…”

Sean, stepping out from behind Tony, interrupted Steve.

“Look, we were just concerned about you Gino.  None of us had seen Valentina before, and we just didn’t want to see anything happen to you,” Sean said.

“I guess I can appreciate that,” said Gino as he smiled.  “Is everything okay now, Tony?” he asked as he held the door from the kitchen to the dining room open, the women standing with him in the doorway.

“Yeah, sure.  Go have a peaceful dinner for a change, what’s left of it.  I’ll babysit these two idiota, and put ‘em to work.  You go and enjoy yourself for the rest of the evening, take the night off,” said Tony as he smiled, his hands on his hips.  “I’ll have Curly and Mo here clean up the kitchen tonight.  Happy birthday, Gino.”

“Thanks, boss,” said Gino.  “Yes it is.  A very happy birthday.”  Gino turned and kissed Gloria on the cheek.

Steve took a step forward toward the kitchen door. “Hey Valentina, I was wonderin’ if maybe you and I…-“

“Ahem!” Gino said, clearing his voice, interrupting Steve. “Shall we return to the festivities, ladies?”  Gino and Gloria left the kitchen with Valentina behind them, and returned to the private dining room to resume celebrating Gino’s birthday.

As Gino and Gloria sat back down at the table, Valentina stopped and turned around.

“I’ll be back in a minute, okay?  There’s something I gotta do real quick like,” she said.  “It’ll only take a minute.”  Gino and Gloria nodded as they each took a sip of wine.

Valentina walked back to the kitchen and pulled open the swinging door toward her, just enough to stick her head inside the doorway.

“Oh, Steve?” she asked in a sing-song voice.  “You were saying, before?”  Steve tossed the towel he was using to dry dishes down on the prep table and almost fell as he ran across the moist tile floor toward the door.  Tony and Sean stopped what they were doing and turned around, staring at the two in the doorway.  Valentina now stood all of the way in front of the door by the time Steve approached her.  “You were saying something before, about us getting together possibly?” she asked him.

Sean’s jaw dropped, and he threw his hands in the air as he grimaced and glanced at Tony.  Tony leaned against the sink, smiling and staring as Steve made his move.

“Uh, yeah, I was just thinkin’ hon, since you’re not seeing Gino after all, that maybe you and I could hook up sometime.  You know, go out for drinks, and then back to my place for…well, for some more,” he giggled.  Steve scratched his right ear, and then cocked his head to the left.  “Well, whatta ya say, babe?”   Steve swung his arms behind his back, and with his hands clasped, stood still, waiting for an answer.

Valentina stepped back a couple of paces and smiled.  Steve bended at the waist and leaned his torso forward to be a little bit closer to her, and puckered his lips.

“I’d sure like to give him a smackeroo on the lips,” Sean whispered to Tony.

“Shush,” Tony said to Sean, as he put his hand over Sean’s mouth.

“Gioco di carte-go fish!” she said, as she let go of the swinging door, which hit Steve solidly in the face, causing him to flounder and fall down on his backside.  Valentina returned to the dining room to join Gino and Gloria, while Tony and Sean roared with laughter.  This time, Steve came up swinging at Sean, and Tony laughed as he let them fight it out.  A few moments later, Paula entered the kitchen, followed by the waitresses.

“What in the world is going on in here?  First the smoke alarm, now this?  Have you men forgotten that we’re trying to run a business?  There are still a few customers trying to enjoy their meals out here,” she said, pointing to the dining room.  Paula shook her head and grunted as she left.   The waitresses lingered a few moments to laugh at Steve and Sean, who were rolling around on the kitchen floor grappling with each other.

“Alright, alright, play time is over youse two,” said Tony.  “Back to work, and no more horsin’ around.  I hope youse have got whatever it is all out of your system now,” he said.  “I’ll be glad when everyone that works here is married.  It’s better for business.  Thank God we’ve been rakin’ in the dough lately.”

Another hour passed, and Gino stopped by the kitchen to say goodnight.

“Thanks, Tony, for making the surprise arrangements with Valentina and Gloria to give me a surprise birthday party, and for giving me the evening off.  Much appreciated,” he said as he popped his head just inside the door.

“No problem, guy.  You deserved it.  Have a good night,” Tony replied.

“Oh, and by the way, Steve.  Don’t worry.  Your day will come.  There’s someone for everyone, there really is,” Gino said, smiling.

Valentina peered around the door, taking Gino’s place as he stepped back.  “Bye bye, Steve and Sean…see ya ‘round!” she sang in her high pitched voice.  “Don’t forget to come and visit Gloria and me sometime when you’re off work.  Happy hour at Vitelli’s is every day between four and six o’clock.  All drinks and appetizers are half off,” she said.  “I understand Paisan’s is closed on Sundays, so come on by and see us.”

“Do you mean…” began Steve, interrupted by Sean and Tony, who each grabbed hold of one of his arms.

“Remember what you said about how even I was able to get a good lookin’ woman to marry me?  Trust me, all you gotta do is act uninterested, the more the better, and then they’ll come casing after you,” Sean advised.  Tony grinned and nodded in agreement.

Valentina let the door close before she heard their reply, and took Gino’s left arm while Gloria took his right.  As Gino and the two women walked arm in arm through Paisan’s dining room and out the front door, he was watched by all...and envied by many.
Sherri Miller is an editor at Halfway Down the Stairs. For staff biographies, click here.

© 2009, Sherri Miller