“Two manicotti, one minestrone. Ready to go to table seven.”
Gia dusted each plate with a pinch of chopped parsley as she loaded them onto a tray. “Where’s Pete? His table’s food is up. Someone find Pete.” She pulled the next ticket as the printer spat out two more in rapid succession. “I need two spaghetti and meatballs, two Italian salads, and a garlic bread. Come on, guys, pick up the pace.”
Pete walked through the swinging doors from the dining room. He had a half-eaten plate of lasagna in his hands. “The woman at table five said this is cold in the middle.”
Gia’s shoulders inched higher. “Okay. Take table seven’s food out and tell the woman at five that we’ll get her a new one and take it off her bill.” She turned back to the line, the tightly packed boiler, flattop, oven and fryer where her kitchen staff was scrambling to keep up with the orders. “Jim, fire another lasagna. Get it hot this time.”
“We’re out of ravioli,” shouted Jim.
“What? Already?” Gia’s eyes ran across the waiting tickets. Two tables had ordered the handmade ravioli. She scowled at her head cook.
“We’re out of ravioli,” repeated Jim with a shrug as he slid a lasagna in the oven.
Gia’s shoulders inched up again. “Someone find Kate. Her tables will have to reorder.”
The printer spun out more orders. Gia bit back a groan. Why did the dinner rush always start this way, as if everyone in the kitchen had been caught by surprise? This was Fiorello’s, after all. The beloved neighborhood hole-in-the-wall that had been serving up Grandma Teresa’s secret family recipes for the past forty-nine years. Decades-worth of framed rave reviews and foodie awards littered the walls of the dining room. Most nights, the line was out the door. A busy Saturday night was not a surprise. Nothing was a surprise at Fiorello’s. Nothing changed. Not the red- and white-checked tablecloths, not the dripping candles in round-bellied chianti bottles. When Gia had switched from powdery parmesan shakers on the tables to fresh grated parmesan, the uproar had almost made her switch back. Almost.
Gia downed an espresso. As usual, it was up to her to keep it all going. Clapping her hands to pump herself up, she called out orders, filled trays with steaming fresh food to go out to waiting tables, and kept her staff on their toes until they found the groove they all knew so well.
The night blurred by. A special order for chicken parmesan, sauce on the side, came up. That meant it was seven o’clock, because the Andersons always came Saturday nights at seven and always ordered the same thing.
Must be nice, thought Gia as she threw chopped parsley down on an order of capellini al fresco. To sit down at a table, enjoy a nice dinner on a Saturday night with someone. Like a normal person. What a novel idea. “Table eight, ready to go.”
More tickets, more food. An order for two tiramisus and two espressos. The Michaels were here for their weekly dessert. Nine o’clock.
Just one more hour to closing.
“Fire!” shouted Jim.
Gia, her eyes on the endless flow of tickets from the printer, frowned. “Fire what? I said fettucini alfredo. Nothing for the oven.”
Gia looked up. At first she couldn’t comprehend the furious orange flames leaping up from the deep fryer where an order of calamari was supposed to be cooking for table three. That was not usual for a Saturday night.
The fire leapt past the stainless steel hood to the wall and ceiling above. Her kitchen staff stumbled away from the line expecting the automatic fire-suppression system to kick on and spray the grease fire down with chemicals. But it didn’t. Why? It passed inspection last year, Gia thought absently.
“The suppression system’s not working!” shouted Jim. “What do we do?”
Gia knew what to do. She always knew what to do.
But she didn’t do it.
Frozen in place, Gia eyes followed the flames up to the wall where a dozen framed photos were hung. Her Grandmother Teresa, making fresh pasta right in this kitchen. Her dad, making Fiorello’s famous red sauce. Up there, she knew, was a photo of herself running the kitchen, framed and hung by her proud mother. Third generation.
But her eyes stayed glued to a photo of her father.
She could hear him yelling at her.
“We had a deal, Gia,” fumed Tony Fiorello as he slammed around the kitchen, prepping for the dinner rush. “I pay for college, you run the kitchen Fridays and Saturdays and you study accounting so that when you take over the restaurant…”
“I don’t want to take over the restaurant,” blurted Gia. There. She’d said it.
Her dad glared at her. “And just what is it you plan to do?”
“I want to be a psychologist.”
Her dad looked at her as if she’d just sprouted noodles for hair. “What in God’s name are you talking about?”
Gia resisted the urge to shrink back. She had to make him understand. “It’s fascinating, dad. It’s all about how we think, how we understand the world around us. As a psychologist, I could help people…”
“Help people?” He threw his burly arms wide. “What do you think we do here? Why do we have so many regulars who come back again and again, for years, for decades? A plate of good food is more helpful than sitting in some quack’s fancy office. Cheaper, too. Be serious, Gia.”
“I am being serious,” said Gia, her voice catching. Her carefully constructed argument slipped away from her. “I want a normal life, with normal office hours. Clothes that don’t smell like garlic all the time. I want to go out with friends on a Saturday night. Go out on a date.”
Her dad’s eyes narrowed. When he spoke, it was with the low, tight voice she’d been terrified of since she was little. “Oh, you want to go out on a date, so you’re going to abandon our family legacy?”
Tears blurred her eyes. “I’m not abandoning it. I just don’t want to run it.”
Her dad turned back to the floury stainless steel counter and grabbed a lump of fresh pasta dough. “You will take over, Gia, as we agreed.”
“No.” Gia stomped toward the swinging doors to the dining room.
Her dad pounded the pasta dough so hard the counter shuddered. “We’re not done here, Gia.”
Gia, one foot in the kitchen and one foot out, did not hide her glare as she turned back to face her dad. “I’m done.”
She never spoke to her dad again.
“We can’t keep the restaurant closed for much longer,” her mother said to her at her dad’s funeral three months later. He’d just dropped to the floor, the staff said. A heart attack, in the middle of the kitchen where he’d spent his whole life. “The family, the regulars, they’re all wondering when they can come back.”
“Dad just died,” said Gia.
“I know, honey. But they all want to gather at the restaurant, eat our family’s food. It’s their way of honoring your father and grandmother.” Her mother took a breath. “And they want to know that Fiorello’s will go on.”
Gia swallowed hard. “Then hire someone, mom.”
Her mother didn’t give up. “Gia. There is no one else. No one knows the restaurant like you do. And your father always meant for you to have it.”
Gia grit her teeth, furious for the layers of guilt her mother had just laid on her shoulders. Her dad, the family, the whole neighborhood. Why was she responsible for all these people? The unfairness of it strangled her.
But she couldn’t fight with her mother. Not at her dad’s funeral. So her fury came out in hot, stinging tears. “I can get it up and running again,” she said, hating the words as they came out of her mouth. “But I’m not staying.”
That was ten years ago.
Gia’s eyes stung. From tears, from smoke. There was a ringing in her head. No. It was the restaurant’s fire alarm.
“We need to get everyone out of the restaurant, now!” shouted Jim.
Gia could hear his panic, hear the panic of the customers in the dining room. Still, she stared at the angry fire. If it spread to the right, their paper products would go up. It would be too late then. The whole kitchen would go up.
Just another minute or two, and it would be too late.
There would be nothing Gia could do. The restaurant would be gone.
The flames spit and sputtered, reaching for more. Not much longer now.
She could do anything. Go anywhere. She could go out on a Saturday night. Her clothes would finally stop smelling like garlic.
Gia flinched as the heat cracked the glass of the frame holding her father. Fire licked the edges of the photo. But Gia could still see his face, his broad smile as he stirred the giant pot of red sauce.
Her dad nodded. “That’s it, Gia. Just a tiny pinch of cayenne pepper. Not too much that you can feel the heat, but just enough to give the sauce a mysterious kick.”
Gia steadied herself on top of the chair she’d dragged in the from the dining room, her eight-year-old legs unable to get her high enough to see over the top of the giant steel pot. She released her thumb and index finger and watched the orange cayenne pepper dust the bubbling surface, then disappear as she pushed and pulled a wooden spoon through the thick sauce.
“That’s the secret to Fiorello’s red sauce,” her dad told her. “Everyone else makes their red sauce too sweet. But your Grandma Teresa, she knew better. Food shouldn’t just be hot. It should warm you up. Comfort you. Make you feel at home. And that’s the true secret of Fiorello’s. We’re not in the food business, Gia. We’re in the family business. Never forget that.”
He held up his hand and Gia high-fived it. “Okay. Now that you’re in on the family secret, it’s time you took on some responsibility around here. After all, this will all be yours someday. I see a tray of parmesan shakers there that need refilling.”
He brought the tray over to the stainless steel counter where he made the pasta. One by one, Gia filled the parmesan shakers as her father rolled out fresh pasta with the same broom handle Grandma Teresa used, pausing every few minutes to dust the dough with a cloud of flour that tickled Gia’s nose.
She screwed the top back on the last shaker and put her hands on her hips. “I’m done.”
Her dad smiled down at her. “You’re a natural.”
Jim was pulling on Gia’s arm. “Come on. We need to get out of here.”
The fire jumped to the flattop, just missing the paper products but setting alight a pan of mussels in butter garlic sauce abandoned there.
Mussels in butter garlic sauce. Mrs. Ricci from the down the street always ordered that dish, and always asked that Gia bring it out to her. Fiorello’s was the only restaurant that got it right, she’d say as she took Gia’s hands in her age-spotted ones. The garlic butter sauce was rich yet light, the mussels steamed to perfection. One bite and she was back in her mother’s kitchen in Pisa.
We’re not in the food business, Gia. We’re in the family business.
Smoke choked the small kitchen. A ceiling light blew out with a bang. Broken glass rained down on the stainless steel counter where Gia had watched her grandmother roll out fresh pasta dough with a broom handle she’d brought with her from Napoli. Fire rippled across the flattop where her dad had tended the big pots of red sauce.
Where she now tended the big pots of red sauce. With a pinch of cayenne pepper to warm her customers up from the inside. Make them feel at home.
You’re a natural.
This was all hers.
No one knows this restaurant like you do.
Gia’s daze snapped. She knew what to do. She always knew what to do. This was her family’s business.
“There’s a manual switch for the suppression system on the west wall.” She ran across the kitchen and flipped the switch. The suppression system stuttered, but did not release its chemicals.
“The fire extinguishers.” Gia raced to where they stored the Class K fire extinguishers. Pulling the pin as she ran back, she aimed the nozzle and pulled. White foam shot out, and with a violent sizzle the flames disappeared, leaving behind a charred, chemical mess.
Gia, shaking, slid to the ground, still gripping the fire extinguisher.
She felt Jim lift her by her shoulders, pull her out of the hot, hazy kitchen. Her legs like jelly, she stumbled through the dining room, past tables with half-eaten food, out the front door with the forty-nine-year-old “Come In, We’re Open!” sign.
She fell to the curb outside, coughing. Face swarmed her. Familiar faces of regulars, friendly faces of strangers whose dinner had just been interrupted. All concerned. Was she okay? Was there anything they could do? Someone had called her mother. She was coming.
She heard sirens in the distance. A fire engine en route.
Jim crouched down in front of her. “You okay, boss?”
Gia took a deep breath and nodded. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
Jim held out his hand. Gia took it, and he pulled her up to standing. She turned to face the restaurant. Funny. From the outside, it looked like nothing had happened.
“What do you think?” asked Jim.
The outside might be fine, but the inside would need a lot of work. She’d have to gut the kitchen, air out the dining room, find more photos of her grandmother and dad to frame and hang.
Maybe she could carve out a space for that wine cooler she’d always wanted.
Gia put her hands on her hips. “I can get it up and running again.” Then she smiled at Jim. “But I think you should run the kitchen on Saturdays from now on.”