Secret Ingredient – 12/21

Staring down at his cutting board, Alberto sharpened his knife on a length of honing steel. His chef’s jacket rustled with each sharpening stroke, wrinkling the spattered white cloth like a rolling sea. The grinding swish bounced against the metal counters and the opened shelves cluttered with plates and pans.

“That has to be done,” said Francesca from the opposite counter. She wiped the tomato juice from her fingers onto her apron and bent down to the smoldering oven by Alberto’s knees.

“Wait for the alarm,” said Alberto. Lowering the steel, he inspected the knife’s edge with his finger nail.

Huffing, Francesca tossed a dingy towel over her shoulder as rounded as the arm of an old sofa. Returning to her station with a single pivot, she chopped through a second cluster of tomatoes. Sliding the scarlet chunks against shreds of raw purple cabbage she began in on the pickled peppers.

They both glanced over as the swinging door creaked open. Tempered merengue and the steady rumble of conversation filtered in from the dining room. A burst of Vito’s roaring laughter from his usual table made Alberto cringe.

Peppe stuck his gnarled head into the doorway, revealing the top of his waiter’s coat and clipped tie. His gaze, like pitted olives, met Alberto’s.

“Two minutes,” said Peppe, his voice a hoarse whisper.

“It’ll be there.”

“Better be. I can’t take much more of him.”

“One last night.”

Peppe bared his teeth in a swift snarl before calming his ruddy features and slipping back into the restaurant. The door swung back and forth with protest from the hinges. As the panel stilled, Vito’s robust guffaw was blocked once more.

Alberto shook his head and set down his wide knife, forcing his fingers to uncoil from the hilt. He scooped up a live octopus the size of his hand from the tub at his feet. The suckers gripped his fingers as he thudded the cephalopod onto his cutting board. Hacking down, Alberto severed the head from the eight legs and the maroon limbs fell limp. Chopping the tentacles into bite sized pieces, Alberto tossed them into a sizzling pan popping with a puddle of butter and olive oil.

The oven gave a piercing ding. Francesca wheeled from her board and flung open the steel door. A wash of smoke and the smell of burning pine, flooded into the kitchen. Waving her towel to disperse the gray tendrils, Francesca scooped out the tray and set the smoldering beef medallions onto the counter.

“They done?” asked Alberto.

“Over done.” She poked at the meat which barely budged under her finger and closed the oven behind her with a kick.

“He likes them that way.”

“He better like them.”

Francesca gave a mirthless snort and began plating on a square white dish. She piled the cabbage in a mound and then laid a thick circle of beef on top. Adding another two medallions to form a pyramid, Francesca scattered the tomatoes and pickled peppers before dribbling a red wine reduction artfully over the steaming meat.

“Ready?” asked Alberto as he shook his sizzling pan.

“Yes.” Francesca wiped the edges of the plate and set the dish beside Alberto.

With another flick of his wrist, Alberto caused the lumps of octopus to jump. Sprinkling salt and pepper over the curling tentacles, he gave the pan a final shake.

“Now or never,” Alberto murmured before holding his breath. Pulling over a small ceramic dish waiting in an isolated section of the counter far from the rest of the spices, he poured a quarter cup of clear liquid into the pan. The last drop blended into the fat with a sizzle and final almond scented puff.

Once the aroma had faded, Alberto took a tentative breath. Finding himself still conscious, Alberto turned the plate so the bare spot Francesca had left beside the beef, faced him. Tipping the pan, the octopus tumbled down and wallowed in a pool of tainted butter.

Alberto chucked the dirty pan onto the cold back burner and poured the rest of the small bowl’s clear contents into the front circle of blue flame. The gas perked with sudden intensity and then smoked with the smell of old shoes before calming.

Alberto wiped his hands on his white apron and looked up as Peppe slipped back through the door.

“Is it ready?”

Alberto tipped his chin toward the dish.

Peppe squeezed past Francesca and swung out the tray he carried beneath his arm. Loading the beef and octopus, he added the other prepared plates as well as a fresh bottle of Chianti.

“You’re sure he won’t notice?”

Alberto gave Francesca a stiff glare and she dropped her gaze. Returning to her station, she hacked through more tomatoes.

“I’ll let you know when it’s done,” said Peppe, balancing the tray upon his shoulder.

“I’m sure we’ll hear,” said Alberto, turning the knob on the stove to kill the ring of fire sputtering beneath the burner.

“Right,” said Peppe with a small snort. The stout man took a deep breath as he faced the swinging door. “Now or never,” muttered Peppe and strode forward, leading with his shoulder.

Again the hinges moaned. From within the dining hall, Alberto spotted the circle of tables, their white cloths glowing in the candle light. Vito’s jarring laughter dissolved with Peppe’s arrival.

“About time,” bellowed Vito.

“Enjoy it,” muttered Alberto.

Francesca spat a wad of saliva into the garbage and hacked into the peppers by her board.

“Five more minutes,” said Alberto, gathering a clean sauté pan from the rack above the stove.

“I’ll wait for the alarm,” Francesca muttered.

Alberto met her eyes and matched her grim smile before turning and beginning a less deadly dish.

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