Dinner Service

It’s been snowing for two days.  School is closed and we are all getting cabin fever.   So when Carla, from The Cafe texts me that she is hosting a private birthday party, I offer to help.

It turns out to only be a party of four – a private dinner. She will cook and I will serve so that she doesn’t have to run up and downstairs to host and cook. Fine by me. I’m happy to serve. Especially to people who aren’t my children saying “Yuck! I don’t like this!”.  We set the table; she puts on the jazz music and lights the fire. Such a cozy atmosphere. I much prefer to clean and serve here than clean and serve in my own house!  We are all set.  Then she asks if I mind if she leaves the Café open, in case the odd customer comes in for an espresso.  I am hesitant after my last disastrous experience trying to serve up coffees, but then I realize that I won’t be asked to serve up marochinos, machiatos and cappuccinos, since it is evening.  The snow has turned to rain and who’s going to come in on a raining Monday night?  She shows me again how to work the café machine. 

Carla returns to the kitchen to finish dinner preparations and I settle in for a relaxing evening of serving happy customers.  In a few minutes, Carla hops back up the stairs holding an oven lighter.  “Can you light the candles please?” she runs back down to the kitchen.  I love the atmosphere of The Cafe.  The old-fashioned “drug store” charm.  The gorgeous bottles of perfume, bath soaps and premium olive oils displayed for sale.  Tiny votive candles are decorously scattered around.  I take the lighter and start on the first candle.  It won’t light.  No matter what I do, the wick won’t catch the flame.  I feel like an advertisement for one of those trick candles.  I search behind the counter for another lighter or matches.  With the amount of smoking here, there must be matches somewhere. I can’t find any so I must ask Carla.  But I don’t know the word for matches. Argh. My Italian is so basic I can’t even figure out to say “light”.  I hop downstairs and return with a box of matches. There are so many candles sprinkled around the café that it takes longer than I thought to light them.  And I have to pee. And the guests are about to arrive. I wonder if I have time to quickly scoot into the bathroom before they get here? I take the chance and hurry back out just as Carla emerges from the kitchen. 

“OK, lets’ go over the plan”.  She shows me where the grissini and bread are for refilling the breadbasket.  Reminds me to ask if they want sparkling or flat water and hands me the wine list.  I hope they don’t ask for me to act as sommelier and recommend wine. Try as I might to retain all of the wine knowledge Clay has shared with me, my mind seems to be like a sieve in that area and I am forced to resort to red, white or bubbly.

“The menu is set.  I will prepare the amuse bouche and then the first course is Vitello Tonnato a l'ancienne.  After that we have Soufle foderato alla zucca in salsa al acciuga…..” She proceeds to rattle off the next four courses and I catch about thirty percent of that.  “OK so remember the amuse bouche.  They will be here any minute.”,

She runs back downstairs.  I pour myself a glass of sparkling water and take a moment to relax to the soothing jazz music and fact that no one is screaming “mamma” at me and having a tantrum.  Ahhhh.  Quiet bliss. 

The door opens and the party arrives.  A group of chic thirty somethings, they seem friendly and excited for their dinner party.  They are enchanted by my bad Italian and enthralled with the fact that I have moved from California to live in tiny Bonvicino.  At least I think they are enchanted.  They may just think I’m crazy.  In any event, they are very nice and jovial.  I put on my best hostess air and show them to their table.  I take their coats and offer them a choice of sparkling or flat water.  This is fun! It’s like acting a part in a play.  I place the breadbasket on the table and offer them the wine menu.  Thankfully, before they can bombard me with wine questions, Carla pops up the stairs to greet them.  She takes over the wine suggestions, which ends up being pretty easy since they just want a glass of house white and a bottle of Dolcetto. I could have handled that.   

After struggling to open the wine bottle with some new age contraption Carla hands me, I successfully serve the amuse bouche. I retreat behind the counter and pour myself a glass of wine.  Ahhhh, now I can relax until the next course.  The intercom beeps. 

“Tamar, if I beep once, answer the phone. If I beep twice, it means the food is ready and I’ve sent it up in the food elevator”. 

OK, I've got it.  I sigh.  Someone comes in the front door. Yikes, it’s an actual customer.  I was looking forward to serving dinner, not managing café orders.

Bounasera,” I hope he’s just ordering a café.  “Ciao.  Una spritzer per favore.” 

Spritzer? What’s that?  I manage to explain that this is my first night. What’s a spritzer? I finally understand he wants ice, sparkling wine and water in a glass. Ick. Why water down the wine? But who am I to argue? I locate the ice and am looking for an open bottle of bubble when the phone beeps.  I can’t remember whether I am supposed to answer or run upstairs?

Mi scusi,” I say to the customer, his glass only half full. I grab the phone, “Pronto?” 

“Tamar, are they done with the first course?” 

I finish pouring the spritzer and run upstairs to clear the first course.  I race down and call S. on the intercom, “Ok they’re done.” 

I return to the customer who is now looking slightly amused,  “Do you live in Bossolasco?” he asks.

“No, we live in Bonvicino.”

“Yes, I thought you were the Americani.  I helped build your pool.”  (Did he say dig the pool? Build the foundation for the pool?  I’m not quite sure but I do understand that he did something with the pool).

“Thank you!  So sorry I didn’t recognize you.  I was slightly preoccupied keeping our toddler from falling into the hole when you were building it.”

The phone beeps again and I hear the food elevator running.

“Excuse me!”  I climb the winding staircase and open the elevator door.

Oh no. I can’t remember what this is?  Something with fava beans and dried tomatoes.  Carla only repeated it about four times but I can barely follow those fancy food explanations on Top Chef, much less in Italian when I’m acting as server.  I attempt to explain the course, sounding like a bumbling idiot. 

One of the guests politely says, “It’s ok. We will taste it an figure out what it is.” Great so much for smoothe and suave. 

“Could we please have more bread?”

I smile and take the basket.  I look under the counter where S. had pointed to a stash of grissini and bread.  I see grissini but no bread.  Didn’t she say the bread was here?  Where else could it be? I search in every drawer and cabinet.  I’m sure she said the bread is here. Or maybe she said there is grissini and no bread?  She said something about bread….Oh well, I march downstairs and ask for more bread. She pulls a baguette out of a corner and slices it up.  I understand now.  This is the last of the bread.  She was trying to make it last. 

I head back up to the second floor with the bread basket, clear the plates and return to my customer who is still standing at the café counter. I have already decided that, instead of making a fool of myself trying to figure out the cash register, I will hope he has exact change and doesn’t want a receipt.  Hopefully he will pay and leave soon so that I don’t have to continue to attempt chitchat. 

The door opens and another customer comes in. A gruff burly man meets my friend with the spritzer.  Great.  Old boys night.  I’m hoping he asks for the same, since I’ve now mastered the Spritzer.  Instead, he mumbles something unintelligible.

“Hmmm…”I stall for time, “Questa e una apero?”   I search in the fridge, “I found it!”  Holding up the requested bottled drink. 

Burly man looks at me impatiently, “No. Now I just want a coke.”

“OK,” I put on my best “fine be a jerk,” smile and find a can of coke.

The intercom beeps and I race upstairs to serve the next course.  Looks like ravioli.  I glance at the menu and proudly announce, “Ravioli di broccoli e pecorino.  More sparkling water?”

Back down to man the counter.  Burly and Spritzer are now deep in discussion. Since it’s in Italian, it’s easy for me to tune it out.  The intercom beeps. I answer it.

“Ciao Tamar, how are the guests?”

“Oh they’re just fine!  No worries.”  I’ve lost track of where we are anyway. Did she say she was serving two pastas or two appetizers?  Is the ravioli the first pasta dish or is it the only one?  I sneak a sip of wine.  I think I need something stronger. Maybe I should pour myself some grappa.

The door opens and two policemen enter.  Police always make me nervous.  Especially in foreign countries.  I’m one of those people who feels guilty even when I haven’t done anything.  I think it’s an authority figure complex.  If I’m driving and see a cop car, I automatically think I’ve done something wrong, even though the most I could be pulled over for is driving too slowly.

Burly and Spritzer greet the cops like old friends.  Cop 1 orders a Spritzer.  I smile gratefully.  No problem.  I’m a Spritzer master now.  Cop 2 orders some indiscernible apero drink. I have no idea what it is.  I stumble. He scowls.  The phone beeps.  Ok I’m starting to lose it. I was prepared to act as server for dinner. Not as bartender for The Boys.  I skip downstairs to the kitchen.  “Hey Carla, I’m not sure about these apero orders? There are a few guys up here wanting drinks.”

“Si?  I’m coming!”  Carla glides up stairs and gracefully pours drinks, smiles, makes conversation while I head upstairs to clear plates and serve the next course.  Which appears to be purple pasta.  Another glance at the menu reminds me it is Baccala e Vitellotte gratinato.  Now I am really getting hungry.

While Carla is acting as hostess to the boys, I busy myself checking candles and brushing invisible dust off the counters. Not sure what to do with myself, since I can’t retreat to my place behind the counter.  I hear glimpses of conversation.  I feel a bit like I’m attending to a seventh grade boys’ playdate.

I wonder if they are ever going to leave, but they seem to have settled in for the evening.  OK, boys, don’t you need to go home? And then I realize this is their social break before going home.  Carla is preparing dessert in the kitchen, leaving me to babysit.

I gratefully head back up stairs to clear the plates before I slowly return to my spot behind the counter and busy myself cleaning the few espresso cups. 

The phone beeps, “Ciao Tamar. All is good. You can go home if you want? You need to put the girls to bed?”  I glance at my watch. It’s 9pm and I said I would be home to say goodnight to the girls.  I haven’t heard from Clay. Either he’s fallen asleep with them or they’ve got him tied up.  “Thanks. You Ok?  The boys are still here.”

“They can hang out. They like to sit and gossip.”

I grab my coat and manage a “Buona serrate”.  Only Spritzer man replies with a smile and a “ciao”.  Seriously would it kill these guys to crack a smile?  I walk to my car, and just to be on the safe side, I drive the long way home, taking the route away from the Café. Just in case the cops happen to be coming out.