Within Close Range: The Great Chicken Debate

Whether going out or eating in, food either consumes Nonnie’s thoughts or busies her hands for hours each day, managing laborious feats and four-course, Italian feasts – piping hot dishes of handmade manicotti or tender, breaded cutlets, garlicky vegetables, hot rolls, vinegary salads and sweet desserts.

Second helpings are always encouraged at Nonnie’s dinner table and praise for the cook, expected – as well as a little too vehemently rejected.

The three greatest mis-steps at this Italian table?

One: cutting spaghetti. Either twist it or prepare for a gentle cuff on the back of the head from Papa.

Two:  if all diners are not seated at the table while the food is still visibly steaming… Nonnie will burst several blood vessels.

And three:  never…EVER… say you’re not hungry. Utter blasphemy.

We like to rattle her with unexpected visits and ravenous appetites, watching her forage through the refrigerator and freezer, brimming with outwardly unidentifiable, but doubtlessly delicious leftovers, sealed inside ancient Tupperware and old Cool Whip containers. Happy to see us, but perceptibly agitated that she can only offer what she sees as barely acceptable fare, each serving is dished up with a generous dollop of misgiving.

I’ve never known anyone as good at cooking as Nonnie, who complained about it more.

So it’s little wonder that while visiting in Florida, the moment Papa announces we’re having dinner out, a palpable – near frenetic – excitement  electrifies the apartment.

Following the proclamation, Nonnie spends most of the day in her housecoat, in a walk-run, making sure everyone’s dress clothes are pressed precisely, her hair is maintaining its proper “do” beneath a sea-green hair net, snack intake is severely monitored, and her sisters, Camille and Rose, are consulted and updated (via long distance) on EVERYTHING.

For Nonnie, dining out is the equivalent to an audience with the Pope.

For me, such an event proves far more predictable than papal. More “Holy Cow” than Holy Spirit.

And it most definitely means Italian – old school – with its enticing smells and curtained nooks, smartly dressed waiters with thick accents, and an animated maitre d’ who greets everyone like family. It means trompe l’oeil walls of rural Tuscan scenes, rich, red fabrics draping doorways, and rolling dessert carts filled with cannoli and tiramisu.

From well below the mouthwatering chaos, I watch the loaded serving trays — piled high with pastas and soups, roasted chickens and fresh seafood — pass deftly overhead, with a “Scuza, Signorina!”, until a hand on my shoulder gently guides me out of the busy traffic and into a chair in front of a round table covered in linens and complex table settings.

A fast-moving figure from behind casts a well-aimed cascade of ice water into one of the two stemmed glasses set at eye-level before me.

Tempted and tormented by big baskets of breadsticks and freshly baked rolls, my hand’s gently spanked away from a second helping.

“You’ll spoil your dinner,” Nonnie scolds. (When what she secretly has in mind is a bakery heist for tomorrow’s breakfast.)

Excitement rises with the arrival of the menu which ignites imaginations and appetites.

Wherein the problem lies… with inexplicable regularity, when presented with an abundance of choices, Nonnie almost inevitably orders veal.

The choice seems harmless, but it’s enough to make family members cringe and Papa’s blood boil – not because baby cow meat is one of Nonnie’s favorite things to eat, but because every time she orders veal (whether Marsala or Picante, upscale joint or neighborhood favorite), she usually ends up taking only a couple of bites.

One for eternal optimism.

The other, raging cynicism.

Then raising her head from her plate and, wearing utter disappointment as a mourning veil, complains meekly but unmistakably.

“This isn’t veal… This is chicken… I’m sure this veal is chicken.”

And like clockwork, another battle in Nonnie’s tireless crusade to unmask poultry dressed in calves’ clothing begins, prompting children to slip lower in their seats and adults to start commenting about the day’s weather; while Papa bows his head and sighs with exasperated disbelief.

He and his wife then begin a short-lived, but emotionally escalating and frustrating exchange that will end with Papa vowing to never take Nonnie out to a restaurant again, and Nonnie looking self-righteous, misunderstood and miserable, as she rummages through her dinner-roll-filled-handbag looking for a tissue.

The drive home is what I imagine floating in space is like.

Silent. Solitary. Dark.

Except for the lights emanating from the dashboard (most particularly, the green turn signal arrow which Papa habitually leaves blinking) which let me know other life forms still exist.

A few days pass, then Papa announces we were going out to dinner.

Again. (Sigh.)

Nonnie’s excitement rises anew…

Until the waiter approaches her with his pen and pad in hand, and with all eyes anxiously upon her… she orders the veal.

And Papa ends up swearing that it’s the very last time he’ll ever take her out to dinner.

A vow he’ll repeat until the day he dies.

Nonnie, however, will work tirelessly in her quest for veal for decades more.

Within Close Range: The Car Ride

Much of my early views of Florida are seen above a sea of car upholstery, through rolled up windows, where the only things visible are the tops of Palm trees and passing trucks, condos and clouds, and Nonnie and Papa’s heads hovering over a wide expanse of leather stretched across the latest Cadillac’s cavernous front seat.

Here, conversations are muffled, and occasionally in broken Italian, so young ears can’t possibly understand; and elevator music-versions of Rock ’n Roll songs play softly; where Papa’s cautious, half-mile-to-execute lane change regularly causes the turn signal to remain blinking.

It must be an audio-visual black hole, oblivious as he is to both the flashing green light and the constant clicking for miles on end.The sound of it lulls me into a stupor, until Nonnie finally notices the signal of perpetual motion and snaps at Papa to turn it off.

A few miles pass and all is peaceful, until the car begins to fill with a terrible smell.

I turn to my cousin, John, who’s holding the backseat’s cigarette lighter, with a smug yet sorrowful look on his face, as the smell of flaming follicles slowly wafts through the well-sealed compartment.

“What’s burning?!” Nonnie shrieks, “Something’s burning! Jimmy, something’s on fire!”

Papa pitches the lumbering Caddy to an empty parking lot at the side of the road, unrolls the windows, and orders everyone out of the car. Nonnie stands there mumbling and grumbling and shaking her head while he makes absolutely sure nothing else has been set on fire.

Throwing John one, last incredulous look – Papa orders everyone back in the car before signaling his return to the road. Where, for the final miles to the restaurant, I lose myself in the smell of burnt hair and the click of the sedan’s left blinker.