salmone puttanesco

The decorations were cheap but worked, at least for us: Wooden cross beams with hanging fiasco baskets and a faded copy of the Mona Lisa propped against the back wall between two trellis panels. The restaurant itself was tacked onto the end of a sooty two-up two-down row house block just short of the traffic circle. With all that going for it, we figured the food had to be good. The maître d' extended his arm with a slight bow. He was creepy and I felt the darkness embedded around his eyes was not due to lack of sleep. We followed him over to a table by a frosted window, which was fine; who would want to see outside anyway. The maître d' turned away, grimaced and snapped his fingers at a blond standing at the bar who looked like she was waiting for a firing squad to take aim.

Before I could say a word to the waitress, she mashed her finger down into my menu: salmone puttanesco. She copied the order down slowly. I assumed the blond was in training as a second waitress, a chiseled-faced brunette, watched her from two tables away, head cocked to one side like a peregrine falcon. Chisel face moved around the room more comfortably than ours did but never smiled and brought the drinks without making eye contact. The blond had two tattoos, one on the wrist, the other above the left elbow, both crooked crosses encased in thorns. After taking the order, she stood and glanced toward the kitchen, on the verge of saying something but didn’t; edgy as a straight razor.

Her suggestion had been a good one it turned out. The sauce looked almost too rich, with tomatoes, garlic, capers and olives but I tasted the fish. Same with their calamari fritti: Not chewy, with sparing use of batter. After the plates were cleared, I turned to Angela.

“They’re all off in here.”

She bit a fingernail. “Off as fuck.”

“The blond’s been sold into white slavery, the brunette just crawled out of a pod, and the maître d' has been dismembering bodies in the kitchen.”

“Is that what we’ve been eating then?”

The portions were big so we had them wrap up the left over carrots and salad. We usually had coffee and desert elsewhere and planned on going through the drive through at Costa.

“I would come back but not order the bread or calamari, just a single main course.”

Angela put the Styrofoam container into her purse. I agreed. We waited another few minutes, but our waitress didn’t return with the check. There was a commotion in the kitchen, two raised voices yelling in Italian. I went over to the bar and paid. The shouting truncated, and I glanced at Angela. The woman standing behind the bar had bone white hair but couldn’t have been more than fifty. She was staring at the kitchen door.

“You have a good cook,” I told her. I liked talking about food. She turned, irritated.

“Chef. He’s a chef. And he’s the boss.”

The woman tossed a hand up and down as if to suggest the boss was tough, then almost smiled but didn’t. She half-turned toward the door again, holding my money, and we all listened to muffled croaking. The woman pursed her lips toward the maître d' and tossed her head in the direction of the kitchen.

“He did the salmon well,” I said.

“He’s the boss,” the woman repeated, handed me my change and froze with outstretched hand. A plate shattered and something metal scooted against the floor, then a loud grunt. Feeling sorry for our waitress, I put five pounds on the bar. The woman stared at the back wall and mumbled, “Grazie.”

The maître d' slipped through the kitchen door, opening it wide enough for me to see the man in a white apron down on his knees; his hand was stuck inside the mouth of our blond waitress. She gripped his wrist and thrashed her head back and forth like a pit bull.

I pulled Angela's arm. “You see that?”

"Fucking hell."

A metal pan crashed then clattered in the kitchen. My insides twisted while we waited for a family of ten to get through the little alcove. Grandma stood in the doorway holding a walker making tut-tutting sounds at the toddler in front of her.

The parking lot in the back was full. As soon as we got into the car, a black BMW lurched to a stop behind us. In the rear view, I watched “the boss,” the man the blond had been eating, come barreling out the back door, almost sending it off the hinge, his apron looking like it’d been dipped in marinara. He held a meat cleaver in his good hand and pressed the chewed one against his t shirt. The maître d' followed him with a towel.

“You getting all this?”

“Fucking hell.”

Angela watched through her side mirror.

A red-haired man got out of the BMW. The boss shoved him back toward the car, swinging one arm over his head like he was starting the Indianapolis 500. When he moved into the BMW’s headlights and held out his hand, I could see he was missing two fingers. The maître d' started wrapping the towel around the bloody portion, the boss shoved him back toward the kitchen, bellowing in Italian. The red-haired man, back in the Beemer, reversed, squealing tires the length of the parking lot.

“They didn’t call the cops; they called Red.”

“Fucking hell. Don’t look down,” Angela said.

I looked down. Our waitress lay on the floor of the back seat, covered with a shopping bag. Sticking out of her mouth were the boss’s two fingers. I turned to watch the boss as I backed up and gave him a thumbs up. He stared at us a moment, wrapped the towel around his hand, flung the kitchen door open and stormed back in.

“We still going to Costa?”

“I wouldn’t mind,” Angela said. “Ask her.”

I reached over the seat and poked the waitress.

“Good choice, salmone puttanesco. I left you a tip.”

The waitress stared at us from under the shopping bag.

“We’re going to Costa. You want a coffee or something to wash the fingers down? Maybe a double espresso?”

“For fuck’s sake. The fingers are still in her mouth. She’s probably in shock.”

The waitress spat the fingers out and wiped her mouth with the shopping bag. 

“Sì. Un caffé.”

“No. She’s ok.”