By John Goodie
Eli, the main chef in the kitchen at his family-owned Jewish Ghetto restaurant near Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood, heard a ruckus outside when the sous-chef, Jacob, opened the back door to step out for a cigarette. Eli grew up in that Italian-Jewish kitchen, learning to cook with his grandfather and father, easily mastering every dish to perfection. A distinguished, sensitive palette made Eli a better cook than either of them and his brothers and uncles. It was only logical that he was the one to take it over. He could be the Executive chef but chose to hire Antonio, an Italian chef, who cooked kosher, just to avoid all the headaches such a position entailed after the death of his grandfather and the retirement of his Papá.
Normally engrossed in preparing his favorite dishes or developing new Kosher-style Italian plates as only Roman Jewish chefs can do, Eli followed Jacob out to see what the noise was all about. The dishwashers and prep cooks were throwing rocks at a cat who had scrambled up a sycamore tree.
“Stop that right now. I will have you all fired. What did that cat do to you?” Eli stammered at the bunch. The black and white cat had run up a tree near the dumpster. Eli ordered them back to work, and then approached the beautiful cat to try to lure it out of the tree. Eli thought she was beautiful. “You’re okay now bel gatto. They will not bother you again. I promise you. Are you hungry?” She stared at Eli with her beautiful eyes, one green and one blue.
Eli stepped back into the restaurant and returned with a small bowl of cream. The poor cat looked skinny and hungry. He put the bowl at the base of the typical Tiber River Sycamore tree with its yellow leaves of autumn that the cat had climbed to escape the rock-throwing harassment from the staff. When he returned in an hour, the cat was gone and so was the cream in the bowl Eli had left for her. Eli smiled. A young, shy twenty-something year old, he was a thin man and had rounded shoulders from all the leaning over he did preparing most delectable dishes such as their widely known fried artichokes, romesco and aioli sauces, tempura fried cod fingers, slow cooked beef with tomatoes, roast lamb with garlic and rosemary, sweet pastry pie with a ricotta cheese and sour cherry filling called crostata ricotta e viscole, and other specialties.
After retrieving the bowl. Eli wondered if the cat would return. He was hoping so. She had a black collar with a gold name-tag, so he suspected she belonged to someone but he had not gotten close enough to her to read it. He fantasized about what would be the most delicious meal he could prepare for her: tempura fried mouse, raw cod fish sliced thin, crème brulée, maybe? She had become his pet project of sorts.
Eli, who had mastered the fine art of rolling, stuffing, and shaping enticing Parmigiana Reggiano cheese-filled tortellini, had been thinking about the cat from the day before as he rolled out the dough to the proper thinness, being sure not to overfill the fetching little dumpling circles when it occurred to him to make some for the cat, should it return. Only, yes, he thought, he’d stuff hers with a plainer version of his tuna tartare, briefly boil them to cook the dough but not the tuna, and then toss them in the cream, perhaps with a hint of nutmeg.
Using sushi-grade tuna with a deep red color and no fishy smell he had Luca pick up for him at the fish market that next morning, Eli kept it chilled on ice until he diced a portion up for his tortellini. Leaving out the lime, ginger, and other spices he’d use in a tartare, Eli simply placed the freshest tuna he’d diced by the teaspoon into his round tortellini before he folded, crimped , and twisted them into the traditional shape. He made four for the cat and after the brief boiling water dip, he let them dry in a sauté pan before adding the cream to slightly warm the dish, grating a dash of fresh nutmeg into the cream for a slight enhancement of flavor, as he had imagined for a final touch.
“What are you doing chef?” Antonio wondered. “Experimenting again?”
Eli laughed. He was always experimenting with new dishes, different tastes, and unlikely combinations of flavor that others could only appreciate after tasting them. When Antonio stepped into the freezer for something he needed, Eli plated the four tuna tortellini with cream in a small bowl like the one he served the cream in the day before and walked out the back door, placing the bowl in the same spot under the sycamore. As it was prior to opening time, it happened to be the same time of day the black and white cat with the curious eyes had appeared the day before. He was hoping to see her again.
As he reached the door, he turned back and saw her peeping from behind the trunk of the tree. Eli smiled. He knew she was going to love devouring this treat and as a chef, there was no greater enjoyment than to see a diner enjoy his creations.
He continued feeding his furry new interest this same delightful dish every day until, one day, she allowed Eli to approach her and pet her. He read her name tag. It only said, “Victoria,” so he assumed that was her name. “Good girl, Victoria,” Eli softly said as he stroked her back. She purred and stretched. Victoria seemed to love this dish Eli had prepared. She always ate it all and started waiting on Eli every day as they developed a bond of friendship. Eli, the introvert, needed a friend and Victoria whispered her affection to Eli with soft kisses, meows, tail fluffing, and back arching, eagerly accepting Eli as a friend and the provider of the tasty, seducing tuna tortellini with cream he had created just for her.
Marco, one of the waiters, always took his orders to Eli directly, as opposed to taking them to Antonio. Both were excellent chefs, but Eli, his cousin, paid a certain attention to detail that pleased Marco and his regular clientele who would ask if he was in as they were seated. A swish of this or a dash of that could always make the slightest difference in a dish and Eli knew what flavors blended together for the best efficacy and most delightful lingering craving to the taste buds.
“Ciao Eli, how are you today?” Marco asked. Eli waved.
“Ciao Luca,” the typically reticent chef mumbled.
After a month of playing with and feeding Victoria, Eli missed her today. Maybe her owner had not let her out. He was a bit disappointed as she had become part of his routine and he had grown used to seeing his little furry friend each day without fail. He was showing the newly hired chef Leonardo, also a distant cousin, how to make Carciofi alla Giudia (Jewish style artichokes), for which the restaurant was renowned. It is essentially a trimmed, lightly battered, and deep-fried artichoke, shatteringly crisp on the outside and as tender within, with a slightly nutty taste that kept you reaching for more. Leo was getting pretty good at it when Marco approached Eli with a rush and look of concern.
“Eli, I just seated a beautiful lady with long black hair, wearing deep red lipstick and shades with a long white coat. What a knockout,” he said. “She speaks English but with a Romanian accent.”
“Yea, so?” Eli muttered. He was focused on making sure Leo was paying as much attention to detail as he would to the artichokes.
“Well, she ordered a dish that is not on our menu. She insists she has a friend who referred her to our restaurant, touting this dish, ah, ah, a tuna tortellini with crema, or something like that. She makes the claim that her friend noted it was our specialty and best dish. Can you imagine?” Marco said. “I wonder who she has us mixed up with?” Marco continued. Eli’s blood froze. He turned white. How could this be, he thought to himself. He had only made this dish for Victoria, his feline friend. He would have to go out to meet this lady himself.
“Leo, have you got this under control? Looks like you are doing great?” Eli said.
“Yes, cousin, thank you for the lesson. I can handle this with no problem,” Leo said.
Eli washed his hands, put on a fresh clean apron, adjusted his chef’s hat. He didn’t even have to ask Marco at which table she was seated. He spotted the raven-haired beauty right away. She looked so familiar to him.
“Ciao, Signora, mi scusi. I am the chef Eli. My waiter tells me that you fancy a dish not on our menu. I would be glad to make for you whatever you may desire. Can you describe for me this dish?”
“Why thank you so much, Eli. I am honored to meet you.” she said as she removed her shades. They call me Vickie. Their eyes met. Eli was enamored by her natural beauty immediately and noticed that she had one blue eye and one green eye; a subtle difference somebody with less acuity might not notice.
“It’s a tortellini dish with tuna and delicious cream that I crave.” she said.
“Ah, yes, I know the dish,” Eli replied with confidence. “It will be my greatest pleasure to prepare it for you, Would you care to try my fried zucchini blossoms as a starter?”
“Why of course, Eli, if you recommend them they must be divine. How could I refuse?” she said, flirting with Eli as she winked at him smiling sensually with her deep red lips. Her innately seductive feline nature did not escape Eli’s highly developed sense of perception.