At 9:41 p.m. on June 16th I uttered those fateful words: “How bad can it be?” If you didn’t tumble out of your crib just yesterday, surely you know that the universe hears those words as a challenge. So it sends you a hurricane or a tax audit or a new man who still lives with his mother. Even so, I didn’t see it coming.
As the head chef at Miracolo Italian Restaurant in Quaker Hills, Pennsylvania, I had just been plating an order of vitello alla Bolognese when our best server, Paulette Coniglio, one of those sturdy middle-aged women with wedge cuts and expensive highlights, handed me a violet envelope. Telling me someone had left it on the table, wedged between the salt cellar and the ornamental bamboo, she arched an eyebrow, smirked, and flipped
the envelope at me the way a cop hands you a ticket for speeding. Not that I would know.
Our eyes met.
I took the envelope gingerly between my slightly greasy thumb and forefinger and gave it a look. Navy-blue calligraphy on card stock. Back flap sealed with a round blob of navy-blue wax embossed with the letter B. Addressed to Chef Maria Pia Angelotta— my nonna (Italian for annoying grandmother), who owns Miracolo.
“So who left it?” I asked.
Paulette rolled her shoulders to get the kinks out. “Two well-dressed women who knew enough to get the Barolo with the veal.” I like this woman for a couple of reasons. First, she used to date my father Giacomo (Jock) Angelotta, and she stuck around even after he didn’t. Second, she is the field commander you want in all the battles of daily life.
“Ah,” I said ruminatively, “foodies.” Wine selection is always the giveaway.
Paulette’s gaze swung to my cousin Landon, my sous chef, who was garnishing an order of his profiteroles—think cream puffs—and doing the famous two-handed hat lift from the Bob Fosse number “I Wanna Be a Dancin’ Man.” Her eyes narrowed. “Mm,” she hummed, shaking her head slowly, “something more.”
“More than foodies? What could that be?” I was
at a loss since I had been so busy during the dinner rush that I hadn’t peeked my head out of the kitchen even once. I wiped my hands. “Did Maria Pia recognize them?” She’d been swanning around the dining room all evening. My grandmother sincerely believes our customers come because of her. The rest of us believe they come in spite of her.
“I don’t think so.” Paulette is my ally in my ongoing effort to keep the dragon (Maria Pia) at bay in the business of the restaurant, which is why she always keeps me in any loop reassuringly ahead of my wild-card granny.
I brought the violet envelope next to my ear, squeezed it between my fingers, and then held it up to the overhead lights. “Well,” I said philosophically, “it’s not ticking, oozing white powder, or holding cash, so I think I’m losing interest.”
She held out her hand. “I’ll give it to Maria Pia.”
Which is when I said with a shrug, “How bad can it be?”
I found out just two minutes later, when my grandmother flung open the double doors and stood there dazed, the opened envelope hanging loosely between her fingers. Out in the dining room the regulars were tuning up, trying to find an A they could agree on. They’re amateur musicians who several years ago decided Miracolo is the perfect place to try out their stuff. In public. To get
the picture, think squatters with musical instruments. Maybe none of them has a garage.
Landon and I turned to our grandmother. “It’s happened,” she croaked, her arms pushed quivering against the double doors like she was trying to launch a lifeboat from the Titanic. Her face was ragged.
“What?” I asked her, as I plated an order of risotto. “You finally been invited to a baby shower?”
“It should only be yours,” she answered kind of automatically, in a strange voice, staring past me. On my nonna, it’s hard to tell the difference—just by looking at her—between alarm and ecstasy, which must have somewhat complicated her love life with my grandfather, the sainted Benigno.
At seventy-six, Maria Pia Angelotta is pretty much what you’d call a babe—with wrinkles. These she slathers nightly with half a dozen different creams labeled “crèmes” to jack up the price. She looks a lot like Anne Bancroft, those big, wide-set dark eyes, that broad and sensuous mouth. From her I got my good legs, something she never lets me forget, although hers are shorter, something I never let her forget.
“Then what, Nonna?”
Which didn’t clear it up. “And Belfiere is—?” I prompted her slowly.
Nonna got testy. “Have all your pants cut off the circulation to your brain?” She believes I’ve ruined all my chances at a niceItalianboy by preferring pants to skirts. I resist telling her that niceItalianboys have no trouble getting past garments of any sort. And I do mean getting past. “Belfiere is the oldest culinary society in the—the—world.”
Landon and I exchanged a look. His said: Do you think it’s time to take her in for an evaluation? Mine said: I thought this blessed day would never come. Then Landon cranked up his help-me-to-understand manner. He leaned in toward her and said, “Kind of like the American Culinary Federation, Nonna?”
I crossed my arms. “Or . . . The American Cheese Society?”
She hit us both with the violet-colored invitation. “No, you ninnies, not at all like those.” This was followed with a spray of sentiments half in Italian that—from what I could follow—compared Landon and me to that traitor Little Serena, her other granddaughter, whom she likened to bread made with expired yeast and then taken off to the woods by non-Italian wolves. (But then, my Italian is a little rusty.) All Little Serena had done was to come out of the closet and declare her kitchen
orientation—“I don’t cook”—upon which she blew town to work a ride at Disney World.
I held out my hand. “Can I see the invite, Nonna?” Nonna, a soft little nursery rhyme kind of word. Makes you picture some mild-mannered smiling human cushion that shells peas, slips you five dollars if she thinks you studied your catechism, and uses her loose dress as a dish towel. But this would be somebody else’s nonna, not mine.
She glared at me. “Of course you can’t see it. It’s not for the uninitiated.”
Landon went for logic. “Well, you’re uninitiated.”
She gave him the look she usually reserves for overcooked pasta. “Yes, but I am among the chosen.” And then, as Landon and I stood there, Maria Pia Angelotta got intense, which is definitely her default setting, clutching the invitation to her generous breast. “Belfiere,” she explained in the hushed tones usually reserved for deathbeds, “is two hundred years old. It’s a”—she slanted a suspicious look at Li Wei Lin, our young Chinese dishwasher, as though she couldn’t be absolutely sure he wasn’t a spy—“secret society of no more than fifty chefs—all women, no men—and you can’t apply to become a member. You are selected by a secret process.” Her already large, expressive eyes widened. In awe, I thought. Maybe fear. Hard to tell. “And inducted in secret.”
It took a lot for Landon not to roll his eyes. “We get it, Nonna, it’s very hush-hush.”
“Well, what do they actually do, these Belfiere ladies?” That was me.
“Do?” Nonna gasped. “Do? They don’t have to ‘do’ anything. They just”—and here she exhaled reverently—“are.”
“Well,” I said, scratching my head, “are you going to have time for this—this—secret cooking club? I mean, the restaurant kind of, well, needs you.” Was I crazy? Maybe Belfiere was the perfect excuse to get her out of my hair . . .
Chef Maria Pia Angelotta pulled herself up straight and gave me a stony look. “You don’t understand. This is not some little club for”—her fingers twiddled the air in the Italian gesture that says You are so inconsequential, even my fingers are bored—“tap dancers or hairdressers.” Are there really such things? “Belfiere is the greatest honor in all the world for a woman chef. If you are called,” she said, rippling an eyebrow at me, “you go.”
Landon got alarmed. “What do you mean you go? Is it a commune? Do you have to sell all your stuff and go live with them?” He was winding himself up, all right, but it was alarm I happened to share. “If so,” he finished with a self-conscious little laugh, “I get the art deco blue mohair armchair. Please, oh, please. Just remember I’m your oldest grandchild.”
He pursed his lips and I elbowed him in the ribs.
“I’m not going anywhere,” she said imperiously. Then she lifted the invitation and scrutinized the printed instructions. “That’s not how it works. Tomorrow will be busy. I start preparing for the special meal I cook as part of my initiation—so we’ll be needing extra help.”
Landon groaned. “Extra help?”
“Cooking? Serving? What do you mean?”
She waved us off, lost in a daydream about hobnobbing with her fellow wizards. “Belfiere,” she said, choked up, “I can hardly believe it. I only wish Benigno had lived to see it,” she finished with a magnificent sniff. Then she bit her lower lip and stared at a far corner of the ceiling. “So much to do,” she said, turning away, tapping the invitation against her hand. “First thing tomorrow,” she announced, “I get my Belfiere tattoo.”
Maria Pia Angelotta?
The woman who, on the subject of body art, runs the gamut from nausea to horror?
Little did I know that before the week was up, I’d be seeing another Belfiere tattoo—on a corpse.
* * *
If this Belfiere cooking society was enough to get my squeamish grandmother ready to run off
and get inked, already I didn’t like it. Neither did Landon. I could tell by the fact that in the last thirty seconds he had left traces of mint leaves and chocolate shavings in his otherwise perfect hair.
We followed her back into the dining room, where the last of the evening’s customers were weighing the effort of pushing themselves off their chairs against hanging around for the first set played by the late-night regulars. Our cousin Choo Choo Bacigalupo, the maître d’, dimmed the lights and smiled suggestively at his crush, our server Vera Tyndall.
Paulette and Mrs. Crawford—a mysterious pianist who I suspect was named Mrs. Crawford at birth—could tell something was afoot from Landon’s hair and the fact that my black toque had fallen over my eyebrow. The two of them shot us questioning looks. Jabbing my finger at the violet invitation in Nonna’s hand, I mouthed, Get the card at them.
Paulette improvised. “Is that a cockroach?” she exclaimed loudly, stalking over to a dark corner behind the bar, where our octogenarian bartender, Giancarlo Crespi, was slicing lemons with manic ferocity.
“Where?” gasped Maria Pia. She quickly glanced around to see what effect this discovery was having on business—zero—so she headed toward the
corner still clutching the violet invitation from the good crackpots at Belfiere. There was a chance she was planning on using it to address the problem, but I looked pleadingly at Mrs. Crawford. Which was when, without a ripple of change in her expression—courtesy of a theatrical supply house—our pianist performed the arpeggio that routinely opened my grandmother’s favorite song, “Three Coins in a Fountain.”
All interest in an alleged cockroach evaporated.
Maria Pia fanned herself demurely with the invitation, acting as though her nightly mad interpretive dance to the fountain song had been vigorously requested by the crowd. There was no crowd. There was a red-nosed businessman hoping another split of champagne would cure the eye-rolling boredom of the young redhead with him. There was a table of five flashy women who kept trying to top each other’s bad-boyfriend stories but had dressed with enough dazzle that they were probably secretly hoping those boyfriends would walk in. There was a very pregnant gal thumbing through a baby name book and disagreeing with everything her husband actually liked.
No one was clamoring for my nonna’s expressive whirling that made me have to increase our insurance coverage. But, with a theatrical flourish, Maria Pia set the invitation down on an empty
table and launched into the song. She got as far as “Three—” and was sucking in a big breath when our singer, Dana Cahill, came motoring up to her, shouting, “No, no, no!” At that moment, Landon oozed by the table, snagged the violet card, and disappeared into the kitchen. I knew he was heading to the office at the back, where he’d make us a copy of this piece of mail from Belfiere that was already smelling like five-day-old mackerel.
Dana smiled indulgently at Maria Pia and drew her aside, out of earshot of the late-night regulars, who appeared to be moping. “Don’t you remember what week this is, M.P.?”
To which my bemused grandmother said, “Heh?”
Dana smoothed her bobbed and dyed black hair (as if it ever got wayward) and licked her vampirish red lips. At that point I noticed she was wearing a sleeveless black sheath I think I saw at Saks in the Donna Karan collection—and a black armband. Who died? Knowing Dana, it could have been the death date of some obscure Russian poet—anything to throw out there if someone asked her about the cloth around her upper arm. She chooses her dramatic effects and then digs up a plausible reason for them.
“It’s Grief Week,” she said in a way that reminded me of a nun in fourth grade when some poor boy couldn’t name the ninth Station of the Cross.
My grandmother looked puzzled.
Dana spoke up, enunciating each syllable as though my nonna’s singing her signature song was second only to the problem of her ear wax. “Setti-man-a do-lo-ro-sa, M.P. Grief Week.” For someone wearing a black armband, she was also sporting about two pounds of gold jewelry.
I could tell Maria Pia Angelotta was close to strong-arming the slight Dana Cahill out of her way with a rebuke for keeping my nonna from her following. “I must give them”— she slapped a hand on her breast—“what they want.” (In that case, Nonna, grappas all around.)
But Dana hung on to her, and went on to remind my thwarted grandmother that the third week in June honors the losses suffered—in a bizarre coincidence—by the regulars during that week. Different years, same week. It all came back to me. It was the third week in June when the clarinet’s wife left him, the mandolinist’s son died in a road accident, the drummer’s mother succumbed to a bee sting, Giancarlo Crespi’s father died on Okinawa during World War II, and Dana Cahill’s basset hound, Booger, died (probably just to stop answering to that name).
So, in a show of solidarity, which annually drives away customers, the Miracolo late-night regulars take the opportunity during the third week in June
to play maddeningly mournful music. If the song features justice gone awry or star-crossed love, they were all over it. And if it wasn’t already down-tempo, they’d work their antimagic on it until it was.
Maria Pia glowered at the hangdog regulars who were no doubt thinking that “Three Coins in a Fountain,” while full of longing, was still not appropriate for Grief Week. “Oh, all right,” she spat, graciously. At which Mrs. Crawford lifted her fishnet-gloved hands from the keys and we watched the regulars launch into their first number. I had just identified it as a dirge probably played for wailing crowds at state funerals in Kazakhstan, when Dana leaned in to me. “I love what they do with ‘Teen Angel,’ ” she whispered, scratching underneath her black armband.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Landon slipping the invitation from Belfiere back to the spot our Nonna had left it, just as she—with no coins to toss in a fountain, due to Grief Week—seemed to remember she had set it down, and turned to retrieve it. Landon patted his pants pocket, which I took to mean that he had stashed a copy there, and I looked at him quizzically. Blinking, he mouthed a big exaggerated “Wow!” at me. So he had read it.
I wasn’t reassured. “Not sticking around for ‘Ode to Billie Joe’?”
He pushed behind our grandmother and did a
tense head shake at me as he headed toward the kitchen. “Wait till you see it,” he whispered.
Staring, Landon kept walking. “No good can come of it,” he intoned.
* * *
Between us, Landon and I managed to clear Miracolo out by 11:52 p.m., well before its usual closing time. Grief Week was just going to have to be a tad less grief-filled this year. Landon and I had crazy cooking societies to discuss before collapsing into our beds. Dana was sitting hunched on a bar stool clasping a cordless microphone and singing the final strains of her spin on “Billy Don’t Be a Hero” (her third splatter platter in a row), sung as what I can only call a breathless lullaby. When one of the drummer’s sticks slid off his plaid Bermuda shorts, I saw he was fast asleep.
Leo, the electric mandolin player—and the only musician regular I knew by name—was gathering up the pictures of the subjects of Grief Week from the end of the bar, which had become a shrine. Pictures of a swaybacked basset hound apparently wondering what the hell was wrong with the human who would name him Booger. A young marathoner. An out-of-focus shot of a crew-cut GI caught mugging for the camera on a beach in the
South Pacific. A stiff wedding shot of the clarinetist and his bride, who had eyes for the best man. A long-haired girl in a purple miniskirt holding her young son in one arm and pointing out a zoo giraffe with the other.
Maria Pia was carried along with the rest of the staff, who warbled their good nights, and I finally gave Dana a little shove, which she interpreted as some kind of Girlfriend Gesture and responded affectionately with “Oh, you!” But at least she went out the door. Landon killed the lights, I locked up, and together we headed across Market Square to Jolly’s Pub, which stays open until 2 a.m.
The downtown commercial district in Quaker Hills, Pennsylvania, consists of shops and businesses lined up on all four sides of the three-acre green space called Providence Park. Right across the street from us is Jolly’s Pub, owned by a second-generation Brit named Reginald Jolly, who, if you happen to come during the slow period, between lunch and happy hour, you might catch trimming his pencil moustache. I think of him as the anti–Maria Pia—he’s as inscrutable and self-controlled as she is generally Out There. They approach each other warily, which is wise, and not often.
Landon flicked open the top two buttons of his shirt as we loped across Market Square and headed straight across the park. My little hemp tote
slapped against my right hip as I dodged benches and playground equipment. “Hi, Akahana,” I called to our wandering Japanese philosopher, who was stretched out on the kiddie slide, reading by the halogen light of a headlamp. I could tell by her grunt that she was pondering the origins of consciousness, her favorite late-night activity.
The entire front wall of Jolly’s Pub had been buzzed up and out of sight, like a garage door, and the drinking crowd had spilled out to scattered tables fronting Market Square. Inside was a long bar that gleamed like a grand piano and café tables holding battery-op candles that even flickered like the real thing. No Grief Week on this side of the square. Glasses clinked. Voices topped each other. Late-night laughter sounded like surf. The scent of Scotch perfumed the summer air. Floating close to the tin ceiling was the sound of Bob Dylan singing “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Maybe I could just hang out at Jolly’s for the rest of Grief Week.
Landon and I grabbed a table, signaled two short ones to Jeanette, the bartender, and we sat. Listing over to one hip, he teased the copy of the Belfiere invitation from his pants pocket. Landon is probably my best friend and the closest thing I’ll ever have to a brother in this lifetime. After my mom died when I was nine and my father—Maria Pia’s oldest
son, Jock—took off for parts unknown when I was fifteen, Landon’s dad gave me a home, partly to keep me out of his mother’s clutches. It almost worked.
He slid the paper across the table to me.
My fingers walked over to it and slowly drew it back toward me.
After about three seconds, Landon erupted into fits of exhaled air and pulled his chair around so he was shoulder to shoulder with me. I smiled at him. Bullets leave guns slower than my beloved cousin reaches the limits of his patience. “Oh, here,” he cried, as if I’d bungled the unfolding. In what looked like one motion, he unfolded the copy of the Belfiere invitation, smoothed out the creases, and spun it to face me.
Centered across the top was what looked like a coat of arms. To me, the shield was shaped like a funnel, which I suppose made more sense than something you’d carry into battle. Even on the worst days, the kitchen at Miracolo didn’t get that bad. In the upper-right quadrant were three silver knives with identical ebony handles laid side by side. A carmine-colored slash ran diagonally from there down to the lower-left quadrant, where a black mortar and pestle was pictured. Running below the funnel-shield was a scroll with the words Numquam Nimis Multi Cultri. Possibly Latin for Crazy Cooking Club?
And then I read:
The Society of Belfiere
~ honoring the gustatory delights of life and death ~
welcomes you as a member
You will first undertake to receive the traditional 3cm B tattoo in Bastarda font on the wrist of your stirring hand
You will prepare an exclusive evening meal for 50 guests on Friday, June 20, at 9 p.m.
You will provide yourself with the traditional Belfiere gown in midnight-blue satin for your induction
on Sunday, June 22, at 10 p.m.
at 7199 Gallows Hill Drive
You must arrive and depart alone
You must perform all instructions faithfully
In all things pertaining to Belfiere you must observe omertà
We are 200 years old and our traditions are known only to ourselves
In matters of our history we are Clotho
In matters of ourselves we are Lachesis
In matters of food we are Atropos
We are Belfiere
“I know!” whispered Landon, his green eyes wide. Then he waved the paper under my nose.
Our Scotch arrived—Laphroaig for me, Oban
for Landon. We were staring at the amber liquid while Dylan sounded so close he might have been at the very next table, and for sure he was the only one at Jolly’s making any kind of sense. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. Whatever this whole Belfiere thing was, Maria Pia Angelotta had unquestioningly bought into it, so the prosciutto was about to hit the fan.
“Our fortress has been breached,” I told Landon moodily, picking up my drink.
“The barbarians are at the gates,” said Landon, lifting his drink, adding, “and they are so wearing last year’s fashions.”
“Dwelling on the line about the midnight blue?”
“Well”—he lifted his elegant shoulders—“coupled with the satin . . .” and he punctuated his scorn with a little sound that went something like “Puh!”
I took one sip I let slosh from side to side, then knocked back the rest. As I winced and writhed, I got out, “I mean, what’s their brand? On the one hand, bastard tattoo fonts—”
“On the other,” said Landon, sipping, “an elegant dinner for fifty. I agree. And girlfriend”—he slipped an arm around me—“let’s not even touch the”—here his voice dropped—“omertà line.”
Omertà is the code of silence. Usually reserved for certain Italian neighborhoods. Usually under
stood as the cost of doing business with certain Italian businessmen. Or getting the business from certain Italian businessmen. Violating omertà is usually punishable by listening to Dana Cahill sing Motown. But the fact that Belfiere members were bound by this code of silence gave me the kind of creeps that had nothing to do with Sandor the toothless floor mat delivery guy offering to try out the mat together. “And then,” he always finishes with a leer, “let’s see what happens.”
I signaled for a second shot. “There’s a lot of death talk in this invitation,” I pointed out to my cousin. “Omertà, the Three Fates—”
Landon snatched the paper. “ ‘The gustatory delights of . . . death.’ ” He shivered. “What are they talking about? What are those?”
Indeed. I waved around my empty shot glass.
Landon went on, “Is it some kind of depression support group?”
“Or do they believe in some kind of epicurean afterlife, or—”
Landon caught my drift. “Or . . . does Belfiere ‘help’ you on your way? Is it an assisted suicide cult?”
My eyes roamed the walls of Reginald Jolly’s pub, which featured framed map reproductions of England all the way back to when it was called Anglia and centurions only dreamed of a future
that held pizza. Why all the enforced silence, the secrecy, the mystery, the lonely initiation ceremony out somewhere in the boondocks? What had Nonna gotten herself into? Yes, there were times when I wanted to kill her, but that was my own rightful fantasy, not anyone else’s.
When I fell off the stage of the New Amsterdam Theatre on October 23, 2009, where I was in the chorus of Mary Poppins, and I broke my leg, I needed a living. And Miracolo is like a hereditary obligation. We Angelottas have been pounding veal senseless for the past eighty years. That alone is the “miracle”—that we’re still cooking, still making money, still not throttling each other. So I caved. And I cooked. Caved and cooked. Nonna purred for weeks.
Finally declaring the Miracolo culinary tradition safe in my hands, she announced she was retiring. The rest of us—which included vendors, customers, and neighboring shop owners—feigned everything from disbelief to operatic distress at the news. Little did we know that my nonna’s idea of retirement pretty much meant having none of the actual responsibilities of the restaurant while still being every bit as annoyingly present as before, telling Landon he chops like a girl, or Choo Choo that goatees are all fine, well, and good for quadrupeds, and me that I could sell my gnocchi to any
one in the mob looking for the perfect thing to tie to, oh, something they want to keep from floating.
But she was our nonna. She gave me a job when my whole dancing career fell off the stage right along with me. And to this day I am still pretty sure she didn’t push me. But late that night on the day Maria Pia received a command—for that’s really what it was, not an invitation—to tattoo herself with the sign of allegiance, to feed fifty all dressed alike in a Belfiere costume, to show up alone and friendless for a strange initiation ritual, and to understand the absolute need for secrecy . . . danger prickled my skin like the humid June night. I didn’t like any of it. Not one bit.
Finally, without looking up at Landon, I spoke slowly. “Or is Belfiere . . . a murder club?”