It was a blustery Thursday night in Brooklyn. The cold wind swirled sea air into parts of the city that normally smelled of exhaust, or garbage, or nothing.
Anna Chouvie was headed home from a tough day at the office, driving slowly through the neighborhood. All she wanted was to get home and relax, but at the same time she didn’t want to deal with making dinner.
Ahead she saw warm lights, a striped awning, and tables on the sidewalk, although nobody was braving the cold wind to dine al fresco. She’d passed this little Italian restaurant a thousand times, but never eaten there. On an impulse, she pulled over. Vinnie’s Ristorante, the sign said. Why not?
The teenage hostess guided Anna to a table and gave her the menu. “I apologize in advance,” the girl said, “we’re a little short staffed this evening. Someone will be over to take your drink order as soon as possible.“
A few minutes later, Anna was reading the menu, including a 3-paragraph history of Vinnie’s, when the hostess returned. “Well, actually, it’ll be me taking your order, because our only waiter has cut his hand and gone off to the urgent care!”
“Oh, yikes, well, I hope he’s ok,” said Anna. “I’d just like a glass of red wine.”
“House chianti coming right up! That’s one I can do myself… but don’t tell the liquor board or the police detective over there… I’m technically not old enough.”
Anna smiled. “Detective? Are we in some sort of film noir? But don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me, especially if it gets me a quicker glass of wine. But before you go, let me ask: is Vinnie here tonight?”
“She sure is, she still cooks every night, just like when she first opened.”
Vinnie Garanollo was also having a tough day. Besides having her idiot waiter cut his hand while slicing bread, her other waiter was a no-show. And the produce order was messed up, again. On the one hand, the bad weather meant the restaurant wasn’t too busy, but on the other it meant her paycheck was going to be light, again.
Vinnie’s parents had been overcome by the romantic impulse to name their daughter Venus after seeing Botticelli’s famous painting The Birth of Venus on their honeymoon in Italy. As a young child, being called Venus was cute, but at school she was teased mercilessly. She withdrew further and further into a tough Goth shell, until in high school she was barely passing and spoke hardly at all.
Home economics class saved the day. Some saw it as an easy A, while others thought of it as a dumping ground for the unmotivated. But for Venus, home ec was a lifeline. She liked having a big workbench to sit at instead of a little writing desk. She liked doing things instead of just reading about other people’s ideas. And she liked being away from some of the mean girls in her other classes. Out of the blue, she took to the cooking module with energy and flair. Seeing this new interest, her guidance counselor steered her to transfer to a vocational school with a food science track. The next year, she walked into the new school and announced herself as Vinnie. The name stuck, and so did the love of cooking.
After a slightly too long interval, the hostess came back to Anna Chouvie’s small table and asked if she was ready to order. “Yes,” Anna said, “I’d like the lasagna, it’ll warm me up tonight. But to start, can I have a salad?”
“Sure, how about a small Caesar? The Vinnie Garanollo dressing is to die for.”
“That would be great! But I have a special request… for the crunchy things on top, would you see if they have any dry chow mein noodles? I know that’s weird, and maybe you don’t have any in an Italian restaurant, but I just really like them on my salad. And another glass of wine. And also, will you tell Vinnie that Anna Chouvie is here? We were in junior high together, but I don’t know if she’d even remember me… we weren’t really friends or anything.”
“Ok, I’ll see what I can do. We normally serve the Caesar with those… what’s the word? Those little toasted bread cubes. But I’ll ask if maybe she’s got some dry noodles back there? Things are still backed up in the kitchen, though, so please bear with me. And I’m sure Vinnie will be glad to see you,” she said brightly as she hurried away.
As the hostess went off to pour the wine and place the order, one of the other diners looked on thoughtfully. Detective Perry Mazzana ate at Vinnie’s regularly. Tonight, he was noodling over a complex case while picking at a plate of linguine alle vongole. His main witness had clammed up, and Mazzana felt like he was as stuck in the mud. Switching back to the present, he glanced over to the bar area and heard the glug-glug of wine pouring from a newly opened bottle. He knew the hostess was too young to be behind the bar, but he didn’t really see the harm in it. The girl wasn’t drinking the booze herself, or at least not right there in front of the customers.
Anna settled in with her wine to wait for her meal, idly scrolling on her phone. She could hear dishes clanking… a little too hard? in the kitchen. A whiff of burnt smoke tickled her nose.
Suddenly, the kitchen door burst open and Vinnie came through. Silhouetted in front of the bright kitchen with her chef’s smock open at the neck, her cap askew, and holding a large knife, she looked like a figure from Hollywood. Whether that character was from a comedy or a horror film wasn’t immediately obvious. She surveyed the room and found Anna.
“Well, well, Anna Chouvie,” she said, rather loudly, as she walked to Anna’s table. “I haven’t seen you since high school. What are you doing back in the old neighborhood?”
“Hi, Vinnie. I know! But high school? I thought you transferred after junior high.”
“No, we spent a year and a half in the same high school.” Vinnie went on with a note of bitterness. “But I can see how you might not have noticed me… we had different interests by then.”
“Hmm, well, err, I’m sorry I don’t remember,” said Anna, looking a little uncomfortable. “I just decided to pop in tonight… I had no idea this was your place! How cool to have a restaurant of your own.
“As for me, I never really left. I moved away for college, but came back after and moved into a place not that far away to take care of my parents. I was married for a few years, but it didn’t work out and so I’m on my own these days.”
“Really?” asked Vinnie. “So you’ve been around the whole time I’ve had the restaurant but you’ve never been in before? Well, that just figures.”
Anna opened and closed her mouth before answering. But Vinnie went on. “And now you show up and you want chow mein noodles? On the day when nothing is going right, you want chow mein noodles on your Caesar salad. Well, that’s just great.”
Vinnie turned and stomped back into the kitchen.
Anna just sat there, not knowing what to think. And Det. Mazzana, who had watched the whole scene, got that funny feeling he sometimes got, a little itch that said ‘trouble.’ That itchy feeling had gotten him promoted to detective, and he’d learned to trust it. He got out his phone and dialed a familiar number.
“Hey Sal, it’s Mazzana here. Are you on patrol?” He waited for a response and then smiled. “None of that cheesy Detective stuff from you, my friend. I’m just Per Mazzana like always. Listen, can you and Ed swing over to Vinnie’s restaurant? I have a funny feeling, and even if it’s nothing I’m sure you guys wouldn’t mind a bite of pasta on a night like this.”
He hung up and looked around the room. Everyone had seen Vinnie come out of the kitchen and most had heard the brief outburst. But no one seemed alarmed. They were mostly regulars and knew Vinnie’s temper was a little hot sometimes.
Suddenly Vinnie reappeared and marched right over to Anna’s table. “It’s just like in Girl Scouts, you know. Your uniform was always perfect, your projects were always perfect, and then when you won the prize you just quit and walked away. And now you just pop in here after all this time and you want chow mein noodles. But why??”
“Gee, Vinnie, Girl Scouts! That’s kind of a lot to unpack! But I’ll tell you why. It’s something my dad would do. He used to tell us these outrageous stories in the evenings, full of stupid puns and terrible punchlines. One of those stories involved a Chinese chef on a desert island, a wombat, and a helicopter. I don’t even remember it all, but from then on, it was always chow mein noodles on every salad, no matter what. So when I walked in here tonight, I just thought…”
Then Anna folded her napkin and said “But maybe I should just pay for the wine and go. I know it’s a tough night for you, Vinnie.”
“No, no, no. You stay right there,” said Vinnie, waggling the knife as she talked. “I’ll make your dinner, Anna Chouvie, since you’re such a big fish who can order whatever she wants. And on your salad I’ll put plenty of the Vinnie Garanollo dressing that that the Brooklyn Daily Eagle called ‘light and refreshing’.” She stomped off.
Anna sat for a minute, looked around, and gave a little shrug to herself. She caught Det. Mazzana’s eye, and he gave her a little shrug of his own, raised his glass in a mock toast, and took a sip.
Just then, Sal and Ed walked in and headed to Mazzana’s table. They waved at the hostess who was carrying a big load of dishes toward the kitchen. “Hey boss, you buying? We got here right away” said Sal, with Ed nodding eagerly.
“Something just doesn’t feel right tonight, boys, and I’m glad you’re here.”
There was a loud crash of broken glass and silverware hitting the floor, followed by a scream that started low and got higher and higher. Every diner looked toward the kitchen.
The young hostess, looking stunned, raced through the dining room, grabbed her jacket from the front desk, and bolted for the door. Vinnie came out of the kitchen and yelled “And don’t EVER come back, you stupid clumsy bitch!!”
Vinnie, red and panting, looked wildly around the room. All three cops rose from their seats, their left hands automatically assuming that placating palms-down gesture you see them do, while their right hands all moved closer to the belt.
Vinnie sputtered “In the kitchen I’m surrounded by imbeciles!” She eyed the cops and grimaced. “And out here I’ve got Sal, Ed, Anna Chouvie, and Per Mazzana. Let us see what we can cook up now!”
She turned toward Anna and raised the knife.
“Seize her! Sal! Ed!” yelled Mazzana. The veteran cops grabbed Vinnie and easily forced the knife from her hand. One on each side, they started to march her toward the door.
Vinnie struggled and squirmed, trying to get free, still staring daggers at Anna. Practically crying with rage and frustration, she said “You’re just a little fish, Anna Chouvie. And I’ll be back, and I’ll see you again, and then, then…”
“It’ll be CROUTONS for you!”