The park sits in a deep dip on Caledonia Road just before the street climbs a steep hill, probably the steepest in the city. It’s morning and nobody’s around. The grass glistens in the spring sunlight. She is sitting on a bench near the playground where they agreed to meet.
Nina gives the old guy a once over. She came an hour early so she could watch him arrive. He is early too, but she was earlier. He had spotted her dark coat from around the corner and watched her for a while. She looks like a black rock in a sea of green. He walks slowly across the field from Caledonia Road. He leaves a curving trail of flattened grass where he steps. He smiles when he is close enough for her to see his face. He has a kind face, open and relaxed. Hers is plump with few wrinkles. Finally, he is standing by the bench. He lifts his hat. They both notice he has more hair on his head than she does.
“Signora Crocetti? Alberto Di Rota, a pleasure to meet you.”
“The pleasure is mine.”
They shake hands. They are both wearing wedding rings. After an hour on the bench, the tip of her nose is a little red. The tips of his leather shoes are wet from walking across the moist field.
“May I sit down?”
To avoid awkwardness when he arrived, Nina sat at one end of the park bench leaving him enough space to sit comfortably beside her but not too close. Alberto takes the hint. He begins.
“I wasn’t sure you would show up.”
“Why not, I said I would.”
“It’s unusual, don’t you think, for people like us to meet like this?”
“I met my poor husband like this. I walked off the plane and there he was. I was 23 years old. We were married by proxy. I was in Italy, he was here. His cousin showed me his passport picture. I liked his eyes. There, now you know everything about me.”
Nina and Alberto had spoken on the phone before setting up the meeting. He placed an ad in the local Italian Canadian paper.
I am an older gentleman, healthy, clean, retired. I live by myself. I am a widower.
The call for help in the paper’s back section caught Nina’s eye. “Interessante,” she thought, “a widower, not a bachelor. That means he knows how to be with a woman.” Nina answered the ad.
“Where are you from?” his accent said Abruzzi.
“Torre dei Passeri. You said you were from Sora.”
“I bet your matriciana is delicious.”
“You would win the bet. Do you live around here?”
“Within walking distance, if you like to walk.”
“We lived near here in the early years. Is your place near a bus stop?”
“I live closer to Rogers Road than I do to the park.”
“That’s good. Do you have a dog?”
“No, no dog. Just a canary.”
“I’m not interested in cleaning up after you or your canary.”
“I have a cleaning lady who comes every week.”
I’m looking for a live-in cook, a food companion who knows what real food tastes like and how to cook it. Cannelloni, lasagne, ravioli, and gnocchi. If you have knowledge of traditional Italian cuisine, if this food means anything to you, call me. I will provide room and board and a stipend. No funny business.
Nina lives in a cavernous house in a subdivision of twisting curving streets that don’t lead anywhere. After her husband died, her daughter convinced Nina to sell her house and move in with her and contribute to expenses.
In her daughter’s house the big screen television is on all day and it makes Nina nauseous. The kids are on their iPads all the time. The dog soils the dining room carpet almost every day. Her daughter is on a no-carbohydrate diet to lose weight. Her granddaughter is a vegetarian going gluten-free.
“So, you want to eat cannelloni?”
“Like I said on the phone, my wife died a few years ago. I haven’t eaten a good meal since.”
“I’m not interested in replacing your wife, do we understand each other?”
“Absolutely. I’m not looking for a wife, I’m looking for someone who knows food. I want to eat again.”
“You don’t have children?”
“No. My son died when he was three years old. Meningitis. We didn’t have other children after that.”
Alberto’s shoulders scrunch up and slouch down as if to say, “That’s life and it’s awful.” In the distance the Caledonia bus breaks the silence with a roar as it starts to lumber up the hill.
“Do you eat everything?” Nina asks.
“Tutto. Every single thing.”
Nina clicks open the clasp of her big, black purse. She reaches in and gives Alberto a hand-written list – a compilation of dishes known to all who have come from the land that should have been shaped like a fork.
“Here’s what I can make for you…”
– Pappardelle alla lepre (pappardelle with rabbit sauce)
– bigoli grossi con l’oca e porcini (thick bigoli pasta with goose and porcini mushroom sauce)
– quaglie all’uva (quail with grapes)
– trota ai porri con polenta (trout with leeks and polenta)
– osso buco
– scaloppine al marsala (veal cutlets in marsala wine)
– risotto alle capesante (risotto with scallops)
– calamari ripieni (stuffed squid)
– abbacchio alla romana (roast lamb Roman style with rosemary and anchovies) …
“Of course, I prepare all the typical dishes of central Italy, some dishes from the north, and some from Sicily.”
Alberto digs into his coat pocket for his list.
“These are the dishes I must have. No negotiation on this list. I’m open to innovation, to new things, but these classics have to be there.”
Nina raises an eyebrow and looks up from the list.
“Tripe in tomato sauce?”
“Sautéed kidneys with peperoncino?”
“I can handle it.”
“Here’s a surprise, stuffed capon.”
“For special occasions.”
“I debone it and stuff it with two kinds of meat. You’ll love it. How do you like your ravioli? I can make for you ravioli stuffed with pumpkin, with crushed amaretti soaked in milk.”
“Can you make ravioli with spinach and ricotta cheese?”
Nina nods as if to say “obviously.”
“I make sausages with nutmeg, red wine and fennel seed. I learned that from a neighbour. But I don’t use pepper in anything. You want pepper you add it in yourself.”
“You make sausages?”
“I’ve got a sausage machine.”
“I’ve got one too.”
They pour over the lists in silence commenting with facial gestures – an approving nod, a head tilt of reluctant acceptance, pursed lips, a smile, a glance of unexpected delight. Alberto puts the sheet down on his lap. He turns to Nina and looks at her straight on.
“Let’s talk about lasagne.”
“There are so many kinds. I’m impressed with your list.”
“I make everything from scratch for you. I have my own pasta machine, by the way.”
“Benissimo. But tell me about your sauce. I want to know about your sauce.”
“The secret to a good sauce is the meat. I use veal, pork sausages, and lamb. And I stew the meat slowly, very slow, for hours. I start early in the morning. By noon, when the house smells delicious, it’s done. When the sauce is on the lasagne, it is thick enough to hold the bits of meat floating in it, but clings to the pasta for only a second or two, then it trickles off, so that in the time it takes you to bring a forkful to your mouth, the sauce is just about to drip from the pasta, but doesn’t. It slips into your mouth where it becomes a flavourful saucy bed. That is my sauce.” Alberto stares into Nina’s eyes as if she is a big hunk of steaming lasagna right out of the oven.
“Ingredients,” she whispers. “You’ll pay for the ingredients.”
“I will do whatever you want. I’ll give you the money. You do the shopping.”
Nina fixes his eyes.
“We’re going to write this in a contract. Know that I don’t skimp on quality when it comes to ingredients. I don’t believe you have to spend a lot to get good results. I’m a frugal shopper, but a good piece of Romano cheese is important. I mean it. I’m serious about cheese.”
“Agreed. Cheese is important.”
“At the grocery store I see what’s fresh, what looks good, that’s how I decide what to cook.”
“Yes, yes. But… I do want an item from my list at least three times a week.”
“Va bene. Is it three meals a day you want?”
“No, I’ll take care of breakfast. I get up very early, before the sun. You take care of lunch and dinner, with dinner being the main meal except on Sundays. On Sundays lunch is the main meal. I like to eat with a tablecloth and a cloth napkin. Of course, we will eat together. Food doesn’t taste the same when you eat alone.”
“How do you feel about leftovers?”
Nina adjusts the silk scarf around her neck. Alberto senses the answer to this question could make or break the interview. People can be funny about leftovers.
“Sometimes… I believe… leftovers taste better than freshly cooked.”
Nina looks out across the grass.
“Bread and wine?”
“With every meal.”
“Do you have a vegetable garden in your backyard?”
“Of course. I have fruit trees and a vine of concord grapes.”
“I like the dark grapes. They’re sweet. I’ll need garden fresh herbs – rosemary, basil, sage, parsley, and oregano. And I like to use garden fresh onions, celery…”
“Yes, yes, of course. I have garlic too.”
“I don’t care about dessert, but I’ll eat it, if you make it.”
Nina reaches into her purse and pulls out a fork rolled up in a white cloth napkin. She offers it to Alberto. Without saying a word he removes the fork and places the white napkin across his right knee. She reaches in again and pulls out a small sealed aluminum tray swaddled in a clean, white dish cloth, decorated with a floral motif. It’s still warm. She unwraps it, releasing a sweet aroma. Alberto knows he is about to go to heaven. Six cannelloni are lined up side by side. They fill the container completely. The red, meaty sauce clings to the curve of the pasta and rests snugly between the valleys formed by the plump tubes lying side by side.
He is speechless for the next few minutes – the time it takes him to eat. He mumbles through his mouthfuls…
“Madonna mia, mamma mia.”
When he’s done, he wipes his mouth, he brings the tips of his five fingers to his pursed lips. He blows a kiss. Nina smiles.
“Well then, let’s draw up the contract. I can start right away.”
“With pleasure, Signora Crocetti.”
“My name is Nina.”
She reaches into her purse once more and pulls out a bundle of aluminum foil. She unwraps it for him. In it, wrapped a second time in parchment paper, are two gooey, honey-soaked, spiral-shaped caragnoli (fried dough). Alberto reaches out for the sweet sticky treat.
“A presto, Signora Nina.”
Nina goes home to pack.
Elizabeth Cinello was born in Udine (Italy) and grew up in Toronto. “Food Companion Wanted” won First Prize in the 6th annual Accenti Magazine Writing Contest. Ms. Cinello read her winning story at the Accenti Magazine Awards during the 13th Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival in April 2011.