Monday, 5 July 2010

The Italian Waiter: An NYC short story

Mark called the restaurant to make reservations. But he didn’t know I was going to take so long time to get ready for dinner. So he became confused and distracted when he told the restaurant 6:00 and I furiously shook my head in disapproval. There was no way I was going to be able to dry my hair and hike to a restaurant six blocks away in a half hour! What was he thinking? The time it took for me to interrupt him and take his attention away from the phone call was evidently too annoying for the person on the other end of the line at the restaurant. Mark balked as the line went dead. The person on the other end must have been too busy to listen to the husband and wife haggling.

“He hung up before I could give my name!” Mark scoffed.
“Well, call back.” I insisted.
“No, you do it. I will not talk to someone as you are telling me what to say in the background. Do it yourself.” He handed the phone to me. It took a moment to be offended and then I acquiesced deciding that I would ultimately be the better person to call anyway.

At 6:30 we breezed out the cold, air-conditioned lobby of the hotel to the busy hot bustle and closeness of the street. Locals coming home from work brushed past with cell phones glued to their tired ears and designer sunglasses blocking their eyes. Oblivious to the silent rules of commuters on foot, we admired the architecture and unknowingly stepped in urine from pets that had yet to be washed from the street by the doormen. We were smiley and proud. In only a few days we thought we had successfully mastered the art of going out to eat in New York City. Not only were we determined to eat well, but also to find the little “best kept secrets” of the neighborhood.

A little family-owned Italian restaurant at the corner of 79th and Lexington looked to fit our requirements. The door was open. A breeze of air conditioning flowed onto the street inviting us inside. The waiters and host lingered in the front, speaking loudly in Italian – a good sign. As soon as we crossed the threshold, the cool air hit us like a jet engine. The staff scurried away. It was damn near impossible not to laugh as I came face to face with the 1970 Sonny Bono-look-alike who would escort us to a table.

In the hallway-like restaurant, my eyes were still adjusting from the brightness on the street. Olive oil and wine filled the air. I was looking forward to another Cabernet like the night before at that hip vegan restaurant. What was the name of it? Helen Estates? Yes, that was it. Hopefully a Cabernet or a Chianti would be on the menu “by the glass”.

The tables were so closely positioned together; it was hard imagine all the bodies fitting with a waiter buzzing around. One party of six had been recently seated. Their thick New York accents musically filled the small space.

In the center of the back room was the perfect table for two. The skylights illuminated the crisp white linens, the natural light from above raking in onto the shelves lined with wine bottles. A charming little orchid placed in the center of the table made a lovely centerpiece. I tried to memorize the scene. I was convinced it was going to be another perfect dinner.

No wine list accompanied the menu. When the waiter showed up at the table looking straight ahead, I tried to smile and make eye contact before asking my question. “Do you have a wine list?”
“What would you like?” he sighed.
“Do you have a wine list?” I repeated.
“What you like?” He said again in an almost irritated voice.
Then Mark spoke up, “Do you have a Chianti?”
“Yes,” the waiter quickly replied with no further detail.
Mark continued slowly, “We would each like a glass of Chianti”
“You buy glass or bottle?” the waiter pushed.
“Uh,” Mark hesitated looking across the table at me, “we would prefer a glass . . .” but he was cut off by the waiter.
“We have Nuova Cappelletta, Gabiano and Pinot Noir.” The waiter then looked straight ahead at the wall, his hands locked behind his back as if in military position.

The more I looked at Mark the more goofy the whole situation became. We were paying a lot of money to sit here and listen to this stranger yell at us in Italian code. Almost as if it was our job to figure out what he was saying. Suddenly, I felt like I was in a Saturday Night Live skit. There was not way I could make eye contact with Mark. I would explode with laughter and further insult the waiter. And of course the waiter’s absolute disgust with us, an obviously inexperienced Midwestern couple, could not have been more entertaining to me. The waiter made no effort to explain the three wines he had listed. We were still completely confused. While we tried to stay cool, there was no way to tell if one of the first two wines he had mentioned was a Chianti. All we understood was the Pinot Noir part. It took several tense moments of biting the inside of my lip to squelch the building giggling before I realized what the waiter was really trying to tell us. The restaurant had Chianti, but did not offer it by the glass. Mark had not yet made this connection and he asked again if one of the wines the waiter had mentioned was a Chianti.

This time the waiter, raising his voice so that others around the area would be able to hear, stated in a slow articulate English with Italian accent “WE, HAVE, Nuova Capp-ellett-a, (pause) Gab-i-ano (pause) and (very fast) Pinot Noir .” BANG! The waiter had lifted the small artificial orchid from the center of the table and loudly pounded it once onto table to make his point very clear. We jumped, immediately started by his temper. Both of us were so completely taken aback by this behavior we had to fake coughing to cover up the laughter.

“We’ll take the Pino Noir.” Mark finally managed to squeak out. Just to survive we hung our heads low, our shoulders and backs shaking with giggles as the fuming waiter disappeared.

Mark and I were delighted with the unusual service. Now, it was like a show. I couldn’t wait to see what was going to happen next. I anxiously watched Mark’s facial expressions for signs of the waiter. I faced the back wall. So the only way I knew the waiter was nearby was when Mark’s eyebrows raised and his head tilted to the side with his lips suddenly disappearing into his mouth the hide his amusement.

I listened to the waiter talk to other tables anticipating he would take on the same rude manner. But, he didn’t! Other tables asked questions. Other tables didn’t get the pounding. Other tables didn’t have the yelling. What the?

Finally the waiter came to the table to present the wine and announce the specials for the day. I was dying with anticipation for anything quirky at this point. From the looks of his body language, it was very clear the waiter was frustrated and uninterested. Instead of looking at us, he continued to look at his other tables around the room and at the wall as he methodically and slowly announced the specials, accentuating all the Italian words,

“Toonieeght, we havea a fresh salad weeth meexed greens, peeled carrots, abalasamic weeth vinegretta. Next, for an appeteezer, we havea a wild mushrooms and fontenella, fon-te-ne-la cheese.”

I learned my lesson. I had no intention to ask any more questions that might irritate him. I hastily ordered the gnocchi and Mark ordered something like a vegetable pasta.

But then, the waiter threw in more choices, “You want salad?” looking away while we made our decision.
“No thank you,”I replied.
“You?” the waiter pointed at Mark but looked across the room where no one was.
“I’ll have the mixed greens” he answered. Then the waiter started bullying us by using Italian words we didn’t understand.
“Mesto?” the waiter asked.
We had no idea what mesto meant. So Mark repeated his order, “The mixed greens?”
“Mesto?” The waited replied more loudly.
“Uh,” Mark hesitated looking to me who hid my eyes low. I finally understood the waiter wanted Mark to speak using the Italian word for mixed. “Mesto!” Mark repeated in his attempt at an Italian accent.

Again, the waiter lifted the small vase with the acrylic fake water and the orchid. We fixed our eyes, big and round anticipating what we knew would inevitably happen next. BANG! The waiter pounded the table with the décor. I jumped again, biting the insides of my cheek to keep from losing it. The waiter wrote our order on a pad of paper and snapped the back of his hand with a loud CLAP on it. It was like every time we did what he wanted he had to include some kind of auditory exclamation point.

We spent the next few minutes reliving the pounding on the table. I diagnosed him with OCD and explained the pounding as a tick. Then we carefully analyzed him as he served other customers. He did do this flicking thing with his notepad pretty regularly. After taking another person’s order he would hit the pad with the back of his hand or the pen.

When he returned with Mark’s salad I stiffened. He asked him for black pepper on the salad. Mark shook his head “yes.”

Then, as an afterthought, he went to put the pepper on the table and the BANG came again. This time I tried not to move any part of my body. I just froze mid sip on my wine and closed my eyes to avoid seeing Mark’s reaction and prevent the Pinot Noir (not the Chianti) from exploding all over the table. At that point I decided there was no way I was going to make it to dessert and coffee. Getting through the meal was the goal.

After the meal, on the street, Mark and I tried to make our way to a Jewish bakery for dessert without falling off the sidewalk in hysterics. To the rest of New York we must have looked like we had about a bottle of Chianti.

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