I found a box of tri-color spiral pasta in the back of the pantry, and I cooked it all. Topped with tomato sauce plus Penzeys Italian Blend spices and a butt-load of cheese, it was a feast.
On the side, I made a down-and-dirty tapenade of chopped olives, olive oil, and Penzeys roasted garlic powder.
And here’s my Story A Day May story for today:
We opened two years ago. It was hard. Brutal. The restaurant business might sound nice from the outside, but it’s one of the hardest start-ups going.
Opening an Italian restaurant in a small town, we got a lot of custom at first, from the novelty value. I had projected that that would go down, but then it would be time for tourist season, and tourists would keep us afloat long enough for the locals to see us as part of the town and come back to us out of civic pride.
Grew up in a small town. Seen it happen.
But the local business never dropped off.
When I wondered about it out loud, Jesse, my chief cook, just grinned and said, “Secret ingredient, man.”
The third time he said it, I hissed, “Dope? Is it DOPE? Are you slipping a controlled substance into the food? Do you want to get us BUSTED?”
He just kept grinning and said, “Secret ingredient, man. Not on any controlled substance list.”
So we were just about to stop hemorraging money, like you do the first few years you start a business, when the Pandemic hit. Total lockdown. Restaurants closed. But curbside carry-out was allowed, so I furloughed everybody with pay and Jesse and I limped along on the carry-out trade for a while.
Then came the day one of the regulars got out of his car and pounded on the door, yelling, without a mask, I hardly need say, “This is bullshit! I want to come in and sit down at a table!”
He yelled a few expletives at the government, and finally went away.
He was back the next day with friends. This time, they threatened to blow the lock off the door if we didn’t let them in.
“That secret ingredient,” I said, dialing the sheriff. “That wouldn’t be stupidity, would it?”
The cop, wearing a mask, must have said the magic word, because the mob broke up and left. Then the cop called me and said the Stupids would be back, and he’d be off duty, and maybe I’d better let them in the side door and nobody the wiser.
Why was I not surprised when the cop was the first in line at the side door? None of them had masks, of course, but Jesse had rustled us up a stack of PPEs, saying, “Don’t ask,” when I wanted to know how.
I hoped these dumbasses wouldn’t force us to remove our gear, but they just slapped each other on the shoulder and mocked us, and I could live with that.
The dumbass trade was pretty good, actually. Good tippers. We had a decent crowd every night, Jesse cooking, me serving and bussing the tables, wiping everything down and mopping with bleach water after they left.
At first, custom grew. Then it leveled off. Then the dumbasses got fewer and fewer. Then I started seeing their faces in the local weekly. In the obits. We stopped having side-door visitors.
All the time this was going on, our curb-side trade kept steady. Every once in a while, I’d hand over a sack and take money from a hand that trembled, and hear a sad story that couldn’t be held back. This one’s Uncle Ike had It and was on a ventilator. That one’s wife was a nurse and was living at the hospital. They all had masks on, and almost everybody thanked me for wearing mine. I thanked them for wearing theirs, and for their loyalty, all the time wondering what Jesse’s secret ingredient was.
Eventually, there was the vaccine, all lockdowns and restrictions were lifted, and the restaurant was packed again. Susie and Brendon and Ashley came back and we hired some new servers, too.
“So,” I asked Jesse one night, as we were locking up, “what’s the secret ingredient?”
“Whaddya mean, which one? How many are there?”
“Two. One for the good customers and one for the dumbasses.”
“Really?” I considered for a moment. “Both, I guess.”
“For the good customers, the secret ingredient is just plain good cooking, like my Nona taught me.”
“And for the dumbasses?”
He glanced one last time around his pristine kitchen. “Don’t ask.”
For my story prompt today, I looked into Marcus V. Calvert‘s BATCHERY, and chose #43: “A health inspector notices that a hip new restaurant’s serving up food laced with some kind of addictive agent.”
I’m posting today at Fatal Foodies about what I did with the leftover pasta.
A WRITING PROMPT FROM ME TO YOU: Write about pasta.