The dining experience in the great mansion at Mio Cuore began to unfold with a delicate little puff pastry turban filled with asparagus tips, served in a scant pool of tart lemon sauce. The wine was a perfectly crisp Orvietto and only served to assure the guests they were about to be entertained by an elite epicurean. Next came a seared lobster tail on an avocado fan and spicy orange sauce. The conversation centered around the amazing collections of art that would be on a promised after dinner tour. Paco was urgently curious to know more about the old Don, so long hidden, and his connection to the Academia. He began to question then follow the story as Captain Oakley calmly revealed a man of enormous complexity. A first course of artfully crafted ravioli filled with sea bass and wild fennel in guazzetto jus splashed with Bruno Giacosa sent Chef Printise into orbit, actually rising from his chair to do a quick tango of ecstasy, kissing his fingers all the while. Then finally back in his seat, the Captain described Don Fazinatos’ beginnings in Sicily and his brilliance early on as a writer and an artist, talents that would take him to Florence, first to study at the Instituto Superiore di Belle Arti in Florence then to apprentice in the studio of his teacher Telemaco Signorini, an artist credited in Italy with transforming neo-classical painting and the academic portrait into a new poetical interpretation of natural landscape, much like the Barbazon School in France. As a forerunner of the impressionists, he loved to paint outdoors and that is how the Don met Filippo Mazzei. As the Captain described it, Fazinatos was out on the grounds of Mazzei’s Villa Mangiacane with his easel set up when suddenly a pack of ferocious mastiffs came toward him with savage intentions. Saved by their Master on horseback, the two began a friendship that would last many years and bring the old Don to America when he was forced to escape.
The fine dining continued throughout the fascinating saga of the Don. Presented next, the main course, was a marinated lamb chop; sautéed baby artichokes served Venetian style with polenta and bottles of a light fruity Sangiovese.
Noteworthy was the masterly way Italians rely chiefly on the quality of the ingredients rather than on elaborate preparation and these dishes were pure examples of this art. Paco, with big innocent eyes, finally asked the question that seemed to be hanging in the air. “Why did Don Fazinatos have to escape from Italy? What did he do?” adding in case he had gone too far, “If that is not too difficult to explain?” Oakley appeared almost pleased that his son expressed an interest so he continued with more of the old Don’s life story.
“The reason for his rapid departure from Florence was political. He was living at the Villa Mangiacane and had become part of an anti-fascist movement that his benefactor now, Fillipo Mazzei, had helped to shape. The estate was historic for being the home of Machiavelli and the place where he wrote ‘The Prince’, an infamous piece of literature professing a militant leadership style that demanded love but depended on fear. Later generations continued this serious commitment to philosophical exploration but flourished in a different direction. The passion for governance evolved down to the Mazzei family who produced a movement that was dedicated to curb or end the brutal atrocities committed by the powerful tyrants then griping Florence and most of Italy. The philosophers of the enlightenment and especially Fillipo’s legendary great uncle inspired the young men of the new movement. This ancestor spent years in Virginia at Monticello where he was invited to bring the famous winemaking skills his region was known for. There he became involved with the unfolding of The American Revolution and a friend of Thomas Jefferson. Over a hundred years later this connection with Fillipo’s great Uncle Mazzei was still active, the Mazzei family still owned several farms near Charlottesville, so when the fascists where about to arrest Don Fazinatos and Fillipo Mazzei a speedy method was devised to send them to America and a safe refuge in Virginia.”
Paco thought the story remarkable and the dinner rich. What came next brought the entire experience to a new level of satisfaction. A sublime cheese tray, the giant plateau presenting a collection described below, all set out on big fresh grape leaves. The assortment included; a special blue cheese from sheep’s milk produced in Maremma, a little masterpiece Castello de’ Pecorari Pecorino seasoned on planks of wood with twigs of Summer Savory, natural Gorgonzola made from a double milking, mature and sharp Montasio from Friuli region served with garlic aubergines in olive oil, traditional Taleggio cheese from Taleggio Valley, Castel Magno from the Alps in the region of Cuneo matured from 4 to 8 months, served with red currant jam, and assorted goat cheeses served with dry tomatoes on quince jam. All this sent Printise off into delirium again along with Penny and Paco who also understood the rarity of this glorious collection providing some of the most esoteric products Italy had to offer.
Iced parfait with raspberries, Limoncello liqueur and espresso followed while Captain Oakley finished the chronicle of the old Don’s audacious lifetime. He recounted the strange yet miraculous series of events and connections that allowed Fazinatos to manifest his dreams. Always in the wine business with his friend Fillipo they learned of the natural climate for vineyards and the cheap cost of land in California so ending up in regions north and south of San Francisco they purchased hundreds of acres of land and began the development of imported varietals. Along with the viticulture they discovered pristine spring waters and distilled excellent quality whiskey, ale and gin.
To market the bonanza their operations produced, they began to rely on the American Mafia as a distribution channel. Soon thereafter a twisted series of circumstances generated both tremendous pain and great pleasure. With sadness clouding his handsome features Oakley told of the bomb blast that killed the old Don’s wife and three daughters in a hotel in San Francisco as an act of retribution by his enemies. He grazed by the wars that waged over domination of the syndicate and lightened when he spoke of the joys the old man experienced creating his spectacular Mio Cuore, the dazzling estate that had everyone enchanted that evening.
Chef Printise was so fulfilled with the culinary talent he asked to meet the Chef, whereupon the Captain, smiling, pressed a secret buzzer on the floor, whispered a request in the waiter’s ear and out rolled four middle aged women wearing black dresses, each one had the little flower printed aprons of a proper Italian Mama. Dark and deeply tanned they now blushed red from the kitchen heat and embarrassment. The dinner guests murmured, “Bravo, bravo”, finishing with applause. Just at that moment, the Butler announced the arrival of Carmino and only seconds later the big man walked in toward Oakley, bowing to the others, still showing his head wrapped with a bandage now holding his cap. He greeted the Captain with double kisses obviously glad to see him alive then bowed to the others.
It was Carmino who bravely delivered the messages to Madonna and Ludington and working desperately negotiated the ransom with the Fong Twins. Looking intense now Captain Oakley asked everyone to follow as he led them away through the glorious entry with the stunning harlequin marble floor into the large corridor of portraits and to his office door where he asked Carmino to enter then escorted Paco, Penny and Printise to the double doors ahead revealing, as they opened, an enormous ballroom featuring gallery walls with many great pieces of art. There he left the three to investigate. Returning to Carmino the Captain outlined his plans for retaliation against the Fongs knowing their incredulous act, the very idea they would dare to kidnap Oakley could not go unpunished for fear it would display weakness. He said nothing would satisfy him except the capture of the twins and a doubling of the demand for money. Then as Carmino left with a salute the Captain added, “Also state that the paintings recently taken from the de Young Museum must be returned before any negotiations can start”, thinking to himself, ‘that will save us the trouble of finding them ourselves’.
The huge room was done in a combination of pale and dark bronze silk drapery on arched doors along the right side opening out onto the terrace and silk lined walls covered with paintings on the left side. There were more magnificent Venetian crystal chandeliers hanging from ornamented coffered ceilings and a parquet dance floor inlaid with an intricate star design. Fine upholstered settees and chairs around small game tables were scattered throughout the room. The paintings held Paco’s attention. ‘This could be the most spectacular collection of Impressionist work ever brought together’, he thought. Displayed as a group this body of work expressed a fresh new style considered by experts to be a result of the development of photography. The artists now had freedom to interpret the world in a subjective way and this moment captivated the young artist, opening a door in his mind never to be closed. His eyes caressed the many Monets and Renoirs, stopping to memorized his favorites by Degas. There were more, artists he had never heard of, some wonderful pieces that were unsigned. While Penny and Printise danced up and down behind him, he floated immersed in the excitement forged by pure inspiration.
Presently Captain Oakley entered and assuming they were as exhausted by the day as he was suggested they get a nights rest since he would like to show them the gardens, the lake, the winery, his dogs and the horses. He finished with, “There is much much more and Ludington will be here to take you home tomorrow.” With that Printise heaved a sigh and Penny was elated. Paco’s mind was still lingering over the pictures he loved so profoundly. When Oakley asked, “Did you decide to meet your Grandfather? If you will I need to prepare him. Maybe sometime after breakfast?” Paco looked vacant then with acceptance he nodded yes, eyes thoughtful, concentrating on his Father’s face that quickly brightened.
Meanwhile in a barn on a remote part of the estate grounds, guarded night and day, two metal chairs, each with a whole in the seat and steel restraints, sat the Fong Twins, fed on a diet of noodles and tea waiting for a $200,000 ransom to be paid. In a little office just off the main space, Carmino sat at his big desk filled with spiked paper holders, the receiver from one of several telephones in his hand. His head was aching from the vicious blow he suffered from the very men who sat chained up and he had some small satisfaction as he watched them through a big window. Their black silk Tang warrior uniforms with the tightfitting red dragon emblazoned helmets had been removed and they now wore the common shirts and pants of the gardeners. They had long pigtails bound up with tiny gold cords but instead of looking anxious or uncomfortable they appeared to be deep in meditation, head bent slightly with eyes closed. This fact irritated Carmino as he made final arrangements for the trade off settlement. He spoke with the Chinese on the other end of the line in Italian reverting often to English, continually needing to ask for “ripetere, ripetere!” All along heavily armed men were coming and going, picking up orders and leaving to load up the barrels or cases of wine and liquor the syndicate’s customers requested. Truck after truck continued heading out to deliveries throughout the western states that marked the Don’s territory. This was the heartbeat of the “Aroncioni”, the operations that inflated by Prohibition brought multi-millions back to Mio Cuore.
Paco had spent the night sleeping fitfully, having a fever dream, waking between haunting segments filled with images and snippets of the many experiences he had recently endured. There was a fire but it was the monstrous Chinese junk burning not the Portafortuna and he became the old Don studying art in Florence, fleeing to America. One sequence began pleasuring him beyond imagination. He was dancing with Charmaine in the ballroom when all the doors on one side with drapery flowing out from the wind opened to a terrace with a pool like Il Brolino, glistening in the moonlight. They moved slowly toward the water and all the while he was removing her clothing. He carried her to a soft grassy knoll. Pulling her arms behind her back he gently kissed and bound her wrists, covering her eyes with silk wrappings. She was smiling; delighted with his sensual game when suddenly he saw her crumple to the ground weeping. Then rapidly removing the bindings he drew back as he saw it was his Mother and he realized he had become the Captain, his Father. Reaching down gathering his wife up in his arms, he comforted her, pledging to love her and care for her always, whereupon he looked closely and saw the woman was Lillian. He woke from this dream without any remembrance at all.
The same little lady woke him in the morning with a jolly attitude, pulling him to standing, massaging him briefly then ushering him into the same blissful bath leaving him to play with the suds like a child. He understood enough of her conversation to know he was wanted in the dinning room for breakfast so he hurried to shave. He found his clothes freshly washed and pressed to perfection, his fine tan boots were polished, his leather jacket arranged on the back of the chaise. Comfortably dressed he walked slowly to the stairway studying each painting he passed carefully. Paco wanted to remember every piece and be able to savor the details in his mind’s eye whenever he wished it. As he passed large double doors in the center of the second floor landing he stopped short. The portal opened flashing the interior of a splendid room filled at the far end with a giant canopied bed and propped up in a mound of white pillows Paco could see for a split second a tiny person, the fine points of it’s features obscured by a rapid closure of the doors. Oakley whispered, “we will visit Don Fazinatos directly after we breakfast”.
Arriving again in the dinning room, now with the row of doors out to the terrace opening on a bright morning, they came to a table under the outdoor canopy set with baskets of fruit. A silver domed serving cart with hot dishes and smoked meats stood waiting. One of the little Italian cooks asked for requests. The sunlight made the flowers glow and the walkways with tall Cyprus trees cast stately shadows down to a large pool ornamented by sculpture in the distance. Paco felt a little dizzy. The landscape was breathtaking. Captain Oakley suddenly looking severe began to confer with Carmino who stood some distance away. Chef Printise and Miss penny, now bonded forever by their shared capture and freedom, could not help but indulge in every inch of the Captain’s paradise, including a bubbly bottle of prosseco spumante.
Penny, waving at Paco from a chair where she had been sipping her coffee and nipping at the heavenly cornetti alla crema, began with a persuasive tone that he could tell meant she wanted him for something. “Paco dear, we have a brilliant idea that our fabulous Chef Printise has just created. He is such a genius.”
Printise, beaming in agreement, concentrated his azure blue eyes on Paco, attempting to be hypnotic. “Yes Darling boy, now, with all gratitude to your distinguished Father, we are evidently not going to die, at least not before the culinary competition at the Biltmore next week. Remember, Darling, the “Medallion de Oro”? I dare say, dear boy, I will be the winner. There’s no doubt about that”, the Chef’s almost white blond curls whipping around with emphasis. “It would be a perfect idea for you to assist me, hmmm Paco? We work together beautifully, you take my direction with such haste and you are gifted, lovely man, with preparation. My Darling Penny says you must do it! And you know what that means? Say you will and we can start planning the platters now, one for fish and the other for meat, each with four side dishes. What do say Darling?”
Paco was lightly amused and nodded clearly distracted, nervous to meet the old Don who, by the fleeting looks of him, presented a frightening appearance. He filled his glass with the Italian champagne at least three times and tasting the smoked pork with a bit of rosemary scented corn porridge he rose to follow the Captain back up the stairway to Fazinatos’ chamber. As they entered Oakley put an arm around his shoulder and with a formal introduction presented Paco to a startling figure, body hunched into a ball, with a face so small it could only accommodate two very large red rimmed eyes that oozed with tears and a broad mouth with skin stretched so tightly it appeared to be without lips, just all teeth yellowed with tremendous age. He spoke in elegant English with just the slightest Italian accent like the Captain but the tone was high and often broke for his labored breathing.
“It is one of the great pleasures of my life to meet you Pacomino. Your Father and I have wanted this moment for many years. Come closer to me so I can see you better. Rosalena, bring my opera glasses. I want to see my Grandson.” Paco stepped forward and sat on the edge of the giant bed holding his hand out to meet the fragile claw-like fingers offered by the old Don. His skin was discolored, almost black in places, and except for the perfectly pleated and pressed white night shirt of finest linen, he looked ghastly. He peered at Paco with the little gold binoculars and finally pronounced, “You have your Grandmother’s smiling eyes, your Father’s physique and the hands of an artist like me.” The old man was panting intermittently now and with his energy seriously waning he whispered, “you have come to carry our flag”, and with that he lost consciousness. Captain Oakley guided Paco out of the room, closing the doors and directing him to find the others and wait for him at the entrance.
Out on the circle drive, Miss Penny and Printise were laughing hysterically as they attempted and failed to mount the horses waiting for a tour of the property. The Chef was limping in a zig zag fashion to demonstrate his bad back and begging for mercy, “Please, please Darlings bring me the car, or an impressive supply of serious pain killers, cocaine anyone? Pass me the magnum of champagne and I’ll just wait for you here. Paco Darling you can describe everything to me a little later, after my nap.” He was ever resourceful with the many ways he could feign ailments to avoid anything rigorous. Penny looked at Printise knowing he was really just desperately hung over and with some sympathy she agreed to stay and keep him company. Secretly she wanted to try connecting with Owen Star who had not been answering his phone. This left Paco and the Captain to set out together on fine boned horses muscled like athletes with arched necks and high-carried tails streaming out as they began to canter then gallop.
Passing through gardens of many forms they came to the merry-go-round and Ferris wheel. Slowing to a walk the Captain told Paco that the Don created this for him when he first learned of his existence. Oakley knew it was best for his son to never know of this place but he imagined it often, seeing him laughing and playing with his Mother looking on but only in his dreams. Paco was beginning to understand the depth of emotion and grief his Father had carried for so long. He began taking in this hidden affection and accepting the attachment that was so painfully missing from his childhood. He was feeling the love but at the same time he noticed a little unsettled area deep in his heart quietly pulsing with fear.
The two men proceeded to a perimeter road traveling rapidly by the dazzling countryside filled with oaks and stands of eucalyptus often opening to fields of poppies and lupine. After a time they came to the vineyards, precisely covering soft rounded hills with row upon row of grapes in mid flight to ripening. The Captain took great pleasure in pointing to the varieties in each area. He indicated the white wine producing Pinot and French Sauvignon. Next came the reds, Sangiovese, Trempanillo and Nebbiolo. All these were brought by Fillipo Mazzei, the Don’s partner, from Europe and planted very early on. Each variety had it’s own area on the miles of land dedicated to viniculture. Finally ahead Paco could see a rocky mountainside with giant green metal doors that folded upon themselves to cover a broad entrance. There were numerous men all along the way including guard towers and two in dark coveralls with obvious firearms in the doorway. As a matter of fact the Captain was armed with a revolver in his shoulder holster and he had a riffle in the leather sling attached to his saddle. Obviously there was a small army of private soldiers under Oakley’s command protecting the entire estate. This was beginning to bother Paco. Exactly who was his Father? Was he the erudite intellectual capable of unending love for his family? Or was he the dangerous criminal who would stop at nothing to rule a dark empire existing totally outside of the law? Paco now knew he was both.
Walking inside the enormous cave like space filled with row after row of barrels and room after room of bottled wine sitting in crates waiting to be delivered, the Captain pointed out a stone stairway leading down to the gated and padlocked entrance of a small space that harbored a collection of wine that Paco had only read about in the Diehl’s catalogs. Once in a while a customer would order such vintages and the cost was enormous. Oakley unlocked and pulled out a dusty bottle marked with “Napoleon Cognac Grande Champagne”, the numbers not clear enough to read, maybe 1811? He poured two glasses, first sniffing then checking the dark mahogany color by holding it to a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling. He passed one to Paco who did the same and then remarking, “Salute” they took a timid sip. The precious wine was still vital with a nip and slight burn on the lips to start then turning sweet and mellow. It morphed to a tawny caramel, smelling vaguely of French perfume and tobacco. The syrupy liquor passed the taste buds leaving a hint of smoke and oak then on to cause a strange glowing sensation that could be clearly felt as it finally arrived in the belly causing the heart to race. Father and Son shared their rare ability to savor the full experience, whether tasting a glass of wine, or drinking in the complexities of a fine oil painting.
A certain light in the eyes of the older man ignited a place deep in the young man’s soul. Paco was forever hooked on his Father’s devotion. As a tasty tray of cheeses, prosciutto and warm sfilatino magically arrived, they sat and talked about many things genuinely enjoying each other’s company especially when the subject turned to art. The stories about acquiring the Don’s fabulous collections fascinated Paco beyond imagination. Time demanded they return to the Villa and now, to Paco’s astonishment, two shiny red Indians were waiting outside, the horses having been retired to the stables. One motorcycle was a Scout like Paco’s, but brand new, and the other was Oakley’s “Big Chief”, considered the top of the line, a powerhouse. Taking off, they followed the main road that passed by a stand of trees sheltering the kennels and motioning to pull over they stopped in front of the keepers who smiled and shook the Captain’s hand with an honest fondness, appearing to be family, like the entire staff of Mio Cuore. “We will take Brasco and Bocci for a run” and out bounded two magnificent blacker than black Cane Corsos, the ancient Italian “guards of the courtyard”, an elegant property watchdog, muscular and athletic. They were the descendants of the originals brought along with the grape vines by Massei from his ancestral home called Mangiacane named for these mastiffs who eat trespassers. The Corsos were moving with ease toward the Captain, massive dignified heads and proud expressions, greeting him joyfully with streams of saliva flying out in all directions. They laid down, rolled over at his feet, whereupon Oakley kneeled and lovingly scratched the huge scary dog’s stomachs. The dogs sat on command and even shook Pacos hand. Then like a couple of bats released from Hell they raced right along side the bikes all the way to the Villa entrance.
Father and son parked the Indians and walked toward the front doors as Miss Penny, Chef Printise and the Butler, Zio Badare, walked out waving with excitement. Turning around Paco could see a large black touring car enter the circle drive. The Chauffeur opened the doors and Ludington alighted from the front seat, Owen Star peeked his head out of the back seat and once on the ground turned to offer his hand to another. A small figure moved forward. She was wearing a veiled hat but her movements to Paco were unmistakable. It was Madonna. He felt a little chill. His Mother had come and he could see the emotion in his Father’s eyes as she embraced him saying, “Grazie Madre Maria” over and over again. She moved on to Oakley and falling into his big arms she began to weep and thank him for saving their son. Ludington and Printise as well as Owen and Penny had greeted each other affectionately but the temperature of the moment changed when the Captain held Madonna close murmuring, “Mio amore, mio amore”. It was as if the earth stood still for these star-crossed lovers and this was the day of consummation. There was no denying the union any more now; Paco knew that better than anyone.
They were all brought into the Villa through the giant entry hall out to the terrace with marvelous tiered gardens down to a pool in the distance. They were seated and Zio Badare passed out orders to a little staff. Carmino walked in to have a private word with the Captain who found it hard to break away from his seat on the arm of Madonna’s chair. After a few serious whispers and nods the two had a very hearty laugh together, Oakley patting Carmino’s back with approval and, unbeknown to everyone else, there was a truck leaving the estate’s big gates. In the back two large wine barrels punctured by numerous holes for ventilation containing the Fong twins were bouncing around promising a harsh bumpy trip to a secret San Francisco destination.
After drinks and rousing conversation describing the events in softened terms that brought them to Mio Coure, the Captain suggested that they be escorted to their rooms and rest before a late dinner. The group mounted the staircase and while Ludington along with Printise, Oren and Penny followed Zio, carrying luggage, to the right. Oakley held Madonna’s hand and led her up to the left by the old Don’s portal then past the door to Paco’s room on to his own chamber at the end of a long corridor. With this the Son could not help noticing that the Mother never looked back.
Still thinking that over he went to his room, removing all his clothes and headed for the shower as if something had made him feel very dirty. He scrubbed it off dried and began to shave as the little housemaid entered, not giving him any notice, and hung several beautifully ironed white shirts in his closet where he also saw a collection of tan pants along with his handsome tuxedo. When he looked in his drawers he found under garments and sox to last a month. There were cuff links in a polished mahogany box and in a black velvet case marked Cartier he found the splendid gold watch that was engraved with “To my Son on his thirtieth Birthday” in Italian. Paco, just twenty, understood immediately that this was his Father’s watch from the old Don and now passed to him.
All this was just too much to deal with so dressing fast and heading out to explore more of the Villa he came upon Printise snooping around looking for the liquor. Zio appeared from out of nowhere and indicated a mirrored wall on the way to the dinning room that revolved around to present a fully equipped bar with spirits of every description and glassware to serve any concoction. “What will you have my Boy?” said Printise rubbing his hands together like an alchemist. We could make Daiquiris? Or what about an Ojen?” he examined the rare bottle of absinthe laced liqueur from Spain as Paco looked negative and found the Captain’s Sangiovase. Chef Printise, as usual, settled on champagne and taking the bottle walked with Paco through the dinning room, pushing open two swinging doors at the far end that he imagined would take them to his favorite place in the world, the kitchen.
Huge, gleaming with stainless steel and a fireplace with oven at one end, the culinary center of Mio Cuore did not disappoint. Two of the cooks were at work and looked up surprised when Prentise and Paco entered with bewildering enthusiasm. “Let’s cook Darling,” said the Chef as he began to check through the cupboards, the giant pantry and a big refrigerator-freezer. “We have just about everything we might want. We can work on some dishes for the competition. What do you say my brilliant man?” Paco was eyeing the cooks and Zio who stood silent now mystified by their intentions. After some negotiations they began to create a series of elements designed to be good enough for the Medallion d’Oro platters. Tonight they would use the dinner party gathering, actually an interesting assortment of culinary experts, to be the judges. Printise found a fresh swordfish waiting to be butchered and this delighted him thoroughly as the cleaver and boning knife flashed. Paco was put to work on the mint herbs and vinegary green apple sauce the Chef planned to use on smoked eel to be caramelized, used as one of the sides for the fish platter. Jerusalem artichokes would be blanched and fried until lightly crunchy then garnished in black truffles that must be shaped into ovals with tiny scalloped edges. Printise was shouting orders in his fluent Italian and then translating for Paco. The kitchen began to vibrate as only it does when a passionate production is underway. The mood elevated. This larger than life, frizzy blond haired wild man, nearly six foot three, inspired everyone, even Zio. He oozed a continual line of chatter that was both masculine with deep toned emphasis for signs of displeasure and high like a Diva, all brushed with a sophisticated British accent. He was funny and outrageous all at the same time ordering everyone to prepare his dishes perfectly.
To accompany the fish platter Printise added two other sides to the eel and artichokes. He had the cooks working on a lemon-ginger cabbage salad topped with grilled scallops and a spectacular sauce for the boiled lobster made with mango, orange, scallions and coriander. Then the Chef turned to the meat platter plan. There was an entire side of beef on hooks in the refrigerator but he also noticed a row of ducks looking to be just in from the hunt. This put him in mind of the most memorable meal of his life, from Maxim’s in Paris, and the entre idea he took to his own kitchen, doggedly perfecting a personal version. It was an unusual presentation of Duck a la Greco with plumbs, Grand Marnier Brandy and black olives. Printise made this dish for the Yonkopolis cousin’s restaurant and it became his signature entre, most often switching the duck for a nice fat chicken. He spiked the sauce with touches of rosemary and finished with pine nuts. This could be a gamble at the competition because many of the European Chefs would know spectacular recipes for duck and be very skilled producing a winner. Printise reasoned that the American competition may not be so capable and anyway he wanted that duck tonight, nothing else would do.
Two of the cooks began to prepare the ducks while the four side dishes were planned. There were several enormous bunches of beautiful white asparagus standing upright in a tray of water. “This is perfecto”, bellowed the Chef, “I will simply steam and garnish with aged Mimolette, or something like that. Check the cheeses will you Paco dear? Then we can simply do a mound of bitter lettuce salad with chives, something sour, and sauté sweet onions in honey, as a balance.” Now he was thinking of the drunken Chef Eugene, his mentor from the Old Parsonage who pounded that word, ‘balance’, into him. “Finally we will make my Greek cousin’s family favorite, the Chaniotiko Boureki!” Paco looked his eyebrows lifted with interest. “That my dear boy is baked slices of potatoes with zucchini, myzithra cheese and mint.” And then bouncing around in a circle with his arms up like a champion, he pronounced the menu as, “Prepared by a genius!” And with that, flying high from the Chef’s undeniable charisma, the kitchen continued to hum with vibrant activity.
The Captain’s four exceedingly capable cooks were brilliant, proving the dinner could not have been done without them. They were all less than five feet tall with identical black uniform-like dresses and simple white aprons. There was Nona who appeared to be the head of the line, then Nona Nana the grandmother of someone, next Rosalena, the one who also cared for the old Don, and then Mimi, the youngest who Chef Printise, sensing she was a comedian at heart, continually teased producing a wicked banter. Paco worked intently on the preparations and was even allowed to help with the sauces.
After several hours the entire menu was waiting at various levels to be finished and served with exquisite refinement when the guests arrived. Printise and Paco were both sweating and rosy from heat and fatigue. Gathering their wine of choice the men walked out onto the terrace finding the table they used for breakfast. There they sat as Printise lit a tiny pipe and the cool air refreshed them. Quiet now, Paco was taken over by the view marked with a striking gradation of color proceeding up from the horizon. He could see intense cadmium red-orange, through the cad yellows to a light cerulean and then a darkening ultra marine blue with many subtleties in between. He could find some of the brighter stars twinkling out and his mind rambled through a list of worries with his Mother at the top.
“This must be quite an experience for you, my Darling?” Printise looked at the young man who was softly suffering. “I take it all this is a total surprise? It’s going to take some sorting my dear man and it’s best not to tackle it all at once.” This was sage advise from someone who suffered a similar personal catastrophe and a sudden severing of his rather bizarre Mother’s apron strings.
“It’s Madonna that sickens me the most”, Paco admitted. “She could have prepared me for this. She could have been honest about how much she loves him. It sounds like she was in contact with the Captain all along. What happens next Chef?” He buried his head in his hands.
“Happening next Darling? Just have a look through the doorway to the kitchen.” Out walked Oakley with Madonna, holding hands, looking at the sunset, and then seeing Paco they began to approach the table. “It’s time to grow up my beautiful man, we all do it sometime.” Printise said then stared off into a space where he must have visualized the last time he saw his own Mother.
The Chef commanded the conversation with a description of the evening’s dinning experience and how he hoped for a good revue since these will be the dishes for the Medallion d’Oro competition. He explained a bit more about the rules of the tournament that would test the best of American culinary talent. Now fascinated to know more about the menu, Oakley began to work with Printise to select the wines. As they talked Madonna came over to Paco and running her fingers through his curls then kissing both cheeks she whispered, “Now my life can begin. Please see that. Now you have both of us, something you have deserved since a baby.” With big luminous eyes she pulled him to standing and begged him to smile. “Come with me amori mio and help make the cannoli, I promised your Father.”
Retiring to his room Paco showered for the third time that day, lounging for a long time on the bed contemplating his options, and finally slipping into his evening dress with the velvet slippers. He went to the dresser and put on the extraordinary Cartier watch giving the gold band a little snap. ‘Ok’, he thought, ‘If this is how it will be, let it start my new life too.’ When he entered the dinning room, Zio, seated him with a dignified flourish. Captain Oakley was at the head of the table with Madonna on his right side and now Paco on his left. Miss Penny and Oren Star were across from each other than there was Chef Printise’s chair now empty while he performed the last minute preparations in the kitchen. At the other end of the table Ludington sat, his polished looks and attitude evident, chatting with Star. They remarked on the sudden return of art stolen from the de Young Museum. Evidently a truck just pulled up to the front doors and unloaded some shipping crates filled with the missing Manets and the El Grecos. The subject turned to the current financial down turn that was beginning to plague the country. He pointed to the breakdown of international trade, and Institutions who expand under development with over-investment threatening an economic bubble. Star described a recent piece in the Journal that predicted possible malfeasance by bankers and industrialists and the incompetence by government officials that is putting the experts on edge. “A large-scale loss of confidence could lead to a sudden reduction in consumption and investment spending”, Ludington speculated while at the other end of the table Penny and Paco were discussing Chef Printise’s resume and chances to win the competition.
Zio emerged from the kitchen followed by two servers each rolling out with identical fish platters on little serving carts. Diners were given an artfully arranged plate. In the center tilted one upon the other for best presentation were the pan seared swordfish steaks slightly crusty, cut into triangles rimmed with strips of very thin bacon then barely drizzled with browned butter. The four side dishes were served in little mounds surrounding the fish. There were delicately sautéed Jerusalem artichokes garnished with perfectly scalloped truffles then the smoked eel on Paco’s green apple mint sauce. To complete the arrangement lemon-ginger cabbage salad with a giant scallop and three slices of lobster tail glazed with mango-orange dressing and scattered scallions sliced diagonally.
The Captain selected one of his clean crisp white pinots for this course, brought straight from the barrel it was served by Zio from a crystal pitcher. Miss Penny was sharing some of her stories about producing the famous white wines from her original home in the Loire Valley. She described the Vouvray and the Pouilly Fume that were her favorites and explained the reason for their complexity was actually the long practice of aging in chalk caves along with the regions’ cheeses. This diverted Oakley only momentarily from watching Madonna intently, captivated by her now shinning beauty; almost unable to believe she was sitting next him. Chef Printise came from the kitchen to sit and experience the taster’s reactions. He was wearing a traditional white chef’s jacket that had appeared from some unknown closet in the Villa’s big staff quarters that jutted out in a two-story wing from the kitchen. Delighted by the hand of applause that greeted him, he winked at Paco and sampled each dish then kissing a stunned Ludington on the forehead he hurried back to complete the meat platter that tonight would be the Duck a la Greco, his private hope for gaining culinary glory.
This time the platters rolled out on the serving carts covered with giant silver domes that Printise and Zio removed together with great dramatic gestures. The guests clapped in anticipation knowing that something extraordinary was about to be experienced. Each platter was filled in the center with a roasted duck beautifully browned, glistening with the fragrant plumb-orange brandy basting sauce and a savvy scattering of sautéed pine nuts. It had been precisely carved then reconstructed using sprigs of fresh rosemary as a cradle. The aroma was bold and intoxicating. Surrounding the duck were the four small mounds of mandatory side dishes starting with white asparagus bundles carefully tied with green scallion strips and bright orange curls of French Mimolette cheese that Paco found among the Captain’s amazing collection. Next a bitter lettuce salad dressed only with champagne vinegar and chives along side the sweet onions in honey that created a kind of marmalade. Finally the Chef chose to exclude the zucchini from his cousin’s Greek potato dish, just baking them scalloped in little ring molds each layer brushed with butter, cream and sprinkles of Caprino a tangy goat cheese then laced with a hint of mace.
“Eh Voila mes amis” exclaimed an exhausted but blissful Printise now imagining the ribbon with a golden medallion around his neck as he bowed and waved to a packed audience. He was floating around the table, running on adrenaline, high with excitement and possibly the many sips of champagne that was often interspersed with tiny drags on his little pipe. Urged to be seated by Ludington the feast evolved paired with Oakley’s Sangiovase and a tasting of the Nebbiolo that was dark and rich both perfect for the duck.
At the end of the meat course there was a silence, a quiet relishing of the memorable evening and how uncommon it was to have a talent like Printise prepare his showpiece offerings in this intimate setting. The Captain rose and ringing his crystal goblet with a silver spoon and popping a new bottle of Champagne, this time Mumms, he proposed a toast, “To the rarest of moments that I have ever had, to my beautiful wife Madonna and my brave son Paco. You are perfect beyond all imaginings.” And after a rousing “here, here”, and “Bravissimo”, he continued, “Throughout my travels I have experienced the worlds finest cuisine by Master Chefs on three continents and I proclaim this Duck by our brilliant Chef Printise to be the best I have ever tasted!” More boisterous acclaim and then, “We are now privileged to have a dessert made by the angels, namely my Madonna and Paco. A dish I have tasted only in dreams since were very young. Zio please call for the Canolli.” And so the magnificent dinner closed with this final superlative from an antique recipe with a secret dusting of sugared chili powder, a little taste of the Quien Sabe.
By now it was late and after a promise to assemble early for the trip home to Montecito, everyone was released to their own pursuits. Paco was feeling faint from too much of just about everything so with embraces all around he disappeared into his room totally worn out, and fell asleep the moment he hit the bed, having first changed into a pair of the newly discovered black silk pajamas with a red satin piping and the letter F surrounded with a gold embroidered crest.