I can imagine it already.
Drew will walk through the front doors holding a big bouquet of roses (not that he’s ever brought me flowers, but you never know, people can change. And anyway, tonight’s a special night). I’ll be at the hostess stand, juggling a million things like I always do, but as soon as I see him wearing one of his Brooks Brothers suits, the world will stop. Slowly, he’ll walk towards me and hand me the bouquet. Before I can even say “thank you” he’ll cup my face in his hands and give me kiss. At this point, the entire restaurant will be watching; service will stop for a minute, as everybody awaits what’s coming next. Then, without saying a word, Drew will drop down to one knee and take my hand. He’ll look up at me with those gorgeous blue eyes and say…
“Um, Stella,” I hear a female voice snapping me out of my thoughts. Oh, right. I rest my hands on the hostess stand which I’ve been leaning on for the past couple hours. I must start taking this job more seriously. But honestly, it does get a little boring. Not that I mind. I really do enjoy managing my brother’s restaurant, but the truth is, the place pretty much runs itself.
Ask anyone what the best restaurant down the shore is and they’ll say “Lorenzo’s.” Not to brag or anything, but it’s true. And from the way this night is going, it looks like our fifth season is off to a great start. If it stays like this, the summer will be smooth sailing.
I turn to look at Michelle, one of the waitresses here. She’s been with us for two summers and is usually fully capable of handling her own section. “What’s up?”
“Disaster at table twelve.”
I scan the restaurant trying not to look too obvious, and then focus my eyes on the single lady on table twelve. She looks normal enough. Her black hair is pulled into a tight bun and her skin is a little too bronzed for the second week of June, but besides that, I don’t see any red flags. “What’s the problem?”
“Her husband left,” Michelle says with a hint of tension in her voice. She scans the restaurant, looking at the rest of her tables. “He’s probably just in the bathroom.” I look at the table again, and see the lady slumped in a chair. Maybe her husband did leave. Or maybe this is a ploy to run out on the bill. Well, not on my watch.
I keep my cool, but the thing is, I’m a little nervous. It’s times like these that I really wish my brother Mario was here. He’s the General Manager of my family’s other restaurant, La Cucina, and he’d know exactly what to do.
I hear a sob and my eyes dart directly to table twelve.
Michelle looks at me. “I think you need to go over there. She’s pretty drunk.”
I sigh. Sometimes being a restaurant manager requires more than putting on a nice dress and smiling at the customers. Those are the times I dread, because honestly, I never wanted this job in the first place. It was sort of handed to me with my college diploma (which was in English, not Restaurant Management, by the way). “Let’s go,” I say and move towards the table.
The sobbing continues and a few other people have turned to look at the woman. I can’t help feeling bad for her, I mean, what if her husband really did leave her? Right here in our restaurant? That can’t be good karma.
“Hello,” I say when I get to the table.
She looks up at me and gives me a weak smile. Her cheeks are stained with mascara streaks, and she looks a bit severe. I pick up a napkin and hand it to her.
“You okay?” I ask gently.
“Yes, I’m fine. Just a little lonely.” She slurs the word “little.”
And a little drunk.
“Maybe I can help,” I offer.
“Oh, it’s really not a big deal,” she sniffles. “My husband just had to go. He’s on call.”
I give her a strange look.
“He’s a doctor,” she snaps.
Oh, right. I knew he wouldn’t just leave her. Not at Lorenzo’s, our food is too good.
“What kind of doctor?” I ask to keep the conversation going. Her tears have dried up and she’s sort of smiling at me. See, it just goes to show you that a little kindness goes a long way. That’s the trick to being a manager, of course. I mean, all you need to do is recognize what people need and serve it up to them. No biggie.
“He’s a…” she pauses and her face wrinkles into a scowl, “surgeon.” She sobs again. “He said he got an emergency call but I know better. I’m not stupid.” I nod my head because it seems like the right response.
“His girlfriend called and he just up and left,” she continues. “My therapist said I should just ignore it, but how is that possible?” She looks at me as though I have the answers. The only thing I know for sure is that she needs a new therapist.
I shrug my shoulders.
“And the worst part is she’s only thirty,” she nearly screams. Slowly, she gives me an accusatory look, as if my being nearly thirty is a mortal sin.
I look around to see other customers staring at us. Just as I’m about to walk away, it hits me. Of course! This woman doesn’t need a crap ass therapist to tell her how to react. She needs Food Therapy!
I’m a strong believer in Food Therapy, which is the theory that all of life’s problems can be solved by eating the right foods. I’m not talking about nutrition here, people. I mean comfort foods. And I personally know Food Therapy works because just last night I was feeling frazzled, so I ate some hazelnut gelato and poof, I was one hundred percent better!
The major players in my personal Food Therapy repertoire are Bindi hazelnut gelato, a slice of Chuck’s chocolate orange cake, or my mom’s famous meatballs. I think of which option would be best for this situation.
“I have just the thing to make you feel better,” I say putting my arm on the woman’s shoulder.
She looks up at me in interest. “Vodka?” She turns to see if we have a bar, which unfortunately we don’t. Like most restaurants down the shore we’re BYOB.
“Even better,” I answer quickly. “Just wait here.”
I rush up to the dessert display case and reach in for a piece of decadent chocolate cake. Our sous-chef, Chuck, does an amazing job with all the pastries, but his specialty is this cake, with its dark chocolate and hint of orange.
I cut a thick slice and lay it on a plate, then drizzle some vanilla crème over it and add candied orange peels as a garnish. If this doesn’t cure a heartache, I don’t know what will.
I grab a fork and rush back to the table, just in time. The woman is standing and scanning the restaurant, looking for God knows what.
“Have a seat.” I gently push her down into her chair and place the cake in front of her.
She looks at it as if she’s mentally calculating all the calories, and then looks back up at me in frustration. Perhaps vodka would have been a better choice.
“Take a bite,” I urge.
Skeptically, she forks a tiny piece and pops it in her mouth. I see the corners of her lips curl up into a smile. I knew it would work.
“Just eat this and I’ll call you a cab,” I say. “Where do you live?”
Our restaurant is located on one of the most prestigious islands on the Jersey Shore. About forty miles south of Atlantic City, our island is the smallest of the cluster off Jersey’s coast and is only seven miles top to bottom. There are two towns here but little distinction between them, and most people just call this place “the Island.”
Lorenzo’s is on 96th Street, the southern part of the Island, and this lady’s house is on the northern part. Still, a ride will only cost about five bucks, and she looks so sad and depressed even though she’s eating the cake that I’ll just spring for the cab.
And the cake.
Oh, what the hell. I’ll spring for the whole bill, after all her husband stuck her with it. She might not even have a credit card with her. I think about this for a second then confirm my decision even though Lorenzo is constantly yelling at me over giving things away for free. Sometimes it really is the best option though. Plus, what does he know about service? He’s cooped up in a closed kitchen pumping out entrées—not in the circus ring with angry lions like me.
The cab arrives about ten minutes later, and by then, the heartbroken lady has cleaned her plate. I walk over to the table and give her my arm. She stands, though a bit wobbly.
“Dinner is on me tonight,” I say as I lead her through the restaurant.
“Thanks!” she gives me a strange look, and then asks, “What’s your name?”
“That means star!” she squeals. She’s right, it does. I smile at her.
“The cab will take you home. Don’t worry about paying him, I got it covered.”
She throws her arms around me. “Thanks, Star,” she slurs and stumbles out the door.
I take a deep breath and walk back towards the hostess stand.
I must say, I’m pretty proud of the way I handled the situation. I’m quite good at this management stuff. Too bad I don’t plan on making a career out of it though. Basically, this is my last summer here. I haven’t told anyone yet; I realized it’s best not to spring this kind of stuff on the family until you’ve got a solid plan—and my plan depends on Drew and a little (ok, maybe medium sized) diamond.
I take my place behind the podium and look around the restaurant. Though I hate to admit it, I’ll miss this a little. I still remember the exact day, four years ago, when I stepped foot in the place for the first time. It was a total nightmare. The previous owners were gothic/animal print enthusiasts (I have no idea how that combination came about), and the place was clad in dark velvet drapery and a leopard print carpet. Honestly, it looked more like a seedy lounge than a restaurant. Lorenzo and my parents had already bought the place, and I remember thinking that it needed a special touch. That’s where I came in and suggested the Tuscan theme, which we have now. I basically hand selected these burnt ochre walls and stone archways. My mom chose the terracotta tiles that line the floors and hired a painter for the mural of the Tuscan hillside covering the back wall. Yes, it’s a tad stereotypical, but people seem to love it.
And for the most part we’re lucky because in the four years we’ve been in business we’ve acquired so many regular customers. On any given night I’ll know about ninety percent of the people who walk in the door, which can be a good and a bad thing.
For example, tonight I’ve already been asked three times about Drew. Two older women glared at my bare left hand asking me about marriage. I mean, honestly, why are people so nosey? We’ve only been dating for three years and we’re taking our time. Besides, we’re both so busy that we hardly have time to think of marriage, let alone get engaged.
Drew is on his way down from New York right now, and who knows what might happen tonight.
I’ve got a good feeling about tonight.
Actually, I’ve had a good feeling all day. And just in case something does happen tonight, I’ve dressed accordingly. I’m wearing a very classic canary yellow dress with a full skirt and modest neckline. Generally I don’t wear such pale colors to work because I’ll inevitably spill something on myself in the midst of the rush, but this is a Marc Jacobs dress and I’ve always imagined that I’d be wearing Marc when Drew…
Oh never mind. I don’t want to jinx anything.
Anyway, tonight, Frankie the bus boy has been on his A game, so I haven’t had to clear one plate off a table, which means I look as fresh as when I walked in here at three this afternoon.
The phone rings, bringing me back to reality.
“Lorenzo’s how may I help you?”
“Stell, it’s me,” says my best friend Lucy. Lucy is a teacher at St. Ignatius with my oldest brother Dante. She’s been working with us since day one and has become like the sister I never had. My mother wants her in the family and has been trying to set her up with Dante for the past four years. She’s not biting though, which is fine by me.
“Hey Luce, what’s going on?”
“There’s a major accident on the expressway,” she sounds frazzled. “I’ve been in stopped traffic for three hours now.”
My heart begins to race. Drew could be in that accident. Images of Drew crunched up in his black BMW fill my head. “Lucy, Drew isn’t here yet, I gotta go.” I hang up without waiting for a reply.
Oh God. Oh God. Oh God.
I patter through the kitchen and into the office where I’ve left my cell phone plugged into the wall. I grab it. Two missed calls from Drew. My mind reels. He could be in a hospital somewhere.
The phone rings two times before he picks it up. “Drew,” I yell. “Are you okay?”
“Hey,” he whispers. “Did you get my message?”
“Where are you?”
“In the office, there’s a big project at work and I need to be here. I left you a message.”
“Oh,” I say a bit relieved. Then it hits me. He’s not coming down. Tonight’s not the night. “I left my phone in the office.”
“Sorry. Listen I have to run,” Drew says in a hushed tone. I imagine that he’s in the middle of an important meeting and his boss is standing over him so I resist the urge to make him feel worse. When he took the job at Connective Global Marketing, I knew it would be hard for us, especially in the summers. Still, sometimes I can’t help but wish he’d make more time for me. But that’s Drew; he’s dedicated, hard working, and honest. How can I be mad?
“It’s fine. I’ll be up on Monday. I have to go too; we have 9:00 reservations coming in.”
“Ok,” he says.
“I love you,” I add, just to let him know that he’s not in the dog house.
He must not have heard me. “I love you,” I repeat.
“Ditto,” he replies and hangs up.
I shoot Luce a text asking her to pick up a bottle of wine, then exit the office, and walk through the kitchen to the front of the restaurant. As I approach the door to the dining room it swings open at full force. Frankie runs through carrying an armful of dirty dishes. I try to get out of his way but we collide and some melted ice cream lands directly on my chest. Lorenzo and Chuck laugh as my face gets red.
“Watch where the hell you’re going,” Lorenzo yells.
“Sorry,” Frankie says, setting the plates on a workstation and pulling a napkin out of his back pocket. I grab it out of his hand and rush through the kitchen into the bathroom to wash off my dress.
I do my best to scrub the stain out of my yellow dress but in the process it becomes completely see through. Cream-colored-lace-bra see through, and there’s no way I can walk around the restaurant like this.
I quickly tie a clean napkin around my neck like a bib and twist it to the side. It doesn’t look that bad. It’s sort of fashionable, in a very Parisian way. Not that I’ve been to Paris. But you know what I’m talking about.
Just to add to the effect, I undo my loose bun and let my long brown hair fall over my shoulders. I just got layers cut into it, so it cascades nicely down my back. I can pull this off. No problem. After all, confidence is the key to success.
At least, that’s what it said in Restaurant Management for Dummies.
I mean, I think that’s what it said. I didn’t actually read the entire book (as I mentioned earlier, this is not my life’s ambition, so why waste the energy). But I did sit in the bookstore and flip through it one day.
Regardless, it seems like good advice.
Back at the hostess stand there’s a line at the door. I look at the clock on the phone. 8:51 p.m. People are so punctual when it comes to eating, like they’re afraid if they show up at 9:01, all the food will be gone.
Luckily, we keep a stocked fridge.
“Hello,” I greet the first couple in line with a smile. I grab two menus and seat them at a table in the back corner.
As I walk back towards the hostess stand I touch my hand to my dress. Still damp. I adjust the napkin.
I look towards the next group and notice Trisha Motley standing with her friends. I’d roll my eyes but she’d see me. Trisha and I used to run in the same circle down the shore, but to be honest, we never really liked each other. Of course, we pretend to.
“Trisha!” I squeal. “It’s so good to see you. You look amazing,” and really, she does. God, she must have grown since last summer. I don’t remember her being so tall. Or so thin. She probably doesn’t use Food Therapy, or eat for that matter.
Already bronzed for the summer, Trisha is wearing a light green off the shoulder mini-dress and four inch heels. She towers over my petite frame and bends to give me a hug while her equally tall Amazonian supermodel friends watch.
“Stella, how was your winter?” she asks. I can only imagine her winter jet-setting to exotic places while I was stuck working lunches at my parents’ restaurant. I need to think of something good.
I can tell her I traveled to India and worked with impoverished children.
Only that’s not as glamorous as say, spending the winter in Buenos Aires. That’s it. Perfect.
She’s looking at me strangely, as if waiting for an answer.
“Oh, it was great, I spent so much time in New York,” I mutter. Shit. I meant Buenos Aires.
“I love the city.” She pauses to look at her friends. “I just moved up there for my job.”
“Nice,” I say politely, though I could care less what fabulous job her daddy got her.
“Are you still dating Drew?” she asks suddenly and I feel my face get hot. I know that at twenty-seven I should be more secure and not let petty things like that bother me but I can’t help it. Trisha and Drew went to this uber-exclusive private school in Philadelphia, and were prom king and queen or something. Apparently, they were the “it” couple in high school, and even though that was ages ago, it still makes me uncomfortable. The fact that Trisha is the one who introduced me to Drew makes it all the worse.
“Of course,” I snap.
“I guess you’re just waiting for a ring then?” she asks in the bitchy-but-friendly tone that she’s mastered. One of her friends snickers a little. I give her a tight smile. Just wait until I get that ring, then I’ll flash it in her face. I grab the menus and begin walking them to their table.
As I walk back, I look around to see what people are eating. People love specials and tonight, Lorenzo made two terrific ones: Chicken alla Patria, a chicken breast topped with fresh tomatoes, spinach and melted mozzarella cheese, and Filet Mignon topped with a wild blueberry sauce.
God, the boy is talented.
Sometimes he makes me feel inadequate. I mean, we are twins and all. Actually, all four of my brothers are talented. Dante is an awesome teacher, Pietro is a big lawyer in New York City, Mario is the general manager of the restaurants, and Lorenzo is an amazing chef. Then there’s me.
Two hours later, as I’m counting the money in the office, Lucy arrives, flustered.
“Five hours in traffic,” she whines in the doorway of the office. “You almost done? I need a drink.”
“Yeah.” I divide twenties into swift piles. “How are the waiters doing out there?”
“It looks like they finished all their side-work. They’re all folding napkins.”
“Good. Can you tell them I’ll be out in a minute?”
“Sure,” she says, leaving the office.
I gather up each waiter’s pile of tips and write it all in my book. I look at my phone as I walk out into the dining room. No calls from Drew. He must still be working. Or maybe he’s on his way down. He probably changed his mind and decided to blow off work and surprise me. Not that he’s ever done that, but you never know.
The waiters are all sitting in chairs, folding napkins to restock the side stations. They look like a strange bunch of businessmen, ties loosened or removed and crumpled into balls on the table, shirts unbuttoned and untucked. Lucy is right in there with them, folding napkins with precision and chatting with Dante about some school stuff.
“Great job tonight guys,” I say. They all look up and shuffle around for their things. I hand them each their tips and say goodbye.
“Where’s Drew?” Lucy asks when all the servers are gone.
“He’s not coming. Did you bring the wine?”
“That sucks,” she says and stands. She moves over to her purse and lifts out a brown paper bag. “I did better than wine,” she removes the bag dramatically. “I brought Andre.”
I laugh. Andre is the cheapest of all champagnes, good for nothing except maybe cooking, yet the two of us love it. It’s our little secret. I stand and take the bottle from her hands, hugging it. “The only man who never lets me down.”
“It’ll go perfect with some chocolate.”
“I like the way you think,” I say and move towards the dessert case. Since Drew is not coming, I may as well scarf down an extra-large piece of Chuck’s chocolate cake. Not that I’m heartbroken or anything.
By the time I return, Lucy’s already put the bottle on ice and cleared away the place settings from the table. She looks so at home in the restaurant that it’s hard to believe that we’ve only been friends for four years. She just fits into my family, which is not an easy feat. Plus, she’s a natural beauty, with long lean legs and wavy chestnut hair. No wonder my mom has been trying to get her and Dante together. I sit down next to her and place the cake in the middle of the table.
“Why isn’t Drew coming down?” she asks taking a fork.
“Work” I wave it off and take a sip. The champagne instantly makes me feel better.
She smiles sympathetically. “It’s just temporary. Drew’s a great guy and he loves you.”
I take a bite of cake. She’s right. I really did luck out with Drew but sometimes I get impatient about the whole marriage thing. “Luce, I thought tonight was the night,” I confess.
“Don’t worry Stell. It’s coming. I can feel it.”
I smile but a small part of me can’t help but wonder if it is true. I stab another forkful of cake and shove it in my mouth.
Yields 8 servings*
If you’re following Food Therapy, this is the Tylenol of Cakes. It can fix just about any ailment you might have, from a hangover to a heartbreak (which, by the way, usually go hand in hand).
*If, by chance you see that you’ve eaten the entire cake, don’t worry. Just don some elastic pants and nurse yourself back to health. You can always diet tomorrow.
8 oz semi-sweet chocolate
1 oz unsweetened chocolate
1 3/4 sticks of butter
2 oranges (zests and juice)
1 teaspoon vanilla
5 large eggs
1 tablespoon flour
1 tablespoon dark cocoa powder
1) Preheat oven to 375. Butter an 8” cake pan and line with parchment paper. Butter the paper and set prepared pan aside.
2) Using a double boiler, melt together chocolate, butter, orange zests, orange juice, and vanilla. Stir to incorporate.
3) Remove chocolate from the double boiler and allow to cool for 5 minutes.
4) Add eggs, one at a time, stirring well to incorporate. Add the flour and cocoa powder and stir until dissolved.
5) Pour batter into prepared pan. Place pan in middle rack of the oven and bake for 20-25 minutes, until set.
6) Removed pan from oven and allow to cool for 15-20 minutes. Gently invert the cake onto a serving platter. Remove parchment paper and dust with powdered sugar.
This cake will keep in an airtight container at room temp for 5 days. It also freezes nicely.