My apron is heavy blue canvas, and the white torchon tucked at my waist is wet. I have just finished cleaning the kitchen after dinner service, and my bones ache a little. The metal surfaces shine and the air is redolent of duck ragout and brown butter.
When it rains in Rome, people come into the restaurant mainly seeking shelter. Aficionados growl at these walk-ins who unknowingly steal their customary tables. Take Signor Roberto, for example. He comes in, like clockwork, every evening at 7:30 p.m. He ignores our staff table, where the commis is finishing his meal. He sits down, always at the same middle table, plops his heavy briefcase on the chair in front of him and finally breathes out the stress accumulated over the course of a workday.
We don't need to take Signor Roberto's order. He always eats the same: soup of the day when it's cold, and pasta alla checca during the warmer months. He drinks only a quartino of red house wine and doesn't touch the breadbasket.
Then there's Gaia, another fixture at our restaurant. This is her second home. Or maybe her first, I don't know. She likes the corner table by the left window. She reminds me of that heartbreaking painting "The Absinthe Drinker" by Degas. Gaia is like the subject of the painting, always frazzled and confused. Alone and lonely, she pecks crumbs off the table and drinks her wine, eyes peeled to the door. I think she's still waiting for her date. He stood her up years ago, in this very place. We have adopted her since.
Tonight's service was wild, a large table of cheerful Americans made it impossible for the couples to be romantic. The party of seven cheered loudly at each course we served them, ate like sharks, broke several glasses and ordered second helpings of pasta after the ossobuco. And they drank gallons of wine. They tipped phenomenally, and the kitchen staff was ecstatic.
Now that the kitchen is quiet, and the last of the interns has gone home, I have the restaurant all to myself. I sit at the chef's table near the cash register, take out the books, finish off accounting and can finally relax. This is when I crack open a chilled beer, drop my shoulders and design the next day's menu. The suppliers just delivered tons of cabbages, cauliflowers and leafy greens, plus a crate of gleaming reef mullet. I think I'll simply fillet these, dusted in corn flour and tossed around in a hot pan. That way the flavor will remain intact. I don't envy the poor intern who will have to bone these babies. With the fish I'll most probably serve some white polenta, Veneto-style.
My eyes scan the empty room. The French bentwood chairs overturned on the eight tables look like a bare forest. The warm ochre walls are perfect for this month's black and white photo exhibit. The chevron tiles need a good scuff; I make a mental note as a reminder. The room is small but the floor-to-ceiling glass at the front on either side of the entrance brings in beautiful soft light during the daytime. No wonder the end tables are the most instagrammed on the Internet. The stressed wood surface, the gorgeous lighting, vintage flatware, Victorian porcelain and the embroidered linen napkins have "hipster" written all over them.
Speaking of hipster, I scribble in my notes "remember to update the beverage menu"; I'm now including v60 (drip brewing) and aeropress extraction (steeped and pressed) methods to the coffee section. Who knows if the old-Rome clientele will appreciate? Don't people get tired of sipping only macchiato and ristretto while they read the paper or at the end of a meal? It's our duty as restaurant owners and hosts to –– dare I say it –– educate the public towards what we feel could improve our offer. Third Wave coffee styles will be served here as soon as the equipment comes in, and let's hope they'll be met with curiosity, at least. I've made this place look like a home. There's a handful of tables for diners and a big leather couch for people who like to hang out in between meals, read, sip tea or coffee. They love the free Wi-Fi and the abundance of charging sockets mounted on the coffee table.
Dessert… I need a new idea for dessert. I took a stand and did not put tiramisù or panna cotta on the menu, which was met with disapproval, especially from the tourists. I opted instead for a rotation of homemade cookies, my grandmother's crème caramel, granita and gelato, and a decadent dark chocolate cake. I could add something lemony, an old-school ciambellone with lots of yolks and citrus zest, perhaps.
As I scribble these notes in my black Moleskine, I hear a tap at the half raised metal shutter. It's Nourreddine, my sous chef. He sits down in front of me still in his kitchen clothes. His shoulders are wet. I can smell he's been outside in the rain, smoking. He takes my hand and we sit in silence, holding hands for a very long time. Even before the single tear streams down his face I understand he has to go back to Tangiers for his father's funeral. "Go," I whisper. We don't need to say anything else. He gently stands and walks out of the room, elegant and proud like a Nubian king.
In his father's honor I will make brik à l'oeuf. Kids love cracking through the crisp wafer to get to the eggy surprise. I'll add some smoked paprika, plenty of harissa on the side and some shredded tuna, chives and turmeric for color.
I slip on my coat and flick the switch to the outside neon sign, a single pink cursive tube that reads da Lola. It buzzes, flickers and turns off.