To a new business owner, there is no time more exciting and frightening than opening night. This was especially so for Tony Datillo, a man who learned to cook at his mother’s side while in grade school, and whose diction and physique resembled the typical Italian chef seen in many New York City pizzerias. Tony’s lifelong dream of opening his own Italian dinner restaurant with petite and raven-haired wife Paula had finally come true after ten years of painstaking saving and planning. Many couples by their early thirties didn’t make the sacrifices and plans over their first decade of marriage that the Datillos did in the hopes of making their dreams a reality. Tony’s cost cutting and saving over the years became his fail safe plan.
Meeting for the first time while in seventh grade at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Tony and Paula found that their ancestors were intermarried over a hundred years earlier when each family first came to America. Tony and Paula had been inseparable since that first introduction in homeroom, when he first told his wife-to-be how he aspired to own the most successful Italian restaurant on Manhattan’s lower East side.
Tony had been reminded over the years by many of his friends that the one business most likely to fail in the first year was indeed a restaurant, and opening an eatery in New York City with thousands of other similar venues to compete against did not help his chances of surviving. Tony and Paula spent years selecting top quality stainless steel cookery and utensils, handmade dishes imported from Italy, authentic wood-fired pizza ovens, and brightly colored tablecloths and matching curtains to enhance the appearance and comfort for the throngs of patrons they hoped to attract. Paula made sure to fill the restaurant with the best seating available, hand carved oak booths fitted with thickly padded seats that could fit a family of eight comfortably. No detail was overlooked, including the hiring of head chef Gino LaRossi, the youngest son of one of the oldest Italian restaurant families in New York City. Sous chef Steve, prep cook Sean, four waitresses, and Paula doubling as manager and maitre d’ completed the staff at Paisan’s, with Tony acting as all around go to guy.
Advertising for the big event was given top priority as well, as Paula had enlisted the help of her cousin Janice, a big time public relations representative for Fortune 500 companies. Janice designed the flyers that blanketed the Greenwich Village area in an attempt to attract customers, and even managed to book a private group of fifty for Paisan’s party room that evening by word of mouth alone. Tony’s three sisters, Connie, Collette and Marina, were all too happy to help out for the special occasion.
Tony and Paula knew they were fortunate to have bought the late nineteenth century brownstone building at such a low price, even though the kitchen required some ceiling paint and plastering work and the electricity needed to be updated to meet local code. Since they bought the building from the city, they had a year to comply with these minor annoyances and had already remodeled the dining area in sparkling modernity. The only thing missing was the presence of famished New Yorkers fighting their way inside to sample Paisan’s Italian feast.
Everyone glanced at the large, stained glass pizza-styled clock above the front door as they waited for the stroke of five and anticipated hundreds of hungry diners. Two of the waitresses, Sally and Jemma, began dusting and shining the flat pizza-shaped glass lamps that matched the clock and hung over each of the booths, as the other two waitresses, Billie and Chandra, polished the silverware. All seemed to be in order with one little exception.
“Has anyone seen the reservation book? I won’t know how many people have reserved seats and if we’ll have enough room for walk-ins if I can’t find it,” asked manager and maitre d’ Paula. After she searched the podium at the front door, she began looking on and under the tables and pacing back and forth down the center aisle of the restaurant.
“It has to be here somewhere dear, don’t worry,” came the automatic response from Tony, momentarily popping his head in the door from the kitchen at the far right side and middle of the dining room and back out again. Although he heard what his wife asked, he had his mind on problems of his own.
“Yo! Steve! Sean! Didn’t neither of youse notice that da ice machine has thawed? Did we blow a fuse or somethin’?” Tony descended into the dark abyss that was the basement and utility room as Steve and Sean followed him.
The tall, curly topped Gino, in his crisply starched white apron with matching traditional French toque upon his pointed head remained oblivious to them all. The wiry young chef saw to it that the veal parmagian, eggplant penne, artichoke salad, and garlic bread was ready to be served to the Chichester party of fifty who were expected to arrive any minute. Since this meal was also the special for the evening, Gino garnished and baked more veal and added some extra penne to the big pot of water boiling atop the stove. Needing some more red sauce, he then turned his well trained aquiline nose to his cutting board, delighting in the freshness of the oregano and other handpicked ingredients. With his long bony fingers and sharp mezzaluna knife he chopped the oregano along with basil, parsley, cloves of garlic, onion, and the vine grown tomatoes he raised in a garden patch out back, a few feet from the other side of Paisan’s kitchen door.
“That’s the second fuse we blew today; maybe we should buy some extra ones from Sullivan’s across the street,” announced a shy, stocky Steve to everyone in the kitchen as he, Tony and Sean emerged from the cellar. Handsome in a Southern Italian sort of way, as the youngest of the four Steve was the shy one, not yet confident in his abilities. He preferred to concentrate on getting his work done quietly and efficiently, staying out of the way especially when tempers flared.
“What’re you talkin’ ‘bout,” inquired Tony, as he scratched his head while walking toward Gino as though the answer to his problem resided on that side of the kitchen. “Youse guys never tol’ me we had any fuse problems today. I know I didn’t hire a bunch of stunads here; youse guys gotta tell me right away when somethin’ goes wrong. Sean, why don’t you take this fiver and run over to Sully’s an’ buy a few more fuses in case this happens again? I don’t want any more castrastophes tonight,” Tony demanded in his usual mangling of compound words or those with ten letters or more. Sean sprinted out the kitchen exit as directed while Steve took a cue from Gino to prepare more salad and garlic bread for customers who would be arriving and ordering any minute.
Meanwhile, things were going only slightly better in the dining room.
“Ladies, I can’t seem to find the reservation book anywhere. Let’s just divide the dining room up into four sections, with you, Sallie and Jemma, taking the rear two sections and Billie and Chandra taking the front two. That should be an evenly divided number of booths for each of you, twelve, I think, and we’ll just try to seat people in the order that they arrive. Don’t forget if you need a high chair that they are located in the big storage room off the rear party room. Any questions?” The four twenty-something women of average height and similar slight build shook their brown pony tail topped heads and walked off to their stations. All attired in Paisan’s low cut waitress uniforms designed by Tony of identical red cotton knee-length dresses with tight elastic necklines and puffy short sleeves draped in matching dark green aprons, they each resembled a cross between an Italian Heidi and a pasta serving seductress. And while no one happened to be looking at the front door for once, the first customers of the evening arrived.
The high pitched brass bell caught everyone by surprise, as if no one really believed a single customer would appear. It turned out they were almost right.
“Please come in, won’t you,” squeaked an excited Paula Datillo. “Welcome to Paisan’s. A booth for four?”
A short, squat woman of forty emerged from behind her almost unnoticeable husband and two plain matching teenage sons with a colorful letter-sized piece of paper in her hand.
“Yes, four please. We almost didn’t find your little bistro. Your ad states 540 Manhattan Street in Queens, not 450 Queen Street in Manhattan. This is 450 Queen Street, right?”
Slack jawed and horrified, Paula took the ad from the tired looking woman’s matronly hand and gaped at it as if it would correct itself if she stared long enough.
“Oh my gosh. Tony’s gonna kill Janice.”
“Excuse me?” asked the woman, her eyes bulging out of heavily lidded surroundings, only expecting a yes or no answer to her question.
Sensing Paula’s distress, a smiling Billie came forward and escorted the group to her section, seated them and gave them menus. The high pitched brass bell began to ring once again, and Paula heaved open the oak framed leaded glass door after which a young family of five spilled into the foyer.
“Welcome to Paisan’s. A booth for five tonight?” she asked. The three tow-headed children, a boy and two sisters, toddlers all, took turns whining and wiping their noses while their parents debated whether or not any of them could safely make it through the evening without a high chair. After a few moments discussion, the verdict was in.
“Yes, we’d like a booth,” replied the pretty, dark-haired thirtyish woman. “Could we please have a high chair for our son?”
As Paula managed a “why sure”, a helpful Chandra arrived with a stack of napkins and three sets of crayons and colorful paper placemats featuring a large nosed chef named Luigi who needed to get through a maze to find his pizza, along with other games and puzzles to solve. The young family followed behind Chandra in a single line, with dad bringing up the rear.
“You know,” started the man, tall and blonde, barely thirty himself, “we almost didn’t find the place, except that I knew there was no Manhattan Street in Queens. I grew up there, you know.”
“Yes, sir, we’ve been made aware that there is a problem with the flyers. I’m sorry for any trouble this may’ve caused you,” replied a harried Paula. Behind Paula was Tony, who had emerged from the kitchen and had heard just enough to peak his curiosity.
“What Manhattan Street in Queens? What was that guy talkin’ ‘bout?” Tony asked as he tapped his right foot on the newly carpeted green, red, and brown geometrical patterned dining room floor, his arms crossed over his chest.
“Sweetheart, there’s been a little mix up with the flyers. Somehow they were printed with our address listed as Manhattan Street in Queens instead of Queen Street in Manhattan, although both groups of our customers found us just fine.”
“It’s that damned dysplexic Janice, ain’t it? I know she’s supposed to be the ‘Wonder Woman’ of phone sales with her Fortune 500 clients and all, but any time this cousin of yours puts somethin’ into writin’ you can bet it’ll be snafued. We’ll be lucky to have anyone else show up at all tonight,” he complained.
“Don’t jinx us, Tony! Besides, look – an elderly couple are heading for our front door right this moment,” said Paula as she pointed at the right sidelight window at the pair who were approaching Paisan’s front door. “Why don’t you let them in, dear?” Tony acquiesced and opened the welcoming door with its multicolored streaks of light flitting across the leaded glass like rainbows dancing off raindrops on blades of grass, wet from a summer afternoon rain.
Paula smiled and greeted the stooped, slow moving pair.
“Welcome to opening night at Paisan’s. A booth for two tonight?”
“Yes, thank you,” murmured the elderly woman as her spouse nodded. Eager to have customers in her station, Jemma came forward to seat them, as Tony followed behind and returned to the kitchen to see if any help was needed. Paula returned to the front as the ringing sound at the door indicated more patrons had arrived; this time a group of four young adults entered Paisan’s Pizzeria.
The restaurant began to quickly fill up and soon all of the waitress stations were filled with customers awaiting their evening meals of soups, salad, pizza, pasta, or sauce-laden cheese-covered meat entrees. Inside the kitchen, Tony tried to ensure that the food production moved along smoothly. The ice machine began producing solidly frozen cubes again, one less thing for him to worry about.
“How’s it goin’ back here?” asked Tony, while he watched his kitchen staff moving about, their legs running to and fro while pairs of arms were engaged in peeling, slicing, pizza dough tossing, or some other activity of food preparation or another. “Do you need any-“
A loud crack and clanking sound came from the basement once again, this time followed by darkness in the kitchen.
-help?” continued Tony.
“Yo Sean!” he bellowed at the nimble, red-haired and freckle-faced young man. “Put them fuses in downstairs – now!”
At the sound of his name, Sean, with paper bag containing three fuses in hand, made a run across the kitchen toward the cellar and down the stairs, skipping every other step until everyone in the kitchen heard a “thud” as he hit the landing at the bottom.
“Did anyone else hear that?” Gino asked.
“Hear what?” the remaining staff replied in unison as Sean returned to the kitchen and the lights came back on.
Gino tried to define what he had just heard a little more clearly.
“Like the kerplunk of something solid hitting a liquid; the sound of something that doesn’t belong in food, dropping into it. A plop.”
“Well, what’re youse waitin’ for? Everybody check the food at their station, as well as anything else that can go “plop” – now!” groaned Tony, hoping to keep this little mystery a secret from those in the dining room. “Mama mia, what next?”
Gino stirred the red sauce for the veal, but he, like Steve who ladled through the soups and Sean who sifted through the artichoke salad, found nothing.
“Sorry boss. There’s nothing to be found. Must’ve been a false alarm.” Gino apologized, hoping what he heard was inside his head and imagination only.
Orders began piling up and food preparation continued. The “plop” allegedly heard just minutes before was all but forgotten without any evidence to support that it was anything more than a blip of a daydream in Gino’s busy, overly stretched mind. Attempting to chop, boil, measure, season, and have all the food ready at the same time made Gino’s brain spin out of control, like a disk in the drive of a computer that spins faster and faster, unable to slow down to deliver the finished product.
“Listen up, guys. If we can manage to make it through our first month with a profit, I’ll take all youse and your wives or whatever it is you have, on a weekend of fun and gambling over at Atlantic City – compliments of me an’ Paula. Babysittin’ is extra, though.” Tony paused as he studied the faces of his soon to be rewarded employees who were surprised by his generosity. “What’s up with all your mouths hangin’ open? I was just kiddin’. Babysittin’ is included. Well, whatta ya say? Sound like a good time?”
Tony realized he’d have to tell Paula about this eventually, since he saw no reason that Paisan’s would not succeed, quirky old building mechanicals and all.
The four men began placing dish after dish in the ready window, a signal for the waitresses to pick up and serve the first meals of the evening. One after the other the four women arrived with large black oval trays in hand, hoping to each carry a full table of food so that everyone seated could be served at once.
Paula peered into the kitchen briefly, holding the swinging door open with her right hip and foot.
“You know, dear,” muttered Paula softly, “our Chichester party of fifty is an hour late; I don’t think they’re going to make it.” Paula worried how her husband would take yet one more piece of bad news.
“I knew this would happen when you told me about Janice mistakin’ our address for Queens in those flyers. I told my sisters to hoof it home. I figured Janice probably gave those people the messed up flyers and that they would get lost and not show. Now we got food for fifty that’s gonna go to waste in here.” Tony rolled his eyes and shook his head.
“Don’t worry, sweetheart,” Paula comforted him, as she patted him on his back. “There’s a reason why people in the entertainment business say ‘break a leg’ on opening night, right?” Tony smiled at his loving wife still standing in the doorway.
This time an even louder crack and clanking noise emanated up from the cellar, rendering the entire restaurant in darkness.
“Sean!” screamed Tony at his prep cook as Paula returned to the dining room to check on her diners.
“Sullivan’s is closed, Tony, and I bought up all of the fuses when I was there earlier. There’s no more to be had.”
Paula appeared at the ready window with her waitresses behind her while the kitchen staff stood on the other side. A low level of mumbling could be heard coming from the dining room, wafting into the kitchen the wrong way through the ready window.
“Here,” said Tony, tossing a Paisan’s imprinted book of paper matches at each of the waitresses from out of a restaurant supply box. “Each of youse go and light the candles on all of the tables in your stations. And you guys,” he pointed at Gino, Steve and Sean, “run along with them and we’ll help them get some light in that dining room. The night’s not over yet – it’s time for a romantical candlelight dinner! If we all hurry and light the candles, maybe everyone will think that this is all just some sorta special effect for opening night. Let’s go, let’s get to it!” The women followed behind the men and in pairs the staff scurried off to the four stations of booths, smiling and making comments about enjoying a romantic first evening at Paisan’s. Soon, all candles were lit and the waitresses were able to finish serving the food. Once again with help from his staff, Tony was able to stave off a potentially disastrous situation and turn the evening into an enjoyable one for all his guests.
That is until Gino’s daydream became a reality.
“Oh my gosh, there’s a huge white blob of something floating in my soup, and it isn’t an oyster cracker!” screamed the woman with the toddlers. While jumping out from her booth the mother of three knocked the tray of food for a party of seven out of Billie’s hand, causing Billie to fall while trying to catch the entrée laden plates. Instead of nearby patrons helping Billie to her feet, they too began searching their food for inedible plaster chunks from the kitchen. Everyone with soup had chalky white clumps of ceiling in it, and everyone, it turned out, had soup.
Paula helped Billie to her feet and brushed pieces of artichoke salad from her mousy dark hair, after which she ran toward the kitchen, unable to hold back the tears any longer. Upon entering the kitchen Paula ran into the arms of Tony, sobbing while she tried to explain what happened in the dining room.
“Shush, shush, dear. I heard. Don’t worry. Look – you stay here, I’ll be right back.” Paula held on to Tony’s right arm, refusing to let him go.
Standing behind the prep counter in front of the stove, Gino and the others looked up above and noticed that unlike the flat white surface they had noticed earlier, several uneven lumpy clusters of ceiling were missing. “Tony, Paula, I searched the soup – honestly I did!”
Knowing that truly no one was to blame, Paula refused to become angry at Gino or any of the other staff. She wanted to somehow salvage the evening and simply didn’t want her husband to lose his life’s aspiration in one fell swoop of ceiling plaster.
“I wanted so badly for everything to work out just right for you this evening. Tonight was supposed to be ten years worth of dreams come true, and now it’s all a disaster!” she cried as Tony held her in his arms in an attempt at calming and reassuring his wife.
“Sweetheart, trust me – just stay here. I’ll make it all better. I’ll be back pronto, I promise.” Tony lifted Paula’s chin up with his olive colored right hand as he quickly stared into her tear-soaked coffee bean eyes.
“Agreed,” she replied. “But I can’t imagine how you’ll rescue us this time!” Paula wiped her eyes with both of her hands and began to look out the ready window as Tony rushed into the dining room.
“We demand an explanation,” stated the male head of a family of five, which encouraged another elderly patrician from the table next to him to cry out “I’m not paying for this!” as Tony walked by.
Arriving in the center of the dining room, Tony faced them all.
“Everyone, please quiet down, I’d like to address what has happened here tonight. Please, give me a moment to explain.”
Conversation and complaints in the dining room evaporated as the diners gave Tony their full attention.
“As most of you here know, tonight is our opening night. This night has been in the works for some ten years now, but one little problem after another has turned it into a sit com or somethin’ like what youse Irish people call ‘Murphy’s Law’. After all, pretty much anything that coulda gone wrong tonight, did go wrong. Please, bear with me and I’ll tell you what I’m talkin’ ‘bout.
“First, it was the hundreds of flyers with the wrong address, as some of youse pointed out. We were expectin’ a party of fifty for our private party room tonight, but they didn’t show and probably went to Queens to look us up and got lost.” Several diners waved Janice’s fateful ads in their hands at Tony as he continued.
“And right before we opened up tonight, we blew a fuse and our ice machine went berserk and we had no ice for cold drinks. I thought it was just a one-time deal, so I had Sean, here,” Tony pointed to Sean, standing with Paula and the rest of the kitchen staff in front of the ready window, “buy a few more fuses from Sully’s across the street to get us through the night. The fuses didn’t hold, though, and the whole fuse box blew, which is why youse are all dinin’ in the candlelight tonight.” Tony took in a deep breath and exhaled, preparing to finish what he had to say when a customer commented on the newly found ambiance.
“But I thought it was such a romantic gesture,” offered the elderly woman, her husband holding her hands and nodding in agreement, along with several other customers.
“Thank you. Yeah, thanks a bunch. Anyways,” continued Tony, “when the lights went out but before we lit the candles, our head chef Gino,” Tony turned and pointed at Gino, who took a step forward in front of the others and waved, “heard a plopping noise, so we looked around but couldn’t find nothin’ so we went ahead and served the food. You gotta believe me; this is the last thing I wanted to have happen tonight.”
“The soup really was rather good,” offered one bespectacled female diner. “Until I began to find little white dumplings that just didn’t belong in a minestrone,” she added. The murmur of several diners commenting on the tastiness of a variety of food served that evening was heard throughout the dining room. This gave Tony an idea.
“Look, everyone, about that party of fifty that didn’t show. We made all of their meals before the ceiling fell, and it’ll all go to waste if no one eats it. Whatta ya say I treat all of youse to a free dinner tonight, and maybe you’ll give Paisan’s another chance in the future?” Tony clasped his hands together in front of him as if in prayer, while looking at Paula for a nod of approval of his offer.
Paula gave her husband what he wanted, proud of him as usual.
After a few moments of silence, a few replies of “I’ve already eaten and my dinner was fine” and “That sounds good to me” were heard, among other inaudible comments. In an attempt to organize and satisfy everyone, Tony tried to sort out those who still wanted to eat from those who had had quite enough.
“How ‘bout those of you who still wanna eat raise your hands, and those of you who got a problem with things come up to the front and see me?” Tony thought this was a fair settlement of sorts. The booths full of diners talked among themselves for a few moments, after which many raised their hands and only a few began to rise from their seats, making their way toward the front door.
“Girls,” Tony said to Billie, Sallie, Jemma and Chandra, “make a note of those in your section who wanna keep eatin’, remove their dishes and serve them new plates of food from the Chichester party that didn’t show. Gino, you and your boys stir up the party food under the heat lamps. It’s all in the original foil containers and shouldn’t take but a couple of minutes to freshen it up. Meanwhile, Paula and I will go to the front and settle with the rest.”
Holding hands, Tony and Paula walked to the front of their pizzeria, united in their desire to not let one day determine the outcome of their business future. Only one customer asked for a refund, but then he changed his mind when those behind him voiced their disapproval. In the end, he apologized and left with a freshly baked loaf of Romano cheese topped garlic bread, compliments of Tony.
Opening day might be the first day in the life of a new business, but ultimately it is no more important than any other day, as long as it isn’t the last day. And as long as opening day isn’t the last day, there’s a chance that Tony and his dependable crew at Paisan’s will make it to Atlantic City one weekend and continue to serve traditional Italian fare for years to come.
Sherri Miller is a fiction editor at Halfway Down the Stairs.
© 2008, Sherri Miller