Last Bite: A Novel of Culinary Romance

BOOK: Last Bite: A Novel of Culinary Romance
10.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
Last Bite


Nancy Verde Barr


For Roy

“Anybody can make you enjoy the first bite of a dish, but only a real chef can make you enjoy the last.”

, editor of
Guide Michelin


Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Chapter 23
Chapter 24

Also by Nancy Verde Barr

Chapter 1

I’ve always been crazy but it’s kept me from
going insane. —
Waylon Jennings

hey say insanity is repeating the same behavior again and again and expecting different results. I think real insanity is knowing the results will be the same and repeating the behavior anyway. When my most recent romance ended, I bought a gerbil and named him Insanity. He’s pretty innocuous and probably doesn’t deserve the name, but when he engages in that incessant wheel spinning that leads nowhere, he reminds me that, when it comes to love, I am prone to the same behavior. He also reminds me that the last man in my life turned out to be a rodent. So from now on it’s just Insanity and me—and my job, which I love.

I work for
Morning in America
, a newsmagazine show on national TV that airs from seven to nine in the morning. When the credits run, I roll by as “Executive Chef, K. C. Costello.” The K. C. is for Katherine Conti, but I’ve been called Casey since fifth grade. “Executive Chef” means that I arrive at the studio sometime around five-thirty to oversee the preparation of ingredients and backup dishes for the cooking segments. Mostly I work with Sally Woods, the grand old dame of food
television and our regular on-air cook, but I also prep for guest chefs, cooking teachers, and celebrities who come on the show to demonstrate their talents or plug their new cookbooks. When you watch a food show and see all those little bowls of measured-out ingredients, when the chef puts raw ingredients into one pan and then turns to a twin pan with the ingredients all cooked, and when a finished dish miraculously appears from under the counter, that’s because someone like me is backstage getting it all together. Preparing and cooking the food is the easy part, especially since I have a great assistant who is fast and efficient. What’s tricky is knowing when to make the swaps from raw to partially cooked to fully cooked so that it all works out in the time allotted.

Occasionally, the show sends Sally on location to tape week-long food specials, and sometimes they send me along to do what I do. About two months ago, the executive producer told us that we would be spending a week taping food segments in several Italian cities. That is what led to the demise of my last stab at romance. I wanted Richard, my then-boyfriend, aka rodent, to meet me at the end of the shoot and spend a few days together in
bella Italia
. My vision was of him whisking me around on a Vespa scooter á la Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in
Roman Holiday

Richard Payne is a dentist. (He really should have changed his name.) I met him when he appeared in a health segment on our show to discuss implant surgery. His six-foot-two frame is workout fit, and that morning I was getting excited just picturing him in his white dentist’s jacket. I liked the six foot two because I’m five foot ten, and I know from experience that staring up into a man’s eyes is more romantic than looking down. I was twenty-nine; he told the audience he was thirty-two. Seemed perfect.

After his segment, I went out on the set to chat; in other
words, to drop hints that I was single and would love to see him again. I’m not shy about being obvious but I am traditional about wanting the man to do the asking out. He didn’t ask, so I told him that I would like him to be my dentist. I thought that was fairly obvious, but he just gave me his office number. After one appointment for a cleaning and general checkup and another for teeth whitening, I had to deep-six my principles and ask him out. Under other circumstances, I would have been more patient, but the office visits were expensive. He said he was planning on asking me out, but you just have to wonder what he was waiting for. We began dating, and after a few months, I more or less moved in with him. On one level, it was a matter of convenience. He lived near the studio; I was temporarily living back with my parents in New Rochelle, a forty-minute trip from the city. The distance makes a difference at night when you have to end a date in time to catch the train. It’s huge at five in the morning.

On another level, I thought the relationship might be “it.” We really enjoyed being together and mostly liked the same things. But, after seven and a half months together, I couldn’t shake off a nagging feeling that something major was missing. When I asked him to meet me in Italy, he began to twitch. Then he frowned as though I’d asked him to come up with the formula for gene therapy.

“You know I can’t leave my office on such short notice.”

“But it’s over two months away! You have a partner. You have a secretary who can reschedule your patients. You have a passport. You’ve never been to Italy.”

“Here we go again,” he said, throwing his head to the side in an exasperated gesture.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“We go through this every time one of these trips comes up, Casey. You ask me to go somewhere and I can’t. I explain
why I can’t. You start to swear at me in Italian and then you storm out.”

“So, what’s your point?”

“The point is that I would love to take a trip with you but I want to do it when we have the time to plan. Research the place, look at brochures, and talk to people who have been there. Find the best rates.”

I put a little more pleading in my voice. “Just once, can’t you be a little spontaneous?”

“No. I can’t. I don’t like to do things that just come up. I never have and I never will. You know that.” And, there it was. I did know that, yet I kept expecting it to turn out differently. Obviously I am only a few brain cells away from insanity.

“This isn’t working, is it, Richard?”

“I think we need a break.”

“You want to break up? Just like that. No discussion?”

“I said ‘break’ not ‘break up.’ I can’t discuss it with you when you’re angry.”

“We’re arguing! I’m supposed to be angry.”

“Well, it makes it hard for me to think,” he said, in the even, measured tone that he used when we’d argue. Unfortunately neither the Irish side nor the Italian side of my heritage has ever grasped the concept of arguing in even, measured tones, so I began to yell at him in Neapolitan gutter language.

“Mannaggia! Tu sei patzo,”
I sputtered before heading for the front door. I yanked it open and then slammed it behind me, shouting
at the molar-shaped door knocker. I didn’t start to cry until I was halfway to my parents’ house in New Rochelle.

, my parents were in the den yelling at the TV.
Wheel of Fortune
was on and they were begging
a contestant to choose a
. The player ignored them and chose a

“Oh. I can’t believe it! It’s so obvious,” my mother groaned. “Who ever heard of a ‘bookie-butter plan’?”

“I knew she wouldn’t get it. Look at that hair!” Dad thought a bad hairstyle on a woman was a sure sign that there wasn’t much under it.

“Hi there. It’s just me.” I made my best stab at sounding as though I was just in the neighborhood and thought I’d stop by, but my mother took one look at me and arched an eyebrow ever so slightly. That was all it took. “I don’t want to talk about it” was all I could manage before breaking into hysterical sobs.

“I’ll make cannoli,” my mother said, heading for the kitchen. Making cannoli was her way of acknowledging that this was a “situation.” She’d let my father deal with the worst of the storm and wait for me to join her in the kitchen when I could speak clearly enough to tell her what happened. The Conti women have always unloaded a lot of baggage around the stove.

“Come here, sweetie,” my father said stretching out his arms. I sat down on the couch next to him and he wrapped me in a huge bear hug. He’s six feet three inches tall, so when he puts his arms around me, I feel held. I get my height from him and, thank God, my ability to eat what I want and still be able to zip my jeans. Everyone says we look a lot alike even though our coloring is very different. We both have thick, wavy hair; his is a warm blend of light and dark grays and mine is very dark brown and shoulder length. His eyes are blue, whereas I have my mother’s dark brown eyes, but Dad and I crinkle them in the same way when we smile. Our eyes weren’t crinkling at that moment.

He kissed the top of my head. “You want to tell your da what’s up?”

I told him my story and then added, “I mean it’s not all bad. Most of the time we get along really well.”

“Ah, Casey. Richard’s a nice guy. But there’s more to love than liking the same things. You have to want the same things and you and Richard are on different wavelengths there.”

“Tell me about it. Sometimes I worry that maybe it’s just me. Maybe I just want too much excitement. I’m afraid that I’ll quiet down and be sorry I’ve thrown away a really solid relationship. How old were you when you quieted down?”

He gave me a devilish grin. “I’m working on it.” Then he tightened his arm to pull me closer. “Honey, I want to see you madly in love. I want you to be deliriously happy, swept away, head over heels, lose-your-appetite in love. Do you know what I mean?”

“Well, I can’t identify with ‘lose my appetite,’ but I get the rest. It just doesn’t seem to be there.”

“Then he’s not the one for my girl.”

I could smell the cannoli shells frying so I kissed him on the cheek and went to the kitchen to see how they were doing. Cannoli have been my favorite sweet since I was a toddler. When I was two years old, I stood up in my highchair to reach for one on the table and fell to the floor, breaking my collarbone. I moved so fast, no one saw me. I’ve always been enthusiastic about food.

My mother keeps round disks of dough in the freezer so she can make cannoli at a moment’s notice. The disks are less than a quarter of an inch thick, so by the time she heats the oil, sifts the sugar, and drains the ricotta the dough is pliable enough to wrap around the molds.

When I walked in, she was pulling a stool up to the cupboards to reach the top shelf for a bag of miniature chocolate chips for the filling. My mother is petite. Everything about her
seems to be in miniature. Her hands are small. Her feet are small; I outgrew her shoes when I was in the third grade. Her dark brown eyes are so expressive that we all know immediately what she’s thinking and feeling. Dad calls them “espresso eyes.” Right now, they were saying “worried” to me. I was grateful they weren’t saying “I told you so.” When I moved in with Richard she spent at least a week raving that I was damned forever. Many of my friends’ mothers warned about “not buying the cow if the milk was free”; mine took it all the way to eternal hell flames.

“I’ll get those, Mom. Want me to mix the filling?”

“That’d be great. I’ve already sifted the sugar.”

Four fried cannoli shells, still on their metal tubes, were draining on paper towels and she was working on four more pieces of dough. While she worked her rolling pin—really an old broom handle—over the thin circles of dough, stretching them into even thinner ovals, I told her about Richard and Italy. She continued to roll. My mother makes cannoli by rote, so I knew she heard every word I said even though she never stopped working. Well, not until I told her about saying
in the hallway. Then her hands stopped and she looked up at the ceiling. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, Casey. Tell me you didn’t say that. It’s not something you’re supposed to say out loud. Did anyone hear you?” The problem with these dialect words and phrases is that I know under what circumstances I’ve heard them, so I know when to use them, but I don’t always know exactly what I’m saying.

“Only the nuns getting off the elevator, but they just said, ‘Same to you,’ so I don’t think they damned my soul.”

She squinted at me to make sure I was kidding and then went back to her dough. While I chopped candied orange peel and ate handfuls of chocolate chips, she wrapped the dough
around metal tubes and slipped them into the hot oil. “So what exactly does ‘a break’ mean? Is that just a little time apart?”

BOOK: Last Bite: A Novel of Culinary Romance
10.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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