by Mattia Ravasi
The restaurant where I wait tables is located on a street of squat apartment buildings in the deepest northern periphery of Milan. Opposite us is a fenced meadow that belongs to a boarding kennel. All through the Summer, when people go on holiday and leave their pets behind, a never-ending ruckus of homesick dogs is the neighborhood’s constant soundtrack, loud enough to drown out our radio, even with the door closed. This is actually a blessing. Gino, the owner, has a taste for melodic Neapolitan songwriters, saccharine and mopey. They remind him of an ancestral home he romanticizes, but has never visited.
You know how most restaurants have pictures on their walls of that time a famous footballer stopped by for dinner? A TV star, a pop singer? Our pictures are filled with factory workers. Grainy shots from the 70s and 80s, when the factories in nearby Sesto were working at maximum capacity, and the restaurant was full every lunchtime. In some of the pictures, big-nosed Milanese and hirsute Apulians twirl spaghetti around their forks with their backs against the wall, holding their plate to their chest because there are no tables left.
The factories in Sesto have now shriveled to rusted shells, jagged silhouettes that are visible from our backyard, seemingly larger than the Alps in the distance. Gino’s family didn’t manage to hold on for long to all the money they made in their heyday. His dad, a deeply unhappy man, burnt most of it on scratch cards. The rest is being immolated a little at a time to keep the restaurant afloat.
I’m not sure that Gino’s stubbornness in the face of collapse is any better, or any saner, than his dad’s gambling addiction.
It’s not work per se, by the way, that’s missing from our neighborhood. The factories might have closed, but there is an Amazon warehouse five minutes down the street. When they announced its opening, Gino popped a bottle of Moet & Chandon that had been sitting on a shelf behind the till since the day I walked in looking for a job, and that I had always assumed to be decorative.
But the Amazon people don’t get nearly as much time for their lunch break as those factory workers in the 70s. They also aren’t paid enough to afford a restaurant meal. They go to McDonald’s on their lunch breaks, where they’re served faster, and get more calories for their euros.
Our favorite client used to be the Russian, an old man who wore elegant black suits, hats, and gloves in all weathers to conceal a nasty skin condition. He lives down the street, and he would stop by for lunch a few times a week. Whenever he walked through the door, Gino left his perch behind the till to welcome him in, and to escort him to his table away from the window.
The Russian was clearly not Russian (I have a degree in foreign languages) but his accent was exotic enough, and Gino gave him the nickname the first time he showed up, so it stuck. “Che pirla!” Gino commented that day, seeing that he’d left us a ten-euro tip: what a dupe. (Gino was loving to the Russian’s face, and hateful behind his back. With his friends, it’s the opposite: he acts gruff with them, but won’t hear a bad word spoken about them.)
Xirsi, our old chef, didn’t love the Russian either. He did his best every day to devise a varied, balanced menu, and we always had at least two pastas, a soup, and a few meat dishes on offer – but the Russian was always putting in requests, usually for bland hospital food. Grilled chicken with no salt. Mashed potatoes. White rice. Xirsi put up a fight whenever Gino walked into the kitchen with these orders. I don’t know why he bothered. It only caused Gino to become unpleasant.
We sold out of pasta, most days, but nobody ever touched the soup. Xirsi took it home with him in a large Tupperware every night, holding it under his arm and riding his bike one-handed.
Our busiest shift (our only busy shift) was Sunday lunch, when Gino’s old friends from the neighborhood stopped by for four-course meals that stretched well into the afternoon, long past our lunch-service closing time, and the end of my shift. They were horrible people, these friends, always ready with a sexist comment for me or Laura (“uè, Gino, why don’t you hire better-looking staff?”) or a racist one for Xirsi (“Africa washed his hands before touching the food?”). Gino adored them. He didn’t even mind that they were always insisting on big discounts, even though they must know how much we’re struggling.
I kept my eyes on their hands whenever I served their table, because I knew that, if they tried to grab my legs or ass, I would have to quit this place on the spot. And I would rather not. I don’t want to go back to university, and spend another year pretending that if I keep going to classes, and get good grades, one day I’ll get a job as a teaching assistant, or a translator, or an editor. All my friends and peers have no trouble deceiving themselves. But I can’t.
Laura was Xirsi’s assistant in the kitchen, by the way. She is Gino’s niece. Mid-thirties, compact physique, long eyelashes that I envy her. A sour temperament. Judging from a conversation between Xirsi and Gino that I overheard once, she was employed in the restaurant as a favor to her parents. She’d struggled to hold down other jobs in the past: she had a tendency to talk back to managers.
She wasn’t too snappy around the restaurant, but she wasn’t given many reasons to be. She showed up when she wanted, peeled potatoes and picked the black stuff off prawns’ backs, and left when she felt that she had done enough work.
There was a story Gino used to tell his friends, and a few other regular customers. It was the story of how he’d met Xirsi.
“I’ve just come home from my Summer holiday in Riccione, and I’ve parked my car in the street, when I notice, looking up, that my balcony door is open. Oh cazzo! I must have left it unlocked! I hope it didn’t rain into the kitchen! So I walk upstairs, unlock the front door, and the first thing I notice is this smell of fried eggs, with a whiff of oregano and something smoky, too, like paprika. Then I see that my TV has been taken off the wall. It’s in a cardboard box! And so’s the stereo, the fan, my kitchen clock!
“And then this African walks out of my kitchen, two meters tall and shaped like a wardrobe, and he’s holding a frying pan full of scrambled eggs, eating out of it with a fork – and when he sees me it all goes flying everywhere, no shoot, no shoot! Not only I didn’t shoot him: I hired him!”
The story is obvious horseshit – Xirsi applied for his job through an ad in the paper – and I have to believe that, on some basic level, Gino’s friends always knew this, too. The scrambling of the eggs mid-burglary should give it away. Yet they laughed every time, savoring the image summoned up by the story. The stupid, cowardly African. The charitable Italian.
I asked Xirsi, once, whether he didn’t mind the story.
He looked at Gino across the restaurant, adding up the day’s receipts by the till, cursing vilely under his breath every time he had to start over. “Ma lascialo parlare,” Xirsi said. Let him talk. Not with pity or anger, but with great weariness.
Then Gino’s friends started showing up for dinner mid-week, never the full group at once, only one or two of them. Often, there was a woman with them, one of a pool of perhaps four, all of them with stringy hair and skin creased from too much smoking, tanning, or something else. People would walk in from the street, have a word or two with Gino’s friends, then walk away with the woman, whom they’d been studying with sideways glances through our window. Sometimes they didn’t look at the woman at all, but gave Gino’s friends a long, clumsy handshake instead. The people who walked in for the woman always looked ashamed. Those who walked in for the handshake looked famished.
We all watched Gino closely when this routine started, waiting to see what his reaction would be. Mostly, I was curious to understand whether he was getting a cut of all this, or if he’d been duped into offering up his restaurant floor for free. (The latter, of course.)
When finally the penny dropped, he showed up at work with a nasty scowl, and behaved horribly with us, our clients, even the Russian (“no mushy food today, vecchio, if you got no teeth the pharmacy around the corner stocks baby food”), who walked away cursing through his teeth, never to return. I’m not sure whether Gino figured out what his friends were doing by himself, or if Xirsi finally sat him down and explained.
He confronted them that very evening, after closing. They’d ordered four plates of pasta, fritto misto, steak with fries, and panna cotta, and shaken lots of hands. I was helping Xirsi with the washing up in the kitchen (Laura had left around eight pm) and we both slowed down the pace of our scrubbing when we heard Gino raise his voice, trying not to squeak our sponges on the plates so we could eavesdrop on the conversation.
“This is a res-tau-rant,” Gino was saying. “A place for fa-mi-lies.”
“Che famiglie e famiglie!” his friends laughed. “We’re the only ones who still give you the time of day.”
“I don’t care. This is not why I run this place.” And of course it isn’t. It isn’t for money, either, since we’re not making any, nor to keep busy – Gino doesn’t do anything around the restaurant other than sit by the till or chat up the customers. The restaurant is a shrine. A link to a past where Gino’s parents were alive, successful, and I must imagine, happy. Like a tomb, it serves no practical purpose, except as a catalyst for certain sacred feelings.
I suppose this is the point where, if Gino’s friends had been actual criminals, they would have kicked his face in and thrashed up the place. But they’re just clowns. “It takes no time at all to call the police,” they said before leaving. “Tell them about the African you keep here, off the books.”
By then, Xirsi and I had our ears pressed to the kitchen door. I saw his face go blank. He leaned over the prep table and covered his head with his arms. I told him that those people were just posing; that he had nothing to worry about. He kept his head down, long enough I started wondering if he’d fallen asleep. Xirsi has a wife and a daughter. He’s been trying to save enough money to buy them tickets to Italy, but he still can’t afford anything except the most dangerous, most atrocious journey.
The next day he told Gino that he could not keep working in the restaurant.
“E vaffanculo pure te, allora,” Gino said. So fuck you too, then.
“Ciao, Gino,” Xirsi said.
I still see Xirsi around the neighborhood. He works for Amazon. He looks much better these days: more relaxed, better rested. When I asked him if he likes the job, he laughed. “I have to drive past the speed limit to make my deliveries, I don’t get a single toilet break all morning, and it takes me ten minutes to convince most people to buzz me in so I can leave their junk in their lobby.”
I have to imagine, then, that it’s the faceless evil of his employer that he finds refreshing. He can despise it, and carry on with his life. It is really difficult to despise Gino.
Gino’s friends still show up for Sunday lunch, acting as if nothing ever happened. They’ve stopped handling their business in the restaurant. To feed them, Gino first hired another cook, an old man from Monza who clearly knew what he was doing, spent a whole day teaching Laura how to dice onions, and quit the first time Gino talked back to him. After that, Laura started doing all the cooking, keeping the menus basic and bland: tomato pasta overcooked into mush, lasagne with ragù straight out of a tin, battered cod fried in last week’s oil. Everything is disgusting, but neither Gino’s friends nor our dwindling customers have complained. I don’t think they can tell.
Mattia Ravasi is from Monza, Italy, and he lives and works in the UK. His fiction and criticism have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, Planet Scumm, and Underland Arcana, among others. He talks about books on his YouTube channel, The Bookchemist.
Image original: Gaelle Marcel/Unsplash