Mrs. Tizzoni lived around the corner from my father’s tiny butcher shop just off Allegheny Avenue in Philadelphia. Most days right before closing, she’d pull her new ’58 Cadillac with its swept-back fins to the curb, push through the front door and smile. She had a big mouth with flashing white teeth but Pop didn’t spend much time looking at her teeth. I’d just finished sophomore year in high school and wished my own bust line had grown half that size.
On a sweltering day in July, Mrs. Tizzoni, or Elaina as she liked to be called, entered the shop and bent over the meat case to inspect our assortment of steaks and chops. Pop got an eyeful. I dug him in the ribs and he glared at me.
“What? I wasn’t doin’ nothin’.”
I scowled. “Yeah, sure Pop. Tell that to the priest in confession.”
Elaina wore a low-cut, blue silk dress with stiletto heals and a pillbox hat with rhinestone accents. Her fire-engine-red hair was in a French roll like the one Kim Novak wore in that Alfred Hitchcock movie. Nobody had natural hair that color, but it sure seemed to impress my father. A tall handsome man with blue eyes, he flirted with all his women customers, something Mom tolerated, although not without giving him the what for.
After inspecting the meat, Elaina straightened up. She held a glass baking pan covered with foil. She set it on the counter next to the cash register.
“I’ll take care of her,” I whispered to my father.
“Nah, better let me. She’s finicky.”
“Yeah, sure Pop. She’s also obvious.”
He smoothed his blonde hair, placed his butcher’s cap at a rakish angle, and pushed past me. I’d been working the counter every summer since I was tall enough to reach into the meat case. Each day a steady parade of housewives walked our wooden floor, some sweet as frosting, some demanding as landlords, others aloof, slyly checking out my father’s charms. I think Mom liked me working in the shop to keep an eye out, just in case a lady customer got fresh. But what was I going do if they did? Spray ’em with the hose? I felt embarrassed and more than a little angry at Pop, knowing how hard Mom tried to keep the house and please him. Was he naturally a flirt? Or did he do it to keep his lady customers coming back for steaks, chops and his specialty cuts? I was too chicken to ask. And if Mom could tolerate his flirting, I should too. It was just damn hard to watch.
Elaina smiled into Pop’s face. “Now Harry, I’ve brought you something that I know you’re going to like.”
“You already have,” he said and motioned to her outfit.
I groaned but said nothing.
Her cheeks darkened. “I was cooking something for my nephew’s family and had some left over. Thought maybe your wife could use a break from the stove.”
Elaina pulled off her gloves and carefully rolled back the aluminum foil from the baking pan. She had young-looking hands with painted nails and still wore her wedding ring even though her husband had died years before.
“What… what is it?” I blurted.
A rich aroma of garlic, cheese and spices I couldn’t name wafted from the dish. My father looked at me with his “get lost” stare, but I didn’t budge.
“It’s my homemade lasagna, my Mother’s recipe, from the old country.”
Pop bent down and took a long whiff. My stomach growled and I yearned for a fork and spoon to tear into it right there at the counter.
“I make my own noodles, and use six different cheeses and some of your fine ground veal.”
“What’re those spices I smell?” Pop asked.
“Probably the garlic and oregano.”
“Ah, yes. I remember garlic.”
Pop grew up in a West Indian neighborhood in New York City, “the only Irishman there,” he’d claimed. He would pester Mom to use more spices in her cooking. She tried hard and prepared a few Polish dishes that tasted wonderful. But she just didn’t have the knack. So my younger brother and I grew up on a meat-and-potatoes diet, except when she took the train upstate to visit her old-maid sister. Then Pop would cook us curried chicken, the Jamaican version with enough Scotch bonnet pepper to blister our mouths. The curry scented the apartment for days.
“I know your wife has already fixed tonight’s dinner,” Elaina said, “so just put it in the icebox and heat it up tomorrow. It’s better after a day’s rest anyway.”
Pop studied the lasagna. When Elaina leaned over the counter and pushed the dish toward him, he got an eyeful of more than her pasta.
“Thanks a lot, Mrs. Tizzoni,” I piped up. “It looks scrumptious. Can we get you anything before we close?”
Her lips curved upward but her eyes weren’t smiling. “No, not today. I have a carload of food to deliver.”
“This is a wonderful gift,” Pop said. “I’m sure the wife and kids will love it.”
Elaina moved to the door. She waved at him with wiggling fingers and disappeared.
While Pop cleaned his knives and scraped down the butcher blocks, I swept out the shop. I locked the front door behind us while he carried the pan of lasagna; I wasn’t about to touch the thing. We climbed the outside stairs to our second-story apartment and pushed inside. Smoke from something being incinerated in the broiler filled the place. He moved to the kitchen door, the lasagna held out before him, like some sacred offering.
“Hi, honey. What smells so good?”
“It’s those porterhouse steaks you brought home last… what’s that?” In a heartbeat, Mom’s voice had shifted from sweetness to demanding.
“Oh, this? It’s just some lasagna one of my customers made. She had extra and thought maybe–”
“Ah, maybe we’d enjoy it.”
I peeked around the kitchen corner to find the two of them facing off, Mom’s hair pulled back in a scraggly ponytail, face red and wet from working in the heat. She stood with hands on hips. Pop backed against the sink.
“So what do you expect me to do? Dump tonight’s supper for something one of your… your girlfriends cooked up?”
“No, no,” Pop said hurriedly. “We’ll just put it on ice till tomorrow. It’ll save you the work of cooking… and I’m sure the kids will love it.”
Mom took the lasagna, laid it on the counter, and tore back the foil. She stared at it and shook her head slowly. Taking a deep breath, she turned back to my father and smiled. “It does look wonderful. It’ll be a nice change. Who did you say made it?”
“Just one of my customers. I don’t think you know her, Mrs. Tizzoni.”
“Huh, I’m not sure who that is. Does she live around here?”
Pop grinned sheepishly. “Don’t know exactly, somewhere in the neighborhood.”
“Somewhere in the neighborhood,” Mom repeated.
The following evening, Mom retrieved wine glasses and the bottle of Dago Red tucked away in a bottom pantry and served the lasagna with burned garlic bread. For once, my ten-year-old brother, Lenny, kept his head down and gobbled his supper.
After clearing his plate, he looked at Mom plaintively. “Ya got any more? This stuff’s great.”
She served spumoni for dessert. We moved to the living room to watch The Jack Benny Program and Have Gun—Will Travel on TV, my father with his belt loosened, Mom quiet and frowning.
It became a scene repeated often during the following weeks because Mrs. Tizzoni didn’t stop with lasagna. We stuffed ourselves with manicotti filled with ricotta cheese, ravioli smothered in a delicate white sauce and filled with spicy beef, or on Fridays, a huge tureen of cacciucco, a fish stew cooked with wine, tomatoes and chili peppers. For my brother and me, it became a weekly culinary adventure. When I started school in the fall and wasn’t at the shop to chaperone, Mom became angry every time Pop brought Elaina’s food home.
“I know what she’s trying to do, Harry. And you’re not helping.”
“What da ya want me to do, Rose? Tell her to get lost?”
“Either you do it. Or one of these days, I’m gonna track her down and put a stop to this… this…”
“You know good and well what she’s doing… an attractive widow and you with your golden curls. How can I compete with… ” She covered her face with her hands and slumped onto the couch.
Pop took Mom in his arms, stroked her hair and kissed her on the lips. My brother groaned and I herded him out of the living room while my parents talked things over, using very few words.
But the Italian meals kept on coming, became more elaborate, included homemade breads, antipasto, with cannoli or tiramisu for dessert. Mom sat tight-lipped at the kitchen table as we wolfed the delicious food. But Lenny and I had learned not to say anything good about Mrs. Tizzoni’s cooking and Pop kept his head down and wouldn’t look up until he’d finished.
My parents argued, real donnybrooks. They talked with Father O’Hara at the church, but it didn’t seem to help. Mom grew sullen and quiet.
On a Saturday morning in late October Mom took me aside. “Tonight I’m planning a big dinner for six. You kids will have to eat early.”
“What’s goin’ on?”
“You’re father’s trying to get a loan to buy his own shop close to the Main Line. He’s invited the bank Vice President and his wife for supper. The McCluskeys are also coming.”
“You haven’t had anyone to dinner in years. What are you going to—?”
“My best Polish dishes and your father’s favorite dessert… and you’re going to help me.”
“Ah Mom, I was gonna go over to Lucy’s and—”
“Now listen. This is important to your father… and me. I want everything to turn out perfect… no mistakes. If he gets the loan, maybe we can move outta this neighborhood some day, to a place where… where there aren’t any Italian home-wrecking widows.”
“Ah come on, Mom. You don’t really think Mrs. Tizzoni would fool around—”
“In a heartbeat she would. You’re too young to understand how scheming women can be. Especially ones that look like…”
“I’m getting the picture. But… but you’re still pretty. Ya got nothin’ to worry about. Pop’s crazy about you.”
“If he’s so crazy about me, why is he still bringing home…” She pointed to the remains of a dish of veal scaloppini resting on the kitchen counter.
Mom looked worn, beaten, and it made me think — is this what lay ahead, marriage, kids, trying to please a husband while my looks go to hell in a handbasket and every gold-digging woman vies for hubby’s charms? Mom used to be so assured, strong-willed, wouldn’t take guff from anybody. But this thing with Elaina seemed to have shaken her.
“Why don’t ya just go talk to her?” I asked. “I know where she lives and—”
Mom glared at me, her black eyes flashing. “I’d probably kill that bitch before I could get a word out.”
I took a step backward. Mom never used vulgar language, anywhere, anytime. My mind flashed to a homicide scene with her yelling at Elaina’s bloodied body impaled on the pointed wrought-iron fence outside her posh little house with its tiny lawn, sirens wailing as Black Mariahs pulled to the curb and the cops cuffed my still screaming mother and hauled her away….
“Easy, Mom. Take it easy. We’ll try it your way… I’ll help with the dinner. That bank guy doesn’t stand a chance.”
I spent all morning in the kitchen blending cooked rice with highly seasoned ground pork, then carefully rolling the mixture into steamed cabbage leaves to make Golumpki. Mom prepared various side salads, homemade dinner rolls, sauces, and Pierogi — three types of boiled then browned dumplings stuffed with cheese, mashed potatoes, or fruit. She made enough to feed the neighborhood. Mom leaned against the kitchen sink, the front of her housedress soaked in sweat and her apron spattered with food. But she wore a quiet smile, as if the dinner would make everything all right, would regain her title as queen of our kitchen, at least for that one important day.
By early evening, Lenny had eaten supper and disappeared to his room. I tromped downstairs to help Pop close up. I was halfway there when Mrs. Tizzoni’s emerald green Cadillac tore out from the curb and sped away. I opened the shop door and entered as quietly as I could. Pop wasn’t behind the counter. I checked the cutting room with its lights blazing. The butcher blocks hadn’t been scraped and two bloodied trimming knives lay on a sideboard. I moved to the walk-in cooler and yanked open the heavy door. The blast of cold air chilled me and I stepped inside. My father sat on a chair in the corner and held something on his lap. He stared at the sawdust-covered floor, unmoving.
“Hey, Pop, it’s time to lock up.”
“Yeah, sure. Be right there.”
But he didn’t budge. Finally, he tilted his head back and stared into my face, his lips trembling.
“What’s wrong? You cut yourself? You okay?”
He shook his head and motioned to the brown paper bag on his lap. In the moist cold air, the delicious smell of something Italian hit me. I reached down, lifted the bag and stared inside at a glass pan of steaming linguini with clam sauce.
“ARE YOU CRAZY?” I yelled. “Mom’s upstairs killing herself in the kitchen and you’re down here with that… with that…”
“I know, I know. God, that woman just won’t leave… she’s so… so lonely and…”
“You’ve got to tell her to stay away.”
“She doesn’t listen… and the food…”
“Jeez, Pop. The food’s not worth it.”
Still clutching the bag and its warm contents, I turned and slammed into the cooler door, pushed it open, and fled the shop. I hurried down the empty sidewalk and around the corner. I wanted to run but I wasn’t wearing a slip and when I tried, the blustery wind picked up the hem of my dress and blew it around my waist. Near the end of the block, I strode past her Cadillac and turned up the cement walk to her two-story brick house.
“Hey, Elaina,” I yelled from the bottom of the steps. My heart pounded, my breath came like a racehorse’s, my knees shook. “Hey, Elaina, get your fat ass out here.”
It surprised me how easy it was to cuss that woman out. But the house remained still, lace curtains drawn closed behind tall windows. A man in the house next door stuck his head out the screen and looked at me, then pulled back inside.
“Damn it, Elaina, you can keep your food. We don’t want it. We don’t want you.”
With both arms, I raised the glass pan over my head and heaved it at her front door. It hit dead center, flinging linguini onto the oak panels before falling to the granite stoop and shattering. I leaned forward, hands on knees and tried to catch my breath. My head buzzed. Black spots surrounded by yellow rings swam before my eyes. I sucked in deep breaths and gradually, the city’s traffic sounds returned.
When I straightened up, Mrs. Tizzoni stood at the front window, staring at me with sad eyes. Her red blaze had disappeared, replaced by a tight skullcap that covered cropped gray hair. Clad in a formless housedress, her lipstick gone, face pale and wrinkled, she looked pathetic. I wanted to hate her, but I couldn’t. What if I were her age and alone? What meager charms could I ply to attract anybody? What would I do?
My face burned. “I’m sorry. Just… no more, okay?”
I spun and headed home. Pop had locked up the shop and gone upstairs. I rejoined Mom in the kitchen.
“Where have you been?” she asked as she hustled to brown the last batch of dumplings.
“I… I went to see Mrs. Tizzoni.”
Mom stared at me.
“She won’t be bothering you or Pop anymore.”
Mom’s eyes widened. “Becky, what… what did you do?”
I laughed. “Don’t worry. I didn’t kill her. I just let her know that we were tired of Italian food.”
Before Mom could say anything, someone pounded on the front door. She looked at her watch. “That must be the McCluskeys. Go let them in and offer some of the good wine while I get dressed. Hurry.”
I had just gotten the McCluskeys situated when the front door rattled from a light tapping and I greeted the bank Vice-President, a Donald Slater, and his gorgeous wife, Victoria. Our apartment filled with the soprano sounds of chattering women mixed with the men’s baritone laughter. My parents joined them and the clamor grew. Mom wore a green shift, tight around the hips and low cut, with a single strand of fake pearls and earrings to match. She looked beautiful, her black eyes gleaming above scarlet lips, her thick brown hair pulled back with just a hint of gray at the temples. The Slaters had brought a huge bottle of burgundy, sent to them by their married son from somewhere in California. In the kitchen, I yanked its cork and took a swig, the dark liquid spicy-tart.
For two hours the couples gossiped, laughed and demolished Mom’s supper. The men ran out of beer and I hurried to McCarthy’s Tavern to buy as many bottles of Ballentine as I could carry. Pop clicked on the radio and found some mushy dance music and the couples circled our living room, trying to work off the heavy Polish meal. For my part, I holed up in the kitchen and downed a half dozen cabbage rolls and maybe three glasses of wine, which made my head spin but kept the memory of Mrs. Tizzoni at bay. I cracked open the kitchen door and tried not to giggle as I watched the couples twirl and dip to the big band sounds from the war years.
Finally, Mom joined me, wobbling on her high heels and gasping.
“My… my God. I haven’t danced like that since before you were born.”
“Yeah, you guys look like you’re havin’ a blast.”
“We need to do this more often. But it’s time to finish it off with dessert. Will you get it out of the icebox while I get the plates?”
I yanked open the door of our ancient Frigidaire. On the bottom shelf rested the most beautiful deep-dish lemon pie with a perfectly browned meringue topping. I bent at the waist, clipped my hands carefully under the pie plate, and stood upright. The room spun to the left and I staggered. The floor felt slanted. Mom yelled. I crashed into the table. The pie went flying and landed with a clatter.
“Oh my God. I’ve… I’ve ruined it. I’m so…”
“What am I going to do?” Mom said absently. All the color had drained from her face.
“Your father has been bragging about a special dessert all night… and now…”
We both stared dumbly at the large chunks of glassy lemon filling, broken pieces of crust, and floating meringue icebergs scattered across our shiny kitchen floor. From the living room, the babble of voices continued, uninterrupted by our one-act kitchen drama.
“We gotta do somethin’, Mom. Ya gotta think.”
She leaned against the counter and closed her eyes. When she opened them after a few moments, the sparkle had returned along with her smile. “Get me down the silver platter and the parfait glasses.”
I grabbed the stool, rummaged around in the uppermost cabinet, and handed her the gleaming tray and six long-stemmed glasses. We burnished them with dishtowels. Dropping to her knees, Mom used a tablespoon to carefully scoop clean chunks of piecrust, filling and topping from the floor and arrange them in each glass. I found a slender white candle in its holder, lit it and placed it in the center of the platter. Mom brushed piecrust flakes from her stockings, adjusted her girdle, palmed the dessert tray and pushed through the kitchen door.
The conversation died and I heard gasps, clapping from the women, followed by: “What a unique idea… I’ve never seen it presented this way… Rose, you outdid yourself… Don’t expect me to make this for you, Donald; it’s too much work…” and later, “I could never match the taste… it has just a hint of… what is that spice, Rose?”
After that last comment, I thought about Johnson’s floor wax, and stifled my laughter. I scooted on my knees around the kitchen, hurrying to clean up the mess. Afterward, I snuck more wine and peeked out past the kitchen door. Mom sat watching the couples scrape their glasses clean, with Pop’s arm draped over her shoulder. He pulled her close and gave her pecks on the lips in between spoonfuls of lemon pie parfait.
Sliding to the floor, I leaned back against the cabinets, finished the dregs of the burgundy, and let myself think about Elaina. Would she ever return to the butcher shop, knowing that I’d seen her stripped of her pretenses, her protection? I studied my reflection in the wine bottle, touched full lips already bracketed by laugh lines, and decided that I’d better learn something beyond the dog-eat-dog world of home cooking.
Image: “Pasta bake” by Steve Johnson, licensed under CC 2.0.