Giving good gnocchi

A five-course seduction at the Bai Barbacani restaurant in Venice

Published April 22, 1997 7:57PM (EDT)

lawrence and I had sampled only a small part of Venice before Monica arrived. Disembarking at the Piazza San Marco, we had crossed it, noting the Duomo's landmark rotunda, the rows of apostles draped in scaffold and net. We checked into our hotel, the Panada, at 5 p.m. and had dinner at 10 p.m., a very light supper at Pescatore Conte.

The next morning, dawn awakened us, weaseling its way in through the casements, creeping down draperies, columning them in substance. The scent of baking bread followed the light, then the sound of clattering pots and pans, of children's voices from the street below.

When Monica disembarked, we were seated at a sidewalk cafe on the perimeter of the Piazza San Marco. Across the wide, noon-bright circle of the piazza she progressed, a scintillating clove-brown figure, an exotic and imperious Cleopatra clad in a saffron blouse and billowing peasant skirt, preceded by a porter carting her enormous black suitcase and a few smaller bags. Her head was uncovered, scarfed only with the straight black fall of her hair. She seemed made for the heat. Her Italian movie-star carriage had the usual grand and eye-stopping effect. Pigeons scattered. Heads turned. Men's hands reached involuntarily toward her as she passed, thumbs and forefingers kissing in empty pinches that would never be consummated.

At that moment, I realized that I loved Monica in the same way I loved my Barbie dolls as a child, with the passionate attachment one feels toward an ideal shimmering on the distant never-to-be-attained horizon. Men also had this feeling for her.

Lawrence and I pushed back our chairs, threw our napkins down next to our plates and advanced toward her with the well-choreographed precision of two chorus-line extras supporting the principal dancer.

She rewarded us with a white flash of smile.

"Ciao," she sang out to us. "When did you get here?"

"Last night," we answered in unison.

"Don't you love it?" Monica crooned, echoing the pigeons that cooed, pecked and preened around our ankles and feet -- their plump, feathered bodies pressing carelessly up against us.

"More so now, because you are here," we responded.

"Well, I have to get rid of this luggage," she confided with well-practiced urgency. "Then I will show you my Venice."

I've always felt very small next to Monica, small and childlike, like a pawn. My adoration only increases when I see the impact she has on everyone else. On her ample bosom, Lawrence's head had found a place to go, metaphorically, to rest. At least, I hoped it was metaphorical. I watched the two walk, arm-in-arm, ahead of me while I dawdled on bridges and the chipped, gap-toothed buildings leaned toward us, leering like doddering courtiers drunk with the sunlight.

"Where did you eat last night?" Monica asked as we walked past a series of port-side cafes on the Canale Della Giudeca.

"At the Pascatori Conte," Lawrence replied.

"Hmmm," she said thoughtfully as if trying it out in her mind. "I've never eaten there." She paused for a moment, considering this. "Well, tonight," she said with a long, slow smile, "we will dine at the Bai Barbacani. It is better than that one, Au Pied du Cochon, in Paris, remember? You will love it. I'll introduce you to Aldo, the owner. I wonder if he will remember me?

There was no doubt in my mind about this.

We expected other friends to join us in the afternoon, but they arrived exhausted and ill. Dinner for them was out of the question.

Night had pitched its black tent over the city. Monica, in her sunflower-yellow dress, gleamed like a beacon beneath the lanterns that lined the narrow alleyways near the canal. On the marled stone walls that rose from the shadows on the opposite bank, small windows opened like the tiny doors in an advent calendar, torchlit, adventures seeming to smolder within their confines. The entrance to the Bai Barbacani was behind one of these windows.

We crossed a narrow bridge to Calle del Paradiso, on the other side of the canal. At the portals of the Bai Barbacani we were greeted by a slender, tuxedoed waiter who escorted us into the cave-like interior, to a round, white-clothed table where the candlelight danced, sylph-like, over crystal, china and silver.

Light flooded over Monica's shoulders, pooling gracefully at the juncture of her breasts. Her eyelashes cast shadows on the rise of her cheeks. Lawrence's hair glinted fiery.

Our waiter seemed adequate, but Monica was still restless, her eyes on a tall, broad-shouldered man impeccably dressed in a double-breasted blue jacket, cut to enhance a narrow waist.

He was making his way across the room, stopping at each of the tables and chatting with guests. His progress was arrested at the table next to ours, for he seemed to have found among these diners several dear friends.

"Aldo?" I asked.

"No," said Monica.

"Aldo is not here," she added with just a soupgon of petulance. I noticed that the slightest bit of a pout had settled upon her carnation-red lips. The restaurant seemed to have changed, to have been rearranged. Gone were the dusty bottles of homemade fragolino that Monica had raved about. The broad-shouldered man was laughing, leaning into the table right next to us, ignoring our table completely. He summoned a waiter who disappeared into the back of the restaurant and returned with what must have been a very special bottle of wine. It was uncorked with great ritual. The diner who sampled it nodded his head furiously. The broad-shouldered man squeezed his arm and moved on to us. His dark hair was thin and cut very short. He had eagle-like features. "Welcome to the Bai Barbacani," he said, in a musically
accented English.

"Where's Aldo?" Monica demanded in response.

"He is gone," said our host.

Monica let him know that Aldo was missed.

"I was here before Aldo," the man replied simply. "I went away and now I am back. Aldo is gone." He said this with the finality of a man who is used to fitting his confrhres with shoes of cement.

"I don't believe you," Monica whispered tauntingly. "I think you have Aldo locked up in the basement."

"So," the man said, looking down at Monica appreciatively, noticing the way darkness gathered at the top of her breasts like a pendant of jet, sliding between them, disappearing into the soft, yellow fabric of her bodice.

He looked up at us and smiled.

Monica told the man that Aldo had promised her certain secrets -- "secret recipes" -- when she returned and she wasn't pleased to find him no longer there.

He asked her, "You don't like me as much?"

Monica shrugged and smiled. "I miss Aldo," she said.

It was a challenge, a gauntlet thrown down. Then it began -- the wooing. Perhaps it was the candlelight that bathed everything in a kind of fairy-tale beauty, perhaps it was the desire to best the chivalrous Aldo or, maybe, it was the Circean net that Monica carried for occasions like this one. Whatever it was, although the waiter returned and was very solicitous, the man could not seem to stay away from our table.

"Come, come back to the kitchen with me. I can show you how to stir the risotto," he said archly.

We had visions of Monica being abducted into the back, into the restaurant's nether regions, into the basement where Aldo was most certainly buried.

Monica laughed. "Maybe," she said. "Maybe later."

For an appetizer Monica ordered a bowl full of mussels, and our host nearly swallowed his tongue. Piled high on their perfect white china bowl, each glistening shell held the tiny mollusk that has been compared to that most delicate part of a woman's anatomy. Pry open the shell, shut tight as a virgin's thighs, and you feast on the sweet mound of flesh in its own fragrant liquor. Dress them with wine or eat them undressed -- either way, to consume them is heaven.

Roberto (by this time we knew his name) leaned over Monica's shoulder and asked, not so innocently, if she'd like him to put a little lemon on them. Monica agreed, so he called over the waiter, who arrived with the proper tools -- a silver plate holding a gauze-wrapped half lemon and a small silver spoon. Roberto expertly disrobed the lemon and took firm hold of the spoon. He very aggressively screwed his small spoon into the lemon, dribbling its juices all over Monica's mussels. Monica watched him. He continued to screw away, eyes upon hers, really building up a sweat in the process. It seemed to go on forever. I was amazed. I'm sure none of us thought there could be that much juice in a single lemon. But Roberto was determined to lemon-up the mussels to Monica's satisfaction -- or knock himself out in trying. It was pathetic.

"Monica," I wanted to plead, "make him stop."

As if reading our minds, Monica finally said, "That's enough."

"Thank you," she purred demurely. Imaginary handkerchiefs went to three foreheads -- Lawrence's, Roberto's and mine.

I had ordered sweet-and-sour sardines for an appetizer. I do not want to speculate upon their metaphorical value. Lawrence had ordered mussels as well, but all he got were a few cursory twists of lemon from the waiter.

Monica consumed her mussels with incredible gusto and even offered a few to me, though she knows I'm allergic to shellfish. It's an allergy I developed recently, and one that I never manage to recollect without a puritanical pang.

The appetizers had nearly exhausted us. I wasn't sure we were ready to deal with our entrees. To calm my nerves, I ordered risotto -- a sweet, pearly mixture, perfectly flavored, designed to comfort the palette. Lawrence had scampi -- meaty pink prawns that he separated from their wafer-thin jackets of ectoskeleton with fingers perfumed in lemon water.

Monica ordered gnocchi, a regional favorite. Satiny black pillows colored with cuttlefish ink and bathed in a fragrant salmon-red sauce -- the simple potato dumplings lay before us, transformed into something incredibly sexy.

"Round two," I thought. "Victoria's Secret. Frederick's of Hollywood."

Roberto appeared, again, along with the entrees.

"This is the perfect choice for you," he said to Monica, his hand, braceleted at the wrist, gesturing toward her plate.

"I love those colors," giggled Monica.

"Come to the kitchen with me," Roberto challenged with a canine grin. "I will show you how it is done."

Monica laughed, "I'll bet," she said, and bit into one of the little black pillows. Her sharp teeth cut a tiny half-moon out of one side. I'd swear Roberto was salivating.

"Do you know," he asked, warming to the subject of food as he watched Monica eat. "Do you know how I like to eat spaghetti?"

"No, how?" asked Monica.

"I float a wooden bowl of spaghetti in my swimming pool." His large hands placed an imaginary bowl upon the cobalt-blue waters shimmering in front of him.

"Then I float up to it."

We could now picture him in swim trunks, approaching the spaghetti that bobbed in its big wooden bowl on the water's flickering surface.

"Then I suck the spaghetti slowly out of the bowl," he said, looking down at Monica. He was grinning from ear to ear.

"Oh, that sounds wonderful," Monica responded, placing her napkin beside her plate and gazing up into his dark brown eyes.

"You could try it," he said, raising an eyebrow.

"Do you know what my favorite food is?" Monica countered. "It is mascarpone cheese. Do you know how to make mascarpone?"

"Yes," said Roberto. "This cheese takes a long time."

"It does," agreed Monica. "I make fabulous mascarpone. I can teach you to make it my way."

"I would love to make mascarpone with you," said Roberto formally. I half-expected him to salute.

"La vie est belle," Monica laughed.

"Toujours l'amour," Roberto chimed back.

The clichés began flying back and forth like shuttlecocks. Roberto would not leave our table. He catered to us to the point of neglect for the rest of his clientele. Diners ordered desserts and after-dinner drinks. He ignored them. Regulars paid bills and left the restaurant. He ignored them.

We struggled through apple strudels and tortes, and polished things off with homemade fragolino, a strawberry liqueur more fragrant, Monica declared, than Aldo's.

"This is my fragolino," Roberto said with great pride.

It was like perfume, really, a dark, beautiful perfume. We chuckled and whispered that he probably had Aldo locked up in the basement, making the stuff. Hours had passed. Candles had burned down to their mere stumps. All of the other diners were gone.

"Will you come again, tomorrow night?" Roberto asked Monica while leaning over her chair, his mouth close to her ear.

"No," Monica said, turning her face to his, her nose nearly touching the sharp beak that was his. "No, but I'm here every year."

"Well," he said, as she rose from the table, "you must come again next year."

He took Monica's arm and escorted her gallantly back to the restaurant's threshold. "I will give you the secret then, to the fragolino," Roberto said solemnly while exchanging cards with Monica, promising her "the recipe" next year, if she came, just as Aldo once had.

Lawrence and I knew better, of course. We had seen this happen before. We knew that the meal most longed for is the meal not yet eaten. We knew that Roberto's appetite had been aroused. And we knew, for certain, that sometime -- long before the promised next year -- there would be a knock on Monica's door, and there he would be -- the man with a hunger for mascarpone.

By Linda Watanabe McFerrin

Linda Watanabe McFerrin is a poet, travel writer and fashion merchandiser. She has been a contributor to over 50 literary journals, newspapers, magazines and anthologies, including Travelers' Tales, the Washington Post, EcoTraveler, Modern Bride and the San Francisco Examiner. She is the author of two poetry collections: "Chisel, Rice Paper, Stone" and "The Impossibility of Redemption is Something We Hadn't Figured On."

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