At the Casa Lido, the end of summer means a party, and hit whodunit writer Victoria “Vic” Rienzi and her family are cooking like crazy for the restaurant’s seventieth anniversary celebration. As they chop onions and garlic, old family friend Pete Petrocelli stops by, saying he knows something that would make for a good mystery novel. Curious, Vic asks Nonna to elaborate on Pete’s claim and learns of a relative who mysteriously disappeared back in Italy…
The night of the party brings a crowd—and a full throttle hurricane. When the storm finally passes, everyone thinks they’re in the clear—until the first casualty is found, and it’s Pete. Remembering his visit, Vic isn’t certain Pete’s death was an accident and decides to dig deeper into his story. What she finds is meatier than Nonna’s sauce…
About the Author
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A mingled blast of garlic and alcohol hit me as soon as I opened the back door. The reek was emanating from Pietro Petrocelli, known colloquially as “Stinky Pete.” Naturally, I never called him that to his face (or in front of my grandmother, whose family knew him from the old country). Pete listed to one side, then the other, blinking his bloodshot eyes and grinning at me with his nearly toothless mouth. Recoiling from the stench of unwashed skin and lack of dental hygiene, I took two steps back into the restaurant kitchen.
“Uh, hi, Pete. Nonna’s not here at the moment.” I started to close the door, but Pete, who was pretty quick for a drunk, held it fast.
“It’s La Signorina Scrittrice,” he slurred. “The lady writer. How you do, signorina?” He stuck his unshaven face inside the door opening, treating me to another whiff of garlic breath. “Is your papa here?”
“No,” I said firmly. My dad, Frank, who had a soft spot for Pete, would sometimes give him a glass of homemade wine, but only when my grandmother wasn’t around. Nonna would feed Pete if he was hungry, but she drew the line at liquor.
“Hokay,” he said with a sigh. “So maybe, Lady Writer, could you do an old man a favor?”
“Not if it involves wine.” I gripped the side of the door, trying unsuccessfully to push it closed.
“C’mon, signorina. I am parched in the heat.” He pressed his free hand against his chest. “I have a great thirst.”
“I’ll bet you do,” I said. “You can have some water. And if you’re hungry, I’ll give you a panini. But that’s it. And then you have to go.”
He finally let go of the door and shook his head. “It is not for water that I have the thirst. But I will take, how you say, a ‘suh-nack.’”
“One ‘suh-nack’ coming up. But you have to wait there, okay?” I said, closing the door. I grabbed a roll, threw on some salami and cheese, and wrapped the sandwich in a paper towel.
When I handed it to him, Pete stuck the sandwich into the pocket of his tattered shirt and winked at me with one droopy eye. “For later,” he whispered. Taking advantage of the open door, he pushed his head inside again; I tried very hard not to inhale as he spoke. “If you give me il vino, I can tell you stories. For your books.” He raised his hand in a scribbling motion to illustrate.
“I can’t, Pete. It’s not good for you. Nonna won’t let me.”
“Oh, your grandmother, she is a saint,” he said, clapping his palms together as though in prayer.
“Uh-huh.” She’s a saint, all right. “You need to go, Pete.” I shoved harder against the door.
He tapped the side of his head. “Me, I know t’ings. Many t’ings I could tell you for your murder books.”
“I’m sure you could, but you really have to go now.”
Pete nodded, pulled his head back from the doorway, and patted his breast pocket. “Thank you, signorina. And remember what I said,” he called as he stumbled off. “I have stories to tell.”
Stories involving the grape, no doubt, but probably little I could use for my “murder books.” I bolted the door behind me, still wrinkling my nose as Pete’s smell lingered in the air. I grabbed the bowl of fresh tomatoes that sat on the counter; just picked from our garden, they were a perfect, ripe red. I scrubbed my hands and found Nonna’s best knife, chopping the tomatoes quickly to release their sweet, earthy scent. Then I grabbed a handful of basil from the refrigerator, stuck my nose in it, and sniffed deeply.
“Victoria,” my grandmother called out sharply, “what are you doing to that basil?”
She stood in the doorway to the kitchen, her hands on her hips and a frown on her face—her usual pose when greeting me.
“I’m starting the bruschetta. But I’m also clearing my nasal passages. Pete was here.”
“That’s Mr. Petrocelli to you. Have some respect.”
“Ugh, Nonna, he’s disgusting. He came around hoping Daddy was here to give him wine.”
She shook her head and made a tsking sound. “A terrible affliction. Pietro was once a cabinetmaker, a craftsman. And a man like that turns to drink. Such a shame.”
“Why are you nice to him? Why do you even let him come around?” I asked, giving the basil a quick rinse at the sink.
“Back in Naples, he knew your grandfather.” At the mention of her late husband, Nonna crossed herself and looked at me expectantly.
“May God rest his soul,” I said quickly.
She nodded her approval and resumed her story. “Pietro’s older brother, Alfonso, was also close to your grandpa’s fratello, your great-uncle, Zio Roberto. But such troublemakers, those two.” She shook her head again. “Got in with criminals. Your grandfather’s family never talked about Roberto. Now leave that basil and start on the vegetables.”
I put the basil away and gave my grandmother my full attention. A long-lost great-uncle who “got in with criminals” and was a forbidden subject in the Rienzi family? This was rich material for my novel—not the murder mysteries from which I made my living, but the new historical I was writing based on my family. I grabbed my waitress pad and a pen from the pocket of my apron; they would have to do in lieu of my computer.
“What happened to him?” I casually set the pad down on the counter, trying to keep it out of her sight. If she thought I was writing instead of prepping vegetables for lunch, I’d be in for it. I set the bin of carrots on the counter for effect.
“He died in the old country. No one was sure how.” Nonna, who’d been scrubbing vigorously at the sink, dried her hands on a towel and tied an apron around her waist. “Have you chopped the onions and garlic?” she called over her shoulder.
“Uh-huh.” I scribbled away in secret on the other side of the carrot bin. “So, did he just disappear? I mean, did they have a funeral for him? Is there a death certificate?”
She pinched her fingers and shook her hand in the classic Italian gesture. For as often as I’d seen it, I was surprised her hands weren’t frozen in that position. “What are you, the police?” she asked. “Why all these questions?”
“I want to know about our history.”
“Well, I want to know about the vegetables. Bring me that onion and garlic so I can start the sauce.”
I brought her the open containers from the refrigerator, my eyes tearing up at the smell. I was still learning about cooking, but I knew the garlic and onion had to be kept in separate containers. You have to start with the onions, as they take longer to cook; garlic burns if you’re not careful, so that gets added later. A perfectly sautéed onion and garlic mixture formed the basis of most of the Casa Lido’s celebrated sauces. “Would you tell me more about Zio Roberto?” I asked.
“I will if you put that pen away and clean those carrots like you’re supposed to.”
I sighed and took a vegetable scraper from the drawer. As my brother, Danny, once observed about our nonna: She don’t miss a trick. “Yes, Nonna,” I said.
I watched her pour a generous helping of extra-virgin olive oil in the bottom of our biggest stock pot, heard the sizzle as the onions hit the hot oil. She talked while she stirred. “Your grandpa Francesco’s mother was married very young and had Roberto right away. But then for many years she had trouble having babies,” Nonna explained. “Your grandfather was what we used to call a ‘late life’ baby. His mama must have been forty when she had him.”
“So Grandpa and Zio Roberto had a big gap between them?”
“Sì. Maybe fourteen, fifteen years. Your grandfather barely remembered him. All he knew was that Roberto got involved with the wrong people and died back in Italy. End of story.” She stopped stirring long enough to scrutinize the chopped garlic. “Did you take out all the sprouts?”
My grandmother was obsessive about garlic preparation. “Yes,” I said, holding up my hands. “And I have the smelly fingers to prove it.”
“Part of the job,” she said shortly. “Use lemon juice.”
“Speaking of garlic,” I said, “Stink . . . uh, Mr. Petrocelli said that he ‘knows things’ that I could use in my books. Do you think he might have meant information about his brother and Zio Roberto?”
“Who knows?” She lifted one broad shoulder in a shrug. “He’s an old man and old men like to talk and make themselves important. He probably just repeats the same stories to anyone who will listen.” She paused. “I suppose they could be about Alfonso. But he turned out bad, and may God forgive me, so did your zio Roberto.”
“Yeah, you said that.” But bad in what way? Could they have been Mafiosi back in Italy? I imagined the two young men in Naples, dressed in suspenders and flat caps, looking like extras from Godfather: Part II. Though my book wasn’t a Godfather-type story, I couldn’t help being curious. “So Grandpa’s brother died young. What happened to Alfonso?”
“Last I heard he had emigrated here. But that was many years ago.” She shook her wooden spoon at me. “I thought you wanted to know about your great-uncle Roberto.”
“I do.” I lifted a carrot high in my right hand while my left crawled across the counter toward my pen and pad. But before I could grab either, my grandmother’s words assailed my ears.
“You pick up that pen, missy, and I shut my mouth.”
I let out a loud huff, prompting my grandmother to shoot me a look that froze my blood. “Okay,” I said, resigned to the inevitable. “No pen. So I’m supposed to just remember it all,” I muttered.
“You’re supposed to be working. Come to think of it, I have more important things to talk to you about than dead relatives. We have the anniversary celebration to think about.”
I stifled a sigh. Nonna was obsessed with the Casa Lido’s upcoming anniversary; it was clear I’d get no more family history out of her today. I briefly considered talking to Stinky Pete to find out what he actually knew about my grandfather’s mysterious brother. Grimacing at the thought of a one-on-one with the odiferous Signor Petrocelli, I told myself I didn’t have much time for writing anyway.
It was August, and we were coming to the end of a busy season, one that would be capped off by a celebration of the Casa Lido’s seventieth anniversary and the last rush of Labor Day weekend. They were likely to be the restaurant’s most profitable events of the year, and we were counting on that revenue to make up for our slow start in the spring. (A dead body in the tomato garden tends to keep the customers away.) As I thought about the events of the last weeks, it struck me that I’d been back in New Jersey for nearly three months—almost a whole summer season. In that time I’d gotten myself involved with two men and two murders. That was some crazy arithmetic, even for me.
My thoughts were interrupted by a loud rapping noise and I jumped a mile. “I’m talking to you, Victoria,” my grandmother said, banging her wooden spoon on the countertop. “Stop daydreaming. Hurry and finish those carrots; then bring me four jars of tomatoes from the pantry. And when you’ve finished that, you can write down the menu for the party as I dictate. It will be summer dishes—antipasto and bruschetta, cold salads, and maybe some shrimp . . .”
She was off and running. And in all the bustle of preparation for the dinner service and the plans for the Casa Lido’s big day, Zio Roberto, his friend Alfonso, and Stinky Pete were quickly forgotten. Which turned out to be a mistake, because Stinky Pete was right: He did have a story to tell—one with more twists and turns than any mystery I’d ever written.
* * *
The last week in August would mark seventy years that the Casa Lido had been serving homemade Italian food to tourists and townies alike. Our plan was to have an outdoor celebration, and on the morning before the party, the restaurant garden was abuzz with busy servers, short-tempered chefs, and harassed-looking party-store employees. (My grandmother was directing them as they set up the tables. It wasn’t pretty.)
Behind all the bustle, though, was a hint of unease. The delivery guys glanced at the cloudy sky as they unloaded; our servers moved double time setting up, as though something was chasing them. Something was—a hurricane making its way up the coast from the Carolinas; there had been storm warnings all week. Originally, it was supposed to have moved out to sea, but the latest predictions had it heading inland. Nonna, however, who saw herself as a fair match for Mother Nature, denied all weather reports and plowed ahead with plans for an outdoor gathering. I checked the weather app on my phone, which hadn’t changed from the last time I’d looked, roughly two minutes ago. I stared at the tiny map of New Jersey on my screen and the swirling red image that represented the storm: Yup, still heading our way.
I searched out my mom in the swarm of figures; she wasn’t hard to find. My mom was sixty, but looked at least a decade younger. And let’s just say that her fashion choices were memorable, to say the least. She still wore her curly hair long, and last month’s purplish auburn had lightened to more of a strawberry red—a color that was just as unnatural but a lot less jarring. Today she was sporting a yellow sundress in a vintage floral pattern that was visible from one end of the garden to the other. The halter top only emphasized her already generous curves. I waved her over, and she tottered toward me on four-inch platform wedges. “Hey, Mom,” I asked, “are you at all worried about the weather?”
She pushed a stray curl off her face and sighed. “Of course I am. But Nonna and your dad won’t hear of moving the party inside.”
“Do we at least have a backup plan?”
She nodded briskly. My mom had lived for too long with Frank Rienzi, bettor of long odds, not to have backup. “Yes,” she said. “Lori and Florence will have the whole dining room set up and ready to go—linens, silver, everything. We’ve got some extra servers lined up so we can clear the outside at the first raindrop or gust of wind. If we have to hurry inside, we’ll have diners carry their own plates, we’ll gather linens in bags, and the staff can store the rented tables in the shed. Last year we had hurricane screens installed for the big windows in front, so we’ll be safe inside. And as we speak, your father is getting the generator ready in case the power goes out.”
“Nicolina Rienzi, you never fail to amaze me.”
My mother patted my cheek. “Thank you, darling.” She looked over at the old grape arbor, now draped with white linen and decorated with tiny lights. “Thank goodness your grandmother didn’t want a tent—imagine us trying to take that down in a storm.”
“I shudder to think.” Scanning the group, I saw our head waitress and my old friend, Lori Jamison, who was carefully decorating the slate board that would feature tomorrow night’s menu. A number of our summer hires were out here, too, as well as Florence DeCarlo, a career waitress who called everyone hon or babe. Flo was a favorite among the five o’clock crowd, the group we privately called the Hungry Silverhairs. She gave us a cheery wave from across the garden, which I returned, but my mother did not.
“What was that about?”
My mom gave a small sniff. “Nothing. I don’t particularly like Florence.”
“I know why,” I said grinning, “because she’s always showing her cleavage.” Florence wasn’t particularly well endowed, but made a habit of leaning over the male diners in a manner that probably brought her good tips in her younger days. “And she’s always talking to Daddy,” I added.
“Oh, stop it. Daddy is a very sociable man, hon. If I had to worry about every woman who—”
“Nicolina! Victoria! You have nothing to do but stand out here and talk?” The voice of She Who Appeared When Least Expected made us both jump. But before we could answer, my attention was drawn to a male figure in the parking lot.
Walking toward us was Father Tom Figaro, pastor of St. Rose’s Church, family friend, and occasional member of my father’s Rat Pack poker games. I’d known Father Tom for most of my life, ever since he’d arrived in Oceanside as a young priest. He’d confirmed me and coached Danny in the church basketball league. He was a man of contradictions—a Golden Gloves boxer in his youth in north Jersey, he exuded a tough guy air. But he was also an opera buff, one of the most well-read people I knew, and a connoisseur of all things Italian. He was a regular patron of the restaurant, and from time to time Tim Trouvare, our sous-chef (and my ex-boyfriend), slipped him extra food for needy families in our parish.
I turned back to my mom. “What’s Father Tom doing here?”
My mother’s eyes darted toward the blue garden shed and then to my grandmother, who crossed her arms and tightened her lips. I looked back at Father Tom, who was carrying a mallet-shaped object I’d rarely seen outside Mass. “And why does he have that . . . that holy water thing he uses in church?”
My grandmother’s nostrils flared; my mother just looked nervous. “It’s called an aspergillum, Victoria,” my mom said. “It’s for—”
“You never mind what it’s for,” Nonna snapped.
My mother took a deep breath, her bosom heaving like that of a middle-aged romance heroine. “You see, darling, Nonna thinks that we should bless the garden.”
“I don’t get it.” I gestured to the rows of ripe vegetables and bushy herbs. “The garden’s doing fine.” I pointed to the chipped stone statue of Mary that stood forlornly in the corner of the field. “And you’ve already got the Holy Mother looking after it, right?” I said, smiling.
My grandmother did not smile back. Still participating in her own version of omerta, she remained silent. Mom tilted her head ever so slightly back to the blue shed, her curls bobbing. The garden shed. Of course. The place I’d found the body of the dead television producer. And then the light dawned like sunrise over the ocean.
“Hang on a minute: Are you telling me you want Father Tom to exorcise the garden?”
“Zitte!” Nonna put a finger to her lips. “Don’t say such things!”
“Oh, honey, no,” my mother said with an artificial laugh. “We’re just . . . cleansing it.”
I frowned. “It’s not like that weird thing you guys do with the hair and olive oil for the evil eye, is it?”
“Again!” my grandmother said, making the sign of the horns with both hands. “Why must you tempt the Fates by mentioning such a thing?”
“Sorry,” I said, and with no other option before me, I made a hasty sign of the cross. I could never quite understand the Italian inclination to conflate religion and superstition, but conflate it they did. Father Tom’s “blessing” of the garden was just the Catholic version of keeping evil spirits away. But as I glanced at the blue garden shed, I couldn’t help suppressing a shiver. The discovery of a dead body in one of my books was only a pale imitation of the real experience. And I’d been nowhere near as brave as my fictional detective, Bernardo Vitali, who’d solved eight mysteries with confidence and aplomb. My real-life experience had left me decidedly jumpy, so a few prayers and some holy water certainly couldn’t hurt. And if they brought some comfort to my eighty-year-old grandmother, who was I to judge?
“Gather round, everyone,” Nonna called out, and clapped her hands loudly for attention. Servers, chefs, and anyone else in the garden froze in place; then one by one made their reluctant way to where my grandmother and Father Tom waited, hands clasped behind his back.
“What’s she doing?” I hissed to my mother.
“She’s calling everyone together, hon. For the blessing,” she added helpfully.
“Wait—are you telling me I have to participate in this weird ritual?”
“You won’t be alone.” She gestured to the back door of the restaurant, where Tim, our line cook, Nando Ortiz, and our head chef, Massimo Fabri, were filing slowly out the back door, looking like a group of errant schoolboys about to face the principal. The three men took their places at the back of the crowd—Nando respectful, Chef Massi annoyed, and Tim cranky. (I knew Tim’s cranky face very well; it was one he wore in the kitchen most of the time.)
Father Tom bowed his head and we all followed suit. “Dear Lord,” he said, “please bless this place of bounty and labor. Bless those whose hands till its soil and harvest its gifts. Protect it—and us—from the forces of darkness that gather around the unwary.”
Forces of darkness?Sheesh, Father Tom. Laying it on a little thick, no?
“Lord,” he continued, “remember us in this undertaking, as we prepare to feed the multitudes.”
My grandmother was nodding, whether in agreement with the blessing or in hopes of “multitudes” showing up tomorrow, I wasn’t sure. As Father Tom concluded his prayer, he shook the holy water over our heads, and I blinked as the water hit my face. I couldn’t help thinking that this tiny shower was a harbinger of a much larger one to come.
“Maybe he should have added some prayers to hold off that storm,” I said quietly to my mother. But Nonna’s sharp ears picked up every word.
“There is not going to be any storm, Victoria. Those weather people are never right. My whole life I’ve lived on this coast. That hurricane will blow out to sea, you mark my words.”
Oh, I marked them, all right. For all the good it did me.
The next day dawned bright and sunny, and I began to think that Nonna had taken Mother Nature in the first round. I stood outside admiring the handiwork of our staff—the grape arbor forming the centerpiece for ten circular tables set with white linens and jars of fresh flowers. A long table covered in a red-checked tablecloth was set up as a bar—my dad’s domain. I smiled as he lined up the stem glasses and turned every wine bottle so that the labels faced the same way. When he saw me, he smiled and waved me over.
“Hey, Vic, did you see my latest wine labels?” He held out a bottle for me to inspect.
“Frank’s Thursday Chianti,” I read aloud.
My dad pointed to the label. “You know it’s the old joke about homemade wine, right? When was it bottled?Thursday! Get it?”
“I get it, Dad. It’s funny. And the printer did a nice job on these. I like the gold lettering and the little grapevine. Very classy.”
“Thanks, hon.” He looked back at the bar. “You know what? I think we need a few more whites.”
“Don’t let me keep you,” I said, and patted his arm. “I have to finish setting.”
As I placed votive candles down on each table, I tried to ignore the insistent breeze that lifted the corners of the tablecloths and sent the tomato plants swaying. I was deliberating about looking at my weather app again when a familiar number appeared on my phone.
“Hey, stranger,” I said. Cal Lockhart was renovating our antique wooden bar, and we’d been casually dating for the last month or so. But he’d been away on one of his mysterious errands for the last week, which tended to get in the way of our relationship. “What’s cookin’?” I asked.
But he didn’t respond with a joke or his usual How are you this fine mornin’, Victoria? In fact, his voice was tense. “Is your family still plannin’ to go ahead with the party tonight?”
“Of course. You know Nonna.”
“You’ve seen the weather report, right?” he asked, his voice growing louder with each word. “That hurricane’s heading this way, cher. It’s on a straight course; there’s no avoidin’ it. Tell them to cancel. Or at the very least, bring it inside.”
The man on the other end of the line sounded nothing like the laconic, soft-spoken guy I knew. But I understood the reason for the panicky edge in his tone. “Listen to me, okay?” I lowered my voice in the hopes that he would do the same. “It’s already been downgraded from a category three to a two—”
“Even a category two can wreak all kinds of havoc,” he interrupted. “Dangerous winds. Flooding. I don’t have to tell you that, do I? You grew up on a coast.”
“And you lived through Katrina,” I said. “And that’s your point of reference. I can’t even imagine how terrible and terrifying that must have been, but this storm is nothing like that. By the time it hits us it’ll just be a good old-fashioned summer thunderstorm,” I added, sounding more confident than I felt.
“You don’t know that, Victoria. And I sure hope you don’t have to find it out the hard way.” There was a momentary silence and then I heard him sigh. “Will they at least have it in the restaurant?”
“At the first raindrop or gust of wind, we’ll move indoors—I promise. In fact, they’re setting up the dining room right now, just in case.”
“Okay. I’m heading back in a little bit.”
Cal was off on one of his mysterious errands, and while it was a little early in the relationship to press for details of his comings and goings, that didn’t stop me from wondering. “You’re still my date for tonight, right?” I asked.
“You bet,” he said, sounding more like his old self. “But I’m not sure how much of a date it’s gonna be. If I know Giulietta, she’ll be putting you to work, girl.”
Cal was the only person I knew who got away with calling my grandmother by her first name. Perhaps she’d fallen for his Southern charm, but more likely it was that her granddaughter was involved with someone other than Tim. “You’re right about that,” I said. “And speaking of work, I’ve got to get back to it. I’ll see you later. And try not to worry, okay?”
“Easier said than done, cher,” he said.
I finished up some of the other details outside and took a last look around the garden and then up the sky. The first clouds were rolling in.
* * *
Back inside the Casa Lido, all hands were on deck in the kitchen, including mine. I was at my usual place, the vegetable and salad station, where I was chopping fresh arugula by hand. Heaven forfend I should use the food processor and bruise the precious produce. Nando was carefully slicing pancetta, and Tim was at work on his specialty, homemade pasta. And all the while Chef Massimo bellowed orders at us in a confusing mixture of Italian, Spanish, and English.
I looked up to find Tim at my elbow, and he pointed out the window that overlooked the garden. “It doesn’t look good out there,” he said, shaking his head. “And by four it will only get worse. Having this party today is a bad idea, Vic.”
“You sound like Cal.”
He made a face. “You mean there’s something Lockhart and I agree on?”
“Besides me, you mean? Apparently.”
“Funny. I still say we should have postponed it.”
“Who’s ‘we,’ Trouvare? The Rienzis own this place. You just work here, remember?” I said it with a smile, but sometimes my ex needed reminding that he was still a sous-chef, and that he’d only been hired back last year because of my parents’ forgiving natures. As I watched Tim work, head bent, a loose curl over his forehead and wearing that work frown I knew so well, eight years seemed to roll away. It didn’t seem that long ago that we were young and in love, making plans for a life together that included taking over the restaurant someday. But Tim broke my heart and lost his job at the restaurant. So I took myself, most of my belongings, and my unused business degree and ran away to the big city, where to my shock and surprise, I ended up writing mysteries.
“Ah, lass,” he said in his favorite Irish brogue, “I remember it all.”
So do I, I thought but didn’t say. “Regarding the weather, though,” I said, “I think we’re stuck going through with this. We can just bring everything inside at the first sign of the storm.”
He jerked a thumb back at the window. “The first signs are already out there.”
It was clearly time for a change of subject. “What are you working on, by the way?”
“The bagna cauda.” He added a bunch of peeled garlic cloves (courtesy of me) to the food processor, then one by one, some drained anchovies. It was the base for a spicy dipping sauce that literally means “cold bath.” He lifted the top of the processor, about to stick his finger into the pungent mixture.
“Uh, uh, uh. I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
“What are you talking about? I can’t make it without tasting it.”
“Well, you do what you have to do, but do you really want to breathe all over Lacey after tasting raw garlic and anchovies? She’s coming tonight, right?” Of course she was—she’d been glued to his side for about a month now.
Tim’s expression softened and he grinned in a way that used to (okay, maybe still did) reduce me to the consistency of cannoli cream. Note to self: Remind Lacey of the dangers of Irish-Italian men.
“Yeah, she is,” he said. “She’s really looking forward to it.”
“Will she stay for the whole thing?” I asked innocently. “I mean, isn’t ten past her bedtime?”
He shot me a look of disgust. “She’s not that young, Vic. She’s twenty-eight, for Chrissakes—”
“Tim,” Chef Massi interrupted, “the seafood delivery is here. We need to get it on ice as quickly as possible.” He clapped his hands. “Subito, Chef!”
Ugh. Much as I loved shrimp, I had a pretty good idea who would be cleaning it and deveining it. I’d come back to the Casa Lido to learn how to cook and do research for a new book, but thus far my training had only extended to the dirty work. Literally. I glanced at the kitchen clock; it was already nearing eleven. Five hours seemed like very little time to finish the prepping and cooking. I squinted at the menu, written in Chef Massi’s typically European hand, full of loops and flourishes:
Scallops with pancetta
Proscuitto and cantaloupe
Antipasto alla Casa Lido
Bagna cauda with celery for dipping
Fusilli with fresh chopped tomato sauce
Grilled watermelon with salata ricotta cheese
Assorted pastries and seasonal fruit
I was so lost in thought I didn’t hear the kitchen door open and didn’t see our busboy until he was right at my side. Jason Connors, one of our summer hires, was a local kid who’d just graduated from Oceanside High. A dark, silent boy with an acne-scarred face, he barely spoke to the rest of the staff, though he sometimes exchanged a word or two in Spanish with Nando. But we kept him around for a simple reason: He worked hard. He stood silently next to me, holding a black bin against one hip.
“Oh . . . Jason, hi. I didn’t see you there.”
He blinked, looked at a spot somewhere above my head, and gave me the universal greeting of teenagers everywhere. “Hey.”
“Um, hey. Do you need something?”
“Yeah.” His face was impassive, difficult to read, and I wondered how his parents dealt with him. “Your grandmother told me to get the silverware from the dishwasher and wipe it down.”
I gestured to the dishwasher door. “Help yourself.”
The only sound in the kitchen was the crash of silver in the bin. As always, when there was an awkward silence, I felt compelled to fill it.
“So Jason,” I said in a hearty tone, “where’re you headed in the fall?”
“County,” he said without looking up, continuing to throw forks, knives, and spoons into the bin.
He probably meant county college, and not jail, but with this kid, who could be sure? “It’s good to get those required courses out of the way,” I said. “You do a good two-year program and you can pretty much go wherever you want.”
“I guess.” He straightened up, shifted the bin to both hands, and eyed the door. “D’ya have a towel?”
“Oh, for the silver, sure. Here you go.”
Were all teenagers this hard to read? I thought as he left the kitchen. Or just our silent busboy?
* * *
By three thirty there was a steady wind blowing in from the ocean, with the sun hidden behind masses of gray clouds that looked like tufts of unappetizing cotton candy. Nonna was still adamant about having the party outside, so I decided to appeal to my dad. I found him out near the Dumpsters, frowning down at an ancient generator.
“Hey, Daddio,” I said brightly, then decided to plunge right in. “Listen, I’m here to plead my case for moving this party inside.”
My dad tugged nervously at his straw fedora and shook his head, whether at me or the metal monstrosity at his feet, I couldn’t tell. I waved my hand in front of his eyes. “Hello, Frank Rienzi? Come in, Frank.”
“Sorry, baby,” he said with a sigh. “I can’t seem to get this thing going. I already tried the choke twice. And if the weather gets bad—”
“Our power might go out. That settles it, Dad. We need to move the party into the dining room. I’ll stand out in the garden greeting people and then usher them inside. Then we don’t have to worry.”
“Oh yes, we do, baby.” He pushed his hat back on his head and grinned, looking a whole lot like my brother, Danny; they had the same tanned, square features and hazel eyes. “I’d rather take my chances with a hurricane than cross your nonna,” he said.
I sighed. How could one old woman instill such fear in those around her? “But you’ve seen the weather reports, right?”
His face brightened. “Yeah, I did. In fact, now they’re saying there’s a twenty percent chance it’ll head out to sea.”
Ah, Frank, I thought, it’s just like you to back the long shot. “If you say so, Dad.” But his attention was back to the paint-chipped cylinder at his feet. He fiddled with a lever, hesitated, and then gave the generator a swift kick. When he pressed the button, the thing suddenly roared into life. “See that?” my dad yelled over the noise. “We’re good to go!”
“I hope so!” I yelled back. I glanced at my watch—3:37—almost time to get my derriere moving. The first brave guests would be arriving soon.
I ducked into the restroom for quick once-over in front of the mirror. In lieu of our usual white blouses and black slacks, we were all wearing stylish black shirtdresses. I’d turned up the collar on mine and pushed the sleeves to my elbows, added a string of pearls, a silver belt, and a pair of black pumps. And in an attempt to channel my inner Audrey Hepburn, I wore my hair up. If I had to work, at least I’d do it in style. But whether that style would hold in the wind that was whipping up was another matter entirely.
As I approached the three waitresses outside, it struck me that despite the similar outfits, each woman had dressed in a way that revealed her personality. Our head waitress and my oldest friend, Lori Jamison, was wearing her dress in typical Lori fashion—which is to say, no fashion at all. It was buttoned up to the neck and accessorized with a pair of black kitchen clogs. Flo, on the other hand, had a few too many buttons undone and had hiked her dress above her skinny knees; her dyed black hair was styled in a beehive that was so out of date it was fashionable. Alyssa Madison, our newest hire, looked like a sorority girl on a job interview. Her blond ponytail was immaculate, her dress starched and crisp, her black ballet flats polished to a high shine.
“You look great, Vic,” Lori said. “I like your hair that way.” She scrutinized my dark blond hair more closely. “Did you get highlights?”
“Maybe. Okay, yes. My mother strong-armed me.”
She raised an eyebrow, a knowing look on her round, freckled face. “I don’t suppose it has anything to do with your new boyfriend?”
At that, a look and a smile passed between Flo and Alyssa. The perils of dating within the workplace, I thought. Everybody knows about it. “No,” I said. “And yes, before you ask, he’s coming.” I pointed to the busboys putting the finishing touches on the setup. “I can’t believe how quick these guys are working.” In their black shirts and slacks, they swarmed the tables like a colony of oversized ants. Only one of them stood alone, and he happened to catch Flo’s eye.
Hands on hips and frowning, she called out to him in a harsh tone, “Hey, Jason! Did you light those candles like I asked you to? Is every one of those silver setups neat and straight? Those tables better be perfect, mister!” Jason, his expression blank, merely nodded and went back to his work.
“Go easy on him, Flo,” I said. “I know he’s not the most personable of kids, but he does his best.”
“Yeah, well, his best isn’t good enough,” she muttered.
“So, what do we think, chickadees?” Lori asked, gesturing to the gray sky. “We gonna stay ahead of this storm?”
But before we could answer, the first guests appeared around the corner of the building.
“We’ll find out soon enough, girls,” I said. “Ready or not—it’s showtime.”
Along with the heavy canapé trays, I carried the fervent wish that my feet would hold out in heels. As I circulated a bit unsteadily among the guests, I came face-to-face with our redoubtable mayor, Anne McCrae.
“Why, hello, Victoria,” she said, wearing her best politician’s smile, a Hillary Clinton pantsuit, and a year-round leathery tan from too many hours on the beach, the tennis court, or her garden. (All three were places where she spent more time than town hall, that was for darn sure.) She’d lived in Oceanside Park her whole life; single and in her mid-forties, she was obsessive about bringing more tourism (read “dollars”) to our town. Anne barely tolerated my family, as we always seemed to be on opposite sides of town issues. And not long ago, when the Casa Lido found itself in some trouble, she swiftly lined up a buyer for the restaurant—one who planned to turn the space into a Starbucks.
But I flashed her my brightest smile and held out the tray of canapés. “Would you like a scallop wrapped in pancetta? Perhaps some prosciutto and melon?”
Her pale gray eyes held a hint of slyness. Was she up to something? “Yes, thank you,” she said, putting two of each on her plate. At least the woman knew good food. “How are you, Victoria? Isn’t the new Vick Reed book releasing soon?”
Darn the woman, she had an elephantine memory. Not long ago, I had made a hasty promise to speak to her book club this fall. But I kept smiling. “Yes, it is, Anne. Murder Della Casa comes out the first week in September.”
“Cute title,” she said through a mouthful of melon. “And very appropriate. It means ‘murder in the house,’ right?” She tilted her head in the direction of the blue shed. As if I needed reminding that a corpse had ended up in the Casa Lido garden. “And that timing works nicely with our book club meeting,” she added.
I ignored the jab and went with the lesser of the two evils Anne was setting before me. “I haven’t forgotten,” I said. “I’ll be happy to speak to your club.” It was time to escape, but before I could make a move, Anne put a hand on my arm.
“Before you go, dear—a word to the wise. Would you let your father and grandmother know that I don’t appreciate their rabble-rousing at town meetings?”
“I’m sorry?” I shifted the tray to my other hand, attempting to remain balanced in my heels. “I’m not sure what you’re talking about.”
She gave a short, barking laugh. “Then you’re the only one in town who doesn’t. We’re planning to sell the carousel, and apparently the Rienzi family does not approve.”
“The carousel? But . . . but you can’t be serious,” I sputtered. “It’s a nineteenth-century carousel. It was made in Italy. All those horses are hand-carved. It’s a work of art. And you’re talking about selling it off?”
“Well, we’re hoping of course that we get a buyer who will keep it intact. But it’s too difficult to maintain and doesn’t bring in the revenue it used to.” She ate her last canapé in one bite and swallowed quickly, just the way a snake eats its prey. “Now if you’ll excuse me, Victoria, Richard Barone is over there. And his foundation has very deep pockets. Who knows?” she said with a wink. “He may even be in the market for an antique carousel.”
I steadied the tray, taking a deep breath. The Oceanside Park Carousel was something of a historical landmark in our town. We’d ridden it every summer of our lives from the time we could sit on the horses. I’d loved riding in the beautifully decorated chariots; when I waved to my mom and dad in the crowd, I’d felt like a princess in a magical carriage. Every kid should have that experience, I thought. Who is Anne McCrae to take that away?
But I would have to save my righteous indignation for another time. I had a job to do, so I headed for friendlier territory, the corner of the grape arbor where my brother and sister-in-law stood talking, heads bent close together and blissfully unaware of anyone around them. It was good to see them close again; their marriage had had its ups and downs, partially because of Sofia’s involvement in my sleuthing adventures. But now she was newly pregnant, giving off a glow that rivaled the lights on the boardwalk. And my brother was over the moon at the thought of being a dad.
“Hey, guys. I’d kiss you both, but this tray is cramping my style. Anybody hungry?”
Danny’s answer was to put four canapés on his plate. “I’ll take a piece of melon,” my sister-in-law said, “but no meat.” She carefully unwrapped the ham and placed it lovingly in Danny’s mouth.
“You two are kind of disgusting, you know that?”
“But in a good way, right, sis?” My brother grinned. “We got a good turnout. Ma and Pop must be happy.”
I pointed over at the bar, where our parents were providing the guests with generous pours of house wine. “They’re in their element, that’s for sure.” I glanced at the darkening sky. “I just hope we can move this thing along before that storm comes.”
“By the way, Vic,” Sofia said, “where’s your mysterious date? Looks like Mr. Down on the Bayou is nowhere to be found.”
“He’ll be here, don’t worry.”
“Was he away again last week?” my brother asked. “Where does he go when he’s off on these jaunts of his?”
Good question, big brother. I spread my palms out. “Who knows? He’s a very private guy.”
My brother rubbed his chin, a sure sign that his detective wheels were turning. I held up my hand. “Danny, I hope you’re not thinking of running a check on him.”
Excerpted from "A Dish Best Served Cold"
Copyright © 2015 Rosie Genova.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for the Italian Kitchen Mysteries:
"So good I can taste it."—New York Times bestselling author Stephanie Evanovich
"I enjoyed every bite."—New York Times bestselling author Jenn McKinlay
“Blends mystery with comedy, romance, family drama, a vivid and affectionate portrayal of the Jersey Shore.”—New Jersey Monthly
“More twists in it than a bowl of rotini.”—Suspense Magazine
“My mouth is already watering for the next book in this delicious series.”—Myshelf.com
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Rosie Genova has written a wonderful tale of mystery with A Dish Best Served Cold. Reviewed for Read Your Writes Book Reviews by Kim Welcome back to Oceanside Park, New Jersey. Summer is almost over and the Rienzi family is preparing to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the family restaurant, Casa Lido. With such a big milestone, Nonna Rienzi refuses to cancel the celebration for a little thing called a hurricane. She’s adamant the storm will pass because she says so. Nonna who rules her family with an iron fist has a soft spot for town drunk, “Stinky” Pete Petrocelli. It seems Pete and his brother (Alfonso) were close to Vic’s grandfather (Francesco) and his brother (Zio Roberto), in the old country. But according to Nonna, Alfonso and Roberto took up with criminals and the Rienzi family never talked about him. In fact, she isn’t even sure what happened to Roberto. Pete shows up and disrupts the party. He’s offered food to go and is sent on his way. The hurricane hits and Pete’s body is discovered in the town’s carousel house. Police rule Pete’s death an accidental drowning, but mystery writer Victoria “Vic” Rienzi isn’t so sure. Before his death, Pete tells Vic that he has stories to tell. Vic starts to wonder if he really did know things, things that could have got him killed. Rosie Genova has written a wonderful tale of mystery with A Dish Best Served Cold. It appears Vic has truly learned her lesson from past investigations; she’s trying really hard not to get involved in another. Too bad her mother and sister-in-law, Sofia want her to look into Pete’s death. The mysterious death of Pete actually helps Vic out in a couple of ways. It allows her to look into her family’s genealogy and helps her with her historical novel, loosely based on her family. Through research and determination, Vic uncovers more than she bargained for. It seems Pete was smarter than people gave him credit for. The question for Vic is whether Pete was killed for his past or for present knowledge. As the list of suspects grows, Vic realizes that she isn’t winning any friends by asking questions. I love Rosie’s writing because not only do I get to learn about Italian dishes, but also because her writing allows me to just lose myself in the story. The whodunit scene was climactic involving several characters, ending in surprising information. A Dish Best Served Cold also marks a shift in Vic’s life. It appears she’s about to get something she’s always wanted. I’m looking forward to finding out how she handles this turn of events and I’m hoping there’s more of the Italian Kitchen Mystery Series to come. **Received a copy from Berkley in exchange for an honest unbiased opinion.**
A Dish Best Served Cold is another installment in Rosie Genova's Italian Kitchen Mysteries. It is top in the genre of Cozy Mysteries and loved by me for the true Italianess of the main characters. The characters are fine Italian people, not gangsters, not tramps, laze-abouts or punks, none of the caricatures and commonness that is forced into the public consciousness by opportunists and those with prejudices. Plus, Rosie Genova includes authentic recipes in the back of each book! It has adult situations, but is light on the sexuality and violence. The series is a good read for discerning adults who like a good, cozy mystery.
Another winner by Rosie Genova! Her books keep getting better and better. Love the little treasure of recipes at the end. Can't wait for book #4!!
A storm is brewing on the Jersey Shore... A Dish Best Served Cold by Rosie Genova The Third Italian Kitchen Mystery A storm is brewing on the Jersey Shore and soon Vic Rienzi finds herself in its midst. An old family friend, who also happens to be a dissolute, unwanted semi-nuisance, tells Vic he has stories to tell for her mysteries, but before he is able to tell anything he is found dead. Is he simply a victim of the hurricane, or a victim of someone who needed his silence? While most people believe his death was merely an accident, Vic and her sister in law start following a lead Stinky Pete gave; the name of Vic's great uncle. Vic and SIL soon uncover a family history with mob connections...connections that might still be alive with a desire to remain undetected. Everyone has secrets. What lengths would you go to to protect yours? Secrets, and the protection thereof, are at the heart of A Dish Best Served Cold. Secrets come in all types, from family secrets to secrets kept from a prospective romantic partner, and more. In this book we are also are witness to the very protective nature of family; keeping secrets to save face and the family's good name and/or attacking those who threaten to expose the secrets of those you love. And secrets can also be a motive for murder, but which ones? Rosie Genova has delivered another delicious addition to her Italian Kitchen mystery series. I'm once again transported to the Jersey Shore where I can feel the salt breeze on my skin and smell the oregano and simmering sauces emanating from Casa Lido. Genova captures the essence of family, the good and the bad, and combines it with a complex mystery. Genova deftly melds a great ensemble cast of fully developed characters with humor in a fully realized locale and creates a fun, cozy read. Despite a hurricane and murder, I want to spend time with Vic and enjoy Nonna's Bolognese! Italian Recipes Included
Blend together a book full of mystery with pages of humor and briskly mix them together with the Jersey shore and authentic Italian cooking. Stir it all together with a hurricane and you will have murder and intrigue in a recipe called A DISH BEST SERVED COLD. In this third installment of the Italian Kitchen Mystery series, author Rosie Genova serves us a mystery that boils and burns with surprises in a tightly plotted story that is penned with skill. With that same delightful writing style of the first two books in the series, MURDER AND MARINARA, and THE WEDDING SOP MURDER, Ms. Genova has outdone herself with a story that will not only have you questioning yourself, it will leave you breathless by the time you reach the exciting conclusion. A DISH BEST SERVED COLD is the perfect addition to a delicious series and is sure to whet your appetite for more. Don’t miss the great Italian recipes author Genova has included in the back of the book!