Volume 10
An Online Literary Magazine
November 30, 2015


Gnŕ Peppina


Stefania Hartley


Fixed menu here doesn’t mean that every customer eats the same things. It only means that I decide what they eat. How else? I couldn’t possibly give everybody the same food because people are different.


don’t just give them food—and what food!


I give them what they need.


Of course, I know what they need. Before they’ve even set foot into Gnà Peppina’s, I know them inside out. From the doorstep of my trattoria, I look at their cars, their clothes, the way they move and talk, and I guess what sort of people they are. I’ve never made a mistake.


Except for once.


Un tavolo


Before they ask for a table, I’ve already decided if—for them—I have space. I can’t just take in anyone, because customers need time and love, and there are people that I cannot love. Like those…what are they called…food critics? Food inspectors?


I don’t like them because they pretend to be something else. And because, no matter what they’ll write about Gnà Peppina’s, it won’t be good news. Bad publicity means no customers; good publicity brings too many. How could I pick and choose my customers if they were all lining up with a queue number?


So, when this man appeared—sixty-something, white shirt, black trousers, notebook, and pen—I told him I was full. He looked surprised. It was only 12:30. He stretched his chubby neck toward the door, but I shifted my body to block his view, which is not difficult, being as wide as I am. He sighed and went back to his car. He’s got the message, I thought. The next day I was at the back, laying out my tomatoes to dry in the sun. The Sicilian August sun had deflated the first tomatoes before I had finished putting out the rest. There was a forceful knock at the front door so I limped back inside, through the kitchen—a passing stir to the tomato sauce, bubbling like Etna’s lava—through the dining room, straightening a napkin here and a fork there, all the way to the window. I tilted the wooden shutters just enough to see without being seen. There he was. The inspector.


“I open at midday! It says on the door!” I shouted, and I hobbled back to my tomatoes. There’s nowhere to sit and no shade in front of Gnà Peppina’s. Why should there be? I never change my mind about whom I let in, so there’s no point in waiting. When, at midday, I opened the door, I certainly wasn’t expecting to find him there. He was so sweaty that you could see the hair on his chest through the sodden shirt.


“Full again!” I told him.


“I’ll wait,” he said with a resigned look.


I was sure he wouldn’t last much longer.




At 12:30, arrived a family of four: father, mother, boy, and girl, just like in the films. “Hello. Could we see today’s menu, please?” asked the mother.


This is a perfectly normal question. The problem is that there’s no such thing as “Today’s Menu” at Gnà Peppina’s. “Fixed menu” here doesn’t mean that every customer eats the same things. It only means that I decide what they eat. How else? I couldn’t possibly give everybody the same food because people are different. Of course, they won’t understand this so I don’t even try to explain it. When they notice a different dish on another table, I tell them that it’s leftovers from the day before.


So, I said: “The menu will be a surprise. A nice surprise, trust Gnà Peppina. That’s me.” “OK. Have you got a table for four?” said the mother.


“Yes, I have a table for you,” I said.



Vino della Casa


When hunger strikes, even a trattoria with peeling plaster like Gnà Peppina’s is good enough for the pompous and the snobs. At 12:45, three tall young men with Gucci bags and pointy leather shoes walked straight in.


“Where’s your wine list?” said one.


“I only have the wine of the house,” I said.


This is not entirely true, because there’s no such thing as “the” wine of the house. There are many “wines of the house,” different from one another as even the children of the same mother can be, which is what they are to me. And, as I’ve done with my flesh-and-blood children, I match them to my customers, in blissful marriage. To the shy customer, I serve the wine that makes you bolder. For the angry customer, I have the wine from Vincenzo’s vineyard, as mellow as the man himself. To the tense customer will go the relaxing, sleepy wine. The sad customer will get the happy wine, which makes you laugh and even dance—if your joints allow it.


“We’ll try that, then. Have you got a table for three?” said the man.


“Yes, I have a table for you,” I said.


Primo Piatto


I was just serving the three belli men pasta with beans—sooner or later the flatulence would strike them—when two women came in. Sunglasses propped in their bleached hair, careful make-up, white teeth, and white clothes on a bronze suntan. They asked for a table.


“Yes, I have a table for you,” I said.


The first course was squid ink spaghetti. They had to tie their table napkins ’round their necks like bibs to protect their clothes. But it didn’t stop their lips, teeth, and tongues from turning black.


Secondo Piatto


The moment their bottoms had touched the chairs, the two children had pulled out of their pockets some sort of machines and had become hypnotized. Not much later, the mother and the father had plugged themselves into their machines, too. I don’t understand why these devices are so fascinating and why their pictures have to move so fast.


Anyhow. These people needed to put down their machines and start talking to each other, so they got grilled prawns and boiled crab. You should have seen the children’s faces when I brought the dish to the table. I showed them how to open the crab’s shell with nutcrackers and then served some onto their plates.


The girl balked: “I’m not touching that. There must be something else.”


I said: “There won’t be anything else until you’ve all finished what I’ve served on your plates. At Gnà Peppina’s, no food is wasted.”


In the end, they all had so much fun getting their hands dirty and playing with the crab’s armor that I almost had to prize the plates from their hands. Afterward, they didn’t dare touch their machines with their fishy fingers.


Looking after my customers takes time. That’s why there are only four tables at Gnà Peppina’s.


A passing stir to the tomato sauce, bubbling like Etna’s lava...


At two o’clock, I peered through window shutters and I panicked. The inspector was still there, leaning against the parched wall. It didn’t look like he would leave before he had eaten at Gnà Peppina’s and I still had one table available. I whispered a prayer to St. Lawrence, patron saint of cooks, and I shuffled to the door.


“Come on in. I have a table for you,” I said.


He staggered when he shifted his weight from the searing wall. I served him boiled cabbage and black pudding, hoping that this would stop him from ever returning.




When I saw him the next day, I didn’t just call St. Lawrence: I called all the saints. Why did this man have to happen to me? How many visits did it take to write a bad review?


I let him in straightaway and gave him offal, stale bread, and an old fruit salad.


At 12:30 the next day, as his car approached from the distance, I saw red. I took it out on the pestle and mortar and, that day, he got pasta all’arrabbiata, with finely ground chili powder.


What annoyed me most about his visits was the little notebook on which he wrote like there was no tomorrow. I peered into it—and, to be fair, he didn’t try to hide it, quite the opposite—but what good was that, if I can’t read or write?


To make sure he wouldn’t touch his pen, one day I served him crabs, shrimps, sea snails, and a whole, big, juicy pomegranate. From the kitchen, through the fly curtain, I watched his stumpy fingers struggle with the food.


At one point, pomegranate rubies flew up in the air and he shouted: “Gnà Peppina, help!” With one swipe, I sent the fly curtain jingling off my path and marched to his table.


“Help! My shirt!” he said, as I got closer.


Big as a watermelon, a blood-colored stain glowed on the immaculate fabric. He looked like the victim of a Mafia attack. I grabbed a napkin, dunked it into the water jug, and slapped it onto the shirt. Before I realized what was happening, he slapped his hand over mine and pressed it harder against his chest.


“Gnà Peppina, it’s my heart you are touching. And this heart wants you,” he whispered.


I pulled back, but his other hand landed on my wrist and held it in place. My eyes swept the table. Had I given him the wrong wine? No, I hadn’t given him any.


“Gnà Peppina, it’s more than food I need from you,” he said, no longer whispering.


His chest was going up and down faster and I could feel his heart in my hand. My other hand reached for my late-husband’s locket around my neck.


“Aren’t you a food inspector?” I asked, panicking that my infallible intuition might have misfired that badly.


“Inspector, indeed! Gnà Peppina! In front of you is a man sick with love.”


Red pomegranate juice peppered his glasses and his moustaches. His eyes seemed about to set fire to his eyebrows.


Good gracious, what would my children say about this? Gossip travelled quickly in the village and this one was sure to spread like chicken pox.


I dropped onto the nearest chair and one of the belli men rushed to me with a glass of wine. The rest of my customers clapped and cheered.




“Salvatore. Toto for you, Gnà Peppina.”


He explained that his beloved mother had recently passed away and, as he had lost the will to live, his friends had pushed him to come to Gnà Peppina’s, because—they said—Gnà Peppina would look after him.


Then, I said, loud enough for everyone to hear: “Signor Salvatore. I am a decent, respectable woman. Don’t think that because I’m a peasant widow you can take advantage of me. Don’t ever come back to Gnà Peppina’s.”




Every day he would come with flowers—red roses, red tulips, orange roses, yellow roses, yellow tulips—and a poem from his notebook. What was I to do? If I hadn’t let him in, he would have been known to all the villages along the SS121 as “the-man-with-the-flowers-outside-Gnà-Peppina’s.”


“Gnà Peppina, do you know what red carnations mean?”


“I don’t want to know.”


“They mean love, Gnà Peppina. My love for you.”


One day, as I served him cannolo for dessert, he said: “I don’t want cannolo from you, Gnà Peppina.”


“Only fixed menu at Gnà Peppina’s,” I said.


He grabbed my hand—that same one of the pomegranate incident—pushed the chairs out of the way, bent his knee to the floor—well, as low as the rheumatism allowed—and said: “Gnà Peppina, what I want from you is a white cake with a sugar man and a sugar woman at the top. And I want to cut it with you.”


“We’re too old, Toto,” I said.


“Gnà Peppina, love has no age,” he said.



Months went by and my children and the other villagers started pleading for him. In the end, I thought that perhaps it wouldn’t be too indecorous to remarry at sixty-four. So, when the winter was over and the almond trees blossomed again, for the first time Gnà Peppina’s fulfilled a menu request.


And I didn’t just give him food. I gave him what he needed.


What we all need.


Stefania Hartley was born and grew up on the Italian island of Sicily, where she studied to become a biologist. After marrying an Englishman, she moved to England, then Germany, Hong Kong and now she lives in Singapore. She mostly write articles for scientific magazines and children’s fiction in Italian and in English but sometimes she decides to take a break and write short stories for grown ups. One of her short stories has been commended by the Society of Medical Writers (SOMW) in UK and her flash fiction has been shortlisted by the prize-winning Irish blog Headstuff for the Lacomic Cup. Her website is: www.stefaniahartley.com.


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