The Don Pasquale — father, opera, restaurant

The following account was extracted from an early draft of Schettini’s memoir, The Novice.

The café came first. Dad bought The Silver Grill in 1949, and built up capital by serving excellent sandwiches to the endless queues of people who waited for buses outside. Soon he built an extension in the back and opened a high-class restaurant – the Don Pasquale, named after himself and Donizetti’s opera.

Every morning Frankie the chef chopped, ground, baked and prepared the common ingredients from which he served both café and restaurant. He was quick as lightning and entering his kitchen during service was like trying to window-shop in Pamplona during the bull run. Sometimes Mum needed a bottle of milk or something for upstairs, and I sneaked down, making straight for the fridge. If Dad saw me he’d shout. Frankie never shouted – nothing could break his concentration. He’d just say, “No time. Too busy. Come back later.” But I heard him shout back at Dad. He was a terrific chef and must have known it. That’s why Dad didn’t scare him even though he was the boss and Frankie owed him his job.

Then there was the preparation of the dining room. Every morning the restaurant silver was dumped in a basin of near boiling soapy water and polished with a linen napkin. Parmesan cheese was freshly grated, butter molded into tiny pats, Melba toast freshly browned under giant grills, and sometimes inadvertently forgotten and smoking. Dad stormed around shouting ‘Bloody hell,” and “Porca miseria’ as if the universe would collapse without him. Glasses were polished, wine racks filled, tables laid, the floor vacuumed. He watched over his domain like a hawk. This was no slap-dash operation, no sirree.

At twelve o’clock the door opened to the lunch crowd. Dad never shouted at them, though he complained behind their backs when they didn’t spend enough. Afterwards, he’d eat with Mum then go upstairs for a nap.
I was back from school before he woke up. Sometimes, Mum came to the doorway and smiled nervously saying “Shhhhhh,” but if it was too late Dad was right behind her, eyes burning, the vein in his neck twitching. “Bloody hell! Can’t you keep them quiet?” He came at me with a cane, slashing from side to side. At first I cried, but in time I learned to bottle it up.

Old-fashioned elegance

The great drama took place on Saturday evenings when the kitchen air was filled with steam and high flames as brandy was thrown into sizzling pans. Knives and pans danced obediently on Frankie’s fingertips. Even Dad stood back. Orders came in a flurry, the waiters sticking a carbon copy of the order on a numbered row of nails sticking out of a strip of wood and fixed above the hot plate. They called out the table number announcing that a customer was ready. Frankie kept one eye on the row of orders and did his magic, never rushing. Vishnu-like, he had one arm in the fridge, one reaching for the giant salt shaker or oil tin, another adjusting the grill and a pair chopping an onion or a piece of garlic like a machine gun. Several dishes bubbled and steamed simultaneously on the large stove as he strode up and down his narrow kitchen, barking orders to his single commis and to the washer-up, who had to forget the dishes and wash a kitchen knife or pan at a moment’s notice. In the middle of all this, he kept up a patter of off-color jokes. At the busiest times the grin normally on his lips would pucker into a frown of concentration, but such moments were rare. Not a single movement was wasted.



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