Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Cannoli Sisters

In which our hero avoids butter, uses his fingers adeptly and eventually sleeps well.

I told the guys, "I'm thinking of asking Arlene Mangiamelli out."

We were at the Sons of Sweden. Our fathers were members, beckoned by the club when real Swedes began to flee the neighborhood. As legacies, we also joined once of age, just for tradition. And the seventy-five-cent Narragansett drafts.

Inky said, "She's pretty hot. And rich. Her old man owns all the Pietro'ses." Pietro's was a small, county-wide chain that plated up serviceable Italian food.

He added, "What, does she come see the twelve different bands you're in?"

I nodded.

Elmo remarked, "I like redheads. I'll betcha she's a natural."

O'D said, "No way."

Cuh-cuh said, "Who's this Darlene Mangatelle anyways?"

The four of us, in unison, "Arlene. Mangiamelli."

Cuh-cuh had a penchant for mangling proper names. Once, looking at sports scores on the club's TV, he said, "What team is Mowakiki?"

Elmo told him: "That's Milwaukee, Cuh-cuh."

O'D said, "Some guys call Arlene 'Wannadome' cuz she went after Joey Carbone and said, 'Hey Joe, you wanna do me?'"

I pondered this for a moment.

Elmo added, "I hear she's got an older sister that's a knockout."

We all loved Cuh-cuh; he was a sweetheart. He earned his unfortunate nickname in the fourth grade at St. Dymphna's when, after a trencherman's lunch at the monthly Quarter Hot Dog Sale To Benefit the Pagan Babies, he unintentionally dropped a prodigious Cleveland Steamer in his uniform pants. He subsequently ran from the room screaming, "CUH-CUH!"


I was back at mom's that summer, sitting in with local bands, waiting for a fall tour of Canada with a Quebecker pop idol. My favorite group, The Jive Bombers, would hire me for the full night occasionally. It seemed their regular drummer's wife was trying to wean him off the tubs and into her father's plumbing-supply business.

On the Friday after my session with Cuh-Cuh, Inky, Elmo and O'D at the Sons, I had a Jive Bombers gig at the ridiculously faux-Gaelic T. J. McFinnerty's Pub in Eastport. Let's just say the joint was wallpapered in green velvet and leave it there. Then again, the owners were Howie Finkel and Nathan Mintz.

The Bombers were so popular at the Pub that they needed to perform only two fifty-minute sets, with a half-hour break. An easy gig by nightclub standards. There was always a line outside for this horn-powered, high-powered funk band.

After closing a set with Tower's "Don't Change Horses," I headed for the dressing room, which was stocked with a light buffet and a case of Rocks.

Arlene Mangiamelli intercepted me. "Hey, Ace! Youse guys's soundin' good tonight."

I immediately remembered that syntax, usage and grammar were not her strong suit. I barely thanked her before she jumped in.

"Hey, we should go out sometime. Just you and me. Like the movies or sumpin'. It don't matter what we see."

I said,"That sounds great."

She took an emery board from her purse and scribbled her phone number on it, using an eyebrow pencil. "Cool, tammarh nite, then. Call me." She pecked me on the cheek. I smelled Good 'n Plenty.

That was easy.

When I called her, she asked me to pick her up at her father's store in Bayfield. Food, to my dismay, was not mentioned. We agreed on seeing "Prizzi's Honor" at the Community.

She waited until ten minutes into the film before the questions came:

"Whoozat guy?"

"Izzy a bad guy?"

"Oh, so she kills people, too." She being Kathleen Turner.

Arlene moved closer to me, grabbing my hand during a wild, raucous bedroom scene with the aforementioned heroine and Jack Nicholson.

She leaned over next to me, nibbled my ear and whispered, "I have better boobs than that. You'll see."

After a few more plot-related questions, a few necks in our vicinity craned. I leaned over to Arlene and nibbled her ear, saying. "Just like you, I'm seeing this movie for the first time."

Then she started kissing me for real, and as the plot congealed on screen, it vanished for us.

We came up for air along with the house lights.

In my car, Arlene said, "Let's go to my father's club. It's free."

Our eyes met a few times as I drove. She had a roundish face, framed by a red page-boy coif. Her locks were a rusty shade of auburn. The streetlights raced by them, giving me brief glimpses. She was perhaps a scoche on the plump side, but carried it well. I found her oddly attractive, just a little off-kilter from true beauty, but in a delightful way.

We headed up Madison Avenue to the city's Little Italy. She directed me where to park. She led me to a darkened doorway. No sign. The place looked like a small store, but a rollback door was pulled over the front window. Arlene produced a key from her purse, and we walked into the noise.

Glaring fluorescents. Tile floors. A large-screen TV (showing soundless soccer), flanked by sofas and easy chairs. Older men at tables playing cards. Some well-dressed women in black hose drank cocktails. The smallish, six-stool bar was empty. Everybody, it seemed, smoked.

We grabbed two stools. Almost everyone greeted Arlene, mostly in Italian ("Como se dic'?"). She introduced me with "Questo รจ il mio amante, Ace. Suona la batterista." This was greeted with some "oooh's" and kneeslaps. I had to wonder if her Italian was in better fettle than her English. And, what had she said?

The bartender, Dominick, immediately poured us each a small snifter of Sambuca Romana. Arlene called it "Zambuca Romano." We toasted and talked about the Jive Bombers and my upcoming tour. I asked for a beer and a cold Peroni appeared. Then came large plates of small food. Mozzarella bocconcini, marinated in olive oil, garlic and spices. Small cubes of sweet melon toothpicked with translucent slices of prosciutto.

I could get to like this.

Arlene had no trouble downing more Sambuca. Now they came in little aperitif glasses which she threw back in quick fashion.

I stayed with my single and the beer. I saw Dominick motion to me, holding up five fingers and motioning his head toward the door.

Arlene did not object when I suggested making our way out. I reached for my wallet, and she gave me the stinkeye. In fact, I didn't see any money change hands during our visit.

On the short drive to her folks' house, Arlene was on about Kathleen Turner. "Hey Ace, she got nuttin'. Okay, she's a big-time actress 'n all, but she ain't got these." With that she cupped each of her breasts from underneath and hefted them. I caught a brief glimpse. Yes, sizable.

I could see she was waiting for a reaction, so I said, "Twin orbs of delight."

"Wha? Wuzzat?"


Soon, she was snoozing, her head against the window of my Econoline. I had looked up her address on a map that afternoon, so I knew I was headed for Lakeview Drive in Northport. The "Eyetalian Alps," as my father used to call the town.

I could barely make out the house, but Arlene came to as I pulled into the curved, graveled driveway.

"Ohh," she said. "Geeze, thanks Ace. Guess I drunk too much Zambuca. Call me, 'kay?" She leaned over and bussed me sloppily. It was then I realized where the Good 'n Plenty waft came from. She alit before I could open her door and staggered into her house.


I didn't have to call her. She phoned me at about noon the next day, apologizing profusely.

"Lookit," she said. "My folks wanna meet you. Can you come up tidday fer Sunday gravy? It's at four."

I hesitated.

Arlene said, "See, there's no trouble. I got my own way up to my bedroom, so nobody don't know that I went out and got buzzed last night. Please come. Lotsa good food."

Remembering the small bites at the No-Name Italian Club, I assented.

But I had to bring something. It being Sunday, liquor stores were closed. Off to the Sons of Sweden. I was fortunate that Easy Ed was tending bar. Ed also happened to work for a wine distributor as his day job. I told him of my plight and he descended, without question, into the club's cavernous basement, returning with a dusty bottle. As he wiped it down, he said, "If these people are real paisans, they will love this. It's a Montepulciano d'Abbruzzo. A nice syrupy red."

"What do I owe you?"

"Come down and play at one of our Wednesday night jams."

"Deal." Saved.

I got up to the family manse in the nick of time. Pietro Mangiamelli greeted me at the door. I shook hands with a jolly, slightly graying and rotund man. I gave him the wine.

He said, "Benvenuto. Welcome. You our honored guest tidday. An' lookita dis, Montepulciano. Nice-a, nice-a. We just siddown. Now, tutti a tavola a mangiare!" His jollity placated me.

As we walked through the house, he said, "Wassa you real name. No Ace?"

I told him, including my Confirmation name.

"Ess too long. I call-a you Irish, hokay? You call-a me Pete. No mister nothing."

And Irish it was. As it was Pete.

Arlene bounced into the foyer and kissed me on the cheek. She escorted me into a huge dining room. Over the racket of a dozen and a half people, she attempted introductions. Grandmothers, uncles, aunts. Names like Cheech, Boompa, Foofi, Strunzie. I needed a scorecard.

A redheaded woman--obviously the missus--bounded in and out of the kitchen. Wearing a sauce-stained apron, she waved to me.

Then came food. My Lord, mountains of it. Bean soup. Various and sundry antipasti.

Pete, of course, sat at the head of the long, rectangular table. Arlene flanked him at one hand, and I sat next to her. The chair next to his other hand was empty. I ate.

Red wine flowed from unmarked bottles. Light chatter ensued as we tucked in.

Then someone walked in. Pete stood up, "Anita, cara, come sit. I know you was doin' books for me."

I gulped. She was definitely Arlene's sister. With a face less round. Tresses of dark hair, almost blue. The eyes, a navy the likes of which I haven't seen. Taller, fuller, splendid. Almost large--just short of that.

I stopped eating. A lone shrimp caught in my throat. Arlene paid no mind; she was immersing herself in the food.

Anita allowed me a brief, incandescent smile. "Hello, Ace," she said softly. I was glad I wasn't standing.

Out came the pasta. Hollow spaghetti. Already dressed in a thick, red sauce, laced with shards of meat. Three big platters, family style. When it was my turn, I dug into the noodles, using the tongs to grab a large portion. Once again, Anita caught my eye. She shook her head from side to side. I halved my portion. That merited me a nod and a wink.

A cheese grinder was passed around. Real Parmigiana Reggiano. The dish almost made me dizzy.

Freshly baked bread was also on hand. Pete looked at me and said, "Hey, Mama, bring-a some butter for Irish here." Once again, Anita signaled me. Don't do it.

"No thanks," I said, starting to get the gist of things. I swabbed some bread in the sauce, mimicking the others.

Arlene hadn't spoken in a half hour. She gulped splendidly.

Before I knew it, more dishes were marched in.

"Aaah," said Pete. "Zuppa di pesc'" This was a fish stew in a lighter red sauce. Clams, mussels, crab. Anita and I shared winks.

Then, Pete stood up, magically producing the wine I had bought. He clinked his glass and the room was blanketed with silence. "Thees Irish here, he gift us with a fine bottle a vino rosso from the old country." New wine glasses magically appeared. He opened the bottle with aplomb and continued.

"Now, thees not fer everbody. Boompa, you get none, cuz you just like-a the cheap stuff. The nonnas, you busy chattin'. I pour."

At the same time Mrs. Mangiamelli (Did she eat?) and her minions brought out the centerpiece. Beef braciole. Flank steak stuffed with prosciutto, salt pork, tons of garlic, breadcrumbs and herbs. Then tucked up like a jelly roll, tied and braised. When I took a second piece of this heaven, Anita nodded. The big food was done. And the wine, I knew, was a cut above the red we had been drinking.

Before the cannoli, cheese plate and other desserts, Pete took the floor once again. "All-a the men, downstairs for dessert, coffee, brandy and-a aniset.'" He looked at me with a stern glance. "Hey Irish, you ever heard a Morra?"

At that moment I had my lucky stars--and Guido Buonicontra--to thank. Guido was my accountant and--some years before--had taught me the Italian "fingers" game. The concept was simple: You faced an opponent, and each person threw out a handful of digits. The object: Shout out a number, in Italian of course, that predicted the total number displayed between the two players.

I said, "You play with zeroes?" This was a variant on the game. Two fists (zeroes) meant a do-over, no winner. Two fives resulted not in dieci (the Italian ten), but a deathlike rattle,(brrrrrrrrrrrr).

As the eight men repaired to the basement, Anita pulled me aside and whispered, "Dad always leads with a four." Arlene was into her third cannolo.

The "basement" was another pleasure palace. The huge room was lined with leather sofas. A massive TV filled one corner. The place even had a small kitchen along one wall. Another was all plate glass, offering a view of the lake. Pete started the proceedings. "Ah first, we gotta see if the Irish know howta play. Jus' me anna him. No money."

I led with a four. So did Pete. I shouted, "Otto." Eight.

He bellowed, "Sei," at the same time. Six. I won. Anita was right

We tried again. I felt he was going to stay with the four. I threw a one. My cinque beat his sette (seven). After I had him seven out of ten, he gave up.

"Now-a we do two teams a four each. A dollah a trow. An' I wanna Irish on my team."

As we played, the pot grew. As did the volume. Women would hustle down with cannoli, sweet wine, cheeses, brandy, coffee and anisette. Then they would just as quickly leave.

My team with Pete won the evening. I think I stuffed close to twenty bucks in my pocket.

On the way upstairs, Anita pulled me aside. "I heard," she said, gripping my upper arm. "You did good."

I spotted Arlene in the dining room. She was chugging a clear liquid.

Pete came up the stairs behind me. As I started to thank him for the meal, he put his hands to his lips. "Aspetta. Let's go talk, Irish. Inna libary. Follow me."

to be continued

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