The Recipe by Annie Borelli

First, a Brief Word on Italian Cooking

In the wintertime, the sky outside was black at four in the afternoon, and so the family ate dinner under cover of darkness.

My mother gathered knots of spaghetti onto her pronged wooden spoon. I sat, still in my school uniform, with my hands folded atop my pleated skirt. My father cleared his throat.

“There is something that you should know,” he said to me.

My mother listened sideways with one ear. She already knew what he was going to tell me, but she wanted to hear how he would put words to it.

“I had to take care of your uncle today.”

I was old enough to know that taking care of someone meant essentially the exact opposite.

Which was a shame. I had liked Uncle. He gave all the kids boxes of sweets during the holidays, and he hummed along to the hymns during Christmas Eve Mass.

My father continued, “We got into an argument over some business. I’m telling you because I trust you. Because I trust my daughter. I want you to know that. Alright?”

I nodded.

“Good. Not every father is lucky enough to have a daughter he can trust.”

My mother set our plates in front of us, and we ate.

Ten years later, on the night before my wedding, I learned that my father shot my uncle in the back of the head over one hundred and twenty-four bottles of smuggled whisky, and that this was how he came to be the head of the Family.

He told me this while sitting across from me at a round table draped in white. It was during the rehearsal dinner. I was holding a half-full glass of champagne. He cradled a small goblet of scotch.

When this whole truth came out of my father’s mouth, I looked beside me at my husband-to-be, who was learning, over the course of a few seconds, just who he was going to marry.

And I watched the light drain sideways out of his eyes.

Useful Terms and Their Definitions
(In the Unlikely Event You Have Not Seen The Godfather)

Mafioso: mobster

Mafiosa: mobster, feminized

Mafiosi: mobsters, many of them

Nonna: grandmother

Ragazzo: boy

Campania: the region of Italy right above the toe of the boot

  • 1 Girl: she can come from anywhere, but she must hold her shoulders like she belongs.
  • 3 Dresses: one black, for mourning, one red, for other people’s weddings, and one white, for her own.
  • 2 Pairs of Shoes: one for walking, one for running away.
  • Some Pots, Pans, and Pasta: she must cook. If she cannot cook, she will be taught how.
  • A Father
  • A Firearm
  • 1 Mafioso
  • 1 Mafioso-to-Be, who has a face the girl will fall in love with.
  • A few more Mafiosi, to taste.

Measure the Ingredients

1. Take the girl. Put her in the red dress. Place her somewhere near the center of town and wait.

2. Send in the Mafioso-to-Be. Drop him in town, too, so that when he turns his lovely head, his eyes will land upon the girl in the red dress.

3. Where shall they meet? The deli, let’s say. Maybe she works behind the counter. Maybe he comes in for a sandwich.

4. With any luck, she will see him first. As he approaches the counter, she notices the way his black hair waterfalls into his eyes. She admires the simple geometry of his shirt collar around his neck.

5. He orders a sandwich. She spreads the oil and vinegar onto the bread as though they are a sacrament.

6. “Do you work here every day?”

“Most days.”

“I’ve never seen you before.”

She bundles the sandwich in brown paper. “Not looking hard enough, then, I suppose.”

7. After this, he will ask her to do something nice with him, like get ice cream and walk through the park.

8. After that, she will ask him to do something even nicer, like go to the theater.

Mix Until Smooth

1. Now she must find out that he is more than pitch-dark eyes and silk shirts.

2. The best way to do this is to introduce their fathers.

3. The boy’s father will invite his son’s new girl to dinner in an immense house with two winding staircases.

4. The girl’s father tells her she is not allowed to go. He will not have any daughter of his eating at that table.

“A family dinner? They don’t know a thing about family.” Her father says this while they have dinner. “Just ask your ragazzo’s grandmother.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” She has never heard her Mafioso-to-Be talk about any grandmother.

Her father sets down his fork and knife on either side of his plate so that his hands are free. The fingers of those hands brace themselves apart in anger when he says, “It means, you’re not going.”

5. She will go, of course.

6. The house with the staircases is perched on an attractive hill just outside of town. The girl enters the house. The rugs remind her of her boyfriend’s silk shirts. They are so plush and richly colored; if she peeled them back, there might be money underneath. She will wonder for the first time if maybe she has been missing something.

7. The boy’s father will sit across from the girl at dinner and ask her who she is and where she comes from, who her father is and where he comes from, who her grandfather is and where he comes from.

“I recognize your last name. You’re Campanians then.” He looks to his wife and son, who sit on either side of him. “Like us.”

8. Now she is certain that she has been missing something.

9. Fortunately, the boy’s father will inform her of what exactly it is that she has missed.

“Either you tell me that you love my son, or you walk out of the house now, slowly, so that I can see your back the whole time, and you never return.”

The girl is breathing like a thoroughbred across the table. Her Mafioso-to-Be has his fingers pressed to his brow.

“Do I have to give you an answer now?” she says.

It’s worth a try.

10. But yes, she does.

11. So she chooses, and just before her Mafioso-to-Be takes her home that night, she crumples into his arms. Because she knows now who he is, and what the hands attached to those arms have done, or might do, and she has convinced herself that it is worth it.

12. At first, everything will be fine.

Bake at a High Temperature

1. This is the part where she must learn to cook if she doesn’t know how. Best to learn from me.

2. There will be a celebration now, a large family meal, everyone together. Maybe it is a birthday. Maybe it is an anniversary. She will help me roll the meatballs. I will show her how to form them so they are as big as two fists but stay solid in the sauce while it simmers.

3. I will show her how to tie her apron herself, and how to avoid getting even a drop of red sauce on it. Our kind of women don’t have time to soil even an apron. She carries the plates out to the table with the grace of a woman on the cover of a cookbook.

4. Just before we take our seats at the table, she says to me:



“My father says that your people don’t know a thing about family.”

What, exactly, will I be doing in this moment? Filling a pitcher with the sauce, probably. It will be the last thing to go out to the table.

“You should not let your ragazzo’s father hear you say such things,” I say as I pour.

“My father said that you would know what I mean.”

I place the pitcher in her hands and say, “Take this out, and then have a seat.”

5. During the meal, the Mafioso-to-Be’s father regards her with a glimmering eye and a mouth drawn straight across his face. She counts the uncles and aunts and little cousins around the table because if she doesn’t, she fears she may slide out of her chair.

6. Later, in private, her young mafioso’s mother will tell the girl that it’s alright, that it will take her husband some time to come around, that family comes first – that if she sticks it out, she will become family, too – because the mother was her once, and she knows this all to be true.

7. The girl will not question whether family really does come first. The only person she will ever ask about that is me.

8. After dinner, her young mafioso will drive her home.

“I know it’s a lot to take in.”

“It was nice. I liked it.”

“Well. It’s not always like that.” There are steel beams in his voice.

9. Next, the girl will receive proof that is not always like that.

10. One night, while she and her Mafioso-to-Be are doing something else nice, like sitting at dinner in a French restaurant, gunshots explode through the window. He drags her down to the ornately tiled floor. Silence creeps in once their ears stop ringing.

11. He has been hit in the shoulder. Blood glimmers on his silk shirt, but he will live. She wonders if her heart will pound out of her chest and leave her body behind.

12. This night will seep into her bloodstream and coil itself around her cells. The memory of it will caress her sleeping eyes in ten years just to remind her that there had been a choice, once.

13. The next day, he takes her shopping, his bandaged shoulder hidden under a fresh shirt.

14. He buys her a new red dress and a pair of shoes for walking. When she emerges from the changing room, he is draped over a chaise lounge, one delighted eyebrow lifted, his black hair flooding like an oil spill into his eyes.

15. She will have a stray thought that maybe loving him is not rational. He will put her in a nice dress and shining shoes and they will go out for a meal and the lights will hum low and maybe at last he will do something dramatic like ask her to marry him. If he thinks he will find someone else who will like his eyes and his smile and the way his shirt collar sits on his neck so much, then he’s right, but if he thinks he will find someone who will hit the tiled floor of a restaurant with him every few months and come back to kiss him in the morning, then he is mistaken.

16. At the next family dinner, they tell his father what happened in the French restaurant. He looks at the girl and notes that she is still there. Still present. Unyielding. This is when he will start to look at her like she belongs.

Before Serving

1. Now, she will need her white dress, because she has gotten her wish, and she is to be married.

2. She tells her father, who steps aside, and grieves only to himself.

“I gave your ragazzo my permission.”

“Thank you.”

“You want me to give you away.”


“No, listen to me.” His fingers curl up on the kitchen table. “You want me to give you away.”

3. I will cook for the wedding.

4. I stand beside the young mafioso’s mother in the kitchen while the meatballs are baking. She looks at me, and she says, “Do you think…”

And she does not say anything else.

Do I think?

What I will be thinking of is my own wedding day, when my father told my husband that he shot a member of our family over a few crates of spirit. I will be thinking of my husband’s wide doe eyes, and how they never looked at me the same again.

5. In the hour before the wedding, the young mafioso’s mother will approach the girl. They stand alone in the church hallway when the mother takes a small handgun out of her bag and gives it to the girl.

“Just.” The mother swallows. “Just in case.”

The girl folds the gun into the skirts of her wedding dress.

6. The girl and the young mafioso are married in front of the entire family. They eat and they drink and they dance themselves into a stupor. They wrap themselves so snugly in pleasure that they do not notice the assailants crawling onto the reception lawn like army ants.

7. Shots fire into the crowd, into the family.

8. The family shoots back. The girl draws the small, cold gun out from beneath her skirts and joins them. The attackers dematerialize into the hedgerows as swiftly as they appear.

9. The wedding party takes stock of the damages. Dresses are muddied, bowties askew. The cake has fallen into a gauzy white heap on the lawn.

10. Her mafioso is hit.

11. Not in the shoulder, this time.

12. She stands over his body, disintegrates over his body. The flesh of her hands is twisted around the iron of the gun. His blood clings to her taffeta skirts, the last of his life, reaching for her.

13. The funeral will be in four days.

14. I take her black dress to the seamstress, along with his mother’s, and my own.

15. The rain that falls from the sky that day is brutal, relentless, the kind that comes at the end of a draught.

16. The girl stands at the fresh gravestone and twists her wedding band around her finger. Still a wife. Her husband’s father stands beside her, the way he always will, if only to remind her that she is in. There is no out. Not even now. Not ever.

Instructions for Serving

1. That night, she slides duskily into my kitchen after everyone has cried and eaten themselves through the sorrow of the day, after they have all gone to bed to dream of a world where it has not come to this.

2.“Nonna,” she says from the entryway. She has discovered me there in my nightgown, far from sleep. And yet she, with the inky circles beneath her eyes and a tremble in her fingers, is even away from peace than me.

3. “Yes,” I say. “I’m here.”

4. We stand in the kitchen together for a long time.

5. The next morning, I think of a recipe I have been meaning to write down.

Annie Borelli grew up in Denver hearing stories about her Italian mobster ancestors. Though she didn’t care to follow in their footsteps, she did want to write about them, so she left to study creative writing at the University of Iowa and then at the University of Kent in England. Now writes strange stories of all sorts, which can be found in the Leading Edge Magazine and Kent Review.

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