A factor that made the CAYUGA LOUNGE great was its capacity to absorb influences from all over the globe– French, Italian, German, whatever.
* * * * * * *
One autumn back in the day, a distinguished visiting professor arrived in Ithaca from Milan… accompanied, naturally, by his mistress. Gianna (“Gia”) Cassini was neither plump nor skinny, simply farm-girl-strong with powerful thighs and broad shoulders. Her proud posture made her small breasts a little more prominent. (She’d never worn a bra before the professor took her shopping.) Though she had spent most of her life in kitchens, she had the air of the outdoors about her— the sun, the forest, and especially the life-giving soil.
Gia was the opposite of photogenic, for no frame of film could ever capture the vibrant spirit behind the face that was a map of Italy itself— azure eyes of such crystalline clarity as found only in the Alpine foothills; raven hair and caramel-cream skin from the south; a cupid’s-bow pout and sculpted nose seemingly lifted from ancient Roman statuary; and a knife scar on her left cheek from a jealous Sicilian Contessa. This face was always sternly serious while focused on toil, but with little provocation it would spontaneously explode into a huge, toothy smile that radiated pure joy.
Without an actual family, Gia was free to aimlessly flit from one city to another during her late teens and early adulthood. Having developed a knack for cooking, she always found work whenever she felt like it. She enjoyed a continuous stream of male admirers, for whom her culinary talents were a crowning bonus that made her a much-desired mistress. And after she became steadily involved with a prominent economics professor, it would have been unthinkable for him to leave her behind after he accepted a visiting fellowship in Ithaca. She had never been to America, but he assured her that she would have a comfortable and enjoyable stay in spite of the harsh Finger Lakes winters she had learned about. Less than a week after her arrival, they were both relieved that she was cheerfully chopping vegetables and making batches of Minestrone at the CAYUGA LOUNGE, where the professor had convinced Chef Astor of her abilities and arranged for her the important-sounding title of “Sous Chef in Residence,” though, truth be told, she was actually little more than a glorified prep cook.
* * * * * * *
Around that same time, the nearby upstate cities of Utica, Binghamton, Syracuse, and Rochester were each run by not one but two governments— the official electees who physically occupied City Hall and nominally operated the municipal levers, and a far more powerful and efficient cartel of rivet-eyed, unsmiling men whose names no one dared utter in public. Inter-city conflicts naturally arose over control of this rural garbage contract or that vice, or perhaps the ambiguous boundaries of their respective domains. It took a few spectacular public murders, but the chieftains of these four cities eventually realized that resolving their conflicts over a sumptuous dinner every month or so would free them to focus on collectively outsmarting their common, badge-wearing enemy.
The ideal venue for such meetings, they decided, was a restaurant perched on a bluff overlooking Cayuga Lake, insulated from each of the cities by many miles. A small private dining room– pretentiously dubbed by CAYUGA LOUNGE management the Salle Privée– suited their needs perfectly. The “Iroquois Council,” they called themselves… eight men, two higher-ups from each city. Plus two Irish bodyguards, veteran ex-cops both who’d been stripped of their positions but still needed to feed their large Catholic families and put their kids through college.
The Council always came in unannounced, for to make reservations might invite an ambush or some such unpleasantness. Their surprise arrivals usually worked out okay, since they always showed up on not-so-busy weeknights. (Their weekends were generally spent with their actual wives, attending First Communions and other family events.) However, one particular Thursday not long after Gia’s arrival was far busier than expected with autumn leaf peepers when the Council arrived… and about twenty minutes later the head waiter, face white with terror, burst through the kitchen’s double doors sputtering that something was terribly wrong with the first course he had just served. Mr. Rizzo, caporegime of Utica and the council’s unofficial chairman, had demanded that the terrified waiter immediately produce whoever the hell was responsible for these unfamiliar-looking plates.
Gia marched into the Salle Privée and was instantly met by the Irish bodyguards. One motioned for her to raise her arms out sideways, which she did. Then they awkwardly shrugged at each other, as if deciding who would assume an undesirable duty. When the other began to frisk her, Gia immediately slapped his face so hard that it spun him half around and spiraling toward the Salle Privée’s hideous carpet. The other Irish drew his pistol and reflexively aimed it at her as the eight principals sat frozen and gape-mouthed at the astonishing spectacle.
“I alone choose-a who touch me!” Gia declared with striking authority as she unbuttoned her chef jacket. In an instant it was draped over a chair, and her black, B-movie bra was on full display as she slowly and gracefully executed a full turn.
Right then the setting sun was finishing its workday and dipping below the western horizon. The dimly lit room suddenly suddenly felt a little brighter and warmer, a little cozier as darkness filled the windows. And as Gia slowly twirled, her feral womanhood overpowered all else— the nipples barely obscured by the sheer faux silk, the sweet funk of her furry armpits, and the piercing blue eyes that made contact with everyone else’s as she scanned around the table.
The net effect was to arouse the deepest animal passions in this roomful of men while simultaneously rendering their bones too gelatinous to act upon them. She owned them.
“See? You-a safe from harm,” She teased. The ten gaping mouths ran dry and the arm that held the pistol fell slack. And then, as she was re-buttoning her jacket, “No gun in the cooch, but you need-a trust me for that.”
Rizzo made a calming gesture, and everyone exhaled in unison. “Where’d you get such quick hands?” he asked. “We gotta coupla boxers who can’t hit like that.” All the men chuckled and relaxed a little more.
“At the orphanage. Were many curious boys there. And also teachers.”
“Well, sorry about the… the misunderstanding. Now… please tell us about this clam dish.” Rizzo was a reasonable man, and he sounded genuinely curious.
Gia’s physical charms mitigated her difficulties with English as she spoke, and the gathered men were actually delighted to hear such a raw Old-World accent. Chef Astor’s kitchen, she explained, was already overwhelmed even before the Council showed up unannounced. She had already finished her daily prep work and was about to punch the clock when Chef Astor pleaded with her to stay and help. They were all out of Clams Casino… perhaps she could make a batch before she left? The Chef plopped a recipe sheet in front of her and disappeared.
“American put-a the bread in everyting,” She protested, “even putta the bread inside-a turkey! Too much-a bread no good… make-a the belly fat. So I make-a stuff clam like in Liguria… no bread, just-a meat and-a garlic and-a spice. Little bit of Parmesano and herbs. Go ahead you try— if you no like, I make-a Clam Casino with plenty bread for you.”
“Well, let’s see,” said Rizzo as he picked up a clam shell and judiciously studied it for a moment. Then with his tiny appetizer fork he delicately flicked its contents into his mouth. Eyes closed, he slowly, lovingly chewed as everyone awaited his pronouncement.
Rizzo’s genuinely heartfelt smile said it all. And ever since that moment, Gia was regarded as royalty by the Council. Only she among the kitchen staff seemed to somehow know whenever they were about to come in unannounced, and she was expected to personally serve the appetizer course, which she gladly did.
When that year’s spring semester was coming to a close and she was about to return to Milan with her lover, the Council threw a farewell bash for them complete with rustic homemade wine from their personal cellars. And as the servers were slicing the tiramisu and pouring coffee, Rizzo discretely pulled the professor aside and explained in the most genial terms that Gia would not be traveling back to Italy with him. The wide-awake professor, no stranger to such machinations in the old country, understood immediately and gave his worthless but symbolic blessing.
Gia happily toiled as a Sous Chef in Residence at the CAYUGA LOUNGE for several years after that. She spent her days off motoring through the Finger Lakes on her red Vespa, finding the very finest of the local agriculture. She befriended the best trout fishermen and even became a favorite of the Amish farmers, who couldn’t understand a word she said but nonetheless reserved for her their tastiest chickens and richest hand-churned butter. She stayed at the CAYUGA LOUNGE right up until the devastating fire that closed it. After that, the Iroquois Council never settled upon a new venue for their monthly dinner meetings. Small grievances eventually started exploding into deadly conflagrations, like tiny sparks splashed with liquid accelerant. And as the warring factions started killing each other, the long-frustrated Feds seized the opening and closed in. Of the eight principals comprising the old Iroquois Council, three found their way to cemeteries while four went to federal prison. Only one– the top target, actually– managed to slip away, rumored to have fled the country.
Always the survivor, Gia watched all this ugliness from a safe distance and plotted her future course. While she had found much to love in America– particularly the gorgeous and wonderful Finger Lakes region and its salt-of-the-earth natives– it was not her home and never could be. And so she finagled her way back to Italy, and word has it that she is enjoying the life she had always dreamed of– living in a nondescript Tuscan villa, humble of exterior but luxuriously appointed within; rising with the sun every morning and visiting all the food markets on her Vespa; and preparing fabulous meals for her loving husband, a very wealthy and similarly secretive man who bears a striking resemblance to a Mr. Rizzo from Utica.