For Tuyet, Katrina, KaSandra, and Luc
Anthony’s Bella Terra, 6th & Broadway…Tuesday, Feb 17, 2009…12:30pm
Angelo Manzano happily greeted two guests as they entered his restaurant. He recognized them both, they were a couple of the regulars from one of the insurance firms across the street, Fidelity something or other he thought? It wasn’t important, as long as they came hungry and carried paper or plastic they were welcome at the Bella Terra. He grabbed two menus from the small host station and ushered them into the dark ambiance of cozy little booths with blood red upholstery and lighting so dim you almost needed sonar to find your way to the restroom.
“Hey, look who’s here, welcome, welcome, buono giorno my friends,” he said shaking hands with a tall man in a Brooks Brothers suit and smiling broadly at his female companion.
“Please, come in, come in,” he continued in his deep and rich baritone voice.
Angelo wasn’t tall but he was thick, with a barrel chest and a neck that you’d need a chainsaw to cut through, should the need ever arise. He and his not so little brother Johnny, affectionately known around town as Fat Johnny, owned and operated the Bella Terra. They were a likeable pair of true blood Sicilian immigrants who had been serving up their momma’s recipes for better than twenty years in the city of angels. Their place has been my regular Friday night meal ticket since the early days when I was with the LAPD. Fat Johnny even created a dish just for me that he called Veal Sinatra because I am such a fan of old blue eyes. I was actually flattered but I’m pretty sure Frank probably wasn’t!
“So what’s good today Angelo,” the tall man asked taking a seat.
“Everything of course,” Angelo replied as he helped to seat the lady.
“Maybe you want I should ask Johnny to prepare the usual for you, huh?”
“Actually I’m feeling adventurous, what’s the special today?”
“Ah, you picked a good day for adventure my friend, today it is Veal Sinatra,” Angelo announced beaming!
“Oooo, what’s that,” his companion asked excitedly?
“Medallions of tender and moist veal covered in fresh spinach, pecorino and parmagano-regiano cheese, with a white wine Marcela sauce. It is molta bella, you will like, I promise you,” Angelo answered proudly.
“Sounds like a winner Angelo, bring us two specials and a couple glasses of the house Chianti,” the tall man ordered. He handed back the unopened menus and winked at his lunch date. Angelo smiled as he took the menus from his patron, amused by the couple’s little affare.
“Excellent choice my friend, excellent, I will send Marco with the vino right away,” Angelo replied enthusiastically. He turned and headed for the kitchen, rolling his eyes as he approached his head waiter Marco.
“Table 4 Marco, two glasses of the cheap red for Senor Smooth and his tramp,” he instructed sarcastically as he passed through the swinging doors into the busy kitchen. He spotted his brother Johnny tasting a fresh batch of marinara with a slice of focaccia bread. Mama mia, such an immigrant, you’d think he’d have learned a thing or two in the twenty some years they had been here. Angelo considered himself the sophisticate in the Manzano family even though he still drank his wine from a jelly jar.
“Il mio dio! What if I was the health inspector stupido,” roared Angelo.
“HEY! My kitchen, my rules! Rule number one, English only in my kitchen,” Fat Johnny answered nonplussed, completely unaffected by his brother’s tirade. Let’s face it; he heard one every stinkin day!
“This is OUR restaurant, not yours,” Angelo replied more than a little miffed by his brother’s remark.
“No, on this side of the doors it is my kitchen, and on the other side it is your restaurant, capisce,” Johnny explained, dramatically tearing another piece of bread to dip in the pot just to piss off his snooty older brother.
The boys were about to declare a bicker war as was their routine at least 2 to 3 times a day, when I walked in through the rear kitchen entrance. Fat Johnny saw me first and acknowledged my presence with a roll of his eyes. They were the color of black Spanish olives, buried deep in his huge round head. I studied him for a second. His eyes reminded me of a sharks eyes, unchanged by mood or expression, virtually unreadable. And it occurred to me that this was quite an advantage, and it explained why he always seemed to do well whenever he sat in at one of my monthly poker games. Note to self, when Johnny’s in I am out! Angelo was busy attacking his brother’s kitchen etiquette and general slovenly appearance and Johnny was doing his best to ignore him. But he snapped when Angelo brought their mother into the fracas.
“ENOUGH Angelo you skinny stuffed shirt! Leave Momma out of this or the next thing I dip into this pot will be your pointed little head,” Johnny said icily, his cool dark eyes focused intently on his older and much smaller brother. The air in the room actually felt colder and if Angelo wasn’t scared, I was suddenly scared for him! This seemed like the right time to announce myself and save Angelo from himself.
“Hey there fellas, how about showing a little love for your old pal Whitey,” I said as cheerfully as possible. The room was silent for a long minute, all activity on hold waiting to see which way the wind was going to blow. Suddenly Johnny burst out laughing in his contagious jolly way and everyone in the room started breathing again. He slapped his brother on the back and brushed past him to get to me. Johnny put me into one of his famous bear hugs, lifting me easily off of the ground, all 190 pounds of me.
“Johnny…Johnny…Johnny, turn me loose before I pass out ya big ape,” I gasped, pleading in a horsed whisper as I was nearly out of breath. Angelo came over to join in the fun and made me a thin slice of meat in a Manzano sandwich. They let me go after a couple of uncomfortable minutes and I staggered backward while my lungs filled with air.
“Hey, where were you last night,” Angelo asked with an accusing tone?
“Yeah, where were you Whitey,” echoed Fat Johnny?
“Just a sec, let me catch my breath,” I replied as I gulped in a couple of deep breaths.
“You know what, forget the restaurant biz, we can make a killing in the WWF!”
“You two wear the tights and fight and I’ll manage the team and the cash, what do ya say,” I joked as my head cleared. They both ignored me and waited for a real answer to their question. Note to self, never keep two Italian brothers waiting for long, it’ll turn dangerous sooner than later.
“Check, well the truth is I was in the pokey last night,” I confessed.
“Celaya,” they asked in unison?
“Natch…Celaya,” I replied. They nodded and moved to hug me again.
“Whoa, hold on there team Manzano, this old body can’t take any more tag team love today, I think you guys may have cracked a rib or two!”
That brought more laughter and scattered smiles from the kitchen help as my two friends gently led me out into the restaurant and seated me at their family table by the cash register. We wedged our way into the corner booth, Whitey in the middle again. Angelo gestured for Marco to bring some wine and gave him the ‘and pronto’ look. We spent a few minutes catching up, the brothers filling me in on their on again off again love affair with the Mayor’s Office. Translation, they loved the attention he brought the place by eating there 3 or 4 times a week, but were tired of picking up the check, especially the bar tab! They brought me up to date on their feud with a wannabe Hispanic gang from the east side who called themselves Los Solomente Dudes. I chuckled at that. They sounded more like a gaggle of homos from WeHo (that’s West Hollywood in Angelino speak) than a bad ass gang from the barrio. Nevertheless, they were making nuisances of themselves trying to shake down the Mexicans working at Bella Terra sans a green card.
The Manzano brothers knew it was against the law to hire illegal aliens but they were both softhearted and could not bring themselves to turn away anyone willing to work hard. Neither one of them had any political savvy nor were they aware of the hoopla surrounding the hot topic being argued in print and on the little screens across California and the rest of the Country. As far as they were concerned it was live and let live, that was their approach to life. And that was the message those solomente dudes would receive Italiano style if they continued to mess with the help. The boys never mentioned it and they never would, but I knew for a fact that the brothers were connected, and let’s just leave it at that. So, rest in peace Solomente Dudes. Eventually the table talk circulated around to me and my current events.
“So why’d Celaya pop you this time Whitey, you messing with his teenybopper wife,” asked Fat Johnny? He was referring to the latest Mrs. Celaya, number five if my count is accurate. Not exactly a May – December relationship, more than a January – December one. Translation, Lt. Ass-wipe was a cradle robber.
“It doesn’t matter, suffice to say I violated Los Angeles Penal Code 123, unfortunate contact with inept official in the poor performance of his duty,” I replied sarcastically.
“What,” they asked together?
“I pissed him off,” I explained.
“Oh, why didn’t you just say so? You’re always tossing around ten dollar syllables Whitey. Talk like a person, will ya,” Johnny said scolding me.
“Noted, thanks Johnny,” I replied with a crooked smile.
“Hey, your gaio friend was in here for espresso this morning,” mentioned Angelo.
“Your gaio friend, you know the omosessuale.”
“Give me a break Angelo, my Italian is pretty limited.”
“Scusarsi, I mean excuse me. You know; the little Asian homo friend of yours. The one that owns the Jew deli up town with the other gaio,” Angelo explained.
“Nice Angelo, so what about him?”
“Well, he just wasn’t himself, ya know? I mean he was out there, like sleep walking or something, does that make sense?”
“Actually it does. Lu’s niece was murdered the other night. Actually that’s the case I’ve been working on, the one that Celaya popped me for yesterday,” I explained.
“I knew you were pushing his buttons,” Fat Johnny chimed in.
“No, not Lu, the other one, the squirrely one, you know, the bella donna,” corrected Angelo.
“That’s right, the chatty one with all the fancy jewelry,” Johnny added.
“You mean Jai,” I asked puzzled?
“Yeah, Jai, that’s him,” confirmed Angelo.
“Really? What was he doing on this side of town, I mean Jai Lai wouldn’t venture this far into the city if his hair was ablaze and the streets were lined with naked firefighters,” I asked, wondering out loud.
“How should I know, I don’t speak Jew and I don’t keep kosher. Whatever the reason he pretty much kept it to himself. Now that I think about it, I don’t think he said a word to anyone, at least not in English,” continued Angelo, rubbing his five o’clock shadow as he spoke.
“What do you mean not in English?” I asked.
“He made a couple of calls and talked Jew to someone,” Angelo replied.
“How do you know he was speaking Jewish, you just said that you weren’t Kosher? Jai is Chinese ace, maybe he was speaking Chinese,” I said, pressing him just a little, hoping to jog his memory and get a clearer picture.
“I KNOW JEW WHEN I HEAR IT!" Angelo barked.
"Besides, Chinatown is the next block over, and Johnny and me hear Chinese all the time,” he added as a matter of fact in a much calmer tone.
“Alright, alright, don’t bust a vein. Do you remember anything that he said?”
“How many times I gotta tell you, I don’t understand Jew talk!”
“Come on Angelo, you don’t remember anything? It’s your old pal Whitey you’re talking to. Everyone knows that you’re the unofficial gatekeeper for gossip and secrets in this town,” I said, laying it on thick as I stroked his ego.
“Why the Bella Terra is where all the A-listers come to let their hair down and eat in the dark while they ping on one another over bottles of vino.”
A smile spread across Angelo’s giantic cranium, apparently that line stroked his ego hard enough to jog a memory.
“Una minuto, there is something else. He said the same Chinese word many times on both calls,” Angelo added.
“I thought you said he was speaking Jew, your words?”
“Yes, yes he was, but he used this one Chinese word over and over?”
“Well, what was it?”
“Femmina, you know, bitch,” he said a little louder than he meant to, drawing a little attention from the next booth.
“Really, and the Chinese have a word for bitch?” I asked stifling a grin.
“Yes, yes, bitch, that’s what he said.”
“How do you know that word in Chinese?”
“It’s no mystery. We get our tiramisu from a Chinese bakery down the street. The delivery boy is always yelling at his girlfriend on his cell phone. Bitch comes up a lot in their conversations,” Angelo explained. Actually, I don’t think there is a word for bitch in Chinese, but I decided not to make a big deal about it lest this conversation linger longer than need be.
“Maybe bitch is a term of endearment, did you think of that? You know how kids are today, homes are cribs, bad is good, up is down, and sometimes bitch just means honey or sweetie,” I explained.
Angelo thought about that for a minute and then shook his head as he finished his second glass of wine. He made a face like he had just bit into a lemon and then replied, “Madre di Dio, these children, this world!” He waived at Marco who was standing at the host station sipping a club soda. The lean head waiter took a big sip of his drink and then fast walked over to our table.
“Si Senori,” he said.
“More wine Marco,” Angelo ordered.
“Si Senori,” Marco replied. He turned to leave but Angelo stopped him before he got too far.
“Wait, Marco wait!” bellowed Angelo.
“You were here this morning, yes?”
“Do you remember the little Jew, the one from the deli uptown, he was arguing with his telephone, you remember that?”
“What do you remember exactly,” I asked butting in.
“The little man was angry with someone on his cell,” Marco answered.
“I see, what else?” I replied, giving him more time to remember.
“Um, he mentioned the polizia a couple of times, that’s about it” he answered.
“What about em?”
“Nothing really, He said they were stupid, and that they deserved whatever happened next,”
That got my attention. Lu didn’t strike me as the violent or threatening type, and I was pretty sure he didn’t socialize with any of the boys in blue? Blue boys maybe, but not any of he blue crew. I pressed a little harder.
“Come on Marco, what the hell? I know you fella, you speak four languages, including Hebrew, and you’re the eyes and ears for the tabloids around town. There isn’t a paparazzi worth his salt that doesn’t grease your palm weekly for what you see and overhear, so what gives?”
Marco smiled thinly and considered my blatant kowtowing. He would have blown me off if it weren’t for the lethal stare he was receiving from Johnny.
“Well, he didn’t name names, but he was angry at a cop I think, referring to him as sarge or something like that,” Marco added.
“Sarge huh? You’re certain it wasn’t lieutenant?” I asked, suspecting Celaya.
“I’m positive, and he was nearby too because Lu said he saw him and looked out the window. I looked when he did and saw one of those unmarked cars across the street. You know the kind that are even more obvious then the black and whites.”
“Did you see what the driver looked like?”
“No. Lu left abruptly and trotted across the street and spoke through the window for a couple of seconds then went around and got in the car with whoever was driving. And that’s about it. So if you’ll excuse me I’ll go fetch the wine,” replied Marco. He turned on his heel and left, this time uninterrupted by the boss.
I sat there and stared out the same window Lu had looked through and
tried to replay what I had just heard. It didn’t make sense at the moment. What was Lu doing at the Bella Terra? What was he doing with an LAPD sergeant? What about the blue threads that Looney Tunes was analyzing over at USC, would they somehow lead back to this mystery cop, and why? What was Lu doing at the Bella Terra, he hated this place, it was so downtown! I was getting a headache thinking about it and decided I needed a drink. The wine was a good start but after supper I'll head over to Casey’s and do some real thinking with my Old Grandad! I smiled at Angelo who was studying my face.
“Okay Angelo, bring me Johnny’s special, it’ll help me think,” I said with a wink.