After a first glance around, the man with the slim-fit, light grey suit by Hugo Boss was rather incongruously disappointed. He couldn't find anything to criticize. The place looked both cosy and elegant. But the elegance was not the flashy and pompous style which affects too many restaurants of a certain level. Neither was it the unbearable false rustic style, by now omnipresent, which imposes on clients checked tablecloths and a panoply of old rubbishy wooden tools hung on the walls as decoration. Nothing of all that. The dining room was reasonably large, even though it contained only seven tables, each of them of comfortable dimensions. The visual impact suggested the impression of being a guest at someone's home; maybe the dining room of an English writer, who came to live in Tuscany bringing with him some of the features of his old home in Belgravia. No excess, no straining. The man, Arcangelo Ponzoni, wrinkled his remarkable nose and whispered a few words in Nadia's ear. Then he rose to his feet and left to inspect the toilets. It was one of his almost maniacal habits. He visited every restaurant's gents' before examining the menu. He would also thoroughly check the ladies' room if he could, but he was obliged to refer this task to Nadia, obviously. Ponzoni was the most renowned and equally feared gastronomical critic of the country. One of his famous sarcastic comments could compromise irreparably the destiny of a restaurant, just as his rare, but fundamental, notes of praise could project it to the empyrean of starred restaurants. He carried out his merciless mission in a totally anonymous way. Very few people had any idea of his physical features and he always managed to be unnoticeable, at least until it was too late for the restaurants' owners to identify him and to have recourse to every possible and impossible means in order to impress him a little more favourably. Obviously he booked his table under different names, and he was always in company of Miss Nadia, his faithful secretary, because a couple doesn't attract the attention as much as that of a single client. In that early April night, Arcangelo Ponzoni felt once again enthusiastic about his profession, which filled him with satisfactions and unique experiences and, last but not least, gave him a kind of power over people's fate; in this case the category of chefs. He had heard of this small and apparently low profile restaurant from acquaintances–Ponzoni had no friends–whose opinions he rather valued, even though, of course, he would never consider them as reliable as his own. They had spoken in glowing terms of the quality of the cooking and the inventiveness of the chef. The fact that the restaurant was not mentioned in any of the most popular guides had deeply intrigued Ponzoni, who had considered the opportunity to pay a visit to this hidden little gem as a chance of being the first to discover a place which might deserve one of his precious stars. The reduced dimensions of the restaurant held a pleasant surprise for the inquisitive Ponzoni: the toilet was unisex, so he didn't need to rely on Nadia's questionable opinions. She tended to be always too generous in her remarks. He was poised between admiration and disappointment once he pushed the door of the rest room. Everything looked perfect, even according to his strict criteria. He felt maliciously sorry once again for not having any reasons to criticize any detail. He nodded in approval noticing the heap of small towels of high quality fabric and the beautiful basket under the shelf where they were destined to end up after the single use of a client. He couldn’t repress a sigh of relief at the absence of those horrendous wall-mounted metallic soap dispensers which make every toilet look like that of a motorway restaurant. By each of the two washbasins there was a restrained and delicate small soap dispenser made of decorated ceramic; the smell of the liquid soap made him think immediately of a luxury brand. When he walked across the dining room to join Nadia he felt, almost against his will, in a very positive mood. In the meanwhile, in the kitchen a little drama was taking place between Themba and William. "You cannot do that, William. I won't allow you to complete your criminal plan!" William smiled with a seraphic expression, adding another substantial spoonful of wasabi sauce into a small portion of broad bean mousse, which had practically the same colour. "Mhm…Let me see, maybe it's not enough. I should add some more maple syrup into his potage. Ah, I have just had a real brainwave. I'm a genius. I'll fill his profiteroles dessert with garlic mayonnaise and…" Themba had quickly seized his mobile phone and was asking for the cavalry's help, which was in this case represented by Peter. Peter rarely showed himself at the restaurant. He preferred to wait for William at the farm that was next to the former stable building, where the restaurant was set. Themba mimicked a humorous desperation. "Peter, you must stop him! He refuses to listen to me and is going to voluntarily poison Arcangelo Ponzoni, the gastronomic critic…" Peter could not repress a laugh, "I can imagine the emergency. I'll be there in two minutes, and I'll do my best to calm him down. You know that he has been in a stormy mood since Mayor Sanchini called us because of the arrival from the USA of that soap opera cast. We'll have to settle that matter too." "Let's hope for the best. I'm counting on you. I must rush back to the dining room." Themba switched the call off and cast a last warning glance at William, "As for you, stop behaving like a naughty, whimsical child; we have other innocent clients waiting for their dinner. Peter is coming to drive you back to common sense."
"An amazing place indeed. The toilet is perfect, with a little touch of class, I'd dare to say. I'm quite curious about the quality of the food now. I suspect that we'll have a few surprises, maybe not necessarily very orthodox. The maître, that tall black man, for instance, looks much more like a Maasai warrior than an officiant in a temple of high gastronomy." Arcangelo Ponzoni had regained his table and was speaking in a low voice to Nadia, a method he used to fix all his impressions, since he had realized, many years before, that discreetly writing quick lines on a note pad identified him immediately as a gastronomic critic on mission. Ponzoni was a slim man in his early fifties, always dressed with refined elegance and quite far from the stereotypical cliché of the "bon vivant", portly and jovial. He liked to define himself as an intellectual epicurean, a true lover of beauty in all its forms, without realizing how dreadfully pompous he sounded. "I must admit that the man looks quite unconventional." Nadia grinned, casting a glance at the maître, or presumed Maasai warrior, who towered above all the others in the dining room and had a frankly unexpected outfit for his position. He wore with absolute naturalness a pair of well-cut trousers of a bright crimson colour and a kind of short tunic, or collarless shirt, of a pale orange. The man had short, precisely trimmed hair and wore a pair of glasses thinly framed in gold. He looked stylish and, oddly, not flashy at all. "But he sounds quite professional." Nadia added, "While you were away inspecting the restroom he came to ask me if I needed anything and then he let me wait without any further insistence. I heard him speaking with the clients sitting at that table, there in the corner. They are American, I think, and he spoke to them in a fluent and perfect English idiom." "Shh, he's coming…" Ponzoni hushed her and turned to the maître who greeted him and asked politely, "If it's convenient for you, lady and gentleman, I'd like to propose the dinner menu. We change the menu every day, according to the best, fresh ingredients we can find at the local markets and the fancy of our cook." He handed a small printed card to them. "Then, I'll bring you the wine menu, so you'll be able to choose the suitable drinks." 'Impeccable.'– thought Ponzoni. In too many restaurants they have the horrendous habit of asking you what you'd like to drink without giving time to study the menu, while it's so evident that you need to match the wines with the dishes. The menu of the day was fixed, but it seemed to be composed with creativity and intelligence. The plates were listed in an essential way, without indulging in those ridiculous and elaborate descriptions which characterize nowadays too many menus. The maître arrived with the wine menu, which was, unlike the daily menu, huge and exhaustive. Ponzoni noticed the presence of some quite rare bottles too. He made his order in a self-assured way. If the maître was positively impressed, he didn't show it. A young mulatto girl of astonishing beauty, wearing what seemed to be a kind of uniform, composed of a pair of jeans, a long-sleeved shirt and a short apron, neatly tied around her slim waist, all of the same pearl grey colour, came over to serve the chosen wine to them in a very professional way. In the dining room, besides the multi-coloured maître and this young beauty there was only one other waitress, who wore the same pearl grey outfit. A more mature lady, a bit plump, with an enchanting and spontaneous smile. It was she who brought Ponzoni and Nadia the first appetizer. At the first taste he felt dragged to a world of flavours and savours which nearly moved him to tears. If the rest of the meal were to display the same high level of quality, he would add to his list of prize-winners another starred restaurant in his sophisticated gastronomical guide, considered as a bible of excellent cooking. All the hors d'oeuvres were innovative and excellent. The main course was another confirmation of the geniality of the chef, but the surprises for Ponzoni and Nadia were not over yet. They were enjoying the last mouthful of their sublime stuffed pigeon when suddenly someone emerged from the kitchen and marched determinedly toward them. It was a very handsome man, with bright and rather mocking green eyes. A white and green bandana tried hard to keep in order his curly and capricious dark hair. He wore a pair of white jeans and a white T-shirt setting off his muscles, which were obviously not the results of hours spent fanatically in the gym, but a gift of nature. A silver earring shone on his left lobe. Nadia remained with her fork paralyzed at mid-air. The man showed his white teeth in a spark of a slightly sarcastic smile, "Good evening, Miss Nadia. Good evening, Mister Ponzoni. I'm William Collins, one of the owners of this restaurant. It seems to me that today's menu was to your taste. You should thank the other owner, Peter Boyle, for that, but, well, this is a personal story." He laughed more openly. Arcangelo Ponzoni was flabbergasted. He could budget for being recognized occasionally, if one of his collaborators or acquaintances let slip a clue, but it was extremely rare that he was unmasked, mostly when he had taken every precaution to remain incognito. What was absolutely incredible was the knowledge the man had showed about Nadia's identity as well. The gastronomic critic decided to play fair and to show his hand, "I surrender. You unmasked us all too easily, but now I'd be grateful to you if you revealed how you could do that. I suppose we must have some acquaintances in common…" William shook his head, frankly amused, as if Ponzoni had just said something very funny, "Maybe we have some common acquaintances indeed, who knows? It's a small world. But I can assure you that I didn't receive any tip-off. It wouldn't be necessary. It was easy to guess. You, or someone for you, made a reservation with a fancy name and gave us a mobile phone number. We usually call our customers back one day before their reservation date, just to be sure that they remember it. You see, some people reserve many days in advance. When my friend Themba called the number you had given us, it was a lady who answered, even though the reservation had been made in the name of…ah yes, Arturo Artusi, a tribute to the great gastronomist and gourmet Pellegrino Artusi, I presume, but a slightly naïve choice. Themba asked the lady if she was Mrs Artusi and she hesitated, before mumbling something. It was Miss Nadia, I think, isn't it?" Nadia blushed, nodding in assent; she felt like a schoolgirl caught out. William continued with a kind of light-hearted, showy self-satisfaction, "Obviously we didn't know Miss Nadia's name until we identified you, Mr Ponzoni. We had already realized that the reservation had been made by someone who preferred to use, ehm...a more guarded identity. Who would do that in a restaurant? It's obvious, a gastronomic critic, who has to do his work, I'd say, under couverture. You'll forgive my presumption if I deduced that the critic in question should be a rather an expert and a well-know one. Anyway mine, for the moment, were only suppositions without evidence. But when I saw you arriving with Miss Nadia, well… the truth appeared shining and clear in front of my eyes." "Oh, I see. Someone must have showed one of the very rare photos of myself to you…" "It would be too easy indeed and very little amusing. My little grey cells–you know Hercule Poirot, by the extraordinary Agatha Christie, I'm sure–need to work to stay healthy. I had never seen any portrait of you and, as you can confirm, we have never met before. Nevertheless I know you and read your articles. Often I agree with you on many points, even though I do think, personally, that the fresh octopus is not necessarily better than the frozen one, unlike the greatest majority of other sea food. I apologize for my digression; the succinctness is not one of my few qualities. So in short I know something about you, for example more or less your age and the fact that you are from Milan. I kept an eye on you when you arrived, and I noticed that, even though you seemed very kind to Miss Nadia, you were not exactly in a couple with her. You know what I mean. Then, when you went to our toilet, even before giving a glance at our menu, I was fully certain. Of course all our clients need to visit the toilet every now and then, but usually they go there after the dinner, before the coffee, for example, or immediately when they arrive, before taking their place at the table. You did it as if you were following a procedure. That was exactly what you were doing, wasn't it? Finally, when I heard you speaking and recognized in your voice a faint, but well noticeable Milanese accent, I understood who you were. I made a quick search on Google–I'm ashamed to admit that I use this tool frequently– and I found an interesting little article about you, revealing to me that when you work you are usually in company of your faithful secretary Nadia, the only person who really knows you well. That's all." "A very interesting little lesson of deductive logic. Mr Collins! It's the first time in my long career that I have had to deal with a chef who is also a detective." "I'm not a chef. I'm a cook. I have to leave you now, or else you and the other clients won't have any dessert. Before that I must ask you for a favour…" Arcangelo Ponzoni felt a sudden, subtle disillusionment; here he is, like the others, even though this William Collins seemed to be a character apart. Now he's going to ask for the favour of getting a good review… "You don't need to ask for any special favour. I have found your restaurant practically flawless and your cooking is excellent. I'll signal your restaurant in the next edition of my gastronomic guide, because I'm persuaded it's worthy, not because you ask me for a favour…" Ponzoni was not a simple soul, and he immediately realized the misunderstanding he had just provoked. Ill at ease, he fell silent while William eyes pierced him like pins into a disgusting insect. "I'm afraid you misunderstood me, Mister Ponzoni. I didn't want to impress you to win your favours in any way. It's exactly the opposite. When I was sure about your identity, I decided to boycott my own cooking and to serve you the most disgusting menu I could create." William spoke coldly, over-articulating every syllable, but his initial anger, was now fading away quickly, against his own will, overwhelmed by his sense of humour, which made him see the incongruity of the whole matter and the worried reaction of Themba when he had noticed the whimsical ingredients William was planning to add into the dishes destined to the gastronomic critic. He confessed his plan to the astonished Ponzoni, who, after an initial puzzlement couldn't help laughing in his turn, "Good grief, Mr Collins, you are a surprising man. Why in the world did you want to make such a dangerous assault on my digestive apparatus?" "Because I had to defend my restaurant from your stars, your guides and the manipulated, ephemeral fame which you create. I don't want to appear in any guide. I don't want stars. In my small restaurant we serve an excellent cuisine with every detail presented perfectly, but there are many other restaurants at the same level. What makes the difference here is that we don't promote ourselves in any way and, even though we treat our clients with utmost care, we could do just fine without them and people realize that. The restaurant–'Mr W.'s Seven Tables'–has only seven tables and that 'Mr W.' it's not me, as all the clients think, but it's a tribute to the greatest Irish dandy. I'm Irish by the way." "A critic should be taught to criticise a work of art without making any reference to the personality of the author. It should be applied also to my professional field. As you have surely realised from the quote, I have guessed identity of that Irish dandy, even though, as you would say, it was definitely too easy." The two men burst into a common, liberating laugh. "I'm sorry, but I must rush to my kitchen now. Then it will be my pleasure to bring you the dessert personally. I promise that I won't fill your profiteroles with garlic mayonnaise…" William left with a wink.
A little later the cook, as he insisted on being called ("Please, stop defining me as chef! All the reality shows inspired by gastronomy have pushed me to hate this word. I'm just a normal, old-fashioned rather good cook"), arrived with a serving dish carrying small helping of various desserts and in the company of another very tall man, equally attractive, blond and sun tanned, with a vague air of lone sailor. "This is Peter Boyle, my partner in business and in life. You owe it to him that you were not poisoned by my malicious ingredients. As you surely have fully realized by now, ours is a non-conventional restaurant. Miss Nadia and you will be our guests this evening and any other times you'd like to come over, since we have made a deal and I trust your word. You'll never mention 'Mr W.'s Seven Tables' in any review. And now, since I have finished in the kitchen for today, may I ask you to grant us the pleasure of sitting at your table to share the desserts and, I hope, a pleasant conversation?" William read the positive answer in Ponzoni's eyes even before the critic said, "Of course, it's a splendid way to finish this unforgettable dinner," he showed an unusual broad smile which surprised the already astonished Nadia. The other man, Peter, also looked pleasantly intriguing; he spoke a nearly perfect Italian in which only few inflexions revealed his original mother tongue. He explained briefly to a very interested Ponzoni, that he didn't directly participate in the restaurant, which was William's kingdom, but he was deeply involved in the production of olive oil and wine, all coming from their estate. The small profiteroles, filled with a delicate mousse of vanilla bourbon and orange and covered with a rich chocolate sauce were extraordinary. "Even though I'm not a cook, I suppose that garlic mayonnaise would not be suitable for this recipe. But really, William had already filled some of the profiteroles he would have served to you with that mixture, when I managed to block his extravagant and obnoxious creativity." Peter grinned and the light wrinkles around his blue eyes became for a moment more evident. Nadia wondered how old the two men might be. At a first sight they looked still very young, but they had to be in their forties. "William can suffer with crisis of moodiness. When that happens, he can be either naughty or grumpy. But he can change his mood quickly when he realizes his excesses. We have been living together for many years and, like all old couples, we have learnt how to deal with each other. To justify his behaviour, I must add that he has been in a bad mood since a few days ago, when one of our friends, who, incidentally is also the mayor of Capacciano, the closest village to our farm, asked if it was possible to host here part of the troupe of an American soap opera. It seems that they are arriving in Arezzo in a couple of days to film some instalments of their serial. The actors who play the leading roles in the soap are very popular also in Italy and it seems there could be an overdose of fans roaming around their hotel and the restaurants where they go, if they settled in town. Instead the actors have asked for a very calm and relaxing location during their stay. The mayor of Arezzo contacted the mayor of Capacciano, who, as I have just told you, is a personal friend of ours. He thought that our farm, which hosts a rather comfortable Bed & Breakfast and this restaurant, could be the ideal place for the American actors. It's a private property and there is only one small country road leading here. It would be a perfect way to guarantee their privacy." Peter explained all soberly, with an ironical light in his eyes, casting a sidelong glance at William, who raised his perfect eyebrows and snorted not too imperceptibly. "Let me guess." Ponzoni was amused and felt wonderfully relaxed, in a way that never happened to him when he was on duty, "Those Americans at that table in the opposite corner…" "Yes, exactly, they are some of the producers and press agents of the staff. They came to examine the place and it seems they are all enthusiastically in favour of this choice." Peter confirmed. "But my dear William, if I can address you like that, in a familiar way, by now, why are you so full of biases against Americans? Even though I know you for a very short time, I'm sure that prejudices are unlike you." Ponzoni voluntarily spoke to William who had remained silent during the last minutes. "You are right. I do my best to avoid preconceived ideas, but Americans, how could I say…uhm, they are very conservative about food. They are fastidious concerning anything that is basically different from their usual food habits. For me it would be a nuisance to cook for them. Then, in case they liked the place, I'm afraid they would create a kind of propaganda. It's exactly what we don't like. I don't want to see groups of American tourists arriving here to take selfies in front of the places where their beloved TV stars have been. But Mayor Sanchini is a dear friend. How can we deny anything to a friend? I feel trapped." William snorted again, but this time in a comically histrionic way. The voice of Nadia found its opening in a break of the conversation, "For instance, excuse me, what is the name of the soap opera you are talking about?" "I have no idea. I never watch TV. I'm not sure we have a TV set at home either. Do we have one, Peter?" William took off his bandana and his curly hair danced freely around his head, while he scratched his forehead. "Don't pretend not to know it, William. You are getting to be an awful snob, more and more. They have repeated the name so many times to us. The soap is called 'Praised by My Dreams'." Nadia sighed with wide-open eyes, "Do...do you mean that Brenton Carruthers, Lymberly and all the others will be …HERE?" "Who???" William roused himself from his temporary silence. "Characters, they are the main characters of 'Praised by My Dreams'. Nadia never misses an episode and I must confess that sometimes I watch one as well. You see, there is a kind of total absurdity in the plot, which is almost fascinating." Arcangelo Ponzoni tried to justify his own words with a condescending tone. Nadia was in her own dreamy world by now and she repeated as a mantra, "Brenton Carruthers and all the Carruthers family, and Lilibeth Marion and Lymberly and …"