A good friend will do anything for you. Except share her dessert.
Two friends, Maude and Juno, are doing lunch, a favorite activity for women getting together. Today, the restaurant is bustling — surprising, given the weekday lunch hour and the distance from any main business district. Given the absence of a maître d’, the pair seat themselves at the last lone table. Juno, the more fastidious of the two regarding restaurants, admires the large glass windows, the rather spartan but sufficient table setting, and the fact that Maude seems to know everybody at every other table.
Juno leans over the table. “Miss Popularity, much?” She says to Maude conspiratorially with a wink.
Maude, who’s always been the type to ruffle easily, feels her cheeks flush. “It’s just that kind of place, you know?” She replies off-handedly while attempting to be equally discreet. “Our kids all go to the same school.” Juno nods knowingly, grateful for the anonymity of the big city she lives in. Maude meanwhile, always did prefer the more laidback, smaller settings.
The two friends crack open their menus. It’s an Italian restaurant. Familiar names of dishes hover silently – clear, well-lit routes to a safe but staid meal; better to take an alternate route. The brave are rewarded, after all. Maude, having been to this restaurant twice before, recommends the panizza, a rather inscrutable term for a thin but tremendously tasty pizza rolled around a garden of arugula and alfalfa sprouts.
A waiter approaches. His tie bears an illustration of the Mona Lisa, its largeness making it look like it’s floating toward them. The server looks at the pair expectantly, his dark eyes electric from the stress of too many laps done running around the under-staffed restaurant. A bead of sweat traces its track down the side of his head onto his cheek. Mona Lisa remains quietly enigmatic as usual.
“Sounds good, Maude, we’ll order two panizzas.” Juno declares, snapping her menu shut, its spine creaking in protest.
“Are you crazy?” Maude rebuts, her eyes as wide as the circular designs on her tunic. “They’re huge!”
Juno, already familiar with this drill as well as Maude’s incessant appetite, acquiesces. For now. “Okay, fine, we’ll get one panizza but I reserve the right to order more food later.”
The waiter turns to leaves. Juno swears she sees Mona Lisa wink from her perch. It must be hunger.
The lull after the orders are taken and before the food arrives is expectant with discovery and opportunity. Dishes that belong to other diners parade by, impossible dreams made of tangled noodles awash in crimson sauce seeking shelter under a cutlet of chicken. A duo of lamb chops, their surfaces pocked with peppercorns, their bones crisscrossed like “x’s” over a mound of braised vegetables. A bronze calzone, newly emerged from the depths of a hot oven, is served to a couple nearby, its pillow-y middle threatening to gush forth, such is the weight of its filling. And at a table in a far-off corner, a woman sits picking at a bowl of salad. Salad? Juno lets out a derisive snort. She’s never understood why anyone would go out to eat for mere greenery.
Or soup. On Maude’s urging, the two friends share an order of broccoli soup, cream of. The same befuddled waiter informs them, mid-jog, that the last minestrone’s (their original choice) has just been served. But he quickly, fervently, vouches for the broccoli. It’s adequate but not memorable. In between sips (Juno, trying to ascertain flavor), and slurps (Maude), the two exchange details of the frontlines of their lives. Friends for 26 years, they’ve known each other long enough to take pleasure in their well-fortified territory of familiarity. Singular in each other’s joys, witnesses to each other’s bad haircuts and worse boyfriends, both are aspiring candidates to “Mom of the Century.” Maude is mom to five, Juno to one. Maude’s efficiency at reproduction is the reason she and Juno only see each other twice a year. Maude is a fulltime mom to the max, a term Juno considers to be the ultimate oxymoron.
When the panizza arrives at Maude’s and Juno’s table, the calzone couple looks over with the same undisguised lust and envy that Juno had exhibited earlier with their order. “What is that?” She hears them ask the waiter. This panizza, one of five varieties, is topped with white cheese and sausages. The other half – nice touch that, being able to order half varieties – is barbequed chicken and tomato sauce. Juno watches as Maude deftly peels off a panizza strip from the large plate and then dumps a handful of greens helter-skelter onto it. She rolls it up in a manner that strangely, reminds Juno of a donut rolling on a table. Through large mouthfuls, Maude watches Juno deliberately, decisively plot her garden on a landscape strewn with sauce and cheese. “How can you make it so neat like that?” She asks. Juno always was the neatnik of the two.
Fully constructed, the panizza resembles one of those colorful pinwheels with the added chutzpah of an alfalfa-and-arugula afro. It’s thrilling for Juno to bite through layers of thin pizza, each fold hiding then proffering the bitterness of arugula, the herbaceous threads of the alfalfa. A dash of the requested-for chili oil and red pepper flakes elevates the roll to another level.
Soon, there’s only one panizza strip left. Both women have their fill, Maude perhaps more so. She was always quite the speedy eater, five kids will do that to you. As dining companions are wont to do, there’s a sufficient amount of furtive glances, visible desires visibly suppressed. Juno has very little patience for such niceties. “Maude, if you don’t want it, I’ll take it.” She announces. Maude nods absent-mindedly, her fingers fidget, her mind already on dessert.
Ah, dessert! The province of pulverized diets yielding to sugary surrender.
When faced with the dessert menu, Juno gives an audible outburst of delight that cannoli is on it. “There’s hardly a local restaurant that serves it!” She swoons. So the two friends order it as well as some cheesecake, the de rigueur dessert for ladies who lunch.
Indulgence is the domain of dessert. Today, it’s two desserts being served to two women whose sweet teeth can’t be tamed. The cannoli is cooked correctly: little bubbles have formed where the dough hit the hot oil, a perfect horn of plenty stuffed profusely with whipped ricotta, slightly sweetened. Crispy then creamy, it’s undistilled joy for dessert lovers. But Maude’s and Juno’s forks are sparring, literally. Juno, the more outspoken of the two, vents her irritation. “Maude, you’re not leaving me any cannoli! Go play with the cheesecake!” As a reply, Maude forks a large amount of cheesecake and stuffs it in her mouth. “I won’t leave you any of this, either, Juno!” Her mouth is full, her cheeks so puffed out that Juno has to strain to understand her.
Juno laughs, taking it as a challenge. She swallows the last of the cannoli — just crumbs really, then reaches over and spears some cheesecake. It’s somewhat dense, not too sweet, a sliver of crust. “The cheesecake you make is way better, Juno,” Maude says, her cheeks back to normal. “Thanks Maude,” grins Juno. “But next time, we’re ordering two desserts.”
Mona Lisa Ristorante
The Commerce Center, 2nd Floor Commerce Ave.,
11:00 am – 3:00 pm
5:00 pm – 12:00 am