the pluck of
You wouldn't believe it unless I told you. High overhead on 121st and Lex., overlooking the gothic rooftop of its neighboring cathedral out unto its well-appointed garden of luscious greens and folded lilies in the stone fountain, lies a secret hallway outside the realm of police jurisdiction.
Hidden between floors 28 and 29, the hallway occupies an otherwise unremarkable location in a grand hotel of some renown. The shutters are invariably drawn. No security-cameras hawk over its entrance to the conference room, for the conference room holds no ordinary meetings.
Nor are these meetings, composed of ordinary men.
For here met the sharks of the human race, whose blood run just a little colder than all the others. And today they have set aside their business squabbles to settle an old family score, on behalf of their voracious appetites—
Don Pepperoni is dying.
"It's true then, is it?" says Vinny, leaving his firearm in a courtesy basket by the door. An underling rushes over to pull out his chair as he sits down, then pushes it back in, before taking his drink order. "Coke, no ice," says Vinny.
You see, Vinny had received a phone call.
He and the other four heads of the Five Families had each received a call from a pepper-red phone receiver hidden inside their desk-drawers. The call was short, consisting of only four words and five syllables. But it was just enough to catalyze these series of unfolding events, and change the face of American-Italian cuisine forever.
At the head of the long mahogany table, the chair swivels around to face the guests—
It is the family consigliere.
"Vinny, Vinny..." he utters, stroking the grey cat on his lap. "Always the late one. Are we all ready here?" Then, with a withered, veiny hand, he reaches under the cat's chin and presses a secret button hidden on its collar.
The sound of electric gears and motors spring alive.
The backwall behind him splits and slides open, the two halves pulling apart to reveal a secret alcove from whence emitted the curious melody of an Italian opera—
Inside the dark, dingy cave sat an old man, grizzled with fatigue and age.
He is sitting up on his hospital bed, propped up by two cushions, and kept coherent by the bubbling fluids pumped intravenously into his veins from a bizarre, Frankenstein variety of devices, tubes and wires sputtering around his vicinity.
"Tony... Vinny... Donny... Franny... Chad," he addresses each of his children.
"It has been... how many years?"
"Twelve, sir," answers the consigliere.
"Twelve..." coughs the old man. "Twelve years, and we've never met together as a family but to celebrate my funeral." The old man wheezes. "And I squeezed the Swedes out of their meatballs, for what...?"
Bitter is the father to know, his failures as a father. For ever since Don Pepperoni divided up the family business his children had been at odds. And now, with his death so imminent, that tenuous balance is once again disturbed.
"Which is why," coos Franny, "we've come today, Pop. We don't want to fight no mores. We wanna settle this the fair way. The old-fashioned way. Weren't you the one always tellin' us 'bout tradition, Pop?"
"Aiin't nobody getting the 'Lasagna Treatment,' Pop," adds Donny. "Whatever you decide, we'll take it as oath. That one'll take over, merge the main branch with 'is as the head of the Five Families."
The tradition the children are referring to, is "The Last Supper."
To settle the matter of succession, one last dish will each be prepared by the children and presented to the deathbed, whereupon one shall be chosen as best.
"Well..." sighs Don Pepperoni. "Better than any of you going around hurling blue-shells at each other's windshields, like last time... All right. Carry forth!"
So, the children begin the unveiling.
First up, is Tony.
"I call it, the 'Taste of Victory,' Pop," says Tony. He pulls back the box-cover on his creation and shows it off to the table—a standard large cheese pizza, frothing with gooey cheese and topped with pepperoni.
"My creation, is a celebration of yours, Pop," Tony explains. "Remember in the '80s when you pushed this on the school menu for every cafeteria across the nation? Remember, in the '90s, when with this you secured the allegiance of those underground sewer turtles?"
The Don looks at the consigliere.
The consigliere nods, stands up, takes the pizza and carries it into the cave, wherein he squishes it all down into an electronic blender. Zzzzzz! Then the chunky red liquid flows along the web of tubes, then finally into the old man.
The old man chokes and coughs a storm.
"Alas," he rasps, after recovering himself. "That you should serve me something so cheap, as what they feed American public school children..."
The other siblings snicker.
Tony backs away, embarrassed.
Next up, is Vinny.
"Move aside, chum," says Vinny. "I call this, the 'Taste of Blood!'"
He unveils a second box. It is the most atrociously meat pizza one will ever lay eyes on: filled to the brim with beef, pepperoni, ham, Italian sausage, and flavor—
"Ack, ack!" the Don stops him from speaking any further.
"Boy, do you not see these tubes? Have you never heard of cholesterol!?" He turns and says to the consigliere, "Don't even bother." Then he gives Vinny a dirty look that implies someone might be written out of his will last minute.
Vinny backs away, sheepish.
The other children giggle.
"Such an amateur," smirks Fran.
She stands up and unveils her pizza—
"I call it, the 'Taste of Simplicity,' Pop. Nevermind that murderer's nonsense. Here we have your classic, but refined Neapolitan—with fresh, organic dough, raw tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, fresh basil and olive oil... for an elegant and sophisticated you!"
Into the blender goes the third creation.
"Alas, it is flavorless," says the Don, smacking his lips. "Now I am reminded why we add wings on the side. This is atrocious. Sorry, dear. I love you, but I can't have the impression of my last meal be salted cardboard. Next!" he howls.
All attention falls on Donny.
"Pop, this one's the winner, for sure," says Donny. "As you always say, 'you can't go wrong with family.'" He stands up confident, proud. He brings the attention of the table down to the box of his creation:
It is a bubbling Sicilian deep-dish, four inches thick, with a secret lineage traced back to the Renaissance. "Just like Gran used to make it, Pop. I call it, the 'Taste of Home.'"
The Don signals the consigliere.
The consigliere squeezes the fourth pizza into the blender. And yet...
"What is this, Ratatouille?" the Don sprays all over his bib. "Donny, I didn't make you a wise-guy just so you can grow up to be nonna's cheek-smoocher. Where is the originality? Where is the pizazz!?"
The Don looks furious from one sibling to the other—Tony, Vinny, Donny, Fran... "I guess that will be all," he says, crestfallen.
"But wait, father, there is me!"
The Don sighs. Oh right, there's Chad.
Thoughts run through the old man's head like cold water.
Now he liked the kid fine enough. He just didn't understand him. Growing up, watching the little clumsy tyke chop peppers was like watching a Saw movie—both a horror and a puzzle. And as the children grew up and each took their rightful seat in the family business—Tony rolled the dough, Vinny mashed the tomatoes, Donny cut the mozzarella, Franny collected the olives—there was Chad, who uh, listened to Stairway to Heaven and made avocado toasts.
But, perhaps, if there is anyone crazy enough who could save the family, it is he—Chad.
"Sorry to keep you waiting, father," says Chad.
He pulls back the beanie from his head—
"I call this, the 'Taste of Inspiration.'"
All is silent.
The siblings and their underlings crowd forward, craning their necks, then snap back in recoil. The cat takes a sniff, and falls from the consigliere's lap. "Well, what is it!?" rasps the Don. "Stand back, men, you're blocking my view!"
And there he sees it, the Taste of Inspiration:
A pizza with pineapples and ham.
"I call it, the Hawaiian," Chad says proudly.
The Don's eyes bulge out in shock.
Somewhere in his chest, his heart explodes.
Needless to say, he dies shortly after.
It is uncertain whether he thought the pizza was good or bad. That is beside the point. The point is, one man had the audacity to try something different. To try something never before seen, something entirely new. True, everlasting artistic triumph can only be redeemed through posterity, to the chagrin of the present. Doing the same things over and over may earn the respect of your contemporaries, but does not push art forward—
So I hope this story puts everything into perspective.
Now, if you'll excuse me, dear reader.
Allow me to enjoy my cannoli with sardines in peace. Pass me the hot sauce.