Rosa Benenati had cooked in four kitchens. One was a restaurant kitchen. One was a commercial kitchen. One was a soup kitchen. One was a gift — sometimes you have to wait for the right ingredients.
* * *
Restaurant Kitchen: A place in where food is prepared for people who pay to sit and enjoy meals cooked and served on premise
A restaurant kitchen was in Rosa’s family’s restaurant. With its renowned Italian dishes, Benenati’s had become a tradition along Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. Rosa lived upstairs with her parents, where waking up and going to sleep with aromas of spices and oven-fresh breads and espressos brewed never got old. Neither did the location, smack in the midst of bakeries and pastry shops and butchers and sausage makers, fruit markets and fish markets as well as cheesemongers, cigar makers, florists, delis, and so many eateries. Rosa enjoyed the mornings she’d go walking along the avenue with her father, after he bought them coffees-to-go at their favorite stop. Everyone knew Franco. He was older than her mother, almost twenty years older. They had met and married all within two months, disproving his claim of forever being a bachelor. With his hair slicked back, his sleeves pulled up, smoking a freshly rolled cigar, he’d describe the avenue and its people as magnifico, stopping for a quick chat here and there, waving to acquaintances, his jazzy penny loafers clicking on the sidewalk.
In her sophomore year of high school, Rosa went from prepping vegetables to cooking alongside her father on weekends. When it was slow, her father turned the kitchen into a classroom, drilling her on one relevant topic after another. Sauces. Entrees. Desserts. Meats. Appetizers. When he drilled her on spices and cheese, she always knew the answer.
“Most beloved herb in all of Italy!”
“Goes with tomatoes, in red sauces. Used in pasta dishes.”
“Grown all over the Italian countryside.”
“In meat marinades and grilling.”
“In poultry dishes.”
“When do you add it?”
“At the end of cooking.”
“Remember, Rosa: Don’t be afraid to add some spice. Gorgonzola?”
“Of course, the Italian bleu cheese. Great in salads and pastas.”
“Mild tasting. Melts easily. Tastes great on our focaccia bread.”
“Used in Italian desserts, including our tiramisu. It’s really soft. That’s why it spreads easily, Dad.”
If they had time, they’d keep going. Rosa loved it as much as her father did.
She eventually mastered the cooking of complicated dishes. Regular customers praised her risotto. Rosa credited her father.
“The trick is getting the milk to the right consistency,” he would tell her, standing by the stove until she nailed it.
With so much happening along Arthur Avenue, interesting characters and shady types were everywhere. They swarmed around Rosa like flies. Not surprising. Rosa was a dead ringer for Elizabeth Taylor, right down to the beauty mark and violet eyes. Her father would tell Rosa to stay away from the wolves.
“They only want one thing, Rosa. No matter what they tell you, they only want one thing.”
Despite feeling their eyes and hearing their whistles, Rosa stayed away from the characters up until a sunny Friday afternoon in July before her senior year. That’s when her female instincts went wild.
With a forecast of high eighties through the weekend, the avenue buzzing with people, Rosa was out shopping for more fresh fruit for their popular summer fruit salad with mint and limoncello. Flaunting about in a sundress with a floral pattern splashed in pink, fitted bodice with a cinched waist and skirt with a flare, and her shimmering black hair flowing, Rosa made heads turn. Those wolves were howling, even in the fruit market.
When putting oranges on a scale, Rosa dropped a few on the cement floor. A young man hurried to pick them up. Turned out, he worked there.
“Here you go. Your runaway oranges have been captured.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I could have tripped you, or something.”
“That something could be enjoyable, if you know what I mean.”
Realizing exactly what the young man was implying, Rosa chose to ignore her father’s warnings. It was as if his words got swept up by a street cleaner as her hands touched the young man’s and oranges were weighed. His olive skin and inquisitive brown eyes along with his licorice dark hair tousled about took her breath away.
“Let me weigh the rest of these for you.”
When his fingers brushed against her arm, Rosa felt weak. When he stood back, his tight jeans and white T-shirt glued to his chest sent sparks flying. As he placed the apples and then the pears and then whatever else Rosa had in her bag on the scale, they introduced themselves.
“You have stunning eyes, Rosa. Violet enhances your beauty.”
“Thank you, Luca,” she replied, her imagination on overload.
Putting the fruit into her cart, Luca turned. They were face to face. Inches away from each other.
“Would you like to meet later for an espresso?” he asked, brushing Rosa’s hair away from those violet eyes, his fingers moving along her temple, down her cheek. “Perhaps some ice cream — or whatever else you might enjoy.”
Six months later Rosa left town.
It was 1971.
That’s what single, pregnant girls did. They left town. Luca had disappeared by the end of summer. Rosa’s father cried when leaving her at the airport. Her mother stayed home in bed. She never said goodbye.
* * *
Commercial Kitchen: A kitchen used for cooking purposes, such as in nursing homes, schools, prisons, homes for unwed mothers.
A commercial kitchen was Rosa’s work assignment during her stay at a home for unwed mothers. It was January. Buffalo was living up to its reputation. It had snowed every day since Rosa became Chelsey and settled in. The kitchen turned out to be a blessing, not because it was a kitchen but rather because of the woman in charge. Gracie was in her early fifties, a strong, proud Italian woman with graying hair pulled up in a bun, most often covered with a hairnet. They met early on a Monday morning in the stainless-steel kitchen situated in the basement of the complex.
“Welcome to the kitchen, Chelsey. I’m Gracie. I’ve been told you’ve had restaurant experience.”
“It’s my parents’ restaurant. This kitchen reminds me of that kitchen but it doesn’t smell the same.”
“We’re lacking the good spices. Along with pastries and espressos, spices aren’t in the budget. The food is bland. That’s why I have my girls over on Sunday evenings for dinner. Nothing’s better than a home-cooked meal and sitting down at a kitchen table to enjoy it. So I’m inviting you to dinner this Sunday and every Sunday you’re here.”
It wasn’t long before the other girls arrived. The tallest with Cher hair and pink glossy lips, introduced herself to Chelsey.
“I’m Jane. Your room is next to mine at the end of the hall. I heard you come in yesterday. Don’t worry. It gets better.”
“I hope so. I’ve never felt so alone.”
“Winter can do that here.”
Chelsey nodded despite knowing winter wasn’t the culprit. Winter wasn’t the reason she threw her stuff in a pile on the linoleum floor when entering the narrow room, nor was it to blame for her crashing on top of the single bed still dressed in her coat, hat, mittens, and boots. It was loneliness and fear holding Chelsey captive. Those feelings wouldn’t go away. They kept taunting her, waking her up around midnight as a Coca-Cola sign outside a diner across the street kept flashing on the bare walls in that empty room. Taking her hat off and throwing it, pulling her boots off and tossing them, Chelsey grabbed hold of the only blanket on the bed, bringing it up around her, and falling back to sleep after crying into a pillow full of lumps. No. Winter had nothing to do with the emptiness.
“Jane, could you show Chelsey around?” Gracie suggested. “We’ll get started with breakfast.”
The two became inseparable. Oddly enough, they never divulged their birth names to each other. For Rosa, the reason was simple. She wasn’t Rosa. She was playing the role of a pregnant girl named Chelsey.
Despite snow falling all day Sunday covering everything like rolls of cotton batten, the van taking the girls to Gracie’s was on time. Aromas of spices simmering and bread from the oven greeted them as Gracie opened the door wearing slippers and a smile, hugging each one of her guests as they walked inside.
“Come in. Come in. Welcome to my home. Dinner is ready!”
“I can smell the basil.”
“I added extra just for you, Chelsey.”
From salad served with Italian bread to spaghetti and meatballs, the meal was delicious. Conversation was lively in that kitchen sporting laminated cabinets and wallpaper bursting in orange and yellow flowers. When it was time, Gracie sliced an apple pie, still warm.
The girls were ready for bed when they returned to the home.
On a below-zero February morning, when walking into the kitchen, Chelsey was greeted with the news that Jane had gone into labor during the night.
“There were complications. Jane was taken to the hospital where she lost the baby,” Gracie explained. “Her parents are coming to take her home.”
Chelsey never got to say goodbye.
Contractions woke Chelsey around 2 a.m. on a Friday in early April. While the Coca-Cola sign kept flashing on the bare walls, she packed up her stuff and said goodbye to that narrow room with its lumpy pillow, then headed downstairs to labor and delivery.
Hours later in hard labor, Chelsey didn’t notice the door opening. She didn’t hear someone picking up the chair and moving it by the bed. When that someone began rubbing her back and whispering she was doing a wonderful job, Chelsey didn’t have to open her eyes. She knew Gracie was with her.
At 9:52, it was Rosa who delivered a healthy baby girl with dimples and a beauty mark on her right cheek. Rosa was allowed to hold her sleeping daughter, smelling like sunshine and teddy bears as new babies do, cooing and stretching.
When they took the baby out of her arms, it was Rosa who felt cold. Heartsick.
It was Rosa who named her baby Angelina after her great-grandmother on her father’s side.
Before leaving the place, it was Rosa handing Gracie a small silver cross on a sterling silver chain and asking her to please make sure it stayed with Angelina when adopted.
“My parents bought this cross for me when I was born.”
“Of course, I will make sure,” Gracie replied, taking the young woman in her arms. They lingered until a taxi pulled up out front.
Grabbing her suitcase, giving Gracie her phone number should she need to call, Rosa opened the door; then turned back around.
“My name is Rosa. I will never forget you, Gracie.”
It was spitting snow. Rosa figured it was the perfect way for Buffalo to say goodbye.
* * *
Soup Kitchen: A place where free food is served to those who are homeless or destitute
A soup kitchen wasn’t even a thought when Rosa returned to Arthur Avenue. It would eventually come to be.
On her first morning waking up in her own bed, Rosa thought about Gracie, likely at work in her commercial kitchen. While coffee was never on the menu, Gracie kept a small pot in her office. By now, Rosa figured she’d be on her second cup. The thought of Angelina made Rosa cry, hugging a pillow without lumps as familiar aromas drifted up the stairs.
The night before, Rosa had talked with her parents. She wanted to get back to cooking in the restaurant. Her father told her she could start immediately.
Rosa was up and in the shower and downstairs early that first morning. Her father didn’t say a word about missing her, but Rosa could tell he did by his pampering. On the way home from the airport the day before, they’d made small talk. This morning he asked about his granddaughter. Rosa showed him the small photo, the only photo she had of her daughter.
“She’s beautiful like her mother.”
“I named her Angelina, Dad. I left her the silver cross you and Mom bought for me when I was born. I asked that the cross go with her when she is adopted.”
Her father took her in his arms. They were late preparing the vegetables.
The transition of being back home went better than Rosa imagined it would. Many nights Rosa and her father stayed downstairs. There was always something to do. On an evening when it was just Rosa in the kitchen, the phone rang.
It was Gracie.
“It is not my place to tell you but I felt I had to. Your sweet Angelina was adopted today. I made sure the silver cross was with her.”
That’s all Rosa could remember of the call. She didn’t tell her parents. The emptiness took over. It was a few days before Rosa could bother with life again.
Late one Wednesday night, when downstairs still at work after being slammed right up to closing, Rosa thought about the meals she’d prepared alongside others at the home for unwed mothers as well as the Sunday evenings sitting around Gracie’s kitchen table enjoying her home-cooked dinners. It didn’t take Rosa long to recognize a thread between the two. They were simple meals. And those simple meals — the boiled dinners, creamed tuna on toast, scalloped potatoes, shepherd’s pie, goulash, baked beans and hash, to name a few, shared one common ingredient. It wasn’t a spice or fancy sauce or expensive cheese.
It was heart.
Those simple meals were prepared out of the goodness of the heart.
While her father put heart into his cooking of sought-after dishes, and while he cared deeply about the quality of what was served in Benenati’s, the truth was he had to. It was his business, the ticket to the comfortable lifestyle he and his family enjoyed.
That comparison of kitchens had Rosa on her feet. Grabbing a sweater, she turned everything off, wrapped up what needed wrapping up, put what needed to be refrigerated in a cooler, and went out the back door, down the alley, and straight on to Arthur Avenue. That’s where Rosa would go when she needed to think.
The cool breeze of late June was refreshing. Most businesses were closed, but the avenue was still lit up like a Christmas tree. Rosa took it all in as she did every other time when out walking and thinking. This was her back yard, her playground growing up. This was where she learned how to ride a bike, roller skate, play hopscotch. This was where she went trick-or-treating and visited Santa.
Stopping in front of the fruit market, Rosa realized the avenue was also where she became a woman. Thinking about that Friday, strutting inside the market wearing her sundress with a floral pattern splashed in pink, Rosa conceded Luca wasn’t the only wolf around that day. She too had been on the prowl.
On her way back home, Rosa noted a few of the restaurants were still cleaning up.
She knew them all. They were a community within the community. Going by Ricco’s on the Avenue, she heard a door opening up to an alleyway. Out came one of the cooks carrying a large plastic bag. She stopped.
“Hey, Tony. Still working?”
“Well hello, stranger. It’s been a busy night. Late getting rid of the leftovers. The cats will be happy!”
“We had a busy one too. I’m sure the cats were waiting for my father by the trash barrels.”
“I haven’t seen you around in a long time. My dinner invitation still stands.”
“I’ll take you up on it soon, Tony. Good to see you.”
“You look beautiful in the moonlight, Rosa.”
“Still a flirt! Good night, Tony.”
The thought of going out to dinner with Tony intrigued Rosa. She’d had a crush on him growing up. Most girls did. His chocolate brown eyes drove them all nuts. But where would she begin? How would she tell him about Angelina? Would she tell him?
Normally Rosa found a walk down the avenue soothing.
But not tonight.
She couldn’t sleep. Seeing Tony wasn’t the only reason why. It was the remarks they’d made about tossing leftovers in the trash that triggered something Gracie once told her concerning an article she’d read on hunger and how so many people were starving.
“We’re surrounded by food every day, Chelsey. We have so much food that leftovers are thrown out in the trash. I hate to admit it, but at times, I forget people are hungry.”
Thinking about Gracie’s comment and Tony throwing out his leftovers, as did her father, and presumably the other cooks along Arthur Avenue, Rosa jumped out of bed.
Like Gracie, Rosa had never given much thought to people going hungry.
Why would she when the finest of foods were always at her fingertips? Starving had never been a concept that concerned Rosa, until now. Maybe it was because she was a mother now, worrying about her daughter out in the world somewhere at some point, hungry. Not mattering to anyone.
Turning her desk lamp on, Rosa scribbled a note to find a soup kitchen, not just as a place to donate food but to work in as well. Her father would understand why she’d be cutting her hours. He knew she was searching. For what, she wasn’t sure.
Finding a soup kitchen took longer than Rosa had anticipated. She still needed to help out at the restaurant, so schedules had to work for all concerned. Then there was the time spent caring for her mother, who had tripped on the stairs and broken an ankle. It was almost two years later when Rosa finally found her soup kitchen.
She loved every minute being there. It didn’t take long before the regulars looked for Rosa when they walked through the door. Eventually she was cooking.
Being clever with the budget, she was able to offer a few variations to the simple menu including carrot cake. It became a favorite. When her mother redecorated, Rosa reinvented her discarded curtains, putting them up in the soup kitchen. She went out and bought simple tablecloths. The soup kitchen took on a softer feel.
Those who came for a meal told Rosa they felt at home.
Five years later, when a new director took over, Rosa felt uneasy. She didn’t know why until walking into the soup kitchen one morning and finding the curtains she’d revamped — removed. Rosa went to the director. An hour later she walked out the door.
“We are not their home,” Rosa was told. “They are lucky we feed them.”
Rosa had no reply to the man’s ignorance, but oh how she was going to miss her regulars.
It was a good two weeks before Rosa got used to putting more hours into cooking those renowned dishes at the restaurant. But it was different. Her father noticed how she’d changed. Early on a Saturday morning, he asked Rosa to go for a walk with him.
“Wear a sweater. Mornings are getting chillier.”
After stopping for two coffees-to-go, they headed down Arthur Avenue. Her father didn’t waste time in small talk.
“You miss the soup kitchen, don’t you?”
“When your heart isn’t into something, it shows.”
“I’m sorry, Dad. I’ll try harder.”
“Rosa, I don’t want you trying harder at something that does not bring you joy. I want my daughter happy.”
“But I’ve hurt you. And now I’m turning my back on what you’ve put your heart and soul into.”
“You are my heart and soul. You have not hurt me. You’ve made me proud by the strength you’ve shown and your empathy toward others.”
“But Dad. I have a daughter.”
“And that daughter is my grandchild who I love with all my heart.”
They kept walking. Arthur Avenue was beautiful to watch waking up to a brand new day.
“Your birthday is getting closer.”
“It’s months away.”
“That doesn’t matter. I bought you a gift. Come. I’ll show it to you.”
Rosa was baffled. She couldn’t figure out what was going on as she walked alongside her father. Despite the hour, most everyone reacted with a smile or comment when seeing him.
“You could be the Mayor of Arthur Avenue, Dad.”
“Not interested in being a politician. I don’t trust a one of them,” he replied, pulling out a set of keys from a pant pocket.
“Here we are. Give me a second.”
Turning toward a small brick building, he unlocked the door.
“Welcome to your soup kitchen, Rosa.”
He stepped inside. Rosa followed.
“I don’t understand.”
“I bought this for you. It’s a great location. And you love brick buildings!”
“You didn’t really buy this, did you?”
“Oh yes I did!”
“But Dad. The money. You’ve worked hard all your life. You and Mom deserve some time for yourselves.”
“You know me, honey. I work. Others play golf. Others travel. I work. And along the way, I’ve made some pretty good investments. Everything we have is going to you, but why wait? I’ve seen your eyes light up when you’re helping others. You have the gift of compassion, and the world is in need of compassion.”
“Stop right there, Rosa. You opened my eyes to the hunger on the streets. To people starving, some working hard to put food on the table but coming up short. You once told me you want your life to matter. So here you go. Make a difference. And don’t worry about supplies and renovations. Your birthday present includes any expense, anything you will need to make this happen. And if you like, the upstairs was once a good-sized apartment. You can renovate that as well. Live there or rent it out.”
“Dad! No. I can’t let you do all of that.”
Putting his arm around Rosa as the sun came through the windows, he whispered, “I’ve made a killing on Wall Street. Don’t tell your mother.”
“Oh Dad, I love brick buildings,”
“I know. And now you have one of your own.”
Throwing her arms around her father, Rosa felt like a little girl again. “Thank you, Dad. I love you.”
“Happy birthday, my precious Rosa.”
* * *
Gift Kitchen: All the ingredients from those other kitchens led to the gift kitchen
A little over two years later, Rosa’s Kitchen opened its doors. Her vision — of a warm, welcoming, sitting-around-a-kitchen-table feel with curtains in the windows, cloth tablecloths on the tables, stoneware plates and cups and silverware instead of plastic, as well as paintings by local artists on the walls, a salad bar, a cooler full of milks and juices, and a dessert bar with Rosa’s carrot cake among the items — had been realized. Volunteers were on board. A schedule was in place. On Sunday evenings, a full-course meal would be offered featuring some of those same renowned dishes she’d been cooking with her father for years.
Before the door opened, Rosa was interviewed by a reporter from an area paper. Sitting on one side of her were her parents; on the other was Tony, the cook, the one with the chocolate brown eyes. So much had happened during the renovations, including Rosa finally taking Tony up on his dinner invitation.
Early on in the project, Rosa had talked with all the restaurant owners on the avenue about donating their leftovers. Most jumped on board, eager to be a part of it. Tony helped convince those on the fence. He fell in love with the project and, along the way, fell in love with Rosa. Any evening Tony had free he’d be by her side, stripping walls, painting, building, tearing down, laughing as music played and a relationship blossomed. Sometimes they’d turn the lights out and dance around the tables in the moonlight sifting through the curtains.
During one of those slow dances, Tony learned about Angelina. When Rosa stopped to show Tony her daughter’s photo, they cried together.
“Such a beautiful baby, Rosa. You gave Angelina the greatest gift of all.”
That was the night Tony carried Rosa up the stairs to her apartment. They never made it to the bed. They couldn’t wait. The attraction had been simmering for years.
In the early morning hour, Tony whispered, “Rosa. Sweet Rosa. I want to dance around tables in the moonlight with you in my arms and wake up beside you forever. Will you marry me, Rosa? I love you more than I ever thought it possible to love someone.”
With tears in her eyes, Rosa accepted Tony’s proposal.
“Yes, I will marry you. I love you, Tony, with all my heart.”
They were married four months later. It was a small wedding, celebrated at Benenati’s.
Of course, Rosa skipped over the personal details with the reporter. When the feature came out, it was met with great enthusiasm. Rosa’s Kitchen became known on Arthur Avenue. Food donations skyrocketed.
Rosa and Tony eventually welcomed a baby boy. Rosa worried she might be too old to have a child, but their boy Frankie, named after Rosa’s father, was in good health. The child’s namesake, however, was in declining health. His memory was failing. Years of smoking those freshly rolled cigars had taken their toll. That’s why Tony decided to surprise Rosa on her fortieth birthday with a small gathering, mostly family with a few regulars who felt like family.
The celebration took place after hours on a Sunday evening in Rosa’s Kitchen. Tony made the cake — Rosa’s famous carrot cake. He told Rosa it was a special order. She was so busy she never noticed Tony setting up a long table in front of a window overlooking the avenue with the cake sitting next to it on a small round table covered in a white linen tablecloth. When her parents walked in, Rosa didn’t think anything about it. When a few aunts and uncles came through the door, Rosa knew something was about to happen. She found Tony in the kitchen.
“What is going on, honey?”
“It’s a birthday party, Rosa. Your birthday party.”
“I know why you did this,” she replied, hugging Tony. “I know this party is also for my father.”
On her way back out to greet her guests, Rosa thought about the talks they’d have when lying in bed as the aromas of spices and oven-fresh breads and coffee brewed in a percolator drifted up the stairs.
“I feel Dad is disappearing right in front of me,” Rosa would say. “Soon he won’t recognize any of his family.”
Everyone enjoyed the birthday party. Later on, when only her parents remained, Rosa’s father began checking his watch and mumbling to himself.
“Is everything okay, Dad?”
“Couldn’t be better, Rosa. I’m waiting for your gift to be delivered.”
“You didn’t need to buy me a thing.”
Picking up some dishes, Rosa went into the kitchen.
“Dad is rambling again, Tony. Would you mind walking my parents back to the restaurant?”
“Not at all. He seemed to have a good time.”
“He had a great time. But I know when he’s had enough.”
“Rosa! Rosa! Come back in here. Tell me, Rosa. Tell me when you use rosemary.”
“He’s going to wake Frankie.”
“Frankie is sound asleep, Rosa. Let’s spend a little more time with your mom and dad before I walk them home.”
“There she is!” declared Franco. “Did you hear me, Rosa?”
“I heard you, Dad. The answer is in a meat marinade or when you’re grilling. Try me again.”
A knock at the door grabbed his attention. “Oh I can’t! I can’t.”
“Honey, could you please take him home?”
Before Tony could react, Rosa’s father opened the door. With tears rolling down his cheeks, he embraced a young woman with long, shimmering black hair.
Rosa didn’t understand what was happening. She just knew it was late. Her father was tired. As she was about to ask Tony again to take her parents home, her father led the young woman across the room to where Rosa was standing.
It was the small silver cross the young woman was wearing that caught Rosa’s attention. After looking into her violet eyes and noting the beauty mark on her right cheek, Rosa grabbed hold of Tony’s arm.
The emptiness Rosa had kept tucked away disappeared when the young woman spoke one simply beautiful word straight from her heart.
All the ingredients had been gathered.
Joy filled every inch of Rosa’s Kitchen.
Featured image: Marina Onokhina / Shutterstock
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