Bufala alla Poncioni

By

Accipiter G. Goshawk

Hello everyone!

So, this little story was my entry for the 2020 Mogford Prize. Since I didn’t make the longlist, I can now share it with you. It’s a little different from my usual work, but I really enjoyed writing it.

Stay safe and enjoy,

A.G.G

If Jason Lombiello knew anything, it was that nothing was ever as it seemed.

Take the man he’d interrogated this afternoon for instance: publicly he was known as Kyle Smith, an upstanding citizen and well-known IT-techie. Lombiello had collected countless statements attesting to Smith’s good character. His baker had called him “a lovely young man, who would be utterly incapable of hurting a fly”. His social media was spotless and every single photograph Lombiello had managed to acquire contained the same innocent expression, the same angelic features.

“You’ve got to be joking! That’s the dark-web assassin? The serial killer?”

Lombiello didn’t even look up. Instead, he reached for the phone.

“Not a serial killer, Hugh. More like a hitman. Charged ten grand a shot and extra for clean-up. Slippery bastard too…we’d never have caught him if it hadn’t been for- yes, hello this is Jason Lombiello. You wouldn’t have a table for two available?…Half an hour?…Perfect, see you then. My best to chef Poncioni.”

He placed the phone back on the receiver and got up, reaching for his overcoat. Sergeant Hugh Reiss stared at him expectantly.

“Well? How did you catch him?” he burst out as his corpulent friend locked his desk and made for the door.

“The little shit slipped up: he walked into his local bakery with the same shoes he was wearing when he murdered his last mark. The traces of flour we found at the crime scene were made up of a peculiar blend of whole wheat, oats and rye: his baker’s personal mix. That helped us narrow down the suspects. We figured out the rest by using CCTV footage.”

Hugh stopped and stared at the back of Lombiello’s hat-covered head.

Flour? You got him with flour?”

The detective grinned.

“You can always trust food, Hugh. Come on, I’ve booked us a table at Poncioni’s, my treat.”

The city was crazy at this hour. Traffic clogged the venerable asphalt arteries and masses of people rushed from offices to vehicles to home, trying desperately to avoid the rush and finally contributing to its overall static chaos.

The two colleagues ignored the honking horns and the suddenly rushing motors. Instead, they slipped out of the Old Guardhouse and turned left into the inner streets, moving away from the noise and motorized tension. Mirror-like façades gave way to brick, wood and cobblestone pavements. No cars tarnished the streets; only the occasional bicycle ventured within, braving the impossible turns and the treacherous cliff-like slopes.

“Which one is Poncioni’s again? The one that specializes in artichoke?” asked Reiss, trying to keep any note of disgust from tainting his question.

“You are thinking of Rizzoli’s. Poncioni is known for his simple, yet incomparable understanding of Italian food. A true maestro, he delights the palate without skimping on the quantities. I’m surprised you don’t remember his restaurant: you were quite taken with his tiramisù, as I recall.”

“It’s just food,” murmured Reiss sheepishly.

“That is where you are wrong. There is no such thing as ‘just’ food. There is good food and there is abysmal food. There is exquisite food and there is disappointing food. Much in the same way as music can elevate the spirit or break it into a million pieces, so a perfect composition of tagliatelle, tomatoes, carrots, celery and ground beef can sail you to the end of the day with a smile on your face. You would do well to pay more attention to these things Hugh: much happiness can be found in a plate of lasagne.”

“Don’t you think you’re laying it on a little thick?” Hugh grumbled as they strolled over the small bridge that led to the east side of the old town. “I mean, I like good food as much as the next man, but you always get…well, fanatical about it. You really scared the corporal the other day.”

Lombiello stopped abruptly and glared at his friend.

“The man is both disrespectful and disloyal. I simply put him in his place.”

Hugh sighed heavily.

“Jason, this is exactly what I was talking about. Good grief man! All he did was eat your lunch! Anybody could have made that mistake.”

“Once maybe, but never twice,” the detective smouldered. “He deliberately stole from me and I treated him accordingly.”

Reiss said nothing, but only nodded as Lombiello’s tirade carried on through the cobble-lined streets all the way to the door to Poncioni’s.

They were greeted by a smiling waitress who quickly escorted them to a table and then scuttled away nervously, probably scared off by the detective’s constant bellowing.

“Jason, I-”

“-and to not even offer to compensate me for his crime-”

“JASON!”

The exasperated cry brought all the other conversations around them to an abrupt halt and an uneasy silence filled the small restaurant. Lombiello blinked a few times and then reddened slightly upon noticing his friend’s expression.

“I’m sorry Hugh. These things tend to…get to me.”

Reiss’ expression softened.

“I know. That’s what I was talking about. That’s why I worry.”

Jason smiled awkwardly and was about to answer, when a tall blond-haired waiter sidled up to their table.

“Have the gentlemen decided what they would like to order?” he asked in a mellifluous voice, as he caused a pad and pen to appear between his long fingers.

“Ah, yes,” murmured Lombiello distractedly. “I would like the bruschetta della casa, followed by the pizza alla Poncioni. And probably something for dessert, but I’ll figure it out later. Hugh?”

The sergeant ordered an insalata nizzarda and the decided on a plate of tonnarelli cacio e pepe. The waiter nodded and disappeared into the kitchen.

As they waited, the two colleagues lost themselves in small talk, sometimes stopping to peer at the other patrons and the dishes they had ordered.

“What is that?” whispered Hugh pointing surreptitiously at a plate a few tables over.

“That is a cotoletta alla Milanese. Some chefs overcook it…honestly, they would do better to serve the soles of their shoes instead. Poncioni’s however is always tender.”

Hugh raised an eyebrow as he watched the lady whose plate it was, try to unsuccessfully saw her way through the cotoletta. Finally, she gave up and left in a huff, the nervous waitress trailing behind her spouting dejected apologies.

“Must be having an off-night then,” Hugh muttered. Lombiello’s eyes narrowed, but he said nothing.

Their dishes arrived shortly afterwards. Another smiling waiter placed them on their table and then hurried off. Reiss dug into his salad happily, losing himself to the concert of tuna, olives and lettuce.

Lombiello on the other hand took one bite and immediately scowled. Placing his bruschetta back on his plate he motioned for a waiter.

“Is everything alright sir?”

Lombiello eyed him critically, taking in the swollen muscles ineffectively hidden beneath the simple white shirt and vest. His expression darkened further.

“Not in the slightest. I’m afraid that my bruschetta lacks garlic.”

He waited for a reaction from the waiter and was surprised when none came. The big brute simply stared at him like an insolent gargoyle.

“Well? What are you going to do about it?”

The waiter frowned for a moment but then quickly picked up the plate and bowed.

“I will go ask the chef to add some garlic immediately,” he said before striding over to the kitchen doors.

Reiss looked up just in time to see Lombiello’s eyes begin to bulge.

“Is everything alright?”

“He’s going to ask the chef to add garlic?” hissed Lombiello incredulously. “The garlic should be merely gently rubbed on the bread! What kind of idiots is Poncioni hiring these days?”

Reiss rolled his eyes and returned to his salad.

A few minutes later, the waiter returned, bearing Lombiello’s bruschetta.

“Here you are sir. Chef Poncioni sends his apologies and begs me to inform you that the bruschetta is on the house.”

Lombiello said nothing but simply stared at his plate.

“Sir? Is everything alright?” asked the waiter, a forceful note creeping into his voice as he glanced around at the other tables.

“Fine, fine,” answered Lombiello absentmindedly. “Send the chef my best regards.”

The waiter nodded and left, leaving Lombiello still staring at his plate. Finally, he shook himself and turned around to look at the restaurant.

“Reiss, something isn’t right,” he said calmly.

“What is it now Jason?” growled Hugh exasperatedly.

“I think we may have stumbled into something sinister,” he said in the same quiet deadpan voice.

“What are you going on about?”

Lombiello pointed at his plate. “Poncioni added minced garlic to the bruschetta.”

He waited for Reiss to react but the sergeant only stared at him blankly.

“Poncioni would never make such an amateur mistake Hugh! Adding minced garlic completely hides the flavour of the basil and tomato. He’s trying to send me a message.”

“From the kitchen?” answered Reiss incredulously.

Lombiello ignored him, but instead peered around and nodded at the waiters.

“Don’t they all seem a little odd to you?”

Reiss sighed but humoured his friend. As his eyes traced the movements of the staff around the almost-empty restaurant, he took in their build, age, sex and posture.

“Four of them, in their mid-thirties. Peak physical condition, all male.”

“Save for Claudia, a regular,” added Lombiello eyeing the small brunette as she scurried nervously from table to table. “Notice anything else?”

“Nobody has come in in a while,” Reiss murmured thoughtfully. He peered at the door, taking note of the “Open” sign facing inward rather than out. Only a few patrons remained and most of them were older couples intent on their meals. He scratched his stubble pensively as he noticed a well-dressed young man sitting in a booth in the far corner. He was accompanied by an elegant woman who seemed to be hanging off every one of his loud, arrogant phrases. There was something familiar about him…

Reiss shook himself and turned back to Lombiello, who had slowly pushed his untouched plate away.

“Still, it could be nothing. Maybe Poncioni is just tired.”

“Maybe,” Lombiello said coolly, but his eyes were now roving all over the establishment, calculating.

“Have you finished sir?”

They both jumped as the blonde-haired waiter appeared behind Lombiello.

“Yes…I’m afraid I misjudged my hunger,” the detective said, the lie rolling easily off his tongue. “However I’m still looking forward to that pizza.”

“It will be here shortly,” said the waiter amiably, taking their plates.

They waited in an uneasy silence, punctuated by Lombiello’s fingers tapping on the table and the creaking of their chairs. His eyes caught Reiss’s and he meaningfully tapped his right hand to the left of his chest. Reiss nodded.

What seemed like hours later, the waiter reappeared, bearing the tonnarelli and the pizza alla Poncioni. He placed them on the table with a flourish.

“Here you are gentlemen. I hope you enjoy your-”

Before he could finish his sentence, Lombiello had leapt to his feet and drawn his pistol, which he then pointed at the waiter’s chest. In a blur of movement, he thrust his meaty hand into the man’s vest and from it extracted a derringer, which he immediately aimed at the brute who had served him the bruschetta.

“Detective Lombiello, City Police. I suggest you put your hands on your head and get down. That goes for the rest of you would-be penguins as well!” barked Jason.

In the booth, the young man screamed and ducked under the table, shoving his companion out of the way. The remaining patrons froze in their seats, staring blankly. One of the waiters bolted for the door but immediately jumped back as a bullet from the derringer embedded itself in the floor next to his foot. More people screamed as the shot rang out and a third waiter quickly scrambled to draw his own gun. He hit the ground a second later, courtesy of the sergeant’s knee in his stomach.

“I’d do as the detective says, if I were you,” Reiss said calmly, pulling out a pair of handcuffs.

*          *          *

“What gave them away Jason?”

They were sitting by the river, Lombiello cradling a small tub of Poncioni’s legendary tiramisù.

“Other than the garlic? Easy. The pizza alla Poncioni. Its main ingredient is mozzarella di bufala, buffalo mozzarella.”

“And?” said Reiss expectantly. “He used normal mozzarella? How could you have known? You didn’t even taste it!”

“It doesn’t matter which mozzarella he used. No chef worth his salt cooks mozzarella di bufala. It’s always added after the pizza comes out of the oven. Otherwise, it ruins the flavour. The mozzarella on the pizza that would-be criminal served me was melted.”

They remained in silence for a few moments.

“Interesting idea though,” Reiss said thoughtfully looking at the opposite bank, “impersonating waiters of a well-known restaurant to abduct the mayor’s son.”

“I didn’t even recognize the kid,” offered Lombiello as he finished off the tiramisù.

“Still, quite a lucky break, wouldn’t you say?” asked the sergeant looking at his friend meaningfully.

Lombiello shook his head and then smiled.

“No such thing Hugh. Always remember: food never lies.”-

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