authentic Italian pizza

Competition Winner, First Prize: 'Authentic Italian Pizza' by Melanie Kennard

We're thrilled to be able to announce our winner of The For Pity Sake Inaugural Short Story and Poetry Competition. Melanie Kennard takes the prize for her fantastic work 'Authentic Italian Pizza'. Big congratulations to Melanie, who receives a permanent discount to our Manuscript Appraisal Service and a book pack of some of our finest titles. We hope you enjoy her story as much as we did.  Slap the dough on the bench. Sprinkle flour over. Roll it out. Add sauce. Toppings. Mozzarella so delicate it melts with the slightest touch. Salami, shaved in translucent membranes. Capers, small, green, salty. Red capsicums, grilled, their skins charred. Fibrous eggplants, grown at home – the smaller the better. Fully adorned, slide the whole thing into cavernous mouth of the oven. Add more wood to the burner. Wait for the cheese to melt, the base to crisp. Pop it in a box. Order up. Another satisfied customer leaves, the smell of the pizza teasing the noses it passes.

Beppino’s has always prided itself on its authenticity. Italian pizzas made by a real Italian. Never mind that Nonno had his first taste of pizza in Australia, as a man of 40. ‘Ah, cara mia,’ he’d sighed, recounting that infamous first taste. ‘It heaven, on a crispy base. And, I knew!’ This sentence always punctured by an exclamation. ‘What I had to do with my life. I said to myself: These Aussies, they think they can make authentic Italian pizza – let them see what a real Italian can do.’ Beppino’s opened mere weeks after this first tasting, and Nonno, along with his wife and daughter, began creating a legacy in their town of three-thousand.

Now the pizzeria is almost empty. Only you, your mother and brother, plus a group of late customers. The chair behind the counter, the chair Nonno resigned himself to when he got too sick to work, emphasises the emptiness of the shop. You slap base after base down on the counter, preparing the final pizzas of the night. Pile them with the vast quantities of toppings that had been Nonno’s joy. After the first season of Masterchef you’d complained; ‘But Nonno, Gary and George say pizzas should have fewer toppings!’ Nonno had merely laughed. ‘What they know, eh? They not authentic Italians!’ The pizzas that night were piled so high that you had ridden home to cut more eggplants, more tomatoes from the garden, as many as you could fit into the basket attached precariously to your bike.

When not in his take-out shop, Nonno could always be found in his other pride and joy – the large veggie patch behind the house. Here he grew all vegetables known to man, and a few you sometimes believed were made up. As a child this was your favourite place to be, digging in the soil alongside your Nonno. His back arched, twisted as he lovingly tended to the garden. Stooped from years of work, yet still fiercely proud. You, his tiny granddaughter, beside him. Overalls covered in dirt, holes worn in the knees, a bright purple hat your crown. He in a checked shirt and jeans, no hat. ‘Like a real Aussie!’ he’d insist, buttoning his shirt each morning. Yes Nonno. Like a real Aussie.

As the illness spread through his bones, your Nonno found he no longer had the strength to garden. Your mother busy with her work, your brother with his studies, and neither interested anyway, the garden fell to you. At first the old man would sit in a chair by the patch, watching you as you worked, calling advice when he felt it was required – which was all the time. ‘Not like that Raffy! Gently! If you don’t love your plants, how they gonna love you?’ The goat circling the garden, prevented from sampling its delights by a chicken-wire fence, would bleat angrily alongside Nonno’s yells. ‘Exactly Mussolini!’ Nonno would exclaim, scratching behind its ears. ‘See, Raffy! Even the goat knows you’re doing it wrong!’ And you, covered in dirt, would try again, show the plants love. Keep them healthy for the grandfather who was not.

When winter came, the old man no longer made his way to the garden. Although he claimed he was ‘As fit as fiddles’, you knew the illness was spreading; no matter how much he denied it, no matter how much you denied it to yourself. Working in the garden, your fingers bitten blue by the cold, the worry seeped out of you and you acknowledged the reality. ‘Take me,’ you whispered to the potatoes, the carrots, the pumpkins. ‘Take me instead.’ That winter, under your care, Nonno’s garden thrived, nurtured with your pain, watered with your tears.

The day finally came when you could no longer deny it, not to each other, not to yourselves. Lying in his bed, eyes shut, breathing laboured, your Nonno acknowledged the inevitable. ‘Ah, cara mia,’ he sighed, his wrinkled hand wrapped around your dirt-encrusted one. ‘I think it is almost my time.’ You couldn’t respond, couldn’t even cry. That night, for the first time, you opened Beppino’s alone, knowing that this was how it would be from now on. You, at home, in the dirt, lost in a maze of vines. You, at the pizzeria, swallowed in puffs of flour, suffocated by the heat of the oven. The same as always, but forever different.

This morning you stood in the doorway to his room, looking at the neatly made bed, at the worn boots, the faded button-up shirts, the jeans full of holes, never to be worn again. ‘You coming?’ Your grief interrupted by the weight of your brother’s hand on your shoulder, heavy, comforting. Although dressed for the occasion, you shook your head. No. You couldn’t go, couldn’t do that. Your mother and brother went to church wearing their best, accepted death with prayers for a man who didn’t believe in God. You, however, tore off your mourning garb and replaced it with your own jeans, one of the old shirts, and faced death in the garden. Your Nonno, forever in the dirt of the cemetery; you in the dirt of his garden.

By the time the funeral is over and people begin converging on the house, your jeans have new holes; the old shirt a large tear in the left sleeve. Ignoring your appearance, your mother insists you come inside, meet the long-lost relatives you didn’t know existed. You watch as your mother delights in the words of a cousin she hasn’t seen since before you were born, or allows an uncle to hug her. Even Ben is getting into the swing of things, politely making small-talk with various relatives, catching up on unshared history. Only you refuse to participate, standing by the windows, your face turned towards the garden. ‘That’s a nice garden,’ a woman comments, standing behind you, a glass of juice in her hand. ‘It was my Nonno’s,’ you explain, not meeting the stranger’s eyes. ‘Oh,’ she takes a surprised sip. ‘I didn’t know he gardened.’ You look at her, at the whole room, with disgust. Not one person from town is here, not one person who knew your Nonno, who knew he gardened, who brought him seeds. Not one person who ate the results of his toils in the dirt off his golden pizzas is here. The wrongness of this makes bile rise in your throat.

Still in torn jeans, ripped shirt, you slip out of the house unnoticed. Clutch desperately at the handlebars of your bike. On the main street is Beppino’s, its neon sign switched off, devastated by the loss of its proprietor as much as you are. You unlock the door. Switch the lights on. Head to the back and grab a well-worn apron from a hook. Scrub your hands until the water runs clear and all signs of the garden are removed. Begin measuring out flour, water, olive oil, yeast – all the things that make the perfect pizza dough. Put it aside to rise. Head to the pantry, where tins of tomatoes, best for making sauce with, still line the walls. You grab tin after tin, empty them in a large pot with all the other necessary ingredients. Leave the sauce to simmer, check on the dough. Everything is ok, nothing requires your attention. You sit down on a stool in front of the counter. There is nothing left to do. Now you can cry.

A bell at the door jangles, and you look up, your eyes rimmed red with grief. For a moment you hope to see your Nonno, a smile pasted to his face as his enters his shop. The smile he always wore when he was here, even after he got sick, goofy and sincere at the same time. But it is not your Nonno. Ben holds a large wash basket in his arms, filled with all kinds

of veggies from the garden. ‘Christ!’ He gently places the basket on the counter and takes the stool next to yours. ‘You did right to get out Raf,’ he says, using a napkin to wipe your eyes, your face. The tenderness and concentration of his features mirrors Nonno’s face from when you were a child and had a scraped knee. Not only the expression, you realise, but also the love behind it. ‘One of the cousins found the last of Nonno’s grappa and they’ve all gotten into it. Except mum, of course. She’s trying to get rid of them now.’ You smile at the memory of Nonno’s grappa – the way it stung your throat, made you cough, the one time you tried it. Nonno’s laugh as he thumped you on the back, cheered. ‘Now, cara mia, you real Italian!’ he’d said, dancing you around the kitchen. Getting up, you grab the basket, take it into the kitchen. Ben follows. Side by side you slice eggplants, zucchinis, tomatoes. Grate balls of mozzarella into snow that forms mountains in the bowl. Stir the sauce and spoon tastes of it into one another’s mouths, as you and your Nonno have done for as long as you can remember. At exactly five Ben switches on the neon sign, turns the notice on the door from closed to open. Rummages around in small cupboard where Nonno kept his papers and receipts. Emerges a few minutes later with the white chef’s cap that Nonno always wore. Places it on your head, tucking a strand of hair behind your ear as he does.

Slowly, customers drizzle in. Ben stands at the counter, taking orders, laughing at the stories people tell about your Nonno. You stay in the kitchen, making pizzas for the people who knew your Nonno best. Soon your mother arrives, joins you. For years she refused to enter this shop, to do the work she hated having to do as a teenager. Now, next to you, she does it with a mixture of happiness and grief, the old resentment gone. Every now and then she looks across the long bench to you and smiles, before turning her attention back to the pizza she is preparing, rolling the base as thin as possible so that it crisps up the way your Nonno insisted it should. The way an authentic Italian pizza should be.

All evening there is a steady flow of customers, but by eleven, the last order is served, lovingly taken home with a group of hungry teenagers – teenagers who, like everyone else in this town, knew and respected your Nonno, the Beppino of Beppino’s. Together, you, your mother and your brother prepare one final pizza for the night. A pizza whose toppings you squabble over. You finally decide to put a bit of everything on it – it would have made Nonno proud. When it comes out of the oven, steaming, you sit at one of the small tables, covered in a red-checked tablecloth. The table seats four, but now there are only three of you. Somehow, with the pizza in front of you, the fourth place does not feel so empty. Your mother slides the sharp blade of the pizza wheel through the steaming concoction. For a moment you all are still. Then Ben grabs a slice. Your mother follows. Finally you. Silently, you eat.