Sunday, November 14, 2010


by H.C. Klingman

I stand at the bars of my cell, awaiting my special dinner. It is to be the Last Supper before my execution. In a splendid display of compassion, the warden said he absolutely guaranteed that my choice of food would be fulfilled. Then, and only then, will he strap me into “Old Sparky,” and pull the switch. I thought about it for a long time before selecting.
Now I may be excitable, but I’m not as bad as they said at the trial. And I know my food. There are some things you don’t mess with, like traditional recipes that have been unchanged for centuries. But in America, any unpardonable adulteration of food that violates gastronomic tradition is allowed because they believe in free speech.
Sure I bopped that chef at the Ucelli Pazzo. That stronzo deserved it for serving me a Saltimbocca a la Romana with spinach between the Prosciutto and the Scallopine. What a sacrilegious outrage. Even the lowliest kitchen goomba in Italy knows that it is Salvia that goes in there. Sage, sage, sage! But before you judge me, consider the details of my case honestly.
The Ucelli is not my favorite restaurant but I drop in every once in awhile. I know they get good veal, seldom found in America, where the natives are hooked on beef. So I ask the waiter if they can do me a nice Saltimbocca. He is Italian and says, “ Certo, ma shu.” Which means, “Certainly, why sure.” Basically you trust an Italian on food because eating is a rite more sacrosanct than prayer in church; a matter of personal pride and national integrity.
I forgot that Italians never say no, and that waiters are basically paid to sell food. (The tips are for delivering it.) My delight in the dish that is called “somersault in the mouth” was dashed with the first bite. “What the hell is this,” I thundered, pointing to spinach where the sage should be. The waiter knew danger when he saw it and took off for the kitchen with me in hot pursuit. I was stopped by the big chef, a stand-in for Primo Carnera. I called him a gugguzzo and accused him of high treason, of being Un-Italian, and told him he was even too fricken dumb to boil noodles, and his veal could go do somersaults up his culo. “Go back to being a bus-boy,” I jeered, and gave him both horns, the sign of the cornuto.
Then that maladetto went crazy. He swung at me with a meat cleaver so I picked up this pan of spinach and threw it in his face. Primo stumbled and fell backward hitting his head and he goes down for the full count. But it wasn’t the blow that did him in. The jerk died of a heart attack.
Greenbaum, my lawyer, pleaded self-defense, and accidental death. Judge O’Leary ruled homicide. Justice O’Malley confirmed on appeal. Sensitivity to the nuances of food culture cannot be expected from Irish judges. They struck down the Italian defense; that anyone who screws around with a Saltimbocca has committed a grave provocation, which permits a certain amount of agitated response. “Murder first,” they said, and Greenbaum went to the Governor for clemency. There was still no answer from the State House.
In the prison library I looked up the Law, and it says a 36 hour humanitarian stay of execution can be granted at the warden’s request. I had to play for extra time, so I told him my menu choice was Saltimbocca, made with sage, the real Italian way. I figure that would send him on a wild goose chase. The hot seat would stay cool a few hours more.
Now, down Death Row, they are coming. The 36 hours are about up. The Warden, and Greenbaum are approaching with a trustee wheeling a food cart toward my cell. Uh-Oh, time’s up.
The warden beams. “We tried to fill your request over at the Ucelli restaurant but they still didn’t have sage. But have a look at this. With a flourish, he removes a lid, and there before my eyes is a masterpiece of La Cucina Italiana, an incredibly beautiful sauteed Saltimbocca, with genuine sage in the middle. I am confused. Nobody in this town can make anything like it.
Greenberg says, “Before you eat, read the card.” I pick it up. It is on heavy stock, crested with the State Seal. It says simply, “From my personal kitchen. Buon Appetito. You were right. It was indeed justifiable homicide. Enjoy. Go home.” The signature was “Anthony Giorgio Cosimano, Governor.”
I said, “The uncondemned will now eat a hearty meal. ” Everybody smiled. But I didn’t let them have a single bite.