Matteo strolled towards the Piazzetta, watching the sun lower over the Gran Caffè.
It was a perfect spring afternoon with only a single cloud drifting across the Mediterranean sky. Warm bands of sunlight cast prisms in the waves. Bright pink bougainvillea blossoms fluttered in the cool breeze. With the last of the ferries leaving the port, Capri was restored to the beautiful island Matteo once adored.
The clock tower struck six. Moments later, he heard the sound of sandals flopping on the concrete steps.
Excerpt 2 – Dolce – The Offer
by Ellie Bleu
The late afternoon sun poured on the woman’s tanned face and long wavy hair, then on her petite hourglass frame. As she stepped closer, Matteo recognized her dimpled cheeks and gentle brown eyes.
“Buona sera, Emily.”
Her smile widened. “Buona sera, Matteo.”
She reached for the railing and dropped her straw tote. Matteo lunged forward just in time.
“Here,” he offered. “Let me help you.”
Matteo peeked inside the bag. Hidden underneath the freshly cut roses were lemons, eggplants, and ripe cherry tomatoes. He grinned, knowing immediately what to make.
“Thank you for coming,” Emily said.
“Of course.” Matteo kissed her warm cheek. “It’s good to see you.”
“I’m sorry I was late.”
“I didn’t mind waiting,” Matteo quickly replied. “I only wish it was under different circumstances.”
Emily faintly smiled back. “Me too.”
Matteo followed Emily down the narrow cobblestone street, all the while admiring the elegant way she walked. There was something about her that caught his attention. It wasn’t just that she was pretty; she had always been. What made Emily more beautiful was her sense of calm. She looked like she had gained more perspective than even he had at his age.
When they reached Dolce, Emily struggled to unlock the door. Matteo shifted the tote to his other side and reached for her trembling hand. Her fingers grazed the scar on his palm, and he let go. Matteo wondered if she remembered what had happened to him.
Emily bit down on her lip. “The key’s stuck.”
“Let me show you a trick.” Matteo took the keys. “You have to pull down on the knob while you turn the key.”
“It worked,” Emily grinned.
Even before entering, Matteo could smell the fragrance of blossoms. Alina would insist on buying fresh flowers for the café. He argued that they took away from the aroma of the meal. But now, Matteo couldn’t imagine Dolce without roses at each of the rustic tables.
Matteo sighed, “It looks just as I remembered.”
“Can I take your coat?” Emily asked.
Matteo nodded and handed her the keys. He noticed Alina’s wool coat and paused. With a heavy heart, Matteo remembered Alina’s stunning smile when she first tried on the jacket. After all this time, he thought, Alina had kept the first gift he had given her.
“Are you all right?” Emily reached for his jacket and hung it on the wall.
“Yes.” Matteo forced a smile. “So, how’s work? I bet you’re anxious to get back to New York.”
“I’m not going back.” Emily took the basket from his hand. “Just give me a minute to put this away.”
“Why don’t I cook tonight?” Matteo suggested.
Emily shook her head. “Tonight’s your night off.”
“I’d like to help.”
“It’s taken care of chef,” Emily said with a wink. “Make yourself at home.”
The evening was already off to an unsettling start. Matteo had planned on cooking a three-course meal, wowing her with his skills, and finish the night with a light crème brûlée. After sharing a gourmet meal, she would understand his intentions and take his generous offer. Now Matteo had no inkling of what to do.
As he surveyed the café, Matteo projected the cost of the repairs. Past the French doors, he noticed the terrace no longer had tables or chairs. Matteo walked over to the window and was shocked. The cracked concrete flooring looked like it was about to fall into the sea.
Emily walked out of the kitchen with two glasses. For a brief moment, Matteo stared at her, still stunned at the woman she had become. As Emily stepped closer, he noticed a bottle of prosecco in her hands. She carefully poured the sparkling wine and handed him a glass.
“To Dolce’s success,” Emily said with a smile.
“Salute,” Matteo toasted back.
When he took a sip, he was pleasantly surprised. The delicate bubbles were enjoyable, and although the wine was surprisingly fresh, the aroma was uncharacteristically complex.
Matteo pulled out a chair for Emily before joining her at the table. They gazed out towards the stucco villas hugging the terrain. Rare birds chirped, and Matteo heard the familiar church bells of Saint Stephen’s Cathedral. He could picture Alina standing on the terrace, laughing with the guests in her carefree mood.
Emily leaned her elbows on the table and swirled the wine in her glass before taking a drink.
“How have you been since Alina left?” Matteo asked.
“A little lonely,” Emily said with a weak smile. “It will be different once I reopen the café. I was surprised you had the time to visit.”
“I wanted to come before,” Matteo searched for the right words, “but Alina said it would be best-”
“It’s okay,” Emily shrugged her shoulders. “I know you’re a busy man.”
“I always make time for family.”
Emily nodded. “Alina said that too.”
Emily squinted her eyes towards the sea. Her long cheekbones and pouty lips were similar to Alina’s. She even smelled like the jasmine perfume that Alina used to wear. Matteo waited for the wave of sadness to hit him. But for some reason, he was happier in Emily’s presence.
Matteo’s throat tightened, and his hands clammed up. He mustered his courage and reached into his back pocket.
“I have something for you,” Matteo said.
“What is it?” she asked.
Emily smiled at Matteo as if he were giving her a thoughtful card. He hesitated before giving her the envelope. She unfolded the document and looked back at him confused.
“It’s an offer,” Matteo said. “A sizable one considering the condition of the café. I don’t want you to have any unforeseeable debt.”
“What are you planning to do with Dolce?”
“Well,” Matteo faltered. “You have to understand the place is falling apart. I’ll have to tear it down before summer. I assure you it will be rebuilt and running by the end of next year.”
He anticipated Emily to quickly decline. Alina had probably given her an explicit warning not to sell Dolce. Instead, Emily quietly folded the paper and set it aside.
“Take your time to think about it,” Matteo said.
“I want you to try something,” Emily said.
Before Matteo could say another word, Emily pushed away from the table with a smile. He watched her move through the kitchen doors and sighed. After a few minutes, Matteo wondered what Emily could be making. Whatever it was, he told himself, humor her.
Emily returned with gazpacho in martini glasses. To Matteo’s surprise, she added enough olive oil to make the soup a perfect orange-red.
“You know,” Emily smiled, “Alina taught me this recipe. Can you guess the secret ingredient?”
She stared at him, wide-eyed, waiting for his reaction. Matteo picked up the glass and took a sip. The vegetables and olive oil tasted fresh. He enjoyed the coarse sea salt on top. It was the sweetness of the acidity that was unexpected.
“You didn’t use red wine vinegar.”
“It’s apple cider,” Emily grinned. “Do you like it? Alina said it balanced the garlic taste.”
“It has potential.”
“Just like the café,” Emily said, sitting down. “I think a fresh coat of paint will help. Don’t you?”
Matteo felt a sense of dread come over him. Emily had the full intention to take over her sister’s café. While the gazpacho she made was superb, Matteo doubted she knew the first thing about cooking or running a kitchen.
“It will take more than paint,” Matteo said. “I noticed cracks on the terrace, and you need a bar. With the seating you currently have, you’ll scarcely net profit come this June.”
“I know,” Emily sighed. “I’m calling a contractor tomorrow to get an estimate on the damaged floor. Once it’s fixed, we can put four small tables out on the terrace and still have room for an outdoor bar.”
Matteo finished the antipasti. He tried to think of how to convince Emily to sell him the café. The problem was, Matteo didn’t know what Emily wanted from Dolce, or from him for that matter.
“I brought saffron back from my last trip to Florence,” Emily said. “I don’t know. There’s something about it that pairs nicely with the almond Fontina.”
“Almond Fontina?” Matteo asked.
Matteo sipped on his glass of prosecco, pondering if Emily expected a higher payment for the café. She certainly had expensive taste.
Matteo reached for the wine bottle and saw that it was aged. Usually, prosecco tasted best when served within its first year. The one that Emily had picked out matured like an excellent bottle of champagne.
“Where did you find this?” Matteo asked.
“Valdobbiadene,” Emily replied. “That’s where I found a supplier for nut-based cheeses. The wine supplier’s sister even has a cultured plant-based butter.”
Matteo nearly choked as he spewed out the wine.
“Emily, you can’t be serious. Are you aware that this is Italy? Not to mention, the cost of shipping the cheese and butter in the first place.”
“I factored it into the menu price. I’m only using seasonal produce, so it keeps the cost down.”
“No one will eat it,” Matteo insisted.
Emily shook her head. “Alina’s dream was to keep the café menu as she planned. You weren’t there before her surgery. I promised her I’d at least try.”
“Emily, I understand how it could be hard to let go of a place that Alina loved. But you’re not a trained chef. The property could be something great if I rebuilt it. And you could start all over with the money I’m offering you.”
“Just hear me out,” Emily said. “You liked the gazpacho. I’m willing to bet you’ll love the next three courses as well. If I’m right, you’ll understand why we have to keep the tasting menu as it is.”
“And if I’m not convinced?” Matteo asked.
“Alina told me that I needed to trust your judgment. I’ll do whatever you think is best.”
“So you’ll accept my offer?”
“Just give me a chance,” Emily said. “At least until dessert.”
“All right,” Matteo said. “By the end of the night, I want everything finalized.”
Emily smiled. “You’re going to love the risotto saffrano.”
Matteo shook his head and smirked. It was his trademark dish; one that even his chef in Napoli struggled to perfect.
Thank you for reading.