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Serial: Down the River – Chapter Four

I’m finally revisiting the characters from The River City Chronicles nine years after their original timeline. I’ll be running the series weekly here on my blog, and then will release it in book form at the end of the run. Hope you enjoy catching up with all your faves and all their new secrets!

The Ragazzi guys return…

< Read Chapter Three | Read Chapter Five >

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Down the River Header

Chapter Four
Papà and Babbo

Diego Bellei laid out his ingredients with care across the wide marble countertop. Italian flour from Corti Brothers in a large white ceramic cannister covered in lemons—always better than that bleached powder Americans used. A blue ceramic chalice of water. A pinch-bowl full of salt. A bottle of Kirkland olive oil, which even the Italians here in Sacramento rated the best locally available. A cannister of sugar. And a metal container of beer yeast.

The marble was cold to the touch, and the whole place felt… empty, despite Gio banging around, prepping the other workstations around the wide room for the class he’d be teaching in half an hour.

The Raven Tavern next door to Ragazzi had gone out of business during the pandemic, and Matteo had worked out a deal with the bank to buy it on a short sale. It had taken almost eighteen months to gut the place and set it up as a proper training kitchen, but he could now teach ten pairs of students at once, each with their own countertop, sink, and oven.

Gio dropped a stainless steel bowl on one of the counters, creating a racket.

“You’re a menacer.”

“It’s menace, papà, and if you can find someone else to help you out for free, be my guest.” He flashed his trademark Bellei grin, white teeth almost flashing.

“Porco cane, I hate when you call me that.” He grinned in spite of himself. In nine years, his English had improved greatly, but Gio now spoke it like he’d been born to it. It wasn’t fair. And truth be told, he loved being the young man’s father. Just not having to be reminded about it. It made him feel old.

Gio finished setting up the last station. They’d have a full house tonight.

So why do I feel so empty?

He knew why. Carmelina. She’d taken the last of her things to her new kitchen at Pane e Tulipani, and the clutter was gone. He should be grateful. How many times had he complained about her leaving his kitchen a mess after her early-morning endeavors? There was always flour scattered about and a couple dishes left forgotten in the sink. But she’d been a part of his life here for so long. If felt… strange. Like a lost limb.

“Have you given any more thought to my proposal?” Gio pulled up a chair and propped his head on his hands, his pandemic hair a messy mop on his head.

Diego frowned. “It’s… a lot to considering.” In truth, he’d been too preoccupied with other things, including the other thing, and he hadn’t had much time to give his son’s idea much thought.

“C’mon, papà. This place is great. Everyone loves it. What you and Babbo have done to bring Italian food, culture, and the language to this city is nothing short of miraculous. Why not share it? If you franchised, you could help do the same in a bunch of other places.” He fidgeted, as if stuffed so full of the promise of the thing that it was itching to get out of him.

Ah, the energy of the young. Even a pandemic hadn’t dulled Gio’s lust for life, for something new. “I’ll talk it over with Babbo.” And why does Matteo get to be Babbo?

“Thanks, papone.” Gio grinned and looked around the room. “Full class tonight?”

“Alla grande.” He leaned back against the stainless-steel counter and looked at Giovani, really looked at him. His unexpected son had grown into a strong, confident, intelligent man, full of plans for his own life. And theirs, apparently. “Sono molto orgolioso di te, Giovanni.”

His son blushed. “Proud of you too, pop. Gotta run. Babbo needs me in the restaurant.”

“Go. Thanks for the help.” Diego busied himself with the handouts, making sure each station was ready to go for his new class.


So there was a little Italian in him yet. Diego grinned. Not such a bad life we’ve built here. He hoped it would stay that way.


Matteo was checking inventory in the kitchen, enjoying the pause between the lunch and dinner crowd. Ragazzi was closed between three and five to give them time to prepare for the next meal.

It had been an unusually busy day so far, with four large groups coming in from local businesses. It was good to have them, but sometimes these big parties strained their small waitstaff.

It had become increasingly difficult to find good workers, as inflation had taken a toll on their bottom line. They had raised their pay several times over the last few years as the new minimum wage laws took effect, and thankfully their operation was doing well enough to afford it. But he shuddered to think of the toll those market forces were taking on some of his friendly competitors.

The door between the restaurant and the new training kitchen next door swung open, and Gio practically bounded into the room.

“Papà’s got it all in hand over there. What do we need to do here?”

Matteo hid a grin. Gio had grown into a fine young man, following in his father’s footsteps. “The front of house is prepped. Everything ready in the kitchen?”

Gio took a minute before answering, biting his lip, clearly considering the question. “I think so. We had some extra mussels in the kitchen from last weekend that were about to go bad, so I’m doing a special ravioli. Natasha’s coming in a little early to help me prep them. Oh, and we have some extra apples, so I made some torta sbriciolata.”

Matteo’s mouth watered. The crumbly apple cake was one of his favorites, and Gio knew it. The young man had taken to being a chef as if he were born to it. And maybe he was—he was Diego’s son, after all. “That sounds perfectly.”

Perfect, Babbo. Perfectly is an adverb.” Gio winked at him. His stepson had long since surpassed his own near-mastery of the English language. Gio’s children, if he had any, would be American to the core.

The thought both thrilled and saddened him. “Sounds like you have it well in hand. I’m going to count down the drawer. You got everything out here?” He was proud of his mastery of that most American of words, got.

“Yep. I’ll call you if I need you.” He started pulling out the ingredients for the ravioli.

Matteo removed the cash drawer and retreated to his office.

Thirty minutes later, he was staring at the pile of cash, perplexed.

Most people paid by credit card these days—swipe, insert, tap, or Apple Pay and the like—but Ragazzi still took in a fair amount of those old green bills. And for the third time in a week, the count was off.

Once was a mistake. Twice a co-incidence. But three times?

We have ourselves a thief.

La Spianata Romagnola

Spianata Romagnola is a traditional flatbread similar to foccacia that’s popular in the Emiglia Romagna region of Italy. Often made with rosemary and salt, it’s perfect with salami and cheese.

2 cups wheat flour

2 cups coarse wholemeal flour

1 ½ cups water

1 ¼ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon malt OR 1 teaspoon sugar

2 ¼ tablespoons olive oil

4/5 teaspoon of brewer’s yeast

For use after preparation:

2 tablespoons of olive oil

1 sprig of rosemary

Sea salt to taste

Sift the two flours together in a large bowl. In a small bowl, put the brewer’s yeast and add the malt (or sugar) and then a little of the water. Then mix it until the yeast is entirely blended in. In the remaining water, dissolve the salt and mix in the olive oil. Add the yeast mix to the sifted flour and gently mix it in with the tips of your fingers, then add in the water, salt and oil, and mix everything together thoroughly.

Once the ingredients are combined, continue to work the dough on a pastry board for ten minutes, until it is completely blended. Sprinkle a little flour in another large bowl and set the dough inside, and cover the bowl with plastic wrap.

Put the bowl in the oven with the light on but power off, and let it rise for at least two hours. The dough should double in size.

Use a cookie sheet or baking tray with a piece of parchment paper, and sprinkle on two tablespoons of olive oil. Then put on the dough, and use your hands to flatten it and extend it to the edges of the pan. Use your fingertips to make a series of small impressions across the surface of the dough, and then sprinkle the sea salt and rosemary over the top. Put it back in the oven to rise, with the light on and power off, for 30-40 minutes more.

Bake at 400 degrees for about 30 minutes until the bread is golden brown. Place it on a wire rack, and cut and serve it as soon as it cools.

Store any leftovers for up to two days in a Ziplock bag to preserve the moisture.

< Read Chapter Three | Read Chapter Five >

Like what you read? if you haven’t tried it yet, check out book one, The River City Chronicles, here.

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