Matt had been a few minutes early. He hated being late. He had been shown straight to the booked table. And now he was waiting for Louise to arrive. Matt would be surprised if she was on time; she was usually ‘fashionably’ late. It was a trait that had used to wind him up, but as time went by, he let it go more. And he had picked up the habit of giving Louise a time fifteen minutes before the actual time they were due to be anywhere.
As he waited for Louise to arrive, Matt picked up the menu. More for something to do to fill the time in, rather than to pick something ready for when she did turn up.
He hadn’t been to this restaurant before. It had only been open a couple of months. Another Italian restaurant in an already saturated market in the town. He wondered how long it would last. But he had heard good things about it, so perhaps one of the older, more established restaurants might get pushed out, or even one of the chains. Non one would be sad if Prezzo were to disappear. With its uninspired menu, their habit of microwaving pre-prepared food instead of cooking from fresh and the surly staff, it wouldn’t be a loss to anyone if they withdrew from town. Apart from to the surly staff that is.
At the top of the menu was soup. How many hundreds of menus had he seen that on? It was the kind of thing that would be a fall-back option. A safe choice if there was nothing better in the starter or appetiser list. It was cream of tomato, which gave it more of a chance of being picked compared to other flavours. If he was lucky it would be straight out of a can of Heinz. You couldn’t go wrong with that. There was only the once where he had had a better tasting soup than the Heinz tomato soup. A little family run restaurant next to the River Camel in Wadebridge in Cornwall. That was an Italian, they had a tomato and basil soup to die for. He had been tempted to cancel his main course and have two more bowls of the soup instead. If it wasn’t over two hundred miles from home, he would go there once a week just for the soup.
Matt’s eyes flicked straight over the words anti pasto. He had been put off for life with one he was served whilst on holiday in St Lucia. He had though they couldn’t go wrong with anti-pasto, only for the plate to turn up with three large lettuce leaves. One topped with prawns, the second with crab, and the final one with mussels. No cheese, no nice Italian meats, no olives, no bread. Nothing edible. He hated fish; the smell, the texture, the taste. He felt ill on the few rare occasions he had had any way back in the dim and distant past. And to top it off, between the anti-pasto starter - which he had pushed across to his partner Caroline - and the main course turning up, Caroline broke up with him. There was still a week left of the fortnight’s holiday on the island. The longest week of his life.
With his distaste for fish Matt skipped the three fish options. At least there were non fish options on this menu. Not like the time on honeymoon with his ex-wife Josephine. When the all-inclusive buffet had a sign up saying it was Margarita fish day, he hadn’t bargained on it meaning every dish had fish in it. All the starters were fish. The mains were fish. The sides were fish infused. Even the fucking desserts were fish based. And when he had asked if they had anything without fish in it, they looked at him as if he was the madman. It was fish day, why would there be anything without fish in it? He was glad they were out on a trip the following week when it was fish day again.
Halloumi bites. Always a strong possibility. You could never have enough halloumi. As he had proved when he went on holiday to Cyprus with Louise, and their friends Andrew and Martin. From putting slices through the toaster for breakfast, a side at lunch, and some with dinner at night, there was only the one meal all week where he didn’t have halloumi – the night they went to the Indian restaurant. The longer the week went on, the more incredulous Andrew and Martin became. And the happier Matt was.
Of course, there were the bread options on the menu. Matt was never one for the bruschetta. Too many healthy-looking salad vegetables on it for his liking. Dough balls could always be a possibility. As could garlic bread. This menu had garlic pizza bread, three choices – plain, with mozzarella, and with mozzarella and pepperoni. He would probably go for that. It reminded him of his last year living in Manchester, when he lived in the flat above the newsagents in Burnage. There was a whole host of takeaways surrounding the flat. The pizzeria directly opposite had pizzas starting at a fiver. But the garlic pizza bread with cheese and pepperoni on was only two pound fifty for the same size. A no brainer for him. He probably got to triple figures of them in the year he lived there.
Matt looked around. There was still no sign of Louise, and he wondered if he would end up eating alone. It had happened to him once. He had gone on a date with a woman who worked for a different company in the same building as him in Manchester. He was meeting her for a drink first, but his housemates had been trying to get him to postpone due to the lairy mood he’d been in all day, but Matt had thought, what was the worst that could happen. Well, when he went to the bar to get a drink for his date, there, stood next to him at the bar was his ex-wife’s matron of honour. He wouldn’t have thought it possible. Surely, she would have still been back in Leicester as well as his ex. But there she was. Matt made a couple of comments before returning to his date. Only for the matron of honour To come storming over to throw her drink over him. But she missed and soaked Matt’s date instead. And having missed then threw the glass at him. That missed as well and went straight through the plate glass window behind him. All of which he found hysterical. His date didn’t, and he didn’t see her again. He went to the restaurant by himself that night. Which was another Italian one come to think of it.
He moved on to looking at the mains. Pasta dishes, pizzas, fish again, grill choices. There were always lots of meals on an Italian menu that sounded lovely. When asked he might say he was thinking of having the tortellini, or the baked penne with chilli and nduja, but when it came down to ordering the default choices would come out. It was a long-standing joke with Louise that when they went to an Ask, Matt would rattle off a few potential options, Louise would say ‘sounds nice’ to them, and then the waiter or waitress would turn up. Matt would open his mouth and the word calzone would come out. Apart from the one time when Louise beat him to it and ordered one of his mooted choices for him before he got the word calzone out.
Or if he wasn’t going for a bread followed by more bread day he would go for the lasagne. In fact, he would go for that off most pub menus as well. Somewhat of a creature of habit. Always used to being able to order the same things off any menu in an Italian restaurant in the UK. He did come unstuck in Vienna though. He’d trawled through the menu only to find no pizza (or bread of any kind), and gone to his backup of lasagne to find they didn’t have that either. He had ended up with gnocchi. Not a bad third choice, but very dry there. Not a patch on the gorgeous gnocchi served in melted cheese he had had in the converted crypt in Shrewsbury.
Nowadays Matt didn’t look at the prices on the menu. He had simple tastes anyway so it wouldn’t be as if he would be getting a dish with truffle shavings or the 20oz fillet steak. Although if he did it wouldn’t matter, he could afford it now. Not like the days when he was married and only just surviving. Going out for a meal with Josephine did lead him to a more varied set of dishes. He couldn’t bring himself to admit to his wife that they were stony broke, so once out he would only have a main, and it would be whatever the cheapest dish on the menu was. He would then slope off to the counter to pay so she couldn’t see him paying it with little bits off half a dozen cards and the odds clods of change in his pockets.
Matt may have been watching the costs in those days, but at least by then he knew what an actual restaurant was. His early dating had included taking Mandy to a Pizza Hut claiming it was an Italian restaurant. And taking Samantha to a Burger King. As far as he knew when he was a teenager, anywhere you could get food and sit inside eating it was a restaurant. He’d never been anywhere different growing up. Looking back, he could see why those early relationships never went very far.
The skinflint routine had led to the time they were in Scarborough for the weekend. One they couldn’t really afford, and it was a meal out in another Italian restaurant. Matt was in luck as the lasagne was the cheapest main meal on the menu. It looked insipid to him when it turned up and so after letting them grate half a block of parmesan over the top of it, he’d added a load of salt and pepper to it before starting on it. Only for a bloke at a neighbouring table to comment to his date (who looked as if she just wanted to get out of there; if it was their first date, it would be their first and last) about how anyone could put seasoning on their food before tasting it. Matt leant across and said to the bloke, ‘perhaps if you spent more time paying attention to your date and less to what other people were doing then she wouldn’t look so terminally bored and have one eye on the door’. The bloke’s date and Josephine both laughed. It was the best thing about the meal. And the trip to Scarborough.
Matt looked at his watch and glanced around. Louise was later than usual. He smiled to himself and thought of the fish and chip restaurant in Harrogate where it had been nearly half an hour before she turned up. But that was partly his own fault for being a numpty. And both of them for saying what they thought the other wanted to hear. She had gone to get changed and freshen up at the hotel. He thought she had the hump with him and so didn’t go back. She turned up looking stunning, and he was sat there in his sweat stained t-shirt and shorts from walking around in the burning sun all afternoon. It looked as if she was a lady who had taken pity on a tramp and invited him for dinner.
He moved on to have a quick look at the desserts. He liked it when they were on the main menu so he could have a look before ordering anything. It there were some strong dessert choices then it could influence the ordering. He might pass on a starter, or get a smaller main. There was the usual fodder, tiramisu (which he didn’t get at all), cheesecake, chocolate fudge cake, a fruit tart, and a back to the seventies selection of ice cream flavours – chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla, probably straight out of super-sized tubs of Neapolitan.
Nothing jumped out at him from the menu. Not like the fried dough sticks in sugar and smothered in warm Nutella like at Fatto a Mano in Hove. Or the immense Snickers sundae at the pub in Lamb’s Green. It was a shame, so many places let themselves down with poor dessert options.
The waitress came over, ‘Are you ready to order sir?’
Matt was about to say he was still waiting for Louise when it hit him. He lowered the menu and looked at the table. It was only set for one. Him. Louise wasn’t coming this evening. She wasn’t late. She was never coming again. Their last meal out had been her last meal ever. She had just said how lovely the sea bass had been when she keeled over and planted face first onto the fish skin on her plate. A massive coronary, and just like that she was gone. Somewhat unsurprisingly that had been at an Italian restaurant as well.
Three months had passed since then, and this was Matt’s first visit to a restaurant since Louise had died. He ordered the garlic pizza bread with mozzarella and pepperoni and the lasagne. Just about managing to get the words out to the waitress. And when she walked away, he sat there and sobbed.
The last time he had cried in a restaurant had been the night he had proposed to Josephine and she had said yes. That had been in Leicester; on the Meridian Leisure Park; a Frankie & Bennies. What a surprise. Another Italian restaurant.