All they’ve ever wanted was a brother.
New Beginnings, Old Memories
It was Mikey’s first day at his new job. Columbia University—he was cooking with the big shots. As he walked in the door to his very own new sub shop, he was wrecked with nerves. Would he be good enough? Would he make his grandma proud? As he searched for a way to escape his torment, he reminisced on his past.
Mikey had a troubled childhood. He was born in Brooklyn, but hardly remembers much of those days. The thing is, Mikey’s family was in the mob. That’s right: the mob. Like in The Sopranos. It was rough. From what his mom tells him (not much), there was a lot of strife in their neighborhood around the time of Mikey’s birth. Your typical mob war—hits, garbage runs, gambling, extortion. Some uncles lost here and there. Tires slashed, wives scared. Bullet holes in the wallpaper—you get the picture. When Mikey’s first teddy bear was castrated, his mom was out. There was no way in hell she was raising her son in that environment. So, she up and left.
From then on, Mikey grew up in the good old gray abyss of Staten Island. He was raised by Special K and Pedialyte, spending his weekday afternoons playing by himself on the carpet of his mother’s room, who was never home. As he progressed throughout childhood, he developed a penchant for one special room in the house: the kitchen. He concocted five-course meals from vegetables he grew from boxes in his closet, bread he stole from the supermarket, and cows he slaughtered in the backyard. Each meal? A sandwich. Or in other words, handheld heaven. Only one thing was missing: someone special to share it with.
I Cooka Da Pizza
Growing up, seeing all the chaos all around him, Donny wanted nothing more than a companion—somebody he could relate to, somebody who would always stand by his side. His dad was always there for him, but he was busy running the pizza mob. Donny spent his free time at home alone, doing Italian hand gestures to himself in a mirror until he developed the hand dexterity of a professional mime.
One day, Donny was hand-rolling some pizza dough when he turned on the TV and caught a glimpse of the worst, most offensive piece of t*levision known to man: Cake Boss. What cake were they making? Chocolate? Vanilla? Red velvet? No—pizza. Pizza cake? Donny had seen families rise and fall, he’d seen cousins betray each other, he’d seen pizza overcooked so badly that all 20 regions of Italy would cry out in pain. But pizza cake? Where was the stability? Where was the tradition? Mamma mia, the blasphemy, the shame!
That moment changed the trajectory of Donny’s life. He lifted his hands into the air, spun the pizza dough around and around his head, and flung it into the TV screen. The TV shattered into a million little pieces, and then the pizza dough formed a black hole and sucked in all the TV shards. Donny immediately poured out five liters of pizza sauce onto the shard-dough and ate it all at a speed that would rival that of Joey Chestnut. But you see—Joey Chestnut wasn’t Italian.
From that moment on, Donny became a pizza-making machine. Every meal he ate from then on was pizza. He was able to take any inanimate object, slap on some dough, and cook a delicious meal. Microplastics? Pizza. Toxic waste? Pizza. Chemical radiation? Pizza. Eventually, the EPA hired him to pizza-fy landfills and polluted wastelands. Then they passed him over to the UN, where he traveled all over the world to pizza-fy war-torn areas strewn with fallen debris. Donny subsequently won 15 Nobel
Peace Pizza Prizes for his ability to turn literally anything into pizza. But there was one place he wanted to clean up more than anything: Columbia University. Donny’s dream had always been to pizza-fy the remains of the Manhattan Project. Even just thinking about the prospect of pizza-fying Columbia was too much for Donny—he felt a strong familial tie to the place, one that not even pizza could explain. So, he sent in his application to be a chef, prayed to the pizza gods, and waited.
Mambo Italiano: A Budding Friendship
It was the first day of NCOP: New Chef Orientation Program. Mikey and Donny had gotten accepted to Columbia Dining (duh), but were nervous nonetheless. Why? Because NCOP was being taught by the best: Celebrity chef Robert Irvine.
Good ol’ Bobby Boy was a stone-cold fox. He towered above all the NCOP participants at a bestial 5′10.5”, the maximum height of any Italian American chef. Bobby Boy licked his chops, hungry for some good food—but especially sandwiches or pizza. His husky voice thundered, “Contestants. In order to pass NCOP, you must make a dish. But not just any dish: your signature dish. This is your time to shine, babygirls.” Bobby Boy winked.
The gaggle of chefs got to work, sweating and crying and throwing up in fear. Some hemmed and hawed over their creations, rifling through their ingredients and agonizing over what dish to prepare. But two chefs in particular were locked in from the start. They knew exactly what to make, and exactly how to make it.
Mikey was so intensely focused on assembling the perfect sub—the lettuce, anchovies, raw meat, dog kibble, human flesh—that he didn’t notice the man staring over his shoulder. Donny didn’t want to stare, but he couldn’t help but notice his chef companion’s sublime sandwich creation. He liked the way the surly Italian went about his chef activities—his fluid, comfortable movement at the preparatory station, like he knew the ingredients and the sandwich better than he knew himself. It reminded Donny, he realized, of himself.
After drizzling the supple sandwich with a fragrant stream of balsamic vinegar, Mikey stepped back from his sandwich assembly station, smiling as he gazed upon his handiwork and letting loose an effervescent “bada-bing, bada-boom!” from his thick Italian lips.
All of a sudden, Mikey looked up. Is that…another Italian? he thought. He locked eyes with Donny, who was wiping wet threads of drool from his gaping mouth. A warm feeling came over Mikey. Something about this slobbering Italian chef made Mikey feel as though he was home. As if he was among family.
Mikey wanted to approach this man, to admire the taco meat pizza Donny’d constructed at his own station, but just then, from the front of the room, celebrity chef Robert “Bobby Boy” Irvine clapped his hands together and declared, “Alright, chefs, time for the technical challenge!!”
Oh no. The technical challenge. Whatever will they do! They were scared. Petrified, even. Mikey started sweating so much his third toe came off. Donny went bald. Under the table, their hands grazed. They pulled away, but each of them wanted to hold on. To squeeze each other’s gentle, moist skin, remind each other that it would be okay. As long as they were Italian, they would stick together. Fuggetafuckingboutit.
Bobby Boy cleared his throat, his Adam’s Gabagool bouncing up and down in his throat. “Contestants—turn to the chef beside you. Your challenge is to make their signature dish. May the odds be ever in your favor.” Bobby Boy Irvine winked again, that sly dog. He winked twice more. God, why was he always winking… Like he knew something that everyone else in the room didn’t.
Mikey offered a firm, Italian hand to Donny. “Mikey,” he said. Donny introduced himself in kind and accepted the handshake, which was as firm as a good lasagna. Both men were shy, but they were in their element, concocting their own personalized culinary masterpieces, and they recognized an energy in each other that resonated with both of them.
“Are you from around here?” Mikey asked.
“You could say that,” Donny replied. “I go from place to place, always with one goal in mind: cooking the best pizza this side of Raffaele Esposito, the alleged creator of pizza!”
“I respect that,” Mikey responded with a crisp head nod. “That’s how I feel about subs. They’re my life’s passion, ever since the mob wars changed my life forever.”
“I respect that, too,” Donny said. “It’s nice to meet you, Mikey!
“Well, I suppose we should get to cooking each other’s signature dish, me with your sandwich and you with my pizza,” Mikey said.
It’s-a Me, Your Long-Lost Brother (We Were Separated At Birth Due To The Mob Wars, But Our Shared Passion For Food And Family Has Brought Us Back Together)
Seconds turned to minutes, minutes turned to hours— the chefs were allotted six hours so that they could truly focus all of their energies and patience on putting together the best possible meals. Mikey and Donny chatted back and forth, but their main energy was focused on preparing masterpieces for each other. They executed their culinary objectives with the rhythm and grace of professional dancers and the precision of ruthless snipers.
“Why did you start making sandwiches, anyway?” Donny asked while they worked.
“All my life, I wanted a brother,” Mikey responded. “Every sandwich I ever made, every sub I ever concocted…I was trying to fill a special place in my heart. And those sandwiches got me exactly where I am today.”
“Time’s up, chefs!” Bobby Boy Irvine announced from the front of the room. The two Italian men turned towards ecah other.
“I made you something,” Donny said slyly, presenting Mikey with the completed sandwich.
“An Italian hero!” Mikey whispered, in awe. “It’s-a beautiful. This was my grandma’s favorite.” He laughed slightly. “I made you something too.” From his back pocket he produced a full-sized pan pizza, resplendent and drenched in wet, soggy marinara sauce. A tear nearly slipped out of Donny’s eye.
Donny started to speak, but Mikey held out a finger and touched it to Donny’s lips. “Shh Donny…I must ask you. How did you get this sandwich recipe? This is my grandma’s special recipe. Nobody knows about it except for her.”
“A-what-do-ya-mean, Mikey? That’s my grandma’s special recipe.”
“It can’t be,” Donny whispered, his lips pursed in surprise. “Hold on…lemme see something.” Donny reached his slender Italian fingers into the greasy pocket of his chef’s apron and pulled out a flimsy old photograph, speckled with blood and pizza grease. It was baby Donny and his father sitting on their family couch, the second half of the photograph ripped off. He never did find that second half.
“Wait—I know that couch.” Mikey pulled a photograph out of his own chef’s apron—a picture of baby him and his ma, ripped in half. Hands shaking, he held the photograph up to Donny’s. They matched.
For a moment, neither of them spoke. The silence was as palpable as silence, but there was an understanding between them. Finally, Mikey was the first to speak.
“Are we…” Mikey started.
“Brothers?” Donny said.
“Separated at birth by our parents during the mob wars, but reunited after all this time at the NCOP technical challenge?” Mikey wondered aloud.
“All this time… how could we not know?” Donny asked. “My heart is as tender as an al dente noodle!”
“If there’s one thing more important than pizza or sandwiches…” Mikey said.
“It’s family,” Donny replied.
Image via Emma Burris’ graphic design skills