My grandmother, Mimi, and I, always share tiramisu at the end of our meals at The Great Impasta. The restaurant, situated on the edge of Maine street in Brunswick, Maine, is a building etched into my memory that pumps garlic butter through its vents.
We would always hope for a spot in their small parking lot, but inevitably my dad would drop us off at the entrance and drive around the block as the staff greeted us inside. My mom would ask for a booth, and the same faces would pour or drinks before we could finish sliding into a glossy wood bench.
A moscato for my mother, a glass of Michelob Ultra for my dad, and a “Dewars on the rocks with a twist” for Mimi. It rolled off of her tongue like a poem. Just water for me, thanks. When my dad entered he would throw his hands up and demand his beer, jokingly, with a warm smile, which was waiting for him on the table with freckled condensation. He would tease our waitress, which my mom would apologize for profusely. I was pressed against the wall, a textured mural of lemons on a gray background. There was soft sounds of crooners and Italian instrumentals playing over the speakers.
It was small, about 20 tables in total. You could see the flames and the chefs in all black clanking sauté pans and dressing salads, like a trip to the opera. Each table was a medium-stained wood that would slightly creak under our weight, with gold placards from family benefactors who came before us. Our favorite table, nested in the back corner, furthest from the kitchen, required us to shimmy around one at a time in a circle. One of us would always hit their leg on a metal beam.
The table was set with two bulbous shakers with red plastic lids, filled with parmesan and red pepper flakes. Pressed between them was a drink menu, framed in silver, which my mom would always read aloud. My dad would put his elbows on the table, fidgeting, while my mom clasped her hands together in a patient fist, her jewelry hitting against the wood. Mimi would sit with her arms at her side, a napkin in her lap, tapping her foot.
Then, in few words, we would order our usuals. My dad had his favorite pasta dish, not on the menu since 2005, Gamberi E Pollo. A rich plate of linguine covered in a sour cream and white wine sauce with tender grilled chicken slices and Maine shrimp, garnished with chopped walnuts and herbs. It was my usual too. My mom had her Veal Carciofi, not on the menu since 2008, 2 thin, tender cutlets of veal sautéed in a lemony white wine sauce with artichokes and parmesan. I would chuckle each time she attempted to say “Aglio olio”. Mimi would order the veal too, and she would tell the waitress that she’d “never be able to eat it all.”
Before our entrees came they would bring small salads for each of us, a mixture of lettuce and spinach greens with a super tangy vinaigrette, salami slices, chickpeas, greek olives, cherry tomatoes, and boxed croutons. I would devour mine as my mom plopped her croutons on my plate. I would then transport my chickpeas to Mimi’s plate, which were her favorite, and she would transport her salami to my dad. Then, as if out of thin air, a bread basket lined with parchment paper, filled with garlic knots, would appear.
The garlic knots were our holy grail, as well as the gun shot at the start of the race. Our conversation would quicken as my dad pretended to guard them next to his plate. Once only one remained, the western cowboy music would play. My dad and I would stare each other down, and I would always win. I would drag it through the puddle of garlic butter for nearly a minute to brag. Sometimes, before we finished the first basket, we would ask for another, and our meals would arrive, which required a skillful dance of shuffling plates and drinks.
After we finished eating we would listen patiently to the new flavors of cannoli and cheesecake until the wheel landed on tiramisu. We would only order one, for Mimi and I to share, with two forks. On her tab. It would arrive on a cold, white, plate with burgundy painted flowers, green leaves and vines. We each would grab a fork like a sword, prepared to joust.
It was untraditional, more like a birthday cake with a delicate coffee-alcohol flavor. It had layers of chocolate cake, vanilla cake, and ladyfingers, soaked with marsala and coffee. There was a whipped pudding layer between them. When I was young, Mimi’s strategy was to tell me to slow down because I was “too young to drink”. By the time I became an adult, she would let me have the first bite, then, we would alternate. I would eye the cake like prey. We both loved the chocolate layer most, and when I took too big of a bite she would shout in protest. I can hear the sound of her fork as we finished, clanking on the side of the plate like the dramatic death of a soldier. I would scrape off the last remnants of crumbs and cream.
Before we left, my mom would write “mom” on Mimi's leftovers. The check would come with several after-dinner mints, which my dad would hide in his pocket while my mom went to the bathroom. She would always return to the table and ask where the mints went. Most of the time I would smile and she would sternly ask “where are they” with her hand outstretched.
While my dad poked his head into the kitchen to thank the chefs I would look around at the people, the mural on the wall, trying to memorize every inch of the place. Inhaling the smell of the cheese and the garlic and the baked bread. When we got home, we would pass Mimi her leftovers and say goodbye in our driveway. I would thank her for the tiramisu and she would act surprised. It was an easy thing for her to pay for, no more than $5, but it was worth much more to me.