They fetched him in a Lear jet, what else? When the big man demanded the best, he got it.
Antonio Ricci, bad boy of Italian cuisine, his tiny Michelin-starred restaurant nestling in the hills above Alba, haunt of Europe’s leaders and celebrities, had been summoned.
He emerged from the aircraft, paused at the top of the steps, squinting in the bright Washington sun and ran his fingers back through the wild black mop of curls. Under his arm, a slim steel chill box with its precious cargo of a single white truffle, big as a man’s fist. Antonio Ricci would personally prepare and serve his most famous dish, truffle soufflé and duck breast flambéd in seventy year old brandy.
A limo the length of a living room swept him to the venue, a vast and tasteless edifice sheathed in gold. The chef had travelled alone and spoke no English. The translator, a willowy blonde in pin stripe trouser suit, greeted him and led the way through a warren of corridors to the kitchen. A pair of security men in ill-fitting jackets and dark glasses bracketed them like bookends, their earpieces hissing.
‘Don’t he talk?’ one demanded.
The translator exchanged a few words with Antonio.
‘Mr Ricci has no need for speech. He says that his food will speak for itself.’
For the next three hours the chef chopped and peeled, simmered and strained, fussing over the supporting cast for his masterpiece. When one of the sous chefs dared to offer assistance, he would scream in Italian, a tirade so vicious it needed no translation.
At 8.05pm the message came through. Antonio Ricci and his serving trolley were guided into the mock Tudor banqueting hall, a cavern echoing with the roar and clatter of 400 guests. He stopped in front of the host’s table and shook the tiny, white-gloved hand offered to him.
‘Hey, hey – let’s have some respect for the maestro!’ bellowed the big man, tapping a champagne flute with his signet ring, its diamond the size of a sugar cube.
‘Hey, everyone! QUIET! I heard this guy’s the best, absolutely the best. His truffle thing is meant to be something else, gonna be beautiful, just beautiful!’
The room hushed as Antonio lit the spirit stove. Delicate curls of duck breast were blended with thick cream and brandy and the broad copper pan set ablaze. Over the shimmering blue flame he nursed three tall pots until the fluffy soufflés bubbled and grew like marshmallows high above them. With a few deft moves he swept the players to their stage, three oval white platters, dressed them with truffle shavings and presented them.
At the last moment, the chef spotted a tiny dribble of jus clinging to the lip of his client’s own plate and reached across to dab it with the corner of a linen serviette.
‘Fantastic! Hey – give it up for Antonio Ricci!’ The room erupted with applause, the chef muttered ‘Grazie, grazie’, nodded towards the faces and forced a weak smile.
His task complete, he scuttled back to the kitchen, packed his knives in a leather shoulder bag and followed the translator to the waiting limo.
As the Lear jet speared into the night sky, Amadeo Mohammed Conti yanked the curly black wig from his shaven head, winked at the female attendant and gazed at the glittering patchwork below. Somewhere in that great city his client would be laughing and bragging, his stomach tight with flambé duck breast, the best soufflé truffle in the world and 10 micrograms of Polonium-210.
And 2,000 metres beneath the Gulf of Genoa lay the headless body of Antonio Ricci, bad boy of Italian cuisine.