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Making pasta in tandem, Besa Xhemo and Maria Perez communicate in a hybrid Italian-Spanish dialect.

Ngozi Ekeledo
February 21, 2018

Monteverde chef Sarah Grueneberg likes to joke that her restaurant has a “pasta TV.” A six-and-a-half-foot rectangular mirror hangs horizontally tilted above the wooden bar, providing a flour-filled reflection of the busy hands working in the restaurant’s pastificio. Ribbons of dried pasta cascade on either side like tendrils, mimicking curtains. Seven barrels of wine, mismatched in size, sit nestled near the ceiling like stage lights. In the center of this butcher-block structure is the main attraction: an open-air pasta station serving as a focal point for patrons who dine at the popular restaurant in Chicago’s West Loop.

On this elevated stage are two women, Besa Xhemo and Maria Perez. With so many eyes on them, the duo works in rhythmic tandem as they roll, measure and pinch the pasta for Monteverde’s guests. Perez handles the extruded pastas like the gnochetti, fusilli and creste de gallo, and Xhemo is responsible for the fresh, made-to-order pastas like the tortelli and ravioli. The slight scowls on their faces shouldn’t be mistaken for anything other than intense focus. A vibrating hum from a pasta extruder disrupts their silence. They rarely speak, but another layer is added to their performance because when they do communicate, it’s in completely different languages: Spanish and Italian.

What could be perceived as a language barrier, though, has instead turned into a musical expression of pasta prose—a charming and defining characteristic of the restaurant run by Grueneberg, who is a James Beard Award winner, Top Chef runner-up and former executive chef of the Michelin-starred Chicago restaurant Spiaggia.

“The root, or the heart, of our restaurant is the pastificio, and because that station for so long has been Spanish versus Italian, it’s been kind of fun but hard,” Grueneberg told Food & Wine

For the pasta-making duo, becoming comfortable with one another, despite not sharing a language, has been a process. Xhemo started working at Monteverde just two weeks after she moved to the United States in 2015, and initially, communication was “molto difficile.”

“I was nervous about the language,” Xhemo said in Italian, via a translator. “I always wanted to trust Maria, but we would talk and not always understand each other.”

“At the beginning, it was hard working together, but now we’re working really well,” Perez said in Spanish. 

It’s easy to get distracted watching them work. With her blond hair sticking out like puffs under a white chef’s hat and thick, square-framed black glasses sitting just askew on the tip of her nose, Xhemo is in the zone, rolling and twisting long strands of dough on the walnut wooden bar top. Once she’s finished, she lifts and flicks the roll of noodles, as if she were moving a dangling ponytail off of her shoulder. She then places the noodles down and cuts them into four neat bundles. A few minutes later, the table next to me is the lucky recipient of strozzapreti.

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Gruenberg does not speak Italian or Spanish fluently, so she originally resorted to Google Translate as a means of communication. That only created more confusion.

“I don’t recommend it. Only for signs – for ‘Don’t throw this in the toilet,’ or ‘Employees must wash hands.’ A full conversation? It’s hard,” Grueneberg said. “I tried, and we ended up getting way far off from where we wanted.”

That’s where the diversity of Monteverde’s staff became one of its biggest strengths. At first, Xhemo’s daughter (who also worked at the restaurant at the time) would help translate, but now Adrian Weisell, one of the servers, has taken over that role. David Zapata, one of the restaurant’s cooks, helped translate for Perez during our conversation.

“The confidence for both of them to say what they need has also improved a lot,” Grueneberg said. “Maybe at the other restaurants that they worked in, they didn’t feel like they could say what they needed.”

During an average night shift at Monteverde, Xhemo and Perez prepare roughly 40 pounds of pasta for 300 to 400 guests. On the weekend, that number doubles, so the exacting attention to detail feel even more special. Where else could you watch an authentic sfoglina like Xhemo, who has over 20 years of pasta-making experience, carefully pinch your fresh tortelloni to precision, tucking the ends together like a blanket, and then minutes later, send these same pumpkin-filled mounds of dough to your table?

“Most people are shocked at the ease,” said Patric Gerstmayr, one of the restaurant’s bartenders. “They’re in the zone, and sometimes when people catch their eye, they’ll give them a wave.”

Working in tandem five days a week for the past two and a half years has played a large role in the hybrid language born from Xhemo and Perez’s kitchen relationship. Now they have a dialect that plays out, too, through a nature of familiarity.

“We have an intuition with each other now so … [we] can just kind of look at each other and know what to do,” Xhemo said in Italian.

“I would say now they’re like best friends,” Grueneberg said. “They’ve created their own language, which is a mix between Spanish and Italian. Sometimes when I try to speak to Besa, Maria will speak what I’m trying to say in Spanish, and then Besa will understand, so it’s really a fun group, the three of us communicating.”

“We text each other,” Xhemo said. “I text in Italian, and she answers in Spanish.”

It was amazing to see Grueneberg’s staff, which she lovingly and jokingly calls a “motley crew,” combine such different sounds in a small space. And they all say they’re used to it now.

“Most of us speak Latin-based languages, too, so most of the time we get by,” Gerstmayr said. “I’ve been in this industry a long time, and you pick up certain words like ‘fork’ and ‘knife’ especially in Spanish [and] especially in Chicago.”

At the restaurant, signs and prep lists, for example, are printed in three different languages – English, Spanish and Italian – and recently another language was added to the mix with the addition of a student worker from China. 

“Our sous chef translates into Mandarin for us,” Grueneberg added. “It’s fun to have a multicultural team.”

Grueneberg’s understanding nature when it comes to handling her staff’s language and cultural differences stems in part from her own experiences.

“While still in Texas, my first job at Brennan’s of Houston I was put on a station with a woman who did not speak English and was told to figure it out,” Grueneberg said. “So I made a cheat sheet of the words we would need to use to communicate. I wrote them out in English and then she wrote them in Spanish. That’s how we would talk, study the sheet and be able to work together.”

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Xhemo and Perez’s language barrier embodies another major topic in the restaurant industry – immigration. Increasingly, restaurants seem to have always been ahead of the curve when it comes to accepting outsiders, with this progressiveness resonating even more so now with the conversation surrounding immigration reform. Xhemo emigrated from Bologna, the handmade pasta capital of the world. Even in her native country, she worked with a mixture of immigrant workers from Egypt, Senegal and Bangladesh in Italian kitchens. Perez emigrated from Mexico City. Both women came to the United States with the same dream – to provide a better life for their families.

According to the Pew Research Center, nearly a quarter of the United States’ restaurant industry is comprised of immigrant workers.

“We all are built upon a team that is of immigrants and bringing different stories of food,” Grueneberg said. “What’s great is that the kitchen team loves food from everywhere, from their home and also Italian food; you have to love pasta to work here.”

You can feel this heart translated back into the food at Monteverde. For those staff members who have started new lives in this country, the restaurant has become somewhat of a haven. Staff members slurp pasta and share stories during their shift meal, where a musical mixture of different languages fills the air. Grueneberg hopes guests feel that same warmth after a hearty meal at the restaurant.

“You don’t have to speak English to cook great food,” she said. “I think pasta brings happiness.” 

As she prepped for another artistic shift at the pasta station, Perez echoed Grueneberg’s point through her movement – and words.

“It doesn’t matter who you are,” she said in Spanish. “If you’re passionate, you can do it.”