Moments From Italy (Episode 1: Dinner)

One of my favorite moments from vacation was the dinner we had our third night in Rome. We had eaten at our hotel, and in a few small restaurants and pizzerias on side streets, and in cafes where we found espresso and pastries and gelato, and Jason was ready to find someplace where the locals ate. We spent an afternoon on a tour of catacombs and crypts (another favorite yet-to-be-blogged moment) with a guide who spoke fluent English and Italian. What I gathered was that his mother was British and his father was Italian (though he sounded a bit Australian to me, so I could be very confused), and at the end of the tour, he offered himself for advice about what else to do and where to eat.

We were near Piazza Barberini, and the first thing he said was, “Don’t go anywhere around here.” Those places, as was the case with so many in the old sections of Rome, were for tourists. After chatting with Jason for a while about what we really wanted, he recommended two places. One was “nice,” but expensive, someplace locals went for a special occasion. “You’ll pay mid to high prices, but the experience will be worth it.” The other place wasn’t fancy, and he admitted that he hadn’t been in about a year, but it was clear that he remembered it fondly.

It was a tiny restaurant, he told us, on a side street. There were maybe seven tables in the whole place, and they were old marble topped tables that had been there since the beginning of time. The place was opened–or maybe taken over by a new family–back in the 1940s, and the same family still ran the place. It had no sign, save for some tiny writing on the door that you probably wouldn’t be able to see. The woman in charge was ancient when he was there, and he wasn’t even sure if she would still be living, but when she was there, she would always come out and talk with customers. The restaurant had no menu. Every night, she cooked what she felt like feeding you. There were three courses–pasta, meat, and dessert, along with carafes of wine. He promised that the servings weren’t like “the servings most places give you nowadays, where you’re too stuffed after the pasta to want anything else.” He also talked about how for dessert, you were given cookies (he may have called them biscuits) and told to dip them into your wine. “And when they’re telling you this,” he said, “you’re thinking, What the hell? but then you do it, and you think, Huh. This is kinda good.” As if the description and his obviously excitement over the little place wasn’t enough, he went on to say that the mean was cheap, something like 20 euros.

The trick with most of these restaurants was that, naturally, their names were Italian. Being fluent in both languages, whenever the guide would say an Italian word, he would say it as quickly as he would have spoken it had the entire conversation was in Italian, which meant that we really had no hope of making it out on the first go-round. Add to that the street noise and the fact that we were standing on a busy set of steps. In the end, what we were left with were the notes he made on our city map. One restaurant–the tiny one–was marked simply with a hastily scrawled A&A. The other wasn’t really marked at all. He simply circled the name of the street, which happened to also be the name of the restaurant.

We decided that we were going to try them both. Since the fancy one sounded, well, fancy, we decided to make it our last dinner in Rome (and of our vacation), and that evening, we set off to A&As. It was (vaguely) near Piazza Navona, which I had wanted to see at night anyway, and the map seemed to be marked clearly enough with a corner where the restaurant should be. Except that the back streets of Navona make no sense whatsoever, and when we finally found the corner, we realized that the place wasn’t quite there. An entire block seemed to be under construction, and I began to worry that the place had closed. We backtracked a few times, and then began walking down another narrow, crooked street. (The thing about streets in that area is that its often hard to tell whether they’re a legitimate street that might have something on them, or whether they’re more like alleys, and the city didn’t seem to be bother much with lighting one or the other differently.)

Just when I was becoming convinced that the place must really have closed, we hear laughter, and look over to see an open, brightly lit door. There is no sign, but there are a few tables crammed into the tiny space. Most are covered by red and white plastic table cloths, but one is uncovered and it is marble. Nailed to the brick next to the door is a small black and white photograph of a woman perhaps in her late fifties, wearing a cotton dress and apron, leaning out of the door and smiling. We decided that it must be the old woman who our guide had spoken about, and took it as a sign that she had passed on.

We went inside, and an older, casually dressed man (I later noticed he was wearing slippers) motioned for us to find a seat. He chose a table near the door. Two tables behind us was a small group, chatting in Italian, and next to us was a party of six, talking and laughing loudly in Italian. In the back, an old woman was standing at a sink, washing dished by hand. She wasn’t the woman in the picture, but she was stooped and wrinkled and grey haired, and looked for all the world like she should be feeding people homecooked Italian food.

The waiter came over to us and greeted us in Italian. Jason returned his greeting, and told him that we didn’t speak Italian. The man told us, in heavily accented English, that he didn’t speak English. They both shrugged. “Vino?” the waiter asked is, because really, what else is there to know? We said yes, of course, and he returned shortly with a carafe of the yellowest wine I had ever seen, two tumblers, and a basket of bread. (Later, he brought is two more tumblers and a small pitcher of tap water. It bears mentioning that this was the only restaurant in Rome where we were successful at getting them to serve us tap water. Jason often tried to order it, instead of buying mineral water, and no one would oblige. Here, they did it without being asked.) “Pasta?” the waiter asked us next, and of course we nodded.

In the meantime, we drank vino. You know how Kool-Aid doesn’t come in flavors so much as colors? Red Kool-Aide doesn’t taste so much like cherry or fruit punch as it tastes like Red? This wine? It didn’t taste like Pino Grigio or Chardonnay or Reisling. It tasted like Yellow. It was soft, and it was tart and acidic and also slightly sweet at the same time, and no matter how hard we searched, we couldn’t come up with a grape that would make a wine quite like that, or a wine we had ever tried that was similar–and we’ve tried rather a lot of wine.

Soon, plates of pasta were set in front of us. The bowls, as promised, were very reasonably sized, and held thick tubes of pasta (not penne, but the other thing like penne, that has a bigger circumference and is slightly ridged) in what I believe was sugo all’amatriciana, or something based loosely on that recipe.

Once we were finished our pasta, the waiter returned. He wanted to know if we wanted vitello or bistecca. Veal or beef, he made the effort to translate. I chose the former and Jason, the latter, and both were exactly like something you would expect to find in grandma’s kitchen. My veal was sliced thin and lightly seasoned, and served with peas. Jason’s beef was slow cooked and tender and wrapped around carrots.

The whole time we were eating, the large group next to us was laughing and carrying on.  They lingered over dessert for the first two thirds of our meal.  Occasionally, one of them would step outside the open door to smoke, never straying so far that they couldn’t still hear the conversation.  Men selling roses would wander in from the street, circle the space and leave again, never being so disruptive as to be annoying.  I couldn’t imagine how people would react to a street vendor passing through an American restaurant, trying to sell to the captive audience there.

While we were eating, the two women working the kitchen–the stooped old lady we had seen, as well as a slightly younger but still silver haired woman–headed out for the night, leaving the man alone.  The table next to us left, and the man replaced our wine with a fresh carafe, smaller this time.  It was at that point that Jason noticed he was dispensing the wine from a faucet in the kitchen wall.  I have no idea where it flowed from or how it worked, but I still am fascinated by the idea and sort of want one in my house.  Along with the wine came cookies,  crispy butter flavored rings, and we were indeed instructed to dip them into the wine.  As promised, the initial thought was, “Seriously?  Cookies?  In wine?”  But we tried it, and the next thought (also as promised) was “Huh.  That’s kind of good.”

Out of curiosity, I asked the man if he was Alfredo, since he seemed to take ownership of the place.  He gestured fondly to a faded black and white photo tucked in a corner and said, “Alfredo.”  Then he pointed to the door and said, “Ada.”  I assumed that he meant the photo and not the old woman who had left, but I guess I don’t know that for sure.  Jason talked to him for a few more minutes, testing out his clumsy Italian, which the man tried to respond to in equally clumsy English and they were both able to make themselves understood, which made them both happy.

It was late as we were finishing our cookies and the man was finishing up the dinner dishes, but when a couple lingered in the doorway, peering inside and wondering if it were too late to eat, the man waved them inside, lay some fresh paper over one of the marble tables, and brought them a few slices of bread.  Clearly, he was ready to be finished for the night, but just as clearly, he subscribed to the Grandmother’s Kitchen theory that no one was to go hungry and everyone was welcome at the table.

The waiter was in no hurry to give us the check.  (Side note: Waiters in Rome seemed in no real hurry for anything.  Here, restaurants often seem intent on getting you in and out the door as quickly as possible.  There, if you want to linger for two hours over a simple plate of pasta, that’s fine with them.  Food seems to arrive when its ready–or when they feel like carrying it–but dirty dishes are taken up almost right away.  It was interesting that way.  I hadn’t realized how much I enjoyed it until we ate recently at a restaurant here, and our entrees were being carted out and crammed onto the table before I was halfway through my salad.  That’s no way to enjoy food! )  When he did bring it, it was only a few numbers scrawled on a white scrap of paper.  I suspect that if our grasp of one another’s languages had been more solid, there would have been no receipt at all.  We paid in cash, which was all they took.  Three course meal for two in an authentic Italian restaurant with free flowing wine?  Forty euros.  Dining in another country, trusting strangers to feed you without really knowing what you’re being served, in the company of jolly locals?  Priceless.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Kristen
    Aug 20, 2009 @ 01:04:24

    Wow. There are no original stories, only original storytellers.


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August 2009
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