Annals of Eating
1: Rite of Passage
I sat gingerly at my table in the Piazza Navona, wanting, frankly, to behave well. Back then, there was a protocol to dining in restaurants in Italy — the hierarchy of the staff, the procession of courses — that was delightful as long as one understood it, or at least intuited enough to know there was something to understand. I was in the latter category, being — perhaps because my parents ran a bar-and-grill during my formative years — preternaturally sensitive to how the help is sizing up customers. Americans, I noticed on my first visit to Rome, which was also my first visit to Europe, often assumed they could sit where they liked, order what they wished in the order that they wished it, and that the busboy, waiter, and captain were interchangeable. They had no patience for the liturgical nature of the Italian event, which those serving them took quite seriously. The Italians thought the Americans were boorish and the Americans, agitated at not knowing the rules, were sure that the Italians were trying to put something past them. And why should they have to worry about rules when they just wanted something to eat?
For decades, modern economies, abetted by technological developments and in the service of the common denominators of democratic ideals, had been eliminating what the landscape historian J. B. Jackson called the “immemorial rites of passage which were once the hallmarks of our culture.” Speed and accessibility became the values which usurped the entrenched virtue of established etiquette in nearly all social and commercial transactions. As Jackson put it, apropos his own subject, the American landscape, in his book A Sense of Time, A Sense of Place,
The elimination of rites of passage started modestly enough with the drive-in business. Then the territory became a parking lot; the church became a building open to all, offering instant salvation; the library let us into the stacks; the public building welcomed us with consumer-friendly decorations; the supermarket did away with clerks; the hospital let us wander at will. The doorman, the receptionist, the head waiter, the host all vanished, and the only rite of passage that survived was the insertion of a magnetized credit card.
There’s a lot to be said for speed and accessibility, (although not, to my mind, when it comes to restaurants). And yet, the rites of passage of which Jackson speaks, assuming as they do declensions of order which are in themselves articulations of accumulated cultural experience, are complex systems of social intelligence, which once gone — like the biological species whose extinction we rightly and readily mourn — are gone for good. Gone with them, all too often, is the distinction between public and private on which all civility — and any sound sense of one’s place in the world — is ultimately founded.
So I was happy to engage in the dance of dining in the restaurant on the Piazza Navona, on my toes throughout the primo and secundo piatti, deferential to the captain’s recommendations — spaghetti alla carbonara, I think, and abacchio, the roast baby lamb that is a Roman specialty — which I had been careful to solicit. I did fine, in fact, until dessert, when, flushed with wine, I tried out my Italian.
“Strawberries,” I exclaimed.
“You want beans?” said the waiter in English, having heard fagioli in my mangled fragole.
2: Memmo Sent Us
Devoted eaters soon learn that the best path to a good restaurant is word of mouth. The next time I was in Rome, my wife Margot and I stayed at the Hotel Sole al Pantheon. I had chosen it because on my first trip I had read the plaque on its front wall, which noted that the poet Ariosto, author of Orlando Furioso, had lodged there in 1513. The fact that we could look out the window of our room, which faced on the Piazza della Rotunda, and enjoy an unimpeded view of the Pantheon was a happy consequence of my sentimental yearning for communion with the muses.
The manager of the hotel was a jovial sort, and, after a few days, we asked him to recommend a place to eat, preferably one that was off the beaten track. He encouraged us to visit his friend Mario, who ran a neighborhood trattoria. The next evening, accompanied by a Roman friend and his date, we made our way there. We followed the manager’s directions assiduously, making our way into the alley where da Mario was allegedly located. We retraced our steps once, twice, three times before we decided that the restaurant actually was through the doorway in front of us, behind the facade of hanging colored beads that looked like they were left over from a bad movie about San Francisco in the 1960s. We ventured through the beaded entryway to be met by the curious stares of a roomful of people who had, all of a sudden, one thing very much in common: they didn’t know us.
A big man — about six foot three, I’d say, and well over three hundred pounds, with a belly that protruded solidly above his waist — stepped out of a door in the back wall (from the kitchen, I surmised from the type of stains his shirt displayed) but, given his presence and demeanor, he may as well have stepped out of a Caravaggio: round and ruddy faced, unshaven, with eyelids — never mind the rest of him — that seemed to envelop in their folds all the knowledge flesh can hold.
“Memmo sent us,” I said, hopefully. Finesse, in a place like this, is always checked at the door. The big man — there could be no doubt he was Mario — grunted, flicked his head towards an empty table to the right, and muttered something to the small elderly man — a sort of Italian Walter Brennan to the cook’s Roman John Wayne — who was captain, waiter, and busboy for the whole place.
We sat down, wine came, food followed, and we ate whatever Mario decided to make, as he made it. The first course, penne alla arrabiata, was notable for its presentation. Mario stepped through the kitchen door wielding — that’s the verb exactly — the biggest skillet I have ever seen; it must have been three feet in diameter. As he approached our table, he flicked the contents of the pan into the air as if he were tossing a ball; just as the pasta fell and hit the surface of the skillet, Mario thumped the well-seasoned utensil on the table, shook it a few times to make sure the macaroni was coated with its sauce of olive oil, tomato, and hot pepper, and walked back into his lair. Walter Brennan scurried over with a pile of plates and served us. We tucked in with enough gusto, apparently, to please the proprietor, who fed us regally for the next few hours without saying a word. His liturgy was a different rite of passage altogether.
3: Our Man in Rome
Two trips and several years later, Margot and I were seated inside a restaurant near the Piazza Borghese. It was a Sunday afternoon, and we had spent the October morning walking, walking, walking, reveling in the fall of Rome. Seated at our table in La Fontanella, a gracious Tuscan restaurant in which we had eaten once before, we nodded politely at the gentleman next to us, a man of about sixty or so who was dining alone. He was engaged in a satisfying exchange with a bistecca alla fiorentina; eavesdropping, as it were, on his conversation with his steak, our appetites were piqued. I gestured toward him with my eyes.
“This is the guy we’ve been looking for,” I said softly. Now, Margot and I both love to eat. And since she was at the time a professional cook, our search for fulfilling meals was fraught with additional purpose. The previous evening, we had come to the conclusion that we had exhausted our own culinary resourcefulness in Rome and needed to find a native gourmand to transport us to new levels of indulgence. The gentleman to my left, sacramentally anointing his meat with olive oil and lime, surely fit the bill. As our bistecca for two arrived, the man, at the end of his own labors, glanced over at us.
“Superba,” he pronounced, smacking his lips. “The best thing to have here.” When I inquired about the lemon and lime — the waiter bringing some — our new acquaintance offered us the bottle of oil from his table. The oil — which proudly exhibited a rich green glow through the clear glass of its container — was not “de la casa,” he said, but his very own, which the restaurant kept for his regular use. It was Ligurian oil, he continued, “per mio fegato” (for my liver). It was tasty, and when Margot asked if it was readily available in Rome, he graciously offered to send a bottle to our hotel.
As he was about to leave, we invited him to join us for dinner the next night — it was to be our last in Rome — as our guest. “Oh, no,” he insisted, setting a marvelous black Borsalino upon his head. “You will be my guests. Do you know the Bar Rosati?” Yes. The Piazza del Popolo. “We will meet there at nine o’clock tomorrow evening. Va bene?” He handed me his card: Marco Caggiatti. If we had met the pope we wouldn’t have been more thrilled.
We spent the day before our rendezvous in usual pursuits, walking favorite streets, visiting the market in the Campo dei Fiori to examine the fruits and vegetables (Roman produce is, to those accustomed to the selection at most American markets, in those days especially, curious and abundant — and, to inveterate cooks, instructive), and venturing across the Tiber to view Raphael’s Galatea in the Villa Farnesina. We returned to our hotel for a nap before dinner wagering on the likelihood of Signor Caggiati’s appearance that evening.
What we found on entering our small room was rather astonishing: a dozen roses and a bottle of Signor Caggiati’s favored Ligurian olive oil. The former, an attached note explained, was for Margot, the latter for me (perhaps he had an inkling into the state of my liver). He was looking forward to our dinner that evening, to which he would be accompanied by his son, “mio secondo nato” (my second born). Well.
A few hours later, we were off to the Piazza del Popolo. We were seated at a table at the Bar Rosati for only a moment when Marco — sporting again the Borsalino he’d donned when leaving La Fontanella the previous afternoon — and his son Giuseppe, who looked to be about twenty years old, appeared. They led us, on foot, to Via Condotti, the polished street that runs from Via def Corso to the piazza at the foot of the Spanish Steps, and into the restaurant Ranieri on the Via Mario de’ Fiori. Ranieri, a restaurant that has earned its old world air, having been founded in 1865, offers the kind of deferential service and rich, dated furnishing that brings comfort to the denizens of high-rent districts. And their guests, I might add.
Marco, clearly known to the staff as a regular, ordered a splendid meal for us and his son — a lovely bisque, I remember, as well as exceptional prawns and other seafood — while confining himself to a bowl of broth. (It came out in conversation later that he had already frequented the restaurant for lunch, and so, it appeared, was in need of no further sustenance). Our mysterious host turned out to be a former journalist, currently engaged in some kind of industrial public relations concerned with public works projects in Russia. He was also a poet and an author of books on poetry, including one on modern English verse. Altogether a charming, elegant, convivial fellow. His son, a student of political economy, spoke English rather well, and, like most European students of my acquaintance, was filled with enthusiastic questions and gentle polemics on the attractions and contradictions of American life. We traded lives and stories with pleasure, blessed by the best sort of serendipity.
Leaving the restaurant, we strolled through the Piazza di Spagna to the Trevi Fountain, then up the hill to the Piazza del Quirinale, which — in thrall as I was to the crooked streets below — I had never climbed to see. Dominating the piazza are two colossal groups of the Dioscuri (Castor and Pollux), standing by their horses; the statues are Roman copies, dating from the Imperial era, of Greek originals from the fifth century BC. The magnificent view across the city added an appropriately celestial dimension to my intensely pedestrian devotion to the city, just as our coincidental friendship, and Marco’s generosity, enlarged the nourishment of our meal.
4: Friends of Mr. Cipriani
My wife and I were in Venice for the first time, and a pilgrimage to the celebrated Harry’s Bar — haunt of Hemingway, to mention but one of its famous denizens — seemed only natural. Margot had decided dinner there would be my birthday present. We made our way down to Harry’s, on the Grand Canal, not without a hint of trepidation: would the landmark turn out to be nothing more than an expensive, tradition-soaked tourist trap? We entered, claimed our reservation, and were ushered upstairs, through a convivial atmosphere of chatter muffled with white linen. We were seated at a large corner table that was easy to spot as one of the best in the room. The bestowing of this prime location on two strangers when the restaurant was nearly full immediately left us well-disposed.
The service was gracious, solicitous and easy-going. (I don’t know how Mr. Cipriani trains his staff, but I was once — on a later trip — so impressed by the wisdom and sophistication of a captain in the Locanda Cipriani — exquisitely set on the island of Torcello — that I suggested he might wish to come to America and serve on the Supreme Court.) We had a fine meal: ravioli, grilled fish, each item a simple preparation of perfectly fresh ingredients. At some point in the evening, the proprietor, Arrigo Cipriani, came into the room, greeted us, and chatted amiably for a few minutes.
“Your first time in Venice? Ah, well, there is much to love here.”
As he left our table, he mentioned a new restaurant he had opened, Harry’s Dolci, on the Giudecca (not-so-prime-spot, not-so-prime tariff; “Same food,” he leaned over and whispered with a wink, “half the price”). He suggested we might enjoy stopping there for coffee and a sweet if we found ourselves touring that part of the city.
Two days on, late in the afternoon, we ambled into Harry’s Dolci for espresso and a snack. As we sat cataloging the treasures of our Venetian day, a motorboat — a sleek and gorgeous wooden skiff — pulled up to the dock outside. Out of it, and into the restaurant, stepped Arrigo Cipriani, with what looked like a pastry box poised on his right palm. As soon as he walked in the door, his eyes scanned the place out of professional habit; he immediately handed the box, and his hat and coat, to one of his staff and made a beeline to our table.
“Thank you so much for coming,” he said. “It is nice to see you again.”
We chatted a few moments and he went about his business.
Now there are few things more pleasurable to me than seeing someone ply a skill so naturally. How this man — who’d been meeting a hundred new people a night all of his life — remembered us (much less why he chose to take the time to welcome us) is a testament to how good he is at what he does, to the kind of professionalism that is the public face on intuition.
The next evening, which would be our last in Venice, we decided to go back to Harry’s Dolci for dinner. Arriving there, we joined a back-up of some dozen people at the door. The young waiter who had served us coffee the previous afternoon recognized us, however, and walked over to the captain at the reservation desk. He gestured toward us.
“Friends of Mr. Cipriani,” he whispered.
Who wouldn’t be?