I DONT LIKE BEING BOSSED AROUND. Most people who know me will agree with that, though they might simultaneously smile wryly at the fact that, in my family, I am surrounded by fairly assertive women and am generally regarded as knowing my place.
But a time and a place exist at which I am comfortable with such bossiness, and accept direction readily and meekly. The time happens to be whenever I am eating in a restaurant – as long as the place is Italy.
During our recent trip to Sicily (now over, all too soon!), I was told on several occasions that I couldn’t have what I ordered; not because they’d run out, but because the management was adamant that something else would suit better.
In Agrigento, just up the hill from the most remarkable set of ancient Greek (pre-Roman) temples I’ve ever encountered, we fancied an aperitivo, a cocktail. No, said the padrone: this isn’t a bar, it’s a ristorante, and we don’t do that kind of thing. Have a good local white wine, he insisted, sold by the carafe. We acceded, and he wandered off to bully more customers. But, my word, the white wine was good. And a charming waitress (I had a feeling she was his wife) looked after us and brought me a fantastic local dessert wine, Zibibbo, at the end of a storming meal).
In Catania, Sicily’s second city, I thought a veal escalope would be good with porcini, those Boletus woodland/mountain mushrooms that Italians prize. No, said the waitress: it was too early in the season, the porcini wouldn’t be any good, and I should have the cutlet cooked in Marsala wine. I acquiesced.
By the way, don’t request artichokes in September, another thing I wasn’t permitted to order. They’re not in season yet, either: and Italians nowadays are very careful to distinguish between fresh and frozen ingredients, frowning on the latter: I suspect there’s a regulation lurking at the back of it.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s been happening to me forever. A few years back, we were in Bologna (there’s a theme emerging here!) and located the extraordinary Drogheria della Rosa, a gem discovered and celebrated by the late, great AA Gill. The owner wandered round the table with a drink in his hand and proved so hilariously opinionated about his menu (nothing printed, of course!) that I gave up trying to order and asked him to instruct me what to eat. It was easier that way – and the meal was so good that we went back the next night.
(Recently I advised a friend, visiting the city, to give the Drogheria a try: he found it all shuttered up, though I suspect the website has been recently updated. Does any reader know if it has indeed closed? That would be a grave loss).
I’m not a foodie. I couldn’t be a restaurant critic (though I’d give it a try!). I just love good food and drink, and fight a permanent battle with my weight as a result. And what I love about Italians is that they like what they know, and they know what they like.
This can make for some limitations in choice. We started our holiday in Rome, and found some Australians complaining about the way every ordinary restaurant offered the same menu. Well, it was true: but we were only there four nights, so we could ring the changes, notwithstanding.
The same was largely true in Sicily; though differing from the Roman selection, the menus there were also pretty similar from one place to another. Moreover, if you took out the horse and donkey steaks on the list (for us, it’s somehow a differenza culturale, as we explained: we can’t face them), you might have felt a bit stuck with beefsteak, black pig (definitely a specific black pig) or veal. Except that that there was a whole Mediterranean-full of delicious fish up for grabs too.
And that’s the point. Italian cuisine is regional: that’s its great joy. But Italians are gastronomically conservative. Not for the first time, in Catania we encountered a restaurant sign boasting that it’s pasta was ‘just like your mum makes’, which brings Sicilian males flocking to the place because, at bottom, that’s what they want.
I guess we could have been adventurous. There are modern restaurants doing exciting things: in little Agrigento we could even have had sushi. But I confess that in Sicily we wanted, well, real Sicilian cooking. And in the alberghi, osterie and ristoranti we tried, having first observed where the natives eat and avoided over-translated or even pictorial menus (except where the approximate English translations were truly hilarious), we were never disappointed.
Yes, we were bossed around, sometimes mercilessly. And we loved it! My (literally) kitchen Italian can just about cope with the banter: and, after all, it’s a small price to pay if you want your pasta “come della Mamma”.