WOID XIX-29. The Good, the Bad and the Hungry

It wouldn’t make a difference if I told you where the trattoria is – maybe the best restaurant in Modena, Italy; the best meal I’ve ever had, perhaps. It was lunchtime and we were walking around in Modena, looking for a decent place to eat, so we asked two ladies chatting by a doorway, and one of them said she knew a place, she was going home to cook and it was on her way so we all walked along, chatting. Signora Gianna pointed to where a small group was clustered around a storefront at the end of the street and told us she lived around the corner, but then we kept on chatting, walking together to the door, and then we persuaded her to go inside and ask her friends how long the wait, and the man said one hour. So we asked if we could come back in an hour, and one of us said something in English about how this still didn’t mean we’d get in, and an English-speaking woman standing by, in a linen jacket and a pearl necklace, answered: “Well, I ‘ve never been able to get in, and I live here!”

That made it all worthwhile. If the bourgeois criterion is whether you’re entitled, then I appreciate the opposite: if the bourgeois respect a place to the extent that others can’t get in, then I’m entitled to respect a place to the extent that others won't - not because of who they are, but what they do. If Michelin can hand out stars based on gold faucets in the restrooms, then I can give out stars (red stars, of course), based on class consciousness. And class consciousness in Italy as elsewhere has a lot to do with sharing, and this woman was unhappy at the thought of sharing. The cliché that Italian peasants and working folks are always happy, laughing, is nonsense: it’s just that the bourgeois are unhappy, that’s how you recognize them. It’s true, sometimes, you walk into a second-class carriage on a local train and out comes the salami and everybody’s sharing. It’s always true, when you’re on the express train from Rome to Bologna, and facing you’s a man with his suit and laptop and telefonino: not a word will be spoken the whole long trip. When Lenin lived on Capri, the fishermen and others knew at once he was one of them, for them, because he knew how to laugh. I’ll bet he knew how to eat, as well. At least I hope so.

So we came back an hour later, and of course we waited an hour more, perhaps, hanging in the street and chatting on a beautiful day in Spring. And then we ended up inside a cool, dark room crowded with very large groups of families or friends, and a few small groups as well. Even with a “reservation,” the lady with the pearls would long ago have left, because her non-existent reservations weren’t going to be honored – not the way she wanted, anyhow.

There are two types of restaurants in Italy: those that have a menu, and those that don’t. This was the second kind, meaning you ask the boss “What’s good today,” and then he tells you and you chose (assuming there’s a choice), and you don’t know what it costs until you get the bill. Of course, if you’re the lady with the pearls this means you might get cheated, and Being Cheated is one of the great preoccupations of the middle class, worldwide: it kind of spoils the fun of eating, though, except if you’re the boss, who like all restaurateurs of all kinds of restaurants, enjoys the game. Who pulled a bottle of fizzy lambrusco wine on the table, and halfway through the meal pulled out another bottle and when we protested, laughed: “Don’t worry, if you don’t finish it, I will.” Who brought the tortellini in brodo, which were magnificent, and pasta with porcini mushrooms, and then the rollatini (which weren’t perfect by the way, a touch too dry), and once we’d finished with the rollatini and he saw how much my friend appreciated them, brought out another and put it on his plate, unasked. And then there was the home-brewed grappa at the end, unasked, and I won’t tell you what the bill came to, it was what you’d expect at a local trattoria, except it made you feel you’d got the deal of a lifetime, considering – but then you’d have to have considered how good the food was to begin with, not how much it was going to cost, or who could afford it.

Besides: Italian cooking, if it’s going to be that good, is going to be undefinably good, as opposed to French cooking, which tends towards the verbal: French cooking’s all about technique and ingredients, Italian cooking’s about what you do with them. A few days earlier, back in Rome, we’d listened to a group of Italian-Americans in a mediocre trattoria, discussing the “real” Italy: the grandmothers in black dresses, and all that. One of them announced that in Italy, contrary to what Americans may think, they don’t use much garlic in their food, and at that moment her pasta con le vongole arrived up, and it reeked – not of garlic, but of burnt garlic. It’s not a question of garlic or not-garlic but the flavor it imparts: not ingredients, but the space between ingredients.

A miser, said Balzac, has everything inside his head, even his dick. Even a fried goat’s dick on a bed of mushroom polenta. I once read that the great chef Mario Battagli spent his apprenticeship, not as a French chef would, learning the perfect moves from another chef, but cooking for local families atop a mountaintop somewhere in Italy. What he learned, in other terms, was what ingredients are and how they work together, not those tricks and techniques and cooking facts that Paulo Freire calls “bankable.” The miser and the bourgie always speak the language of money, even when they’re talking of other things. Freire, of course, is the author of that great educator’s handbook, the “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” Perhaps someone should write a cookbook in the same vein, though “Cookbook of the Not-Repressed” is an awkward title.

By the time we’d ended with our meal, most guests had left: we were outnumbered by the kitchen staff who, their day’s work done, had sat down for their own reward, as staff will do in any staff-respecting restaurant. So we stood up and applauded them, and then walked out. My friends went back to their hotel and took a nap, and then went out again and had gelato. After all, what’s the point of a fabulous meal if you’re not up to another, new and fabulous meal a few hours down the road?

- Martha Stewedrat

reprinted from WOID: a journal of visual language
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