For millions, the expression “al fresco” instantly conjures up rows of outdoor tables, a snapshot long associated with Rome and southern Europe — at least in summer. Tourists see quaint tables in picturesque piazzas with gentle breezes as a bonus. Outdoor seating is copied everywhere, even in American suburbs where some concrete verandas overlook shopping malls and highways.
But culture and language can play tricks. In Italian slang, al fresco drips with irony: it means being stuck in jail. Italian diners set aside al fresco for the basics, dentro or fuori, inside or out. Most would always go for the latter, since it suggests relaxation and leisure time, even on winter days when leisure is in short supply. Since 2005, outdoors also means being able to smoke while dining, part of the reason many restaurants with street-side real estate invest in creative looking heaters and sometimes even offer blankets to cater to their cold-weather clientele. Minus the smoking advantage, outdoor dining in winter is no joyride. Even the most powerful heat lamps can’t tame rain and wind (though some hardy souls just ignore them).
Overall, Italians see outdoor tables as a birthright and a natural reflection of lifestyle in a temperate Mediterranean country, never mind the pedigree of the bar or restaurant. It’s part of who they are. There’s no need for the trendy North American-style al fresco billing (just as North American restaurants don’t need to say they’re “climatized,” or have air conditioned, which Italy restaurants do by the hundreds).
When warm weather springs, outdoor dining blossoms. Freed from winter hibernation, Italians come out to play. They share convivial times long after a meal has ended, chatting, arguing, gossiping or knocking back shots of digestivo without having to worry about waiters bringing the check. Lingering remains a basic human right.
Outdoor tables also put on a people-watching show with a voyeuristic edge, at least for men — plunging necklines and bare legs increase in spring. Lunch outside allows locals to soak up rays for their signature tintarella suntan. In fact, some coastal and country cafés and restaurants place tables in the full sun for just that reason. I can’t eat and squint, so I always opt for a bit of ombra, or shade — especially if I’m drinking wine, since wine and direct sunlight together are a proven cause of headaches.
But outdoor dining isn’t without its down sides. Unless you’re in a closed courtyard, it can mean sharing space with dubious minstrels, whether pretend-Neapolitan balladeers or mariachi serenades. The old cliché of a violinist sidling up to a newlywed’s rooftop table by chance has nothing to do with chance. Musicians aside, roving vendors bearing trinkets, laser torches or just asking for “donations” may interrupt meals mid-forkful. In turbulent years, women seated curbside were advised not to hang their bags on the backs of chairs against ride-by scooter thefts. This common sense caution has endured despite the crime dip.
Another plague is pigeons. They’re a scavenging staple around piazza tables and at restaurants where owners insist on outdoor displays of food and fish. Instead of attracting humans, the dubious food lures ever-hungry birds. Pigeons and roaming seagulls (Rome is 20 kilometers from the coast) have gradually built up the courage to feed alongside people, particularly in crowds. They adore swooping in on sad-looking pizzas with leftovers of congealed cheese, overcooked spaghetti and rancid sauce. Human efforts to shoo them away are often useless. The birds are persistent and fearless. Sit outside near the Pantheon or Piazza Navona at your own risk.
Then there’s pollen — at least in spring. The other day I ate with eight people in Testaccio on a lovely sun-dappled day. Seated under a canopy of vines, we found each other furtively picking poplar fuzz out of our linguine with clams.
There’s also human noise. Outdoor diners often make no effort to adjust their own volume. You don’t need to be curious to overhear another table’s most intimate details.
But all things considered it’s a small price to pay for dining under sun and stars in a country where food, the outdoors and antiquity mix as no place else on the planet.