ining alone in Italy can sometimes be viewed in the same way as drinking a cappuccino after 11:30 a.m.; some strange and horrifying tourist affliction.
I’m not talking about grabbing a quick bite at a café, but sitting down to a leisurely meal. What started out as a necessity — when I first moved to Florence and knew no one — has evolved into a pleasure.
My first experience da sola wasn’t hopeful. I entered a popular trattoria and nonchalantly asked for “un tavolo per uno,” as if to avoid the obvious: That I was eating alone on a Friday night. The owner looked at me first incredulously, then a little sadly. He finally turned his torso toward the depths of the restaurant and yelled, “Lei è da sola!” (She’s alone!).
After two available waiters examined each other to decide who would serve me (after what looked like a rudimentary mental game of “rock, paper, scissors”) the owner sat me at a long wooden table with two Asian girls busy with slabs of bistecca alla fiorentina. We smiled at each other apologetically. It was obvious I’d been placed at the “tourist table.”
My waiter seemed concerned by my solitude and hovered over me anxiously with melancholy eyes. When I pulled out my book he couldn’t bear it anymore and asked me why I was alone, what the book was about, what I was doing in Florence, and so on.
Toward the end of my meal I heard someone further down the communal table request that their steak not resemble mine (I had ordered it ben cotta and they wanted theirs rare). The waiter assured them mine was a freak. His exact words were: “Hers is like that because she said, ‘Please, I’m all alone and eating by myself, couldn’t you make it well-done?’”
I smiled at the endearingly cheeky dramatics, but couldn’t tell if he was pitying me, trying to help, or just poking fun.
At the end of the meal he offered me complimentary dessert wine, which I guessed was a gesture of condolence.
At another place, I became so well-known that I was ushered to “my” table, served what I usually ordered, and given a dessert that I hadn’t requested.
It was there that I realized what most unsettled me about dining alone: The way attention is lavished on you.You’re watched in a way that’s unheard of when part of a couple or a group. A couple gets privacy while the group usually gets as much attention as it takes to copy down the order.
On your own, you’re the focus of all attention. Waiters walk around the restaurant tending to other customers, but float back to check on your state of mind. I stopped going to this restaurant when they began telling me their hours, as though I was expected there daily.
Just as I began feeling a bit like an old maid, I bumped into my waiter at my local fruttivendolo — and apparently his as well. We exchanged “ciao’s” in the awkward way one does when public and private merge unexpectedly.
He asked if I was coming to dinner. “Not tonight,” I responded for the sake of dignity. But he persisted: “Perche no? Domani?”
I smiled and compromised: “Forse la settimana prossima.” Maybe next week. But I knew I wouldn’t return alone.
For those new to dining alone, here are some preliminary guidelines:
— Avoid expensive places: There’s a greater chance of a cold shoulder.
— Show restraint by not picking the same restaurant repeatedly. Dining alone is only enjoyable when proprietors and waiters don’t know you do it every night. Otherwise, you’re just the local Nelly-no-friends.
— Try not to be seated with another single diner, even if the locale is cramped. It’s happened to me and I’ve found it mildly uncomfortable for both diners.
— Bring a prop. A book is best and can be used in three ways: It can entertain you, prevent others from talking to you, or (if you like) act as a conversation starter.
Dining da sola is an art. If you can endure the inevitable realization that you’re the exception, it can even be pleasantly rewarding. In a nation where eating is usually a group activity, going it alone deserves a medal of honor — or at least a good dessert wine.