ears ago, in a little restaurant on Rome’s Via Flaminia near Piazza del Popolo, we eavesdropped and listened fascinated as two young Italian girls had an extensive conversation with the waiter about what to order.
We foreigners are not used to young people getting so involved in what they eat, but in Italy, it’s an art. Nurtured and enhanced by waiters.
For me, Italy is full of daily interactions that I cherish — encounters with complete strangers in the streets, with my ancient bicycling knife sharpener, with my gruff but kind shoe repair man, with all of the lively vendors at the Campo de’ Fiori (or any open market anywhere, for that matter), with the little fireplug of a lady, her enormous flower basket balanced on her head, who meanders in the morning through Rome’s center, a smile for everyone.
I love conversations with shopkeepers and immigrants and street musicians and sidewalk artists and the Brazilian acrobats in the piazza in front of the Pantheon and the mime who follows unsuspecting victims, impersonating their quirks perfectly to the delight of onlookers.
But my favorite of all are the waiters. Waiters who, some of them, have been in their jobs for a lifetime and who probably know more about food than Chef Ferran Adrià — if you really pinned them down. Waiters who are also psychologists, food experts, entertainers, you name it.
On the day of the lunch at our sweet little restaurant, the two girls were completely absorbed in lively exchanges with our favorite waiter, continuing to ask questions and hesitate about what exactly they were to eat. The waiter, accustomed to all sorts of clients, saw at a glance that perhaps these young people might not have buckets of money for this particular lunch. The banter went something like this:
Waiter: “So what do you feel like today, this glorious day of sun in Rome?”
Girls: “Well, it’s summer and we both love light things when it’s hot and we were thinking maybe just a pasta primavera and a salad. Oh, and a quartino of vino bianco.”
Waiter: “But wait! Today we have not just a salad but our famous insalata di funghi, made with ovoli, celery, and just a little lemon and oil. And it is very light and so much more than just lettuce leaves.”
Girls: “But what are those? We’re not sure, but…”
Waiter: “If you have not had an insalata di ovoli, you have not yet experienced nirvana. I’ll just make one for the two of you and you can share.” (The waiter has astutely noticed their hesitation over the price and also noticed they they’ve ordered just a tiny bit of wine).
Girls: “Well, okay, that sounds really good but then we both sort of want a pasta, too.”
Waiter: “Let me suggest something a little different from primavera since it’s Wednesday and we get our fresh, six-hour-old mozzarella di bufala from around Naples and today we have a really amazing spaghetti with the mozzarella and tiny sweet tomatoes from Pachino in Sicily, a little olive oil, a very light pasta with a bit of shaved parmesan. How does that sound? You may also split that so that you have room for our panna cotta, the best in Rome, with no gelatin!”
Girls: “Well, all of that sounds like a lot but everything smells so good in here and we are sort of celebrating because we’ve known each other since liceo…”
Waiter: “Since liceo? You don’t look a day over 18, either of you, but friendship is wonderful and certainly something to celebrate. I’ll take care of it all.”
The waiter leaves and the girls chatter on about what a nice man their waiter is, so considerate. They’re pleased to be having fresh mozzarella and a mushroom they’ve never tasted. Everyone is happy and they share a lovely summer lunch that adds another sweet memory to their friendship. But, checking their purses, they decide to skip the dessert.
When the plates are clean and the glasses empty, the waiter arrives with a perfect creamy panna cotta and sets it down before them.
Girls: “Oh, but we really can’t… I mean, we didn’t plan on quite so much…”
They protest and squirm and we watch as the waiter, knowing and seeing all, and being who he is and has been for most of his life, places two small spoons on the table and says, “May you come back to celebrate yet another milestone in your friendship. This is on me.”