Illustration by Claudia Egholm Castrone
I had just arrived in Florence with my friend Tom, armed only with a phrasebook and plenty of self-confidence. We strolled along the Arno river and took selfies in front of the Ponte Vecchio. As the last rays of the sun gleamed off il Duomo, we spotted a quiet restaurant overlooking the river.
This was the moment we had been waiting for. Our first meal in Italy.
A reassuringly plump waiter, his dark hair supported by industrial quantities of Brylcream, showed us to a table. A bowl of green olives and a bottle of sparkling mineral water appeared with a flourish, followed by two leather-bound menus. We studied them. Occasionally a word like lasagne popped up, a familiar shore in a sea of double consonants.
“Prego,” said the waiter, beaming.
Still feeling a little jetlagged, I ordered a cappuccino. The waiter pointed out sotto voce that coffee was usually drunk after the meal – and that milky coffees were for the morning.
I don’t remember saying anything but he looked at me with a mixture of sorrow and pity, as if I were were a child in need.
Seeing that I clearly required some guidance, he proceeded to explain the correct order of dishes in an Italian meal. This sermon was clearly an everyday occurrence for him, an educational service he provided free of charge for his guests.
First comes the antipasti, a mixed plate with a stunning array of colours and textures. Peppers soaked in oil, tiny delicate eggs of bocconcini (a type of mozzarella), mushrooms, anchovies, cured hams and salamis, and crusty bread.
Then, said the waiter, his arms starting to windmill like an orchestra conductor, you get the primo: a simple plate of pasta, gnocci, lasagne, polenta, a casserole, or a bowl of steaming soup.
“How about spaghetti bolognese?” I asked.
Beside me, Tom muttered something uncomplimentary into his napkin.
“No. Bolognese is ragù. We eat it with tagliatelle. Do you want that? Okay. And for you signor?”
“Tortellini alla lastra, per favore,” said Tom, to my great astonishment and the waiter’s instant approval. (I found out later the bastard had been taking Italian classes on the sly.)
“And for the secondo?”
The secondo is a course of meat, fish or chicken, served with a side dish of salad or vegetables called the contorno. Tom went for the baccalà alla Livornese, a classic salted cod dish with tomatoes, parsley, garlic and basil.
I asked if they had any pizza alla Hawaiana.
After the waiter and my now ex-best mate wiped away their tears of laughter, they explained that Hawaiian pizza isn’t really an Italian tradition. At this point I stopped trying to use the guidebook, and resolved to take whatever was recommended. The waiter suggested the local steak, bistecca alla fiorentina.
He collected the menus with a flourish and whirled off to another table of wide-eyed tourists. I scowled into my drink. My bad mood lasted until the first plate hit the table.
Years later, when I try to recall the meal itself, only flashes come back to me. The crackle of bread soaked in olive oil and balsamic vinegar. The salty crunch of grilled baby octopus. The way the tagliatelle slid around the plate until trapped with a fork (the waiter had point-blank refused to bring me a spoon) and how the tender steak slid away from the knife like a sigh.
I only have memories of afterwards, of pushing my plate away feeling decidedly post-coital. The sky was darkening and pale points of light glimmered on the river as the waiter brought a plate of watermelon and some tangy pecorino cheese. A single ball of lemon sorbetto followed it.
“Caffè,” said the waiter simply when we were finished.
I didn’t drink espresso, but our host gave me no choice in the matter. I understood why when I took the first sip. It was like sipping black liquid sin, and I was suddenly conscious of the blood rushing in my veins. The waiter appeared once more, with two tiny glasses of clear liquid.
“This is grappa. We call it the ammazzacaffè – the coffee killer.”
It was strong and spicy, cutting through the heat of the coffee, slowing everything down. I grinned at the waiter, feeling absurdly foolish and happy. He patted me on the back and winked at Tom.
“He eats like an Italian, this one. Watch out,” he said, rubbing his belly.
With a nod of satisfaction he disappeared back inside.
As you might have guessed, this was the first of many meals that that we had in Italy. As our knowledge of Italian cuisine grew, so too did our appreciation of the language: its rhythm and melody, the way it flowed up and down like the rivers and hills through which we were travelling. As we learned to eat like Italians, we learned to speak like Italians.
And along the way, we came to appreciate something else. It’s not just the first meal you eat in Italy that’s an adventure. It’s every meal.