There is more to an authentic Italian restaurant than just the food. There is also the attitude. And so it was, when I joined my older brother (in Italy for work) and a few of his Roman colleagues and friends for dinner on Saturday night, that we encountered the real deal.
A large older woman with a sharp nose, wearing a white apron over her shapeless dress, her hair covered in a white cotton cloth à la Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring and with a blue latex glove on her right hand only, greeted us at the entrance. By greeting, I mean she chastised us for not having the entire party arrive on time, as if she were our grandmother who had prepared food especially for us and it was now getting cold. A woman named Valeria, who had made the reservation, was running late. Someone mentioned the presence in our group of an American professor (my brother), as if that would elicit different behavior, to which she said, not unkindly, "I don't care."
"I think the food here is going to be good," I ventured, figuring that there was a reason she could afford to be so rude. After a few more minutes of standing outside the restaurant and conferring with Valeria by cell phone, we decided to sit at our table and wait there.
"Ciao, American Professor," the woman said to my brother as we entered, shaking his hand. She was now in a slightly better mood.
We were about to embark on what would turn out to be dinner theater with extremely limited audience participation. In Ravenna, a mosaics classmate and I had eaten at a place where there was no written menu. The waitress asked us what we wanted to eat (e.g. pasta or meat) and then rattled off the choices for that evening. I was not quite sure what I was in the mood for, but since I didn't understand much of what she said and she was getting impatient, we ended up choosing a pasta dish, cappelletti, whose ingredients (cheese, asparagus) I recognized. The steaming food was delivered to our table in the sautee pan in which it was prepared.
At this bustling Roman place, near Campo de' Fiori, we had no say as to what we'd be eating. The antipasti (fresh tomatoes, lentils, fried rice balls, fried eggplant for my brother and me, prosciutto for the Italians) were plunked onto the table by a waiter who seemed resentful that we were giving him a job to do. Ditto for bottles of mineral water and a carafe of white house wine (what if we had wanted red?). Perhaps he would have preferred to toss the dishes, frisbee style, to our table, so that he wouldn't have had to deal with us. The only choice we were given was whether we wanted parmesan cheese on our pasta course, but the question was asked in such a way that it was clear that the only acceptable answers were "Yes" or "No", and not, "Could I have some on the side?" or, "Could you just put a little bit on it?," or any other personalized instruction. Never mind that we had no idea what the pasta dish even was. People choosing this restaurant, and it was packed, trust the chef to determine what they will eat.
Plunk, plunk, plunk, bowls of rigatoni were dropped on our table.
Next came the second course, roasted veal with fried slivers of potato and a green salad.
No one asked us if we wanted dessert. It, too, was plunked on the table. We each received a glass dish of fresh strawberries along with a spoon. Wedges of a fruit tart were arranged on two plates, one for each side of the table. I waited to see if forks would appear, but they did not, so we ate the delicious cake with our fingers.
However, the restaurant did ask if we wanted an after dinner liqueur. Why not? Small glasses of limoncello arrived, a sweet ending to an evening's entertainment in which our role was to shut up, eat up, and be grateful.
It was past midnight when we left the restaurant. The once grouchy, blue gloved woman hugged Valeria and warmly thanked us for coming.