It’s been raining all day. We’ve been to the Uffizi, queued for an hour and a half for the Accademia and seen an amazing metaphysical art exhibition at Palazzo Strozzi. We’ve also stomped the streets until my feet are pretty much ready to fall off. I’m tired, wet and hungry, and therefore cranky. Alex drags me hastily into a restaurant before he gets shouted at yet again. It’s still only 8.00, so I’m surprised to see a table already filled with people eating. Earwigging on their conversation, I work out that they’re Germans. Ah – that makes sense. No self-respecting adult Italian would eat this early.
It quickly becomes clear that this is very much a family business. The solemn, middle-aged son, in shirt buttoned up to the chin and severely side-parted hairstyle, shows us to a table with earnest care. He’s unusually tall for an Italian. His father, on the other hand, is small and chatty. He bustles up to the table with a proprietorial air, shooing his son back to the bar and handing us a couple of menus. He doesn’t really expect us to read them, however, and he rattles off their specials of the day with pride. Alex discusses the food, and I catch some of the conversation, but not all. I do manage to work out that he’s asking about the finocchiona, though. I’ve guessed that it’s something to do with fennel, but not got any further. The father beams as he explains that it’s a salami flavoured with fennel (woohoo!), and a Tuscan speciality. Yum. Sounds good. I soon realise, however, that I’m not going to be allowed to order it. As a female, and a non-Italian-speaker to boot, I’m not going to get to make any decisions here. I will be getting prosciutto and melon and will like it. Boring! My Italian’s not up to protesting, though, and Alex is merely sniggering at my outrage. I glower at him and resolve to steal his food. Oblivious to my plans, he goes on to order the sole for his main. The restaurant owner nods busily. ‘Sogliola per due. Si.’ This time, though, I’m ready for him and squawk a protest before he can run away. No! I want the wild boar! Er – please? He looks a little surprised. I’m not sure whether it’s that I’ve ordered for myself or because I’ve gone for wild boar rather than something more delicate, but he writes the order with a flourish on his notepad anyway and potters off to find us a bottle of wine. Now that’s more like it.
Our wine arrives. The label waxes lyrical about birds, of all things. I’m not sure what ‘pispola’ means, but looking at the picture I think it may be what birdwatchers call turdus philomelos or, in common parlance, a thrush. Doesn’t sound too great whichever name you call it. Would madam care for a bottle of thrush? No? Really? How about some turdus philomelos? Thankfully it tastes a lot better than it sounds. Tucking into the starters, which have also arrived, I find that Alex’s fennel salami is, indeed, a lot more interesting than my melon and prosciutto. As usual I have food envy, but at least this time I can blame someone else rather than myself. Result. Alex offers me another slice of finocchiona. I don’t need asking twice: I take two before he has a chance to object. I give him a melon quarter, but I’m not sure he’s convinced it’s a fair exchange. Ha. That’ll teach him to leave me floundering in language hell.
The restaurant is beginning to fill up, so la mamma has appeared from upstairs. She is sporting a fuschia-pink dress covered with a red, food-spattered housecoat, and immediately disappears to the far end of the restaurant to talk to the second and third sons in the kitchen. As well as her garish outfit, she wears milk-bottle glasses and a somewhat forbidding expression on her face. A formidable sight indeed. When she comes to our table to clear our starters, however, she breaks into a grin and chatters away nineteen-to-the-dozen. Of course, I barely understand a word, but it doesn’t seem to worry her too much. It seems that it’s just short-sightedness, rather than anything more ominous, that made her look so gloomy. She’s a rotten waitress, dropping plates and handing the wrong orders to the wrong people all over the restaurant, but she’s so cheery while doing it that no-one minds at all. It’s far more like having dinner at a friend’s house than eating in a restaurant. The slightly rusty mechanics are all clearly on show, but the food is good and conversation even better, so who cares if you get the wrong plate? You just swap with the person next to you and carry on.
When it comes to ordering pudding, Alex protests that he’s full, but our host is having none of it. Off he pops to the pudding trolley and returns with not just one, but a whole plateful of profiteroles which he drops in front of Alex with a tut and a roll of his eyes. Refusing pudding? Whatever next! This is Italy, and here you eat, young man! He also plonks a couple of bottles of liqueur onto the table, along with a rapid-fire stream of Italian and a wink. God only knows what’s in them, as they are unlabelled and clearly home-made, but we pour a shot each and give them a go. I’m still not entirely certain what they contain, but they burn all the way down. It’s a somewhat wobbly walk home.
Image: Alex Palmer