Part four. No rest for the restaurant goers.
FLORENCE, Italy – On your feet, walkers. Museum walking done, we do shopping walking and then head off to “the bad side of town.” Here we find our Aussie friends to have a far better grasp of Florence than the two locals we have met so far. Midge thought the part of town was questionable, but all I saw were businessmen in suits, gentle old people holding each other up, people pushing, not drugs but baby carriages.
The street where we find this unique Italian restaurant is not really even what I would call a street. It is more of a tiny tunnel connecting two streets. The restaurant and its sister sandwich shop are the middle two stores of the four stores that make up their entire “street.” Hey. Door’s locked. Lights are on. People are inside. We’re not. But here comes a demure, deferential waiter. He opens the door about oh, three inches and lets out part of a nose and one eyebrow to ask if we have a reservation. And adds, “se, no . . .” We get the drift, we know the drill, yes, yes we are Mr. Stuardo. He blanches a bit, probably dazzled by my Italian (humor), and says they only have a reservation for an Eduardo. Ok, sure, fine, that’s me too if it gets me fed. “Yeah, that’s him, I talked to him on the phone” says a rough sand paper voice from behind the waiter. Oh, there he is. Face is twice as tough as the tough voice. A reformed boxer? Rough shaved head, classic four o’clock shadow, widely gaped teeth. It would be off-putting but for the mischievous eye twinkle and half grin. Which is good. We’ve pretty much got to be friends here. This place is small and packed already. No chairs. They were surely considered and rejected in favor of small, rattan topped square, backless stools. And those are packed in here with hardly any space between them.
Now that we’ve broken in here, we thread our way past an old red metal Coke cooler, an even older wooden madia (an Italian standard, sort of a large, freestanding bread box), crates of dark purple artichokes, and baskets of Tuscany’s best looking porchini mushrooms. These were all where an aisle really should rightly be – so it is really crowded. Stepping over and around obstacles like this brings us to a tiny balcony two steps above the main level. Wrought iron railing, our table and three other dinky tables complete the entire “balcony.”
We came early (7:30. Early on Italian Standard Time) and it was a bit like being at a symphony hall watching the musicians setting up, getting instruments organized and tuned. The laughing happy people blessed with reservations keep trickling in. Which, with the door really being shut and locked, is a bit of a trick. Everyone gets the same quiz we got. No reservation? No entry to the kingdom. Consolation prize is that sometimes the door watcher fights their way back to the counter and grabs a business card and passes it though the narrow opening, with a polite, non-judgmental, Try Again. Maybe Next Time. With Reservations.
A quietly elegant black man, in sport coat and turtle neck comes in and stands calmly by the counter. Doesn’t say a word. And is instantly poured a glass of wine. Brandy? Then he becomes for a while the designated doorman, vetting the hopeful and hungry applicants. It’s futile for the hopeful applicants to ask. Every tiny table either has a name on it or someone already sitting there. Midge looked at me, looked at the man, and cut her glance to an old photo on the wall. A younger version of him and the rough character that let us in. Arms around each other, posed, smiling out at us from the black and white world of some long past event. Wine finished, the volunteer doorman nods, waves goodbye and a huggy young couple takes his place by the counter, drinking wine and eating the house rolls, sort of a biscuit-like thing. They do door detail now. And dozens are turned away. One couple, by the grace of god, got in because a person with a reservation had not shown up. Of course those late people showed up as soon as the fill-in people had been seated. And now there really isn’t anyplace even to stand, let alone an aisle for the waiter to work. But he and the owner seemed to have a real zen way about them and took the chaos in stride even though you could hardly move or hear orders being given.
The food is great and plentiful. And random. We didn’t order either of the first two courses. One was hot salted focaccia drizzled with fresh, green olive oil. The next course to arrive unbidden was a huge plate o’ meat. All sweet treats served under balsamic. I told the waiter they were great and all but I was worried that we had eaten what we had not ordered. Was this meant for some other table? Note, Concerned Citizen Stew reported this AFTER he gobbled it all up. “No, no” the angelic waiter smiled. “It was a surprise for you.” Thank you very much.
Funky place. White marble walls and big hooks in the ceiling. Meat curing? Local torture chamber? Be easy to hose down at night for sure. But the austere aspects of the cold hard white marble were off set by old radios, beat up old guitars, and I can’t remember what all because the people-watching was just too insanely interesting. I’d stay tuned to this channel round the clock if they had a remote cam. Ooop. There goes the chef. He’s just a blurr. He’s a burnished mahogany, shaved head kind of guy who knows half the people here and has a word and a wave and a wink for each of them but never breaks his stride coming zipping in or zipping back out. High theater plus good eats makes this a big big favorite with me. I say to Midge several times I feel like I am in a stage production and have a tiny part in it. Can you see it in the credits: “Annoying Tourist No.7”?
THE SHOW MUST GO ON
Look at some the other characters in this Italian movie. We’re seeing their act at just the next table. I’m so trying to act like I’m not Totally Into It. The man there, you remember the lucky duck who scored the only non-reservation seat of the night? Ok. He is holding forth on who knows what subject. I can hear him and hear parse out that it seems to be Italian but it is just noisy enough to not be able to pick up the drift of it. His lady friend has that long-suffering, furitive hang-dog look about her and never gets two words in between his constant, modulated, unhurried but never-ending, flowing like a river of words, monologue. She’s dark and moody. He’s youngish (40?) but with a silver lamb’s wool head of shaggy hair. And patently clueless. He has an open book in his hand. Here? Yes, here. And he is making eye contact with the girl and talking all the time. I can hear enough to know it’s Italian but not enough to tell if he is reading it out loud, but he looks at it every now and then. And never stops moving his lips. Oh, oh, what’s this? Still talking but now it’s to the hurried but infinitely patient single waiter for this circus. Wool Head is pointing at his bottle of wine. And pouring the waiter some in a spare glass on their table. The more patient than average waiter swirls it, he smells it. He drinks. He thinks. Drinks again. Both hands on the edge of their table, leaning into it in a thoughtful, engaged way. Says not a word. If ever there was going to be a cartoon balloon over a guy’s head it would be this guy, now. And it would be saying “Buddy. We let you in. You scored this aces corner table. You’ve drunk 2/3 of the bottle. It’s wine. This ain’t The Ritz Carlton.” He shrugs, leaves. A few minutes later he is back with a bottle they are all touching reverently and wide eyed. He insists they take it and keep the other one too. Does killing with kindness ever really kill? Would that it could?
Ok, ok, it is crowded and more crowded and we’re going to do something helpful. And leave. The show must go on, and we hate to go, but it’s the right thing to do. I mean the food was great, but it’s gone. Plates are shiny clean where minutes ago artichoke on pasta was sitting. The porchini on chicken plate looks the same. We give up our table and take the few steps to cash out. There is absolutely no space to move here. And yet, somehow, there is now an old accordianist playing away. Music to pay by. The bill, with wine, is 65 euros. They already threw in two courses and, unasked, the waiter rounds it down to a nice round 60 with a raised eyebrow sort of “is that ok?” look. For dinner and a show? You bet. We unlock the door and let ourselves back out into the real world. Someone inside flips the key and now we are on the outside looking in. Was that real? Must have been. Don’t think I could have made all of that up. Here’s an attempt at a mini movie to prove we were there. And help us stretch the moment out and relive it from afar.
Good night, Florence. Lets do this again sometime.
See you in Italy,