As someone who is pretty content to eat the same thing day after day – at my desk, no less – and who’s willing to admit that much of it starts out frozen in a cardboard box, I don’t think it’s right to call myself a true foodie. I do, however, love to eat when I travel, and am far happier paying hundreds on memorable meals than I am on stuff I can actually pack in a suitcase and bring home with me.
Over the years, Italy has taught me how food can help inform travel – but in some ways that’s proven to be somewhat problematic. My high expectations of food experiences in Italy have resulted in more than a few moments of hunger-driven desperation and what turned out to be terrible dining decisions. Most of them are best forgotten, but there’s one I’ll never forget.
A couple of years ago I’d planned a few days in Venice, a town famous for its bad and expensive food. On my first night in the city, I left my hotel equipped with the location of a highly-recommended restaurant, a map tracing the route from my hotel to the restaurant, and a book to read once I’d gotten there. I was feeling incredibly smug by the time I reached my destination, standing bang in front of the restaurant I’d set out to find (this kind of thing almost never happens on purpose in maze-like Venice) until I noticed the sign on the front door of the completely dark restaurant. The chef, it said, had died not four days before my arrival, and the restaurant was closed until further notice.
Without any other restaurants marked on my map, or a guidebook at hand to find another place that came with similarly-high marks, I started to wander. I didn’t trust my judgment on any of the restaurants I passed, and since it was late February I couldn’t rely on “it’s busy so it must be good” logic – nothing was busy. After unintentionally circling by the same restaurant four times, I finally took that as a sign – that and the fact that my stomach was audibly growling by that point – and went inside. I was instantly sorry I had.
It was, I’m not kidding, set up cafeteria-style. You had to pick up a scratched-up plastic tray at one side of the long food bar right inside the door, drag it along one of those metal-pipe-shelf things, choose pre-cooked dishes in individual ramekins from under heat lamps, and pay for everything at the end of the bar. I was faint with hunger, and upon walking in the door I’d been spotted and greeted by both the bored-looking “chef” behind the bar and the even-more-bored-looking woman behind the cash register at the end of the bar.
I like good food, but I like not seeming bitchy and judgmental, too. So I stayed.
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I picked up a tray, chose a few dishes, grabbed a big bottle of sparkling water, and paid for my food. I carried my tray to a corner table in the back of the restaurant, opened my book, and sighed. I hadn’t planned well, and I had chosen badly. I had ended up just like all the travelers who complain about Venice’s food. In the end, the food itself was better than expected, but the experience is what I’ll remember – partly because I did manage to find the humor in the situation, and partly because an Italian man working in the restaurant totally made my day.
The place was nearly empty, as just about every place was in Venice in late February, so the guy pushing a mop around at the back of the dining room noticed me when I walked in and sat down. I didn’t say anything, and neither did he, but when I put my tray down and reached for the water bottle I’d bought he walked over and opened it for me. Of course I could have opened it myself, but I chose to see it as a kind gesture and thanked him in Italian. It was then, I think, that he saw the big English title on the book I was reading.
As he walked away from my table, and for the rest of the time I was in the restaurant, he walked in and out of the room – sometimes pushing his mop, sometimes just walking through – and every single time he walked by me he sang that one line, the title line, from the Nat King Cole song, “Unforgettable.”
“Unforgettable,” he sang, “that’s what you are…”
And that was all. Over and over. I’m sure it’s the only line he knew, in a language he doesn’t speak, but it was his way of connecting with me. I smiled the first time he did it, and then buried my nose in my book, smiling to myself when he’d repeat his line. This was no meal to linger over, so I gathered my things and left as soon as I’d finished eating. But I got a pleasant “arrivederci” from my crooner as I walked toward the door.
I left the dining room smiling. I had almost no reason to smile about the evening, having failed on my quest to eat at a great restaurant in Venice and having let my hunger get to a point where I chose a back-up eatery so poorly. But despite my disappointment at wasting an opportunity to eat a good meal in Italy, the evening wasn’t a complete write-off. I still smile when I think about the man pushing his mop and singing maybe the only English song he knew to the stranger in the corner of the dining room. I don’t know what he was trying to say by singing it, but I like to think it was his way of saying, “Welcome to my city.”
Meals can be a welcome mat for an unfamiliar culture or a new destination, whether or not it’s the food itself that welcomes you. So while I won’t seek out that cafeteria-style spot in Venice again, thanks to a guy who pushed a mop around and provided the soundtrack for my dinner that night, I won’t think ill of it.
photo by Son of Groucho