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Food of Loveby Anthony Capella
In a little side street off the Viale Glorioso, in Rom‛s Trastevere, there is a bar known to those who frequent it simply as Gennar‛s. It is, to look at, not much of a bar, being the approximate size and shape of a small one-car garage, but the passing tourist would note that there is room outside for two little tables and an assortment of nonidentical plastic chairs that catch the sun in the morning, while the passing coffee lover would note that there is room inside on the stained zinc counter for a vast, gleaming Gaggia 6000, the Harley-Davidson of espresso machines. There is also room, just, behind the stained zinc counter for Gennaro, widely regarded by his friends as the best barista in all Rome and a very sound fellow to boot.
Which was why, one fine spring morning, twenty-eight-year-old Tommaso Massi and his friends Vincent and Sisto were standing at the bar, drinking ristretti, arguing about love, waiting for the cornetti to arrive from the bakery, and generally passing the time with Gennaro before jumping on their Vespas to go off to the various restaurants around the city that employed them. A ristretto is made with the same amount of ground coffee as an ordinary espresso but half the amount of water, and since Gennar‛s espressos were themselves not ordinary at all but pure liquid adrenaline, and since the three young men were in any case all of an excitable temperament, the conversation was an animated one. More than once Gennaro had to remind them not to all argue at once¬—or, as the Roman vernacular has it, to parlare‛nu strunzo‛a vota, to only speak one piece of shit at a time.
The unusual strength of Gennar‛s ristretti was the result of his honing the Gaggi‛s twin grinding burrs to razor sharpness, packing the basket with the resulting powder until it was as hard as cement, then building up a head of pressure in the huge machine and waiting until the dial showed eighty pounds per square inch before finally allowing the water to blast into the packed coffee. What came from the spout after that was barely a liquid at all, a red-brown ooze with a hanging quality like honey dripping off the end of a butter knife, with a chestnut-colored crema and a sweet, oily tang that required no sugar, only a gulp of acqua minerale and a bite of a sugar- dusted cornetto, if only the bakery had delivered them. Gennaro loved that machine like a soldier loved his gun, and he spent even more time stripping it down and cleaning it than he did making coffee. His goal was to get it up to a hundred PSI, way off the gauge, and make a ristretto so thick you could spread it like jam. Tommaso was privately convinced that even to attempt this feat was to run the risk of the Gaggi‛s exploding and taking them all with it, but he respected his frien‛s commitment and ambition and said nothing. It was, after all, self-evident that you could‛t be a great barista without taking risks.
The conversation that morning was about love, but it was also about football. Vincent, who had recently become engaged, was being scolded by Sisto, to whom the idea of restricting yourself to just one woman seemed crazy.
“You might think today that you have found the best woman in the world, but tomorro”¬—Sisto flicked his fingers under his chin¬—“who knows”
“Look” Vincent explained patiently, or as patiently as he was capable of,“how long have you been a Lazio supporter”
“All my life, idiot”
“But Roma are..” Vincent hesitated. He wanted to say“a better team” but there was no point in turning a friendly discussion about women into a deadly fight.“...doing better” he said diplomatically.
“This season. So far. What of it”
“Yet you do‛t start supporting Roma”
“√ą un altro paio di maniche, cazzo.* Tha‛s another thing altogether, you dick. You ca‛t switch teams”
“Exactly. And why not? Because you have made your choice, and you are loyal to it”
Sisto was silent for a moment, during which Vincent turned to Gennaro triumphantly and ordered another ristretto. Then Sisto said craftily,“But being a Laziale is‛t like being faithful to one woman. I‛s like having dozens of women, because the team is made up of different people every year. So yo‛re talking shit, as usual”
Tommaso, who up till now had taken no part in the argument, murmured,“The real reason Vincent and Lucia got engaged is that she said sh‛d stop sleeping with him unless they did” His friend‛ reactions to this piece of intelligence were interestingly different. Vincent, who had after all told Tommaso this in strict confidence, looked angry, then shamefaced, and then¬—when he realized that Sisto was looking distinctly envious¬—pleased with himself.
“I‛s true” He shrugged.“Lucia wants to be a virgin when we marry, just like her mother. So we had to stop sleeping together until we got engaged”
Vincen‛s statement, apparently illogical, drew no comment from his friends. In a country where literal, fervent Catholicism was only a generation away, everyone knew that there were as many grades of virginity in girls as there were in olive oil¬—which, of course, is divided into extra- virgin (first cold pressing), extra-virgin (second pressing), superfine virgin, extra-fine virgin, and so on, down through a dozen or more layers of virginity and near virginity, before finally reaching a level of promiscuity so unthinkable that it is labeled merely as“pur” and is thus fit only for export and lighting fires.
*Literally,“tha‛s another pair of sleeves”
“But at least ‛m getting it now” he added.“‛m sleeping with the most beautiful girl in Rome, who adores me, and w‛re going to be married and have our own place. What could be better than that”
“Tommaso gets it, too” Sisto pointed out.“And he is‛t getting married”
“Tommaso sleeps with tourists”
Tommaso shrugged modestly.“Hey, can I help it if beautiful foreign girls throw themselves at me”
This amiable conversation was interrupted by the arrival of the cornetti, a tray of tiny sugared croissants, which in turn called for a final caff√® before work. While Gennaro flushed the pipes of his beloved Gaggia in readiness, Tommaso received a sharp nudge in the ribs from Sisto, who nodded significantly toward the window.
Coming down the street was a girl. Her sunglasses were tucked up on the top of her head amid a bohemian swirl of blond hair which, together with her calf-length jeans, single-strap backpack, and simple T-shirt, marked her out immediately as a foreigner even before one took in the guidebook entitled Forty Significant Frescoes of the High Renaissance that she was holding open in one hand.
“A tourist” Sisto said hopefully.
Tommaso shook his head.“A student”
“And how do you know that, maestro”
“Her backpack is full of books”
“Psst! Biondina! Bona” Sisto called.“Hey! Blondie! Gorgeous”
Tommaso cuffed him.“That is‛t the way, idiot. Just act friendly”
It seemed puzzling to Sisto that any girl fortunate enough to be blond and attractive would not be impressed by having the fact pointed out to her, but he allowed himself to be guided by his more experienced friend and closed his mouth.
“Sh‛s coming over” Vincent noted.
The girl crossed the street and paused next to the bar, apparently oblivious to the admiring stares of the three young men. Then she pulled out a chair, put her backpack on the table, and sat down, arranging her slim legs over the next chair along.
“Definitely a foreigner” Vincent said sadly. Because every Italian knows that to sit down to drink coffee is bad for the digestion and will therefore be penalized by a surcharge costing three times as much as yo‛d pay at the bar.“You wait. Sh‛ll ask for a cappuccino”
Gennaro, watching the pressure gauge of the Gaggia intently, snorted dismissively. No proper barista would dream of serving cappuccino after 10:00 a.m, any more than a chef would offer cornflakes for lunch.
“Buongiorno” the girl called through the open door. She had a nice voice, Tommaso thought. He smiled at her encouragingly. Beside him, Vincent and Sisto were doing exactly the same. Only Gennaro, behind the zinc counter, maintained a suspicious frown.
“‛Giorno” he mutttered darkly.
“Latte macchiato, per favore, lungo e ben caldo”
There was a pause while the barista thought about this. Although the young woman had spoken in Italian, she had revealed her origins as much by what she had ordered as by her accent. Latte macchiato¬—milk with just a splash of coffee, but served in a lungo or large cup, and ben caldo, hot, so that it could be drunk slowly instead of being thrown down the throat in a couple of quick gulps in the proper manner. She was indisputably American. However, nothing she had ordered actually offended propriety¬—she had not asked for espresso with cream, or decaf, or hazelnut syrup, or skim milk¬—so he shrugged and reached for the twin baskets of the Gaggia, while the three young men tried to look as handsome as possible.
The girl ignored them. She pulled a map out of her backpack and compared it, with a somewhat perplexed expression, to a page in her guidebook. A telefonino rang in her backpack: she took that out, too, and proceeded to have a conversation that those inside could not overhear. When Gennaro finally judged his macchiato worthy of being served, there was a scuffle to be the one to deliver it to the gir‛s table, which Tommaso won easily. He took one of Gennar‛s little cornetti as well, placing it on the saucer and presenting it to the girl with a smile and a muttered,“On the house” But the girl was engrossed in her call, and her smile of thanks was all too brief. He had time to notice her eyes, though¬—gray eyes, clear and untroubled, the color of a sea bas‛s scales.
In fact, Laura Patterson was deeply troubled, or as troubled as it is possible for a twenty-two- year-old American girl to be in Rome on a fine spring morning, which was why she was glad to discover that it was her Italian friend Carlotta who was calling. Carlotta worked for a magazine called Stozzi in Milan. She was also part of the reason that Laura had come to Italy, having been a very good college friend back home.
“Pronto” In Italy it is customary to answer the phone by snapping“Ready” for reasons that are now obscure.
“Laura. I‛s me. What are you up to”
“Oh¬—hi, Carlotta. Well, I was looking for Santa Cecilia, as it happens. Sh‛s in possession of some rather fine frescoes by Cavallini. But it seems Santa Cecilia does‛t want to be found, so ‛m having coffee instead”
Carlotta ignored this nonsense and cut straight to the reason for her call.“And last night? How was your date”
“Ah. Well, it was fine” Laura said in a voice that made clear it had‛t really been fine at all. She had to tread a little carefully, because the date in question had been a friend of a friend of Carlott‛s own brother.“He, Paulo, was perfectly nice, and he knew a lot about architectur”¬—at the other end of the phone, Carlotta snorted derisively¬—“and he took me to a really interesting restaurant near the Villa Borghese”
“What were you wearing”
“Um...the red top and the black trousers”
“No jacket. I‛s warm down here”
There was an audible sigh at the other end. Carlotta, like all Italian women, thought that anyone who committed offenses against fashion had only herself to blame for whatever calamities subsequently befell her.“Did you wear sneakers” she demanded suspiciously.
“Of course I did‛t wear sneakers. Carlotta, yo‛re missing the point. Anyway, as I was saying, the meal was good. I had squid pasta and a really good lamb thing”
“Nothing else. Just coffee”
“And afterward” Carlotta said impatiently.“What happened afterward”
“Ah. Afterward we went for a walk around the Giardino di Lago, and tha‛s when he jumped me. Literally, because unfortunately there was a slight discrepancy in our respective heights, which meant that he had to actually propel himself off the ground somewhat in order to stick his tongue where he wanted to. Then, after that, of course he was trying to get me into bed¬—well, not bed exactly, since he still lives with his parents, so an actual bed was not part of the offer, but he was certainly trying to get me into the bushes. And before you say anything, I really do‛t think wearing a jacket would have made much difference”
Another sigh.“Are you going to see him again”
“No. Honestly, Carlotta, thanks for the introduction and everything, but I think ‛ve had it with Italian men. The‛re all so ridiculously oversexed and...well, just clumsy. Tha‛s my fourth disaster in a row. I think ‛m going to have to go back to dating Americans for a while”
Carlotta was horrified.“Cara, coming to Rome and dating Americans would be like going to the Piazza di Spagna and eating at McDonal‛s”
“Actually, a few of us did that the other day” Laura admitted.“It was kind of fun”
There was an exasperated tut at the other end.“Imagine what a waste your year in Italy will have been if the only men yo‛ve dated are people you could have met back home”
“Imagine what a waste i‛ll have been if the only people ‛ve dated are frustrated Italian rapists who still live with their mothers” Laura retorted.
“Yo‛re just meeting the wrong people. Look at my last boyfriend. Filippo was a sensational lover. Considerate, inventive, slow, passionate¬—”
“And currently, I think you said, working in a restaurant in a ski resort, precise whereabouts unknown”
“True, but it was great while it lasted. Tha‛s the thing about chefs. They know how to use their hands. I‛s all that chopping and slicing they do. It makes them dexterous”
“Hmm” Laura said, a little wistfully.“I have to admit, dexterous would be a nice change”
“Then, cara, you simply have to make sure your dates can cook before you agree to go out with them” Carlotta said decisively. She lowered her voice.“‛ll tell you something else about Filippo. He liked to taste everything as he cooked it, if you know what I mean”
Laura laughed. She had a remarkably dirty laugh, and the sound permeated into the interior of Gennar‛s bar, causing the young men inside to glance up appreciatively from their cornetti.“And I suppose, being a chef, he had a great sense of timing”
“Exactly. And he never rushed. You know how we Italians like to eat¬—at least a dozen courses”
“But all of them very small ones” Laura teased.
“Yes, but believe me, by the end you ca‛t eat another thing”
Even as Laura continued to joke, a part of her could‛t help admitting that her friend might have a point. Someone creative, who understood taste and texture, who knew how to combine ingredients for the purpose of sensual pleasure ... if only sh‛d met someone like that during her time in Italy.
“Well, there you are, then” Carlotta was saying.“It should‛t be hard. Rom‛s full of restaurants. It stands to reason it must be full of chefs as well”
“Maybe” Laura said.
“Listen, ‛ll tell you something else Filippo did...”
By the time Laura rang off, she had half-jokingly, half-seriously promised her friend that from now on she was definitely only going to date men who knew their b√©arnaise from their b√©chamel.
Tommaso had made up his mind he was going to speak to the American girl. Who could resist a laugh like that? As Vincent had said, he had an excellent track record with female tourists, who seemed to melt when they saw his big-featured, handsome face with its shock of corkscrew ringlets. Not that Roman girls did‛t melt as well, but Roman girls had a tendency to want him to meet their parents afterward. Foreigners were altogether less complicated.
He waited for the right moment. The American girl stayed on the phone, occasionally sipping slowly at her macchiato¬—no wonder sh‛d wanted it hot¬—until Tommaso realized with a sigh that he was going to have to go. He would already be late getting to the restaurant. He slapped a few coins on the counter and waved a farewell to Gennaro. His motorino was parked outside, next to the gir‛s table, and he lingered for a last moment as he crouched down to unlock it, savoring one more glance at the slim, honey-brown calves stretched over the chair opposite.
“No more Italians, then. Not unless they can cook” she was saying.“From now on, I do‛t date anyone who is‛t in the Good Food Guide”
Tommas‛s ears pricked up.
She reached into her cup for the final frothy globs of latte, scooping them out and licking them off her finger.“My God, this coffee is fantastic. Hold on. Yes”
Unable to stop himself, Tommaso had tapped her on her shoulder.
“‛m sorry to interrupt your call” he began in his best English.“I just wanted to tell you that your beauty has broken my heart”
She smiled appreciatively, if a little warily. Nevertheless, she tried to sound polite as she replied“Vatte a f‛‛nu giro, a fessa‛e mammata” using the words that her first Italian date had told her to employ whenever she was paid a compliment. Tommas‛s face fell.“Okay, okay” he said, backing off and throwing his leg across the scooter.
Laura watched him go, then turned her attention back to Carlotta.“Who was that” her friend wanted to know.
“Just some guy”
“Laura” her friend said carefully,“what do you think you said to him”
Which was how Laura discovered that she had actually been telling the young men of Rome in perfect idiomatic Italian to piss off back into the orifices of their mothers from which they were delivered.
“Oh” she said.“Oh, dear. Tha‛s a shame. He was quite cute, too. But it does‛t really matter, does it? Because from now on ‛m holding out for someone who can cook”
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