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Misadventures in Eating, Italy-Style

May 23rd, 2013 · No Comments · Italy, Rome, tourism, Travel

How hard can it be to solve a menu in Italian? The names of the various pastas (pasti?) transfer directly into English. Spaghetti is spaghetti and rigatoni is rigatoni.

And we should be able to recognize basic Italian dining words, like “funghi” or “prosciutto” or “pollo” or “porchetta”.

What could go wrong?

As it turns out … plenty.

Leading to several “I ordered that?” moments during this visit to Italy.

For example:

1. The mountain of parmesan for lunch.  The woman at the lower level of the hotel in Gaeta spoke no English. The request was for a ham-and-cheese sandwich. That was mistake No. 1. She understood apparently none of that. Seeing her confusion, we came up with “prosciutto and formaggi” … and we should have included “panino” instead of sandwich. A few minutes later, the woman asked if it were OK to use parmesan. We said of course.

The result? No bread, and lots of prosciutto piled atop large nuggets of parmesan. Much more than a normal serving.

2. The mountain of mozzarella for lunch. A little roadside stand, up the Via Flacca, towards Gaeta, does a brisk drive-by business. So we went up there for a bit of lunch. We got to the counter and saw the little pies known here as tiellas, a pocket-style sandwich that is a local specialty. We ordered three. The woman behind the counter added: “Mozzarella di Bufalo?” We nodded yes. The house specialty, anyway. The result? The three tiellas, two plates with Mike Tyson-fist-size amounts of mozzarella floating in a milky olive oil sauce and topped with fresh tomatoes, and a long loaf of bread. It was very good, but it was way too much food for lunch; we carried the tiellas and most of the bread out with us.

3. The tagliata surprise. A little restaurant in the medieval area of Gaeta specializes in meat dishes. I looked at one special of the day and it referred to “crudo tagliata … manos” which I decided meant handmade pasta (perhaps tagliatelle) … and I got lots of sliced beef and a braid of mozzarella di bufala about the size and weight of a wrung out wet T-shirt. No pasta at all. Turns out tagliata is thin-sliced beef — in this case, cured. And that braid of mozzarella required the appetites of two.

4. The near-disaster at the hotel resto. Continuing along the lines of not quite believing that our servers do not speak at least a bit of restaurant English, we asked the server, in English: “Which two of these is better? — referring to pasta with seafood and pasta with clams. Where this went had also happened in Rome — the server thought we were asking for both dishes, and not asking for advice. We would have gotten both dishes had we not ordered a third plate, which the server clearly thought was too much food … and we finally got it straightened out.

5. The sardine main course. Our first night at the ultra-basic restaurant near the apartment in Trastevere … we ordered a primi piatti that included some sort of fish with red sauce. Another server who spoke minimal English, who was unable to explain the fish. The fish turned out to be 6-8 sardines, with bones, on a small plate. One of the nastiest main courses in resto history.

6. The inedible “prawns”. Here at the hotel, in Gaeta, I ordered purple gnochetti with prawns. We should have realized that in Europe shrimp, prawns, crab, lobster … is almost never taken out of the shell. My gnocchetti arrived with four prawns (perhaps more like cray fish) black eyes looking up at me, atop the little gnocchi. And they not only had shell along their backs, they had some sort of rib-like structures blocking the meet from the underbelly. Various enthusiastic cracking and twisting a bending yielded a couple of crumbs of meat. I finally gave up and just ate the gnocchetti.

I should note I had at least one very pleasant surprise. At a Trastevere restaurant specializing in fish, I ordered “bombolotti” with pancetta (bacon), funghi (mushrooms) and pecorino (cheese). It appeared that the bombolotti were half-sized rigatoni, and the combination of bacon, mushroom and pecorino was wonderful. I have been looking for bombolotti ever since.

So, you get some good with the bad, even when you’re winging it.

But the best advice, it seems, is to go back and review your Italian menu words, because most of us probably know fewer of them than we think.


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