Eating Alone in Italy

This is a story that grew out of the Writers Workshop I attended in Montalcino, Italy in May 2018.  

Is it possible for a single woman to find happiness dining alone in Italy?  Sometimes.

Several days in Rome was an exciting prelude to a travel writing workshop in Montalcino, a Tuscan hill town. I had been to Rome two other times always with my partner.  Wandering around on my own, taking as long as I wish to visit museums, writing and musing about the day’s tramp ranks high on my list of great things to do.  Along with exciting exploration, the company of others to debrief over drinks and dinner ranks high.  I have traveled a lot for business and for vacations but this was my first foreign adventure as a single.  I would be eating alone in a culture devoted to long, noisy dinners with friends and family.  I was a little nervous about managing my feelings.  Would it be depressing to eat all my meals alone?  Would I be a target for unwanted attention?  How would a woman sola fare?

I deliberately selected a small, well situated hotel I had stayed in before because I knew it has a wonderful staff and a very welcoming atmosphere. I chose a hotel over an Air B&B because it would be less isolating.   I was a little anxious about Rome alone–but not a lot.  I knew the hotel staff were friendly and helpful.  They would look out for me–and I could do a good job taking care of myself.  I knew that for sure.

Rome mid-May. Some rain, some sun, not too hot.  My room was dark and monkish.  The sole window dressed in sheer white cotton curtains presents a view of the neighboring stucco wall. The crib-sized bed would probably preclude athletic sex should that opportunity arise.  I slept like a log and was awakened at dawn by a sea gull convention. The bathroom was tiny—the shower would accommodate me as long as I didn’t gain weight.

The good news was breakfast on the roof, cornetti and cappuccino and views of tile roof tops and cupolas in every direction. WIFI included.

The first day I visited favorite places dodging intermittent rain. I was getting tired but trying to fend jet lag off.  I was getting cold and damp too and my thoughts turned to dinner in a pretty restaurant with a glass of prosecco to celebrate my return to Italy.  I knew I had to hold out until at least 7:30 for dinner. The concierge suggested a good restaurant a short walk away.  I’ve learned to be cautious about relying too heavily on concierge suggestions as they may be getting comps from those restaurants for sending customers.

At 7:15 I left the hotel and walked the short distance to the restaurant.  It was exactly 7:30 when I arrived.  I was the first customer.  The woman who ushered me into the dining room asked “Sola?”  “Si.”  I replied.  She made a sour face telegraphing her disdain for my status.  I followed her into the first small room.  She seated me at one of  two small tables separated by about 3”.   These tables lined the path leading to the larger grander dining room.  They would not be anyone’s first choice.  That’s where she put me.  I didn’t have the gumption to complain.  I was very intimidated by her.

I sat alone for over 15 minutes contemplating the lineup of stemware ranging from water to wine on my table.  Customers began arriving and I noticed as they paraded before me that most were not Italian.  Larger parties were taken into the main dining room. Finally I flagged down a waiter who had been busy adjusting his waistcoat and asked for a glass of prosecco.  He seemed pleased at my choice and in about ten minutes returned with a bottle of prosecco and poured me a glass.  Another ten minutes elapsed; a waiter came by with the menu.  There were a lot of waiters and still a lot of empty tables but they were in no hurry to feed me.

Since I had eaten almost nothing all day and had trudged around for hours in the rain, I was hungry.  The waiter returned a few minutes later to take my order of squash blossoms for my first course and the roast lamb with oven-browned potatoes for my main dish.  The squash arrived in the form of four very large deep fat fried lumps about the size of a pair of socks rolled up in your sock drawer.  The barely visible blossoms were filled with mozzarella.  I was daunted by the presentation but very hungry.  I ate them and they were good.  Another long period elapsed and the waiter arrived with a plate of potatoes keeping company with a slab of glistening yellow fat.  If there was lamb involved in that mess I couldn’t see it.  I pried a corner of the fat up and saw what may have been meat but my appetite had vanished.  I pushed the plate away to the edge of my table.

At the waiter’s next pass he stopped and exclaimed “Mama mia!”

“Si,” I said “Mama mia!  Take this away and bring me my check.”

He did, pointing out that there was no charge for the lamb.  A wise decision.  I handed him my credit card.  Important lesson: austere dining rooms with no Italians in them should be avoided at all cost.

My next dining adventure was at a nearby locanda.  The door opened into a simple room crowded with chairs and tables without table cloths.  The walls were adorned with madonnas and other assorted saints, as well as climbing vines.  The fireplace was blazing.  More importantly, the room was full of happy, laughing, gesturing Italians.  The rain continued.  The tented space outside the restaurant’s open window was full of smokers huddled under it to escape the weather.  It was 8 o’clock or so and while the room was crowded there were still several empty tables.  I stood at the entry.  The waiter at the door noticed me but said nothing.

“I’d like to have dinner, please.”

“Si, signora.  Sola?”

“Si sola.”

With great consternation and much sotto voce conversation with other staff members he looked around the room at the available two tops.  I heard them muttering about Bruno who I gathered was the manager who evidently disapproved of seating unaccompanied woman–or at least seating one at a two-top during prime time.  Finally they pulled a small table into an alcove by the open window.  The curtains on the window blew the cigarette-smoke-infused breeze right at me.  I think  seating me at that table went against the natural gallantry of Italian men–the waiters seemed embarrassed–but that’s where they put me.

The bread basket descended.  The waiter stood with pad in hand.

“Vino tinto, un insalata misto, e spaghetti Bolognese, piacere.” I said.

“Bello!” he said with a big smile.

Within minutes the salad was on the table.  Fresh and generous in size—it could have been a meal in itself.  Shortly thereafter the Bolognese arrived.  Hot and good.  No wine made it to the table.  Perhaps that might induce me to linger?  “Il conto, piacere,” I said.  The bill arrived, I paid.  I left. I was happy. I squeezed by the moist customers standing outside the door in a long line.  I’ll bet no one was seated at my table.  OK.   Things are looking up, I thought.  Go with the Italians.  If your Italian is good, or marginally good, you will improve your chances of pleasant service.  But probably not a great table.

One sunny afternoon I was walking down Via dell’Orso and saw a wide-open door and a sign–Cipasso.  There was a chalkboard with a greeting written in English and Italian.  “If you like wine, come in.”  The open airy space is flanked by a wall lined in bottles ranging from big Brunellos to spritely Proseccos.  The bar stool–height tables are arranged in clusters easily moved to accommodate groups of two or larger.

There are vines ambling down the old brick wall behind the bar arrayed with delicious bites: bruschetta, a cheese board, salamis, mortadella and all kinds of other delectable morsels.  I knew I was home.

I went back to Cipasso every day.  Sometimes I ordered meat balls, sometimes lasagna, once bread pudding.  Tiramisu appears in the cold case if it’s your lucky day.  Oleg Grossu, the owner, speaks excellent English.  He and a small staff, including his mother, do the cooking.  (Since I was there, they have hired a chef.)  The front of the house is handled by Oleg when he’s not in the kitchen and his partner, Aurica Danalachi. They know wines, and more to the point, how to welcome customers and make them feel happy and appreciated.  They spent time with me.  They described the ingredients in each small plate.  They suggested appropriate wines.  They checked back frequently.  Both Oleg and Aurica are attractive, friendly, and interesting.  Cipasso, opened in May. It is a two-year old dream realized.   My last day in Rome I stopped to say good bye.  We shared prosecco and toasted each other and Cipasso.  I felt I was leaving good friends behind.

So, yes, a woman dining alone can find happiness at an Italian restaurant.  Save the fancy white linen restaurants for those times when you have a companion.  If you are alone, patronize small, intimate places that thrive on hospitality and satisfy their clients both emotionally and nutritionally.

If Oleg and Aurica invite me to their wedding.  I’ll definitely accept.

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