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.

EGIZI ETRUSCHI

I’ve used The Tube in London. The Metro in Paris, the NY subway and today I traveled in  the metro in Rome.  It was Sunday and crowded.  But it worked flawlessly and cost about $3 for an all-day pass.  I found the ads which were posted on the walls very interesting.  I was also surprised by the many ads for McDonald’s!  My nearest stop from the hotel was at the Spanish Steps.

When I got off at the Termini stop the crowds were 20 people deep.  This is the largest train station in Rome and a major transfer point on the subway taking people to the airport and throughout the city.  I was heading to the Ostiense district out of old Rome on the B train.  When I arrived and emerged from the station I was standing near a very modern structure.  It wasn’t passing over water rather it passed over the metro’s tracks.

I was was excited to see a show about the contemporaneous cultures of Etruscans and Egyptians during the 8th-7th BCE.  at the Centro Montimartini outpost of the Capitolini Musuem.  The exhibit frames a dialogue between two Mediterranean-facing empires who communicated, shared, and engaged in commerce with each other.   Most of the Etruscan pieces were excavated at Vulci near the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea 80 KM northwest of Rome.  The artists of Vulci were known for their bronze sculptures most vanished with a few exceptions.  The Chimera in Arezzo is one. The tombs of wealthy Etruscan’s contained Egyptian goods as well as their own beautiful art and jewelry.

I have long been fascinated with Etruscan culture.  This piece below is a wonderful example of granulation.

Seeing this show opened my mind further to the astonishing culture and talent of this little known people.   Volci will be a destination next time.

The show is held in a 19th CE electricity producing factory. The machinery has been preserved and provides a remarkable backdrop to the second floor exhibit of items excavated on the Capitiline Hill.

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Artifacts discovered during the excavations of the Termini (train station) came from an Augustan-period garden full of statuary  and mosaics.  This exhibit is on the second floor.  What a glorious place that garden must have been. The remnants of salvaged mosaic floors alone are remarkable.

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I loved this statue of a young girl.  Notice her charming boots.  Very much like the ones many of us own today.

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This is such a beautiful sculpture of a German–probably a warrior–captured by the Romans.  His funerary casket is decorated on the corners with these faces.

I had a thoroughly wonderful time gazing and pondering these magnificent pieces some Greek some Roman.  Finally I grew weary and headed back outside.

As I walked back over the bridge I realized I was tired and hungry.  It had gotten very hot and I needed to get out of the sun.  I spied an outdoor cafe behind a tall laurel hedge its umbrella-shaded patio beckoned. 

An English-speaking waiter seated me and proffered a menu. I ordered braised chicory and salmon souvide, a big bottle of sparkling water and a glass of prosecco. The salmon was impeccable.  The waiter is the lead singer in a Malhini. Their first album is coming out soon to be followed by a US tour. I offered to be his tour guide if they get to Seattle.

I returned to the Spanish Steps, the Spagna stop, where the crowds were even bigger and walked to my hotel. Took a quick shower. Wrapped myself in a towel and napped until 7:30!

Then I got up, dressed and went out for dinner. I found a sweet little place–Sopra Soto–(name to change soon to Don) very near Cipasso recently purchased by two very nice guys who kindly sat me at a 4-top!

I ordered the classic Cacio and Pepe, bruscette and an amazing tiramisu. The star of the evening was the Mufatto– dessert wine–heavenly with the tiramisu.

What a day! Delicious in every way. How to work off all this food and wine? More walking!

Cipasso

I’m not a food writer.  I don’t know a rhubarb from a roux.  What I do know and can recognize is vision, entrepreneurial passion, style and taste.  Oleg Grossu, owner of Cipasso has all that and more.  You step into a clean open space with old brick walls.  American Jazz standards playing–not overbearing–but there.

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Grossu, and his partner, Aurica Danalachi, have realized a two-year old dream.  After years working in the restaurant business, Oleg opened Cipasso this May.  Oleg has been a sommelier for 15 years and former manager of La Buvette and Dilla.  Cipasso has a small staff of two in the kitchen and Oleg–plus mama.

Oleg knows his wines.  One full wall in the beautiful sunny space at Via dell ‘Orso 71 is lined with bottles ranging from assertive primativos to sexy brunellos, spritely prosecco to blushing rosato.

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This is not just a wine bar.  Cipasso offers more than delicious appetizers and snacks.  It offers light dinners also.  The appetizers tonight were bruchetti with a classic tomato topping set off with small amounts of red pepper, a unique panzanella with the inclusion of cucumber hinting at spring, and a creamy potato puree piped onto bruchetta topped by anchovie and a sprig of green. On another visit I sampled a delicious white bean puree seeded with small shrimp.  These antipastos are offered with your wine served in shapely sparkling glasses.

For dinner I had the meatballs served with a deep green mound of rapini–Italian broccoli.  The meatballs were beautifully tender and tasty with a light gravy.  The rapini was perfectly cooked and well flavored.

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Saving the best for last tiramisu served in a short pot filled with a yummy creamy pudding over a thin base of chocolate cake threaded with a liquor and a sprinkling of dark cocoa and for a surprise crunch–rice crispies hidden in the cake.

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To finish: a perfect cappuccino with firm, tasty foam.

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What I like so much about Cipasso is that it offers a relief from heavy dinners served late in the evening.  I prefer eating light: healthy greens, some protein, a good glass of wine, and sometimes a superlative dessert.  Cipasso is just the kind of place I look for.  Happily it’s located down the street from my hotel the Portoghesi and two blocks from Piazza Navona.  Lovely for an after dinner stroll.  Tonight a violinist is playing Ed Sherran’s “Perfect”    Yes, indeed!

Cipasso is a wonderful place to land at the end of a long day wandering and sightseeing–usually on foot.  It’s so nice to be warmly greeted; to sit and stay with a glass of prosecco and a savory bite or two.  It feels like you’re at the home of friends.

Getting There

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Ready to go

Getting through SeaTac was a breeze compared to Heathrow.  I  intended to carry-on my new Away 22″ suitcase, but with a large tote and a purse just moving through the security lines would be a lot for me.  So I checked the suitcase all the way through to Rome.

However, I made a rookie mistake; I had put all my powders, potions and creams in a dopp kit in the large tote.  I was mindful of the under 3 oz rule and thought I was covered.  Not so fast. After a pleasant flight and a feast of a meal we landed in Heathrow about 1 am PST.

I wasn’t at my very best and then Horrible Heathrow struck.  Masses of people at every line and path.  Finally reaching the security check point which would allow me to get to the B gate and the flight to Rome–take off in 45″–I was pulled over.  All the contents of my  tote had been spilled out on a table and a grim faced women held out one sandwich size baggie.  “You can take only what fits in this.” Everything else will be sacrificed.” I stared (I’m sure my jaw dropped) at several hundred dollars of stuff on the table and said “But they’re all under 3 ounces!”  Doesn’t matter.

I was so flummoxed I couldn’t think.  “Let me do it for you.” Ms. Martinet said.  When she had finished, I had no liquid make-up, no toothpaste, no hand lotion and no sunscreen.  The more expensive cosmetics survived but I was very angry.  “Settle down,” I told myself, “you’ve got 15 to get to the Rome flight!”

I raced through a labyrinth of several elevators, escalators, long halls, crowds shopping in Duty Free and finally a transit shuttle which took 40 traumatized people to the BA plane.

Lesson learned.  All airports are different and so are their rules.  So PACK your wet stuff in your bag and check it!  As Ms. Martinet said, “If you can pour it or spread it, check it.  If you can cut it with a knife, carry-it on.”

However, leave the knife at home!

It Sprinkled, Rained, Poured, and Thundered

 

I had my umbrella at the ready and continued along remembered streets Via dei Coronari being one of my favorites.

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Of course I spent a lot of time looking into windows and dodging under overhanging lintels and awnings to escape the rain.

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I crossed over to Via Giulia and then found my way to Via dei Banchi Vecchi where I dropped by my friend sculptor Pietro Simonelli’s studio.  Pietro is very talented and as handsome as ever.  Next visit I’ll take a picture of the 40 kilo bronze wing he made recently.

I stopped for a hot pot of tea–having been out in the rain now since 9:30–it was approaching noon.  I was tired and damp.  I headed back but not before the sky opened and dumped a drenching deluge.  Every taxi in Rome was stuffed with clients.  I stood and watched the rain pour down huddled under an overhang.  And made it back to the Hotel Portoghesi not too wet but chilled and tired.  I grabbed a sandwich and ate it in my little room.  Dry and warm.  A nap was in order.

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Piazza Navona with the darkening overhead sky.

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Fashion

Today i saw two interesting exhibits at the Met. The work of two luminaries in the world of fashion:Irving Penn and Rei Kawakubo.

The look and form of fashion in the 50 ‘s 60’s and beyond was defined by Penn’s magnificent black and white photography which appeared on the covers and pages of Vogue. 

Kawakubo  owner of Comme des Garçons has defined a new way of looking at fashion and the female body. I recommended both exhibits to you. 

I like Penn’s work later in life when he shoots indigenous people in New Guinea  and Morocco where fabrics and color shape our modern aesthetic. 

Kawakubo’s unique and quirky clothing asks us to examine the female body and the notion of fashion and the idea of beauty. Enjoy!

Bo

I met the most delightful 10-year old sitting on a bar stool sipping a freshly squeezed OJ.    I was sipping  less freshly squeezed grapes served up by the nicest bar keep on record–Aaron at Colonie. The food here is delicious. Owner and staff even better. 

In Brooklyn Heights go here. You will be happy if you do!!

Passaic River and The Great Falls 

Betsy and I went to see the Great Falls and the remnants of the once great manufacturing town of Paterson in New Jersey. Our prescient Secretary of the first US Treasury Alexander Hamilton, saw and understood the potential these falls had for providing electrical energy to the nascent country. Here he stands overlooking the Falls. 

A visionary and a genious. What a great loss that fateful day when his pride overcame his genius and the bullet tore his life from him and from his family and our country. 

Hamilton

Another tour with Jimmy Napoli and his Corsicans –Gregory and Thiago. We assembled at the Morris Jumel mansion in Harlem at 163 and Sylvan Terrace. 


 I don’t know what your image of Harlem is but it’s beautiful with broad steeets lined with wonderful buildings.  Luminaries such as Duke Ellington made their home there “Take the A train.”  Now tour guide extraordinare Jimmy Napoli does too. 


We gathered at the Morris Jumel mansion on a warm sunny day. We were seated and listened to Gregory summarize the life of Alexander Hamilton before and during the Revolutionary War. 

George Washington held his staff meetings in the 252 year old 8500 sq ft mansion and billeted 2-3000 troops on the property which once encompassed land from the Hudson  River to the Harlem River in upper Manhattan. 

Lin Manuel Miranda genious author of Hamilton wrote two songs in the upstairs room of the mansion. “Wait for It” and “Room Where It Happened.”

Much of the mansion is still being restored. Even the French wallpaper ordered by Madame Jumel is being ordered from a French wall paper company whose wallpapers date to those times. 
We left stopping to admire the 19thC town homes lined up and beautifully maintained by individuals such as Alicia Keyes. 


We trekked to 143rd to see the Grange the only home Hamilton owned. Sadly after his death, Eliza his widow had to sell it to provide for her and their children. Hamilton spent little time in the Geange and died an impoverished man. It too is in dire need of preservation. It’s current location is its third and hopefully last. 

We sat under the shade of a large tree and Jimmy presented a brilliant summary of Hamilron’s career and tragic death. 

 This was my second tour with Jimmy Napoli who is a noted and long time fan of Alexander Hamilton.  Next. St. Croix!!

We all repaired to a nearby pub for a cool drink and a snack. The group was enlivened by a lively set of cousins and their spouses.  They made me an honorary member of their club. A great day!