What I’ve learned this summer is that you can tell how skilled the barista is by how slowly the half packet of sugar sinks through the foam and into the espresso. In a good cappuccino, the sugar sits on the surface of the milk as if to take in the view - like anything else Italian, in no rush at all. It glistens, melts a little in the warmth, then suddenly takes the plunge into sweet caffeinated oblivion before the denseness of the foam returns its shape, acting as if nothing untoward ever occurred.
Brioche must be held by a napkin, because you don’t want sticky fingers all over your spoon – almost the best part, were the rest of it not so important too, is when you get to scoop the dregs clinging to the side of the cup. A cup that isn’t a grande or a venti – revolting developments in the bastardised coffee industry of chain stores with green logos. That’s the thing about Italy, about Italians – well. Another thing. Le portizione. It’s cheaper to take breakfast stood at the bar over sitting at a table, because that’s all the time you need: the milk is tepid, not boiling, and five mouthfuls in and you’re done. There’s so much more in store throughout the day, take a taste – don’t overfill. The unspoken motto permeates the air, you’re worthy of every last thing that makes you feel good. Have it all. And leave room for more.
(Whilst we’re here: one of the greatest and yet most grossly underrated pleasures in this life is a sugared cappucco in one hand, and an ice cold aqua frizzante in the other. That’s my heaven. That’s what waits for me on the other side.)
There’s little sense of deprivation here, as a rule and as I experience it: it doesn’t matter if you’re a lawyer or teacher, househusband or student – you know how to eat, and how to experience pleasure. My brother came to visit this past weekend, my last in Rome, and we talked about that a lot. That in London, say, how you spend your leisure time largely depends on your disposable income, because there are pop-ups to visit and shows to see and £8 pints to buy. Here, those things exist, but the general culture is one of collectivism – and mostly around a table. (A table where coffee is a Euro and pasta less than ten.)
I like people who can eat. I’ve said it before. Dining is an art – learning how to take apperitivo of prosecco or spritz. Slowly meandering to a table for antipasti. When Jack understood that we didn’t need to consider primi piatti until after we knew how we felt post-appetiser, I realised a new respect for him.
Slicing open a fiore di zucchini so that the oil from the mozzerella oozes anchovy oil onto the plate. The way a lightly fried leaf from a carciofi alla guidia melts on the tongue, crackling just slightly, and how it gives way to the meaty artichoke flesh of the centre. Burrata. Piercing the outer shell and scooping out the insides. Mopping everything up with scarpetta – a small “shoe” of bread. Un mezzo litre di vino bianco because anything bigger gets warm. You can always order another one. There is always more goodness to come.
Abundance. That’s her word. Abundance.
And also: brokenness. Somebody said that to me on Instagram – that Rome doesn’t hide her brokenness; it’s part of her charm. She’s crumbling and dramatic and demanding and beautiful because of and in spite of it. Surely that speaks to all of us. All of us want to reassurance that our cracks are as worthy as everything else, like Japanese kintsugi, when they fill the chips in pottery with gold or silver because they believe when something has suffered damage it becomes more beautiful.
Pizza with toppings so wet they slide off the slice and down your elbows. Pasta sauce flecked all over your shirt, no matter how you positioned the napkin. The cocoa from nonna’s homemade tiramisu dusted across your cheek, a table strewn with empty plates and stained coffee cups, dirty cloths with the rings of digestivo and espresso.
Total pleasure in amongst a right royal mess.
A right royal mess in pursuit of pleasure.
There’s got to be something in that.
Chaos. More where that came from. Togetherness. Taking it slow. I’m packing my tiny suitcase to get on my next flight, to my next destination, today, with a heart fit to burst from that. Those lessons. I’m quite sure the wheatgrass-drinking, tee-total yogi I impersonated in Bali the first six months of this year would not regognise the pasta-eating drunk I am in Europe, and yet – there’s room for all of it. All parts of ourselves. Myself.
Myself just happens to be ten pounds heavier now, is all.
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