Fawlty Towers, Italian style
Halfway through the woefully under impressive but wildly amusing meal at Ristorante da Vinicio, Gabi put down her fork.
“It’s like being in the Italian version of Fawlty Towers,” she said, causing me to pass half a teaspoon of tasteless red wine through my left nostril. I choked back the laughter and acknowledged her perfect assessment of a mediocre dining experience that came with fabulous unintended entertainment.
The chubby guy with the “Sex N Jeans” dungarees who greeted and waited on us was Basil Fawlty. The distracted, smiling yet mildly miserable waitress with the appalling haircut was Manuel, and her bumbling, misdirected wait staff efforts rivaled those of the hapless Fawlty Towers waiter himself. I’m not sure where the elderly guy with the neck brace might have fit into the BBC sitcom’s cast of characters, but judging from his disinterested non-involvement with the goings on and comical appearance he’d belong somewhere.
The gang at Ristorante da Vinicio was earnest, well-intended and seemed to be trying hard. Like a paint-by-numbers artist pressed into service at a Soho art opening, though, they were all flailing instead of finessing their way. It was a bit like watching an episode of the Three Stooges (working title: “Made to odor!”).
But not to worry. We ate in good humor and left laughing despite the simple fact that the food was pretty bad.
A memorable dining experience isn’t at always only about the food. Sometimes it’s the experience, often the more bizarre the better. And if we were rating Ristorante da Vinicio for twisted entertainment value, we’d give it five Michelin stars.
The place was mostly uninhabited and dark when we walked in and wound our way to the main dining room, where Mr. Sexy Jeans finally took note of our presence and waved us to a table. Nearby, a German family of five was working its way through a round of pizzas and pasta. The pizza looked serviceable and edible, but we were in the hunt for something more exotic.
The first sign of trouble came when the family ordered dessert and was told there was no tiramisu. “Oh, what do you have?” Father asked. “Streudel,” came the answer. “And strawberries and cream.”
Hmm. I’m no expert on Italian food, but last time I checked streudel was more typical of Bonn than Pisa.
So Gabi took a shot at the ravioli with pumpkin and nut sauce. “Oh, no,” said Basil, “is not the season. It has ricotta and spinach.”
“Perfect,” said Gabi, adding an order of deep fried artichokes and half a carafe of the house red. I went with the tagliatelle with wild boar. The waiter spun and was headed for the kitchen before I hailed him to finish my order. “Oh, and one insalata mista.” He spun again and headed out of the room with a tug on the belt of his jeans.
We sat back and waited, anticipating the arrival of the food “all at once,” as he promised.
The wine gave us an inkling of what would become one of the most consistently bland meals we’ve eaten in a long time. Since it was thin and tasteless, we wondered whether it would also lack alcohol or, as is often the case with local vintages, be so loaded with booze that it would leave us stumbling for the door.
The waiter arrived with our main courses. He bounced Gabi’s plate off her wine glass, grimacing in apology and offering an apology “has not been a good day for me.”
Gabi’s ravioli had absolutely no taste. None at all. And my tagliatelle con cinghiale was actually wide noodles with a nondescript tomato sauce. I haven’t had such tasteless pasta since fourth grade lunch at Four Corners School. And if there was more than a teaspoon of wild boar in it I’ll eat my Nikes for breakfast. I loaded it up with grated cheese, salted and peppered the hell out it, and got to work.
The artichokes stole the show. The crispy, deep-fried quarters of purple artichokes were tender, moist and delicious.
All the while the staff came and went past the dining room, alternatively displaying painful grins or agonized grimaces as they avoided us and our table. An elderly woman wearing an apron – apparently the cook – strode by a couple of times and gave us a look that spoke of an unhappy childhood or chronic intestinal gas. Maybe both.
Everyone seemed woefully stressed by the surge in business, but once the Germans left we were the only customers in the place. The staff came and went, rushing and bustling and carrying plates, glasses, bottles and condiment trays in frantic bursts.
So it went until we were winding down on our meal, and then all hell broke loose. Another English speaking couple sat at a table next to us. She wondered out loud how the ravioli with pumpkin would be, and he nervously voiced an interest in the vegetable soup as Gabi and I winked at one another and waited for the fireworks to begin.
Three more people walked in and headed for a nearby room, carrying themselves like natives. Three more tourists walked in and sat, and Basil made a hasty retreat.
You could feel the tension in the joint.
I began to pity the crew, as they were all clearly maxed to their limit and about to crack. We fully expected a collision or two, which would only have added to the comical flair. But enough’s enough. We asked for the check and were directed to pay at the cassa.
We caught up with Basil as he manned the wood-fired pizza oven, and since he spoke decent English I decided to tease him a bit. “Oh, this is where the maestro works,” I said, and he grunted, shrugged and dismissed the remark. I pointed to some sausage lying on a cutting board. “Is that salsiccia cinghiale (boar sausage)?” I inquired.
“No. It’s regular pig. Boar is black,” came the answer as he scrambled to fill a half liter of wine from one of the dozen or so massive jugs resting near the doorway.
“For the chef?” I quipped, nodding at the jug of swill in his hand. “Ah, no,” he replied, maintaining his perfect record of humorless exchanges. I paid him 40 Euros for a 31 Euro meal, and he began a manic self-patdown in search of change. Before I could look for the correct amount he was out the door and down the street.
Gabi, meanwhile, was inspecting a curious collection of empty wine and oil bottles that had been wrapped with twine, painted and each meticulously drilled at the bottom to allow for an electrical cord to make its way within.
She pointed to a post-it glued to the side of an odd vessel with a lampshade. “For sale. 35 Euros.”
Lamps. A dozen or so for sale at the entrance of the restaurant. Perfect.
Basil made it back and breathlessly gave me a tenner, releasing us from the lamp display, the staff meltdown and yet another wonderful episode of Fawlty Towers, Italian Style.