A Sunday, or Domenica, in Rome definitely has a different feel than the other days of the week. Many restaurants and stores are closed, and if places are open, the hours may be reduced. The grocery store on my street is closed, but another one nearby is at least open until early afternoon. But thanks to the booming tourist market, you can be sure to find a variety of museums and historical sites open on Sundays. Last weekend, I decided to visit the Santa Maria Maggiore church and the Capitoline Museums, but before that, I was in need of a serious Sunday dinner.
Growing up, one of my fondest memories was having Sunday dinner at my grandmother’s house. My mother was one of seven children from a Catholic family, and every Sunday she attended mass with the family, followed by a large meal in the afternoon. Even after her children moved out of the house and my grandfather passed away, my grandmother still carried on the tradition. I can still remember the smell of pot roast or a baked ham upon entering the house, and my grandmother’s high-pitched, cheerful laugh as she hugged and kissed me and my sisters. My grandmother was an excellent cook, despite my father’s teasing that “next time, Mary Eleene, you should add more meat to the salt.” Some of the side dishes I remember fondly are scalloped potatoes, cucumbers in vinegar, and the ubiquitous relish tray full of pickles and olives. While I have more of a savory palate, my grandmother had a sweet tooth, and you could always count on a cake or pie for dessert. Her peach pie is a beloved favorite in my family, and I have yet to find another that is more sublime.
My grandmother loved cooking for others, and throughout the dinner, she never sat down at the table, as she was too preoccupied with serving the rest of us. After everyone exited the table, you could be sure to find my grandmother there, pouring herself a cup of coffee and enjoying her dinner alone. I always felt bad about this; she worked so hard to feed all of us, yet wound up eating alone. But she never seemed to mind.
I, on the other hand, do not like eating alone. I do it often here in Italy, but I feel incredibly out of place, surrounded by families and friends eating and laughing together. But we foodies do what we must, so after some extensive online researching, I managed to find a restaurant in my neighborhood that was open for lunch on Sunday: Il Ciociaro, on Via Barletta.
It was an extremely hot afternoon and the outside tables were empty, so I asked the waiter if I could sit outside. When I told him it was just me, he laughed and made a comment about being alone that I didn’t quite understand. But I caught the word “bad,” which is cattivo. Wait,” I asked him in Italian. “Are you saying that eating alone is a bad thing?” He looked a little concerned, afraid that I was offended (which I wasn’t). After some additional questioning and some assistance from Google Translate, I laughed and assured him that I understood:
“It is better to be alone than to be in bad company.”
I greatly appreciated his warmth. What a great start to a meal.
Speaking of, I decided to start off the meal with an appetizer of octopus carpaccio-style, raw and thinly sliced, with arugula and drizzled in olive oil. The octopus could have been more flavorful, but overall it was light and refreshing. Rome is not known for their seafood, but I just love octopus. Plus, it’s Sunday, and I wanted something special.
For a main course, I stuck to the seafood theme and ordered their spaghetti alle vongole, or pasta with clams. This place is actually known for their bucatini all’amatriciana, which comes served in a hollowed wheel of pecorino cheese, but I just didn’t want a heavy pasta. Plus, this dish went perfectly with a 1/4 liter of white wine. The waiter brought me a plate for the clam shells, and I got to work, carefully twirling the pasta around my fork, piercing a clam, and tossing the shell onto the empty plate. Soon I was in a zone, twirling, tossing, chewing, sipping. It was as if the background faded from view. All of my attention and focus were on my interactions with this plate.
I was pleasantly surprised that the dish was spicy, and as I discarded the clams I found the culprit: a little red pepper. Best of all, once I finished the pasta, I was left with a delicious garlic and oil sauce, which I sopped up with huge chunks of bread. There was not one speck of food on that plate by the time I was finished with it.
The waiter checked on me. “Is it good? Are you happy with it?” he cheerfully asked in Italian.
“Am I happy? Look at my plate!” I replied, laughing.
I didn’t have room for dessert. I may have reconsidered if there was peach pie on the menu. But I did finish my meal with coffee – a nice strong cup of espresso.
Since I arrived here seven weeks ago, one thing I have come to expect and eagerly anticipate each day is a change of perspective. And on this day, I now had a new perspective on solitary dining.
You are never truly alone at a table for one, because food speaks to us. Each bite is a sentence to which we respond with surprise, agreement, amusement, maybe even anger. Plates are whole conversations, some more engaging than others. And when the food is excellent, a meal is full of stories, connecting us with loved ones and cherished memories. You leave the table, nourished and grateful for the ability to focus on such an intimate encounter. You will never have this experience in front of the TV or at a table of six.
Maybe my grandmother wanted to eat alone after all of those Sunday dinners. She definitely wasn’t one for socializing during dinners, and she sure loved to eat. Was she having a conversation with her food? I’ll never know.
When I reflect back on some very memorable meals, a lot of them were when I dined alone. The beet salad, spaghetti and meatballs, and ginger cake at Park Chow in my old San Francisco neighborhood. A lunch of steaming hot bread, tangy cheese, rich hummus and other mezze at a Lebanese restaurant in Cairo. The first time I tried pasta alla norma in Palermo, with its meaty eggplant, rich tomato sauce and salty cheese. I was dining alone every time, and the details are so clear, so vivid. Yet I had a wonderful dinner with friends a few nights ago and can’t remember much about the food, other than that it was good, because I was too focused on the fantastic company.
So I encourage you to try this. Go to your favorite restaurant, and order your favorite dishes. Or make your favorite meal at home, send the kids outside to play, and turn off the television. Listen to what your food is saying, and take the time to respond. I guarantee you’ll have a memorable conversation.
I dedicate this post to my grandmother, who taught me more than I realized about how to talk to food.