Friday, February 25
I am not a night person, which is another hindrance to my quest to become more Italian. Tonight we ride in San Salvatore for pizza at what seems here to be everyone’s favorite pizzeria, Bar Grazia. In reality, there are only two restaurants here, but Bar Grazia also seems to have about five times the number of customers as the other restaurant. It is 6:30 p.m. Friday, and a popular pizza place would be packed at this hour in the state, but not here. A handful of customers come and go, picking up pizzas to go, but we are the only customers dining in.
Two weeks ago, we came here at 8 p.m. on a Saturday, and the place was overflowing; we had to wait nearly an hour to get a seat, and it was still packed when we left at 10 p.m. We might not have been inclined to wait so long had it not been so entertaining to watch the people. One family in particular made Lucy’s eyes tear up. The group consisted of ten people of various ages, including two or three women in their eighties. We could surmise, by the relaxed familiarity the group enjoyed, that these women were an important part of this family. We couldn’t tell if this was an ordinary night out or a special occasion, but we were impressed by how normal it seemed for the young, old and middle-aged of this group to relax together. Lucy couldn’t help but think of her parents, who moved far away to retire in Arizona but missed out on these familiar interactions with children and grandchildren—and likewise how the children and grandchildren missed out as well.
We stood waiting with other groups of Italians, and there was no hostess to take our names so that we could be seated in the order that we arrived, and we wondered if we would be overlooked among all these people who had probably been here before and knew what they were doing. We felt a little intimidated among such a throng, but we decided to wait it out, watch the crowds and see what would happen. We were there not just to eat but to learn. It was also fascinating to watch the slim thirty-something waitress moving rapidly between the kitchen and the tables. She moved with remarkable alacrity and grace, stopping only to take orders and share a smile with customers. Despite her frenetic pace, she never seemed frazzled or impatient, and after we stood waiting for thirty minutes, she came over to us and took our order so our pizzas could be made while we continued to wait.
Once we had been seated and tried the pizza, we could see why the place was so packed. Italian cooking is supposed to be simple, but that shouldn’t mean skimping on pizza toppings, as some pizza places here do. Our toppings were abundant and flavorful. Ten years ago, when I ordered olives as a topping, I received maybe four green olives, whole, with pits still inside. I had to scrape off the olive onto the pizza myself. At Bar Grazia, the olives were cut up, spread out and of satisfactory quantity.
Tonight, though, there are few people to watch, and we linger and have a dolce called mattonella, a delicious triangle of partially frozen panna cotta with pine nuts and drizzled with chocolate and strawberry syrup.
We leave at 7:30 p.m., and the place has picked up a little, but the big crowds will not come for another half hour, just about the time many Italian restaurants in America are closing. I remember going to a bowling alley with some friends in Padova. We met at the alley at 10 p.m. Friday, and the place was empty. I made a comment that it didn’t look like American bowling had caught on in Italy, but I was wrong. When we left at midnight, every lane was full and many more people were milling around at the bar or playing billiards. I just wasn’t accustomed to how much later in the evening Italians do things. Now I know, but that doesn’t mean I am not still sometimes surprised or amazed.