Thursday, February 23, 2012

Soup, spaghetti served con sprezzatura

Tuesday, February 21
We stay mostly inside today to work on our Italian lessons. I also do some writing and Lucy works on a quilt. Around mezzogiorno, though, we walk down to the outdoor market to look around and smell the delicious odors of fresh fruit, spices, pastries and pane. We can't resist some chocolate filled fritelle, and Lucy buys a quarter liter of various grains to put in a soup she is planning for dinner.

It is warm enough that a restaurant on the piazza has set up tables outside, perhaps for the first time this year. As we pause to consider sitting down, a waiter shows us an appealing menu and tells us there is no coperto, cover charge. We are trying to conserve our budget and eat meals in our apartment, but it is such a beautiful day, and we have not yet had our fill of the sights and sounds of the piazza, so we sit.

Lucy has some rigatoni and I have a bowl of soup, and we notice the attention the restaurant pays to style and detail. We are given a colorful basket with three types of bread, artfully arranged. Our table service is wrapped in a paper envelope imprinted with flowers. The waiter is in his mid-20s, but he has already mastered that easy going Italian charm and attentiveness that embody la bella figura.

I have been reading the book La Bella Lingua, by Dianne Hales, who like myself is an Italophile. Our waiter brings to mind something Hales wrote about the courtly manner shown by many Italians. She cites a 15th century count, Baldassarre Castiglione, who served in several royal courts. In his writings, he gives advice on how to be a gentleman, and he invents a word to describe his ideal, sprezzatura, which means the studied carelessness that “conceals art and presents everything said and done as something brought about without laboriousness and almost without giving it any thought.” Hales adds, “The closest English comes is ‘nonchalance,’ which fails to capture the behind-the-scenes preparation and hard work that underlies the ability to carry off ‘things that are exquisite and well done’—be it a duel, debate or dance, executed with such ease that it inspires ‘the greatest wonder.’ This is the essence of bella figura.”

As I give my credit card to pay the conto, I find that our waiter’s courtly behavior likely comes from the fine family line of his mother. He notices my name on the card. “Spadoni!” he says. “Mia madre si chiama Spadoni.” His mother is a Spadoni from Roma, so the confluence of our families could be 1000 years distant. Still, it is nice to have this added connection as a fitting conclusion to our little lunch break.

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