Monday, November 22, 2010

Rome: The Vatican vs. Pizza

A few nights ago I found myself throwing back vodka with a bunch of Ukrainians in a small town in Umbria. How did this happen? I'll tell you. It's a very short story.

British guy.

This is exactly the sort of thing that happens when British guy is around. When he's not around I tend to retreat to my little hostel at around 8 pm where I can eat cookies and relax my aching feet while catching up on my favorite blogs.

Which is exactly what I'm doing right now because British guy is on a secret mission in Spain and I am spending a few days wandering around Rome in search of the absolute best slice of pizza known to mankind. I might also go see the Vatican. Maybe.

I do keep trying to go see things in Rome, but then I see a café or a pizzeria or a gelateria or a farmer's market and I get distracted. It happens. Often.

While wandering around Trastevere today I rounded a corner and stumbled upon a pizzeria so enticing that I couldn't continue walking. I shoved my way in through the crowds of Italians not lining up to place their order and pressed myself against the glass counter. That's what the Romans were doing.

Prego? the man behind the counter shouted in my general direction.

I pointed at a slice of pizza gorgonzola and a slice of pizza con patate and used my hands to show how big of a slice I wanted. He weighed out the pizza and then asked what I wanted to drink.

Sometimes when people ask me complicated questions like that I get nervous and just shout out the first thing that comes into my head. In this case, it was beer.

I enjoyed a split second of relief at having answered his question, but then he came up with an even more complicated question. What kind?


I couldn't see over the counter because I'm too short and instead of sensibly asking him what types he had, I told him to just give me whatever beer he likes to drink.

I thought this was a clever plan, but unfortunately it backfired.

He scoffed and responded that he didn't drink beer. Then he gave me a look that would have been justified had I asked for a glass of sewage water.

I panicked.

What did that scoff mean? Had I unwittingly broken some unspoken rule. The Italians, I know, are fussy about their unspoken rules. I have been chastised twice in Italy by complete strangers. Once for ordering a cappuccino after noon and then again for putting parmesan on a pasta dish that was not served with tomato sauce. Both instances left such a lasting impression on me that I have since incorporated these little rules into my life.

But I couldn't figure out what--if anything--I had done wrong this time. The man behind the counter eventually handed me a Nastro Azzurro and threw my pizza into the oven. All the while muttering in Italian and occasionally flinging out semi-coherent phrases that the other Italians around him seemed to agree with.

They were probably talking about football or Berlusconi or something totally unrelated to the ignorant American girl who had clearly violated some social code. But I couldn't be sure so I tried to look remorseful and ashamed of my ignorance as I slunk to my table with my pizza and beer in hand.

But then I took a bite of the gorgonzola pizza with fresh tomatoes and I nearly cried from happiness and nothing else mattered in the world.

The man behind the counter came over to check on me after I had devoured both slices of pizza. He raised his eyebrows and asked something that I hope was along the lines of "Did you enjoy your meal?" because I grinned and nodded and indicated my spotless plate as further proof.

If he was asking about something completely different-- such as my thoughts on Berlusconi or the Italian football league-- he nonetheless seemed satisfied with my response. Whatever social crime I had committed when ordering had been forgiven.

Happy, full and absolutely in love with Rome and all things Roman, I downed my beer, pulled out my journal and people-watched for an hour before wandering to a café 500 meters down the road in search of an espresso.

Tomorrow I plan on doing the same thing. And who knows, perhaps I will even make it to the colosseum. It's hard to say. There are a lot of pizzerias, cafés, and gelaterias on the way.

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