“Yes, this is very typical, “my host in Rome tells me. “Service in restaurants here is very … efficient.”
I felt somewhat better learning this. My first night in a restaurant was a brusque, fast-paced very “efficient” affair with food tossed down and waitresses rushing to turn tables.
I’m not needy in restaurants or demand much attention. I have a lot of empathy for servers and staff. But I was really taken aback by the callousness and impersonal interactions – it felt like a contempt for guests that radiated from standing outside in the cold to being handled through the meal.
I had asked my host for some insight because I had just had this experience at a restaurant where the guests being treated this callously were also gushing about how “authentic” this restaurant was of a typical Roman meal. I wasn’t sure if this was just the restaurant, or if this was Rome.
This restaurant was recommended in a guidebook. Sometimes the guidebooks and Tripadvisor and similar services completely change a place. There is a travel saying that nothing ruins an establishment faster or raises the prices higher than a Lonely Planet recommendation.
This restaurant, my host tells me, was once very popular with the locals and was run by a grumpy, growly old man named Augustino. He was renowned for his surliness and gruff treatment of guests. And surliness is apparently the mark of an “authentic” Roman dining experience. She says it’s not the same now since he died … and she doesn’t go back anymore. Many locals find it so overwhelmed with tourists they avoid it.
Now that Augustino’s has been “found” in the guidebooks, a line of tourists stretches out the door every night at 8pm to be let in when the doors opened. As I waited in line that night, I assumed the locals would come later. As I watched the line grow, my instincts told me I should just leave. It’s not like there aren’t plenty of places to eat well in Trestevere. But I was tired, and literally hadn’t had a real meal in 3 days. So I stayed because inertia won. Plus, I was curious to see what was making all these tourists and guidebooks so excited.
The doors were opened and we were shuttled inside. A paper sheet was tossed over the table. Dining alone in Rome so far has meant I am seated squished in a corner. Glasses and silver appeared dropped into the middle of the table. You order … the primi comes quickly. You eat. You order more. The secondi came in two minutes. It’s all quite … efficient.
The next night I tried again. And this time I went to a pizzeria widely regarded as the best pizza in Rome. I’m ready … I’m willing to tolerate quite a lot for Best Pizza in Rome billing.
The pizza was good. And the service was every bit as brusque and efficient as the night before – maybe worse since it was two men serving at least 50 people. I sat at my little squished table and watched the waiters throwing pizzas in front of people. I watched other diners employing basic survival skills …. helping themselves to cheese from other table. Getting up to get the pepper from the waiters stand. The frenetic atmosphere seemed to have everyone on edge.
And I was halfway through dinner and still waiting for a glass of wine that was supposed to be with the meal.
The table next to me leaves … and leaves the perfect size glass of Chianti in the bottom of the bottle. I’ve seen the women who ate there – they were clean. I eye that Chianti. It’s right there. My wine is nowhere in sight.
And I decide … when in Rome … I can be authentic, too.
I reach over and swipe the bottle, efficiently deposit the contents in my glass, return the empty to the table, and enjoy the rest of the pizza and silently thank the women who left such a nice Chianti behind.
My waiter and wine finally show up when I’m done eating and I lightheartedly waive him away. “Too late,” I say. He eyes my glass, then says, with what I thought might be a little chagrin and a little more respect in his voice, “I’m sorry”.
And that was the only authentic personal connection – the only truly authentic exchange -that I had in Rome’s most authentic restaurants.