There are some words that, in the course of my professional career, I’ve learned directly in Italian. When I was writing mostly about design and architecture words like grondaia, altana and davanzali (gutter, balcony and windowsill) often came easier in Italian than they did in English. Similarly there are certain phrases having to do with food that spring to mind first in Italian, then in English. Yes, I’ve become one of those annoying ex-pats who pepper their English conversations with words like carciofi and lievito naturale rather than just bending my brain to say artichoke and yeast.
But there are certain Italian phrases that I would never, ever think of using in English. Phrases that for me are so weighted in my Italian mentality that they just don’t occur to me to even think of them if I am speaking or writing in English. For instance colpo di freddo, or ‘hit of cold’ that is the bane of every Italian’s (including my own daughter’s) existence. It’s what happens when you get hit by a cold draft. Evidently you run the risk of dying. It’s an Italian thing.
I was thinking about all this the other day when an Italian friend used the phrase ‘buon rapporto qualita’ prezzo ‘ . Good value for money. Now I know there are probably some people who use this phrase in English to refer to restaurants. But it’s just not ever a phrase I would think of using. Good value for your money, when used in English with reference to a dining experience makes me think of an all you can eat buffet at Red Lobster .
In other words, the phrase, in English, in my mind, has more to do with quantity than quality. In my Italian friends’ minds I somehow think that quality is just as, or more important than quantity.
Anyway, all this complicated story to say that I’ve been thinking about all these issues – quality, quantity and price – and what my views were when it came to reviewing a restaurant. And I have to admit that I don’t use the phrase , in either language really, when describing a restaurant. In fact, although I know full well that some restaurants are expensive and others less so, it’s not ever the first thing I think of. Because for me there is another element that has a complicated relationship with both price and value and quantity and quality that is usually the defining element of whether I fall in love with a place or not.
For instance, I went to a Michelin starred restaurant last week in Torino. The 90 Euro, 6 course tasting menu can probably be defined as extremely good rapporto quality prezzo. But….I did not fall in love with the place, despite the Ginori china and fresh flowers and – I have to admit – the huge quantity of good food for that price.
It made me realize that the transformative experiences for me, in restaurants, these days have as much to do with culture and people and an undefinable element that makes me feel like I’m part of something bigger than just sitting down for a meal. Yes, there is certainly food involved. And it has to be good food. But there is also so much going on that has to do with people, places and things that add to my element of not only contentment and satisfaction, but also a kind of complete bliss that makes me feel that all is right with the world.
I did not have this kind of moment at the Michelin starred restaurant. Not by a long shot.
I did, however, have it at a quite ordinary, working class restaurant on the outskirts of Florence a few weeks ago.
Sabatino is a place I’d been wanting to go for a long time. But since it’s located just outside the gate of San Frediano – and so at least a 20 minute walk from where ever I usually was – I had never made it there. Also? Whenever I phoned, they never really wanted to take a reservation, something which always makes me kind of uneasy.
One of the reasons I’d always wanted to go there is because it is my friend Judy’s husband’s favorite place. Andrea grew up in the neighborhood and it was just ‘where he went.’ Which sounded like the kind of local place I usually love. And while he never talked about the food, it was the ‘idea’ of the place that stuck in my mind.
A few weeks ago I finally made my way there. Since they open early for lunch, at noon, I figured I would get there as close to 12 as possible to assure myself getting a table. It was a completely glorious day in Florence. Bright blue skies and a crisp, cold wind as I walked over the Ponte Santa Trinita and down Borgo San Frediano. Once I was through the massive medieval Gate of San Frediano, and onto the Via Pisana I had a hard time finding the place. Tucked into the corner where two nondescript buildings came together at right angles, I spotted two men heading into a doorway. With dogs. And in fact, the sign read Trattoria Sabatino.
Once in, I felt that I was in some sort of private club, called a circolo in Italian. The big open space had mostly tables for 8 lined up against the walls. Kind of cafeteria like. When I told the woman who came to seat me that I was just one person, she lead me to a table where two other women were already seated. I soon struck up a conversation and learned that they were mother and daughter and that the daughter came by every day to pick up her mother, and her dogs, take them for a walk and stop by to eat lunch. My first question was, of course, what kind of dogs. At which point she just lifted the edge of the red checkered table cloth and there they all were. Behaving perfectly. As if they came here all the time. Which they did.
And which, almost everyone else in this restaurant did as well. Yes. There was maybe one table of French tourists. But I swear that everyone else had the feeling of coming here almost every day, all of their lives, to have lunch, catch up with their friends, and then head on their way. Some had their dogs. Some had their elderly parents. Some had both.
At that point Andrea walked in. He looked at what I had ordered – a plate full of stewed leeks and another full of greens and squid – and somehow felt he had to justify his attachment to this place to me. “The food is ok,” he said, ‘But I come here mostly for the conversation.’
And as he continued onto his table to meet some childhood friends of his, I continued digging into my very good food but also chatting with my new friends and their incredibly cute dogs. For me, getting a chance to meet new people, hear about their lives, share my own stories – all while eating a plate fulls of warming, hearty well made food – with dogs to boot? How do you figure that into some sort of formula of rapporto qualita prezzo? For me, in this ever changing world and even more rapidly changing Italy, this kind of experience, which has everything to do with gathering around a table over traditional food is, in fact, priceless.
But just in case you are interested in the prices? They are some of the lowest I’ve seen in Florence. Pastas cost 4,20 and my plate full of Seppie in Zimino was 6,20. The leeks, stewed slowly in olive oil with a bit of tomato cost 2,70.
So yes. There is in fact a ‘buon rapporto qualita’ prezzo.’ But, as Andrea pointed out, it’s not about the food.
Via Pisana 2r
For more information on dining in Florence and Italy download my app, EAT ITALY. EAT ITALY is a free app, and contains guides to Venice, Milan, Rome, Florence and Umbria (and an ever expanding list of regions and cities) available as in-app purchases for both iPhone and iPad