I’d just like to state, for the record, that I’m really, really lucky. I know. I have two incredible daughters who like food. REAL food… things like calamari and miso soup and chicken liver pate. Sometimes, when I forget how lucky we really are, I’ll be reminded by the apprehensive look of a waiter or dining companion who will cautiously ask, “Do you think they will…?”
“Eat that? Sure!” I respond without thinking. Later, I realize what they were really asking: “Will your child melt down if anything other than mac n’ cheese or chicken nuggets fails to appear at their place setting?”
Ilsa, our six year old, is especially interested in food, possibly because she is always hungry. She’s the child who takes twice as long as everyone else at the table to finish her dinner, and then five minutes after the plates have been cleared asks if there’s anything to eat. Frequently, she will ask when lunch is, entirely unaware that we’ve already eaten it. The ongoing Ilsa-refrain is “Mom- I’m still hungry. Do you have any food in your purse?” And because I’m Ilsa’s mom, I almost always do.
This combination of appetite and willingness to try new things came in handy the night we went to the “Teatro del Sale” in Florence- an absolute highpoint of our trip. It had been highly recommended to us by a very gracious local, and she assured us that it would be fine for the kids as well. All we knew was that it involved dinner and a “show” or some sort. We should call to reserve our places, and go early in order to “join,” whatever that meant.
We arrived at 7:30 on the dot, dressed up and out of breath from hurriedly walking several blocks in an unfamiliar part of town- off the beaten path of the historic “centro.” After some confusion I ascertained in my mish-mosh Italian that we each had to fill out forms- the kids too- and pay a small fee to “join” the “cultural circle.” Once this was accomplished, we were given gorgeous membership cards that put my Vermont driver’s license to shame and we stumbled inside, where we could now pay for our evening’s attendance at… whatever this was.
It wasn’t cheap- at 30 euro per person I fervently hoped this definitively included everything. I learned it did once the helpful man at the cash register began speaking English unprompted in order to be sure we understood the way the evening would work. Oh well, so much for my flawless Italian.
It would be a buffet, he described. VERY long. There would be, as he put it, “surprises.” Wine and water were self-serve by carafes in the lobby, please, take it easy. I wondered if the emphasis on pacing ourselves over the course of a “VERY long” meal was because we had small children, or because we were Americans. I was a little apprehensive: I mean, how long was LONG?
Turns out, LONG is about two hours. Heck- practically ever Italian meal we ever had took about that long. I could see, however, that it would be easy to go overboard in an atmosphere such as this one. At the far end of the room, there was a buffet table featuring a battalion of help-yourself casseroles, salads and breads: cous cous, hummus, warm potato salad, lentils, shiny beets. Just when we thought we had amassed plenty of food on our plates and found seats, suddenly a man’s head appeared in the window of a glass wall that showcased the kitchen- where all kinds of things seemed to be going on- and he began to bellow as if announcing the contenders in an important boxing match. (“And in this cor-NAH!”) Although I never managed to catch it all, it became clear that every few minutes he was heralding the presentation of a new dish, and that if you wanted to try some, now was the time to sidle up to the window and receive a bread-plate sized portion of it.
The girls caught on very quickly to this arrangement and soon it was hard to keep them from popping up and down like little Jack-in-the-boxes. We tried nearly everything as the courses rolled out one by one: chicken meatballs, fish soup, tiny clams in spicy broth, roast chicken and potatoes, tubular pasta with meat sauce… As advised, we tried to pace ourselves- but the girls were in heaven, particularly Ilsa.
“When’s he gonna yell again?” she kept asking.
“These are so yummy I just can’t stop eating them!” she proclaimed about the mussels dressed with lemon juice, garlic and olive oil.
“If this is still here, when I grow up, I might want to work here,” she added at one point, after all, “I could eat all the leftovers after!” At another moment she pointed out that she was sure to return to Florence someday, “I would come here so I could eat this yummy food!”
I sat back and marveled at my children. How many six year olds, I wondered, would have felt similarly after being served unshelled shrimp so tiny and leggy they looked like large bugs? Certainly, we weren’t the only tourists in the room- we heard a fair amount of English as we traipsed back and forth to bring our used plates to the dish window (another custom here) but ours were the only children.
At last, it was time to round out this fantastic culinary parade. Greta returned from her four dozenth trip to the kitchen window to report that they were serving ice cold glasses of dessert.
“It’s peach gelato,” she said tentatively, avoiding my eyes.
“And we are going to have it!” I added, with enthusiasm. Greta and Ilsa’s faces lit up like they had been plugged in. Looking back, this was the best sugar decision I made on the trip; as far as I’m concerned, everything else could have fallen away- all the other treats, both intentional and not- but for that one joyful evening, magical meal, and sweet perfect peach gelato.
After that, there was still more in store for us. The tables, which had seated perhaps one hundred “cultural circle” members, were whisked away and the room was filled with the sounds of scraping chairs and multi-lingual chatting as our dining room transformed into a performance hall, facing a modest stage at the far end of the room. We learned that the show tonight would be a cuban trio, accompanied by dancers.
For me, it was all like a very, very happy dream. As I sat there in the audience, wonderfully full of perfect bites of food and gulps of red wine, deeply breathing in the robust strains of guitar, I had one of those heart-breakingly rare moments when you feel that something has gone, somehow, incredibly, inexplicably, perfectly, right.
Sometime later, Ilsa made one more comment to me on the topic of travel. “It’s just that food around the world is so good!” she exclaimed.
I couldn’t have said it better myself.