24 November 2005

Going solo in Milan

Armoires of wine all along the back wall. Good sign. A brick oven in the back with a man flipping pizza dough, another good sign. Glasses clink and conversation buzzes around the room. Mixed tables of people, a few solo (like me!). Otherwise couples and groups of friends catching up. Wait, I hear a Froggie, finally a language I understand. They would stick out in London by their dress sense, but not here.
It all made for an auspicious beginning to my first night out alone in Milan.
I’ve been seated right behind the Froggies and I can’t help but eavesdrop… This reminds me of the time when I used to travel a lot in Asia. You either get used to eating out alone or you get very familiar with the room service menu.
I use to always take a book with me, but found that I might as well have been in my hotel room. The whole point of eating out is to soak in the atmosphere, which you won’t even notice with your nose buried in a book. Then I discovered writing. Bringing a discreet little notebook out is not the same at all. To write, you are obliged to look around and take notice, observe, write about anything, invent stories about the people around you. It’s great fodder for the imagination.
I’ve ordered an insalata di piovra alla ligura (octopus and potato salad to you and me). It’s warm (caldi) and a bit chewier than I expected, but what a lovely flavour!
I scribble all this down, when my primi arrives, it is spaghetti alla vongole con bottarga (with clams and dried grey mullet roe). My waiter, Giorgio, has told me to stop writing and eat before it gets cold, in the nicest possible way of course.
The Froggies keep talking about Americans and “this war is no longer about politics, it’s about economics.” I’d love to come back with a smart aleck remark in French, but can’t think of one, mainly because I don’t have a clear stance on this subject. To be honest, I’m very mixed about the war. On with my dinner…
I have almost choked on a vongole; a stunning man has just walked in. Okay, I may be a very happily married woman, but I did still have a pulse last time I checked, so there. Ah, he’s been seated behind me. Just as well, probably would have made him uncomfortable with my staring.
Back to more important things, the bottarga is grated all over the very al dente pasta, like a smokier, more pungent Parmeggiano. It’s fabulous! As a big fan of salty, strong tasting food, this hits the spot. And the al denteness is just how I like it, slippery and almost chewy. Very liberal with the olive oil, but it is supposed to be good for you. Plus it just tastes so good. Would it be rude if I sucked on the clamshells? There’s so much bottarga sprinkled on, I would hate to waste it.
That course demolished, I sit there grinning like a Cheshire cat. Much to Giorgio’s dismay, I can’t face the dessert menu so I decide on un ristretto (my third coffee of the day!) and along comes a plate of biscotti. The drink is perfect, concentrated, dark, strong but smooth. Why can’t I get coffee like this in London? And the biscotti are a perfect accompaniment, crunchy, sweet and nutty.
Perfect, a guy has pulled up outside on a red Vespa. I know it’s a stereotype, but it puts a smile on my face nevertheless.
I’ve turned around for a look and I can see the back of a girl’s head. Think Cyndi Lauper on a bad hair day… Maybe she’s a rock star wannabe and she’s having dinner with her manager. See what I mean about making things up?
The whole point is, dining alone can be fun. A few tips to ensure a good time:
When you first enter the restaurant and say per una per favore (or preferably the local language where you happen to be…), judge the reaction. If they don’t seemed fazed, grab a seat. If they wince, suck air through their teeth or display any variety of negative body language, try somewhere else. The wait staff makes a huge difference to your dining experience. Then sit down, order as many courses as you like, take your time, make up stories, talk to your neighbours and enjoy. Remember you deserve more than room service.