Thursday, November 12, 2015

Lions, Tigers and Waiting Tables in Italy, Oh My!

I'm becoming more comfortable in the kitchen, learning what goes where and helping out when needed. I sometimes roll out pasta and bread or put away wine glasses and set up the tables in the dining room. I've even had more practice plating appetizers and desserts during dinner rushes. Then yesterday a curve ball was thrown at me. As I was falling into a blissful trance while running the tagliatelle verde through the pasta machine, Francesco entered the kitchen and asked me if I would be willing to wait tables for a large group in the afternoon. "Me?! Wait tables? Here? For Italians??!!" Not only do I have a bit of a phobia for waiting tables in general, but waiting tables in a language I barely speak??  God help me! The thought alone is terrifying! I've made it a point, however, to help out here in any way I can, especially since they have been so generous and kind to me. So I gulped down my fear and managed to smile and say "Certo" (Certainly). He suggested that I have lunch with the staff and then change into some nicer clothes. I could feel my anxiety building as I quickly ate my gnocchi and when I went to my room to change I had to do some breathing exercises to calm myself down. "Breath in, 1-2-3, breath out, 3-2-1, breath in, 1-2...oh hell, it's time to go!"

I scurried back to the restaurant and people were already flooding in, ready for their traditional Piedmontese lunch, which would be served by this so un-Italian gringa girl! "Oh Dio mio!" (Oh Lordy!). 

One of the other servers spotted me and directed me to put glass bottles of still and sparkling water and bread baskets on all the tables. We would be serving a group of 45, all at the same time. It would be a multi-course meal (with 2 antipasti, 2 primi, 1 secondo, dessert and coffee). To my relief, everyone would be served the same dishes. I helped open bottles of Dolcetto and Chardonnay and placed them on each of the tables. 

On the menu were pastries filled with local goat cheese and herbs, Swiss Chard flan with fondue, hazelnut ravioli, tajarin with ragu, braised shredded beef, roasted potatoes and cardoons in olive oil. For dessert they were served a taste of chocolate pudding cake, frozen parfait and pears cooked in spiced wine. Everything was made by hand and artistically plated.

The setting was beautiful; it was a bright and sunny fall day and they were seated in the solarium room, with panoramic views of the landscape. Everyone seemed to be in a jovial mood and I learned that they were part of a group from the nearby town of Doliani, all celebrating their 50th birthdays this year. "Maybe this will be fun!" I thought to myself. 

Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, the sisters and other staff were working rapid-fire and had 45 plates of antipasti ready to be taken out. Together, with another server I brought out the first dishes to the awaiting diners. We performed 5 rounds of serving new plates and clearing away the old ones. I felt a rush of energy as I made the rounds back and forth, even helping some in the main dining room which was also packed full. At one point a woman asked me to bring her a "strezzacudenti". What the heck could this be? I repeated the word in my head until I found Oscar and asked him what in the world is a strezzacudenti?? He laughed and handed me the toothpicks. I triumphantly placed the toothpicks on the table for the woman who looked pleased and gave me a reassuring, "Grazie" with a pleasant smile.  

The mood in the entire restaurant was festive and cheerful. Coming here for lunch is a full day's event. Everyone took their time and didn't seem to want to leave. The table of men who were first in line to receive each course cheered every time I would come to their table to deliver the next dish. What a fun group to wait on! Between each course, guests would get up to visit other tables, go outside to take in the view or sometimes take a smoke break (it's so Italian to take a smoke break in the middle of a long meal). There was lots of chatter and laughter all around and everyone seemed to be appreciating this time with friends in a beautiful setting with delicious food. There is a common expression in Italy that says, "a tavola, non si invecchia", which means "at the table, one does not age". Perhaps this is why they take their time with each meal, savoring their food and enjoying their company. By the time we had finished serving coffee (which is a shot of espresso that comes after dessert), 3 hours had already passed. Even after this, most guests stayed another hour, this time standing, some walking over to the little bar to try the grappa, or walking around the grounds to take in the beautiful afternoon. 

Two little girls from another group came up to me and asked if we have gelato. I was happy to tell them that indeed we do, which made them very excited. When I started naming off the flavors and got to "ciocolato" they began jumping up and down. Chocolate it is! After delivering the scoops of Francesco's homemade chocolate gelato (which come with a handmade cookie) they politely asked if they could each have one more cookie. I enjoyed serving these cute little guests and they must have enjoyed getting what they asked for from me, because before they left they asked for some grissini (breadsticks) to go. This is a bit of a strange request but they were so cute and this was so much fun so I happily obliged. As the afternoon was wrapping up a few guests took an interest in me (realizing by now that I am obviously not from here). They asked me all sorts of questions about where I was from, how long I am staying here, etc. (By now I have this small talk mastered and I could carry on these little interactions as I began putting away clean wine glasses in their case). Beyond these simple conversations, however, I quickly get lost. 

Back in the kitchen I enjoyed a relaxed moment with the staff, tasting the different courses that had been prepared followed by cake and bubbles. Even in the kitchen the mood was light and cheerful. I felt so happy to be part of the team. 

That night, as I reflected on this new personal feat, I realized that everything I am experiencing here is just a normal day for everyone else. I think that's what I love most about being here though. It's this inside look into the Italian life and culture that I find exciting. For me, this is the adventure! 

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