Italians are reputed to have amongst the healthiest “lifestyles” in the world due to their Mediterranean diet of fruit, grains, vegetables and olive oil. It apparently offsets, if not obliterates the effects of the universal Italian smoking habit. Whatever, but in the various Italian cities Mrs Henry and I have visited, we were unable to procure a dinner or lunch along Mediterranean dietary lines.
It wasn’t until Mrs Henry and I reached Florence from Perrugia, via Campobasso and l’Aquilla, scurvy nipping at our heels, that we were saved by Doner Kebap, a Middle Eastern dish spelt this way in Northern Italy and purveyed there by Turkish eating places invariably owned and operated by enterprising people from the subcontinent.
A case study. When, shortly after seven, Mrs Henry and I went down to have dinner in the town of l’Aquila, our first attempt at obtaining a meal was at the hotel’s restaurant. Staff looked startled as we walked in and we sat down. They weren’t open yet. Could we come back after eight?
We next tried a pizza restaurant. Again startled looks, but this time because they were closing at eight and we could have a pizza if we pledged to finish it by eight.
Another pizza place welcomed us with open arms and showed us various and diverse slices of pizza left over from the day’s trading. We asked if a fresh pizza could be prepared. An apologetic half-smile in response.
Then an Irish “theme” pub seemed to offer a solution. We sat down at a table on its outdoor terrace and were at once engulfed by tobacco smoke, because it is truly extraordinary how all Italians smoke. Not indoors but outdoors, to which the omnipresence of outdoor, public ashtrays attest. Incidentally, the Institute is considering a proposal by Mrs Henry for a coffee table photo book entitled Ashtrays of Tuscany.
Anyway, such was our hunger by this time that we ignored the smoking. We were determined to eat. However, the waitress declined to take an order for food. Food, she said cannot be consumed outside. Why not?, we asked. It could not, she insisted. There must be a reason, we said. Yes, food cannot be consumed outside. Can we eat inside?, we asked. Rolling her eyes, she conceded that this was a theoretical possibility. It could not be ruled out. She would hand us over to the inside waitress.
The inside waitress had to negotiate with kitchen staff, who vetoed all of our choices, including pizza, until we got down the list to the humble hamburger. They set about preparing two of these and the result was passable and not at all less acceptable than what a switched-on eight-year old might have produced. Bit raw, but platonically the idea of a burger was very much there.
The inside waitress also took our drinks order, and I must say that it was for the very first, and I hope very last time in an Irish pub that my order for a pint of Guinness had to be elucidated by pointing a finger at it on the drinks menu.
(The Big House, novel - now available- https://amzn.to/2txLRz8 )