The Daily Telegraph - Travel
The bitter taste of la dolce vita
Ihave recently been to two extremities of Italy – Sicily and Liguria – so have been reminded that I like almost everything about the country.
My daughter-in-law, for a start. She is the brightest and best of Milan. Brunello di Montalcino, too. Plus steak pizzaiola, Alfa Romeo motor cars, Sophia Loren – still the world’s greatest woman (after all the ones in my family, obviously), di Lampedusa, the painted-into-place perfection of the lakes and Tuscany, cypress trees, Pompeii, Palladian villas, Roberto Baggio and, overall, the sense that beauty is the norm, an essential element of the landscape and of life itself. Across the country, one bumps into sensesmacking treasures around each and every old corner. The outstanding is expected, which is extraordinary.
And then there are a few things I don’t like. I have been reminded of them, too.
The main one is Naples, which was recalled for me by the run-down bits of Catania. Here was the dereliction and rubbish and sense that people didn’t give a hoot, but still thought they were pretty damned special just because they could hang about, sneer, eat pizza, smoke and be Neapolitan. Or, in this case, Catanian.
I suspected, though, that folk in Catania were a little more decent – not a difficult standard to hit – for, unlike in Naples, none tried to pick my pocket. (The Neapolitan pickpockets had been pretty stupid. They went for my inside pocket, so got my city map. The wallet’s in the trouser pocket,
Number two is the deranged practice, in bars and cafés, of first paying at the cash desk, then taking a ticket to hand over to the serving staff, then getting one’s food and drink. Changing one’s mind, or wishing to add something to the order, thus becomes an obstacle course, worsened if you forget the name of the cake halfway back to the cash desk.
On related subjects, why does the basic caffè espresso come in doses barely visible to the naked eye? Wherefore the obsession with mozzarella – a flabby chunk of floppy white tastelessness? And what the hell are breadsticks for? These are important questions to ask of a world-class cuisine. But the really big one is: why may we not cut spaghetti with a knife and fork? Twirling it around the spoon and slurping leaves non-Italians, and some Italians, soaked in sauce from chin to lap. Cutting it up in no way affects the taste. Swirling is, I’m certain, merely the Italians being perverse, as are the Chinese in their insistence that rice be eaten with sticks. They come to my house, I’ll serve soup, supply a rock, and see how they get on.