when i lived in vail, there was this dark, cool little restaurant about 10 miles away called Tavolaccio.
the first time i went there with my boyfriend, i loved how romantic it was. it wasn’t one of those red-and-white-tablecloth-with-baskets-holding-bottles-of-chianti type of italian restaurants. it was open, simple, had delicate drop down lights, and comfortable chairs tucked around glass tables. i don’t know much about italy, but i know that there is the spaghetti italian, and then the OTHER italian (northern italian, maybe?) with dishes like vegetables with shrimp in white wine sauces, and chicken with mushrooms, and lots of words i can’t pronounce. Tavolaccio was the latter.
i loved how warm and fuzzy the place made me feel. it was dark, loud with the combined murmur of voices, delicate italian music in the background. the wine may have added to the fuzziness, but the sparkling water they served was just as good – even though it was 8 bucks. it sparkled, though.
whenever i suggested to have a meal there, i got shot down. my boyfriend’s reasoning was that it was, “too expensive” even though i offered to pay, “too loud” which was part of the reason i loved it, and he didn’t like the food (i think in a way, he was as overwhelmed with the exotic menu, but not in the good overwhelmed way i was.
he was out of town one week, and i decided, on a tuesday night, to go by myself. i often like to eat dinner by myself, and hadn’t really had a chance to do so once i started living with someone. i figured that i deserved to treat myself, and brought along my nearly maxed out credit card to pay. there was no way i could afford this place otherwise.
the place was extremely busy for a tuesday, abuzz with voices and the sharp sound of wine glasses clinking. i had dressed myself up (and looked pretty good, i thought) and iwas excited at the possibility of a long, romantic dinner with myself. and at this restaurant, dinner took time. you’d be there for 2 hours easy.
at the time of this story, there were only italians working there – the family who owned the place, i believe (ie lots of accents and language barriers.) before they closed a few years back, they had a more “american” staff, which kind of bummed me out. the host at the door asked if i was meeting someone, and i said, “it’s only me tonight.” he looked at me strangely and a bit condescendingly, which i experienced a lot eating out alone, and he walked me to the back corner of the room right next to the kitchen. the table he sat me at was oddly placed, as though it had been pulled out of the back to accommodate people on the fly on a previously busy night. this night was busy, but not busy enough for me to sit me at a table stuck in an awkward space facing a closet. i assume he did so because i was by myself, and just figured it didn’t matter where i sat (that is, it didn’t matter to HIM.) anybody who has eaten out with me frequently knows that i’m extremely uncomfortable with my back to an entire restaurant and/or facing the corner. i like to see the whole room, or if not just the front door. don’t ask me why, it just is. and this could have possibly been the most worrysome table i had ever sat at. however, i was a waitress, and got frequently annoyed when people asked to move tables, so i decided i would stick it out, have some wine and a good meal, and enjoy my evening in solitude. i wasn’t going to let my night plummet simply due to seating. after all, i was wearing my favorite perfume, and my long hair was pulled up just right – as we long haired women know, it’s not often we get the hair right when it goes up. but when it does, boy, watch out.
20 minutes went by, with waiters back and forth – foreign and heated discussions in the kitchen, and the constant bustle of a tuesday that was perhaps busier than they expected it would have been. and still, nobody acknowledged me.
i half thought about leaving, or simply going up to the bar to get a glass of wine – i could wait patiently if i had wine. the more i contemplated what i should do, the more subconscious i got about being alone, at the most awkward table in restaurant history, and being ignored despite that i was so close to the waiters’ entrance to the kitchen that i could feel air rush by as they passed me every few seconds.
in my last ditch effort to maintain the pleasantness that was supposed to be my night, i got the attention of a guy in a suit who seemed to have some sort of upper tier position in the place.
“excuse me, may i have a glass of wine?”
he spoke in an incredibly thick accent. “no one has come for you?”
“how long have you been waiting here, senorina?”
“um, maybe 15 minutes.”
i saw a change come over his face, as though someone working in the restaurant would later get an earful of italian for ignoring their guests.
“senorina, this is unacceptable! please, let me get you whatever you like. please, let me bring you a glass of italian wine, yes?”
and before i could answer, he whisked himself away and came back in what seemed like seconds with a gigantic glass one quarter full of wine so cold, the glass had condensation up to the line the wine was poured to.
“senorina, i am very sorry about this. what else can i do for the senorina?”
i loved that he talked about me in the third person.
“well, actually, i feel silly at this table. would it be okay if i sat somewhere else?”
“whatever the senorina wants! pick a table, beautiful lady.”
he walked behind me gently, encouraging me to pick my favorite table in the place. i was half tempted to choose a table with occupants just to see how far i could go with him, but i thought against it, and picked a dark table next to a window.
at this point, i get the idea that this guy is the manager, if not the owner. if not by how he was dressed by the way the rest of the staff regarded him. he explained to me that he would have his best waiter, vincenzo, take care of me and get me anything i needed.
i sat and looked out the window, which was frosted over around the edges because of the snow outside. the glass emitted a coldness down the side of my body, and i sat there, satisfied and pleased that my night out was back on track.
vincenzo came over shortly thereafter, and by his demeanor had heard about my shitty service. his english was leaps and bounds worse than the previous guy, and he also used ‘senorina’ like it was going out of style. he, too, referred to me as though i were someone else altogether.
i had begun my second glass of icy-cold italian white wine when my pre-dinner salad came (dinner was very much supposed to be drawn out at this place, and i had probably been there an hour by this point.) that salad was something i had come knowing that i wanted. it was a small bed of dark leaves that i couldn’t prononuce, with an even more exotic sounding cheese, some dressing i couldn’t identify, and artichoke hearts. and it was all situated so beautifully and artfully on this tiny plate – most of the guys i know would have bitched about the portion, but i figured that it was never a good idea to have too much of a good thing. i started thinking about tasting that salad before i even got to the restaurant. i felt guilty ordering it, as i should have been more frugal considering the price of this place. but i told myself i wanted to do something nice and allowed myself to have whatever i wanted. my salad was $18.
at the bottom of that glass of wine, i felt myself getting a bit tipsy. i always feel like i did just then, like i had no money problems, no relationship issues, and nowhere in particular to be at that moment but right there.
vincenzo, who had been doing a damn good job of making sure i always had what i wanted, came by to ask what “the senorina” wanted to eat for dinner. i started to open up my menu and then turned to him, “well, what do you like?”
he seemed perplexed by this, but after some coaxing, i got him trying to explain some of the items on the menu. i handed the menu back to him and told him to bring me the best thing there. he stood there hesitantly, as though it were unheard of for someone to order dinner without knowing what they would end up eating. i assured him that i wasn’t picky, i trusted his judgement, and that i wasn’t allergic to anything. whether he understood or not, i don’t know. but it seemed to convince him enough to go on about his business.
not far from me was a table of about 15 people. they weren’t speaking english, and since i sat down i tried to determine what language it was and had long given up. they were obviously family, had finished dinner before i came and had progressed to coffee and after dinner drinks, and were the loudest of anyone in there. the table was cram packed with half empty or completely empty wine glasses. bottles of wine scattered the table, as did martini glasses and other assorted spirits. i did a quick survey of how many drinks they each had based on the amount of glasses in front of each person, and it staggered the mind. man, foreigners can drink, can’t they?
everybody at this table was at least 40 years old, and some up into their 60’s. they were jovial, and behaved as though they were at their own house – it was like eavesdropping at a party in some stranger’s living room.
there was a girl at the table – the only child there, and she couldn’t have been more than 10 years old. she was absolutely gorgeous. her hair was thick and long, and she was as fidgety as you’d expect she would be after hours in a restaurant, bored out of her mind with nothing but adults telling stories and laughing who showed no signs of leaving.
i caught her looking at me several times, but she looked away when i try to catch her eyes.
vincenzo brought my dinner, which i noted immediately was something i would have never ordered on my own due to the ingredients, but i was excited to try it. he left to get me another glass of wine with a, “buon appetito!”
as i was eating, the girl kept watching me. at first i thought it was boredom, and then as it increased. i wondered what it was about me that interested her. my guess was she also thought it was odd that i was alone.
her mother caught her staring at me, and said something quietly to the girl. the girl sort of shrunk in her chair, embarrassed, and if her mother had asked her a question, she declined to answer it.
her mother turned to me, as if to apologize for her curious child, and smiled at me gently.
“she like the hair, that she saw on the TV with the movie stars,” and made a sort of swirling motion at the top of her head, indicating the sticks i had in my hair.
growing up, particularly as i got into high school, i got into a habit of pulling my hair up onto my head and fastening it with a pencil (there weren’t any fancy, bejeweled hair sticks like they have now.) i had gone shopping in a chinese import store in the “old town” section of the town i grew up in, and was delighted to find that they carried sticks for my hair. i had looked everywhere for something exactly like that for years so i could separate myself from the pencils.
the woman at the import store explained to me, mostly by pantomime, that they weren’t for hair – that they were chopsticks for kids, as they were smaller and shorter than regular chopsticks. they were ornate, and the perfect size and texture. at $1.25 each, i bought about 10. over the course of time, i would lose pairs and have to go back to buy another handful.
after a moment of sadness for destroying my perfect hair for the evening, i pulled the sticks out of my hair and motioned for the girl to come to my table. she clung to her mother’s side but kept her eyes locked on me. her mom looked at me, and with a few words, encouraged the girl to come over to me, which she did with a sense of trepidation and excitement.
as she walked up, i took her shoulders and turned her around so her back was to me. it felt strange doing it on someone else, but i twisted her hair up as i had done my own, and pushed the sticks in to secure it. i turned her back around to face me, and it looked really good – better than i had anticipated it would due to the amount of thick, heavy hair she had.
i motioned for her to go back to her mother, and her mother gasped, arms outstretched when she saw her. there came a flurry of excited voices from the entire table as they all took time from their own discussions to give this poor, bored, beautiful girl attention that she hadn’t gotten all night. there was some oohing and oohing, each of them either kissing her, or holding her face and turning her around to see. she made a lap around the entire table as each person admired her and gave her all of their focus. i smiled to myself and kept on eating my dinner, which could have been the best thing i’ve eaten before or since.
she made her way around the entire table back around to mom, and as i looked up, the whole table was waving and calling out to me. most of it was words of appreciation, or what sounded like it, and several “buon appetitos” to which i returned the sentiment and realized by the sound of my voice that i was indeed a bit intoxicated.
the girl whispered in her mother’s ear, and they both got up and came over to me.
“can it be okay that i take her to the mirror? to see?”
i nodded and noticed i was still getting waves from these strangers, who no doubt were highly inebriated by this point.
mother and daughter returned from the bathroom. mom thanked me very sincerely, and gently pushed her daughter toward me and made a motion for her to take the hair sticks out and give them back to me. i stopped the girl and told the girl it was okay, though i’m not sure she understood, and gently prodded her back to her table. her mother looked at me and said, “are you sure? that if to keep it, is okay?” i was tempted to say, ‘lady? they’re like a dollar. really.’ but i smiled and nodded, feeling a little lightheaded. the interaction made me happy, and the night felt just like i wanted it to.
her mother thanked me again and asked if i could demonstrate how i tied her daughter’s hair up. i walked to her side, undid her her hair, twirled it up, and secured the sticks fairly well for my state, and perhaps a bit too tight as the girl winced a little bit. her mom nodded that she understood and i went back to my chair to finish my dinner. the entire rest of my meal, this girl, who didn’t understand a word of english, just smiled and waved at me every little bit, beaming at her new transformation.
i was finishing my entree when the whole family got up to leave. each and every person at that table came over to me, in a single file line, and shook my hand and wished me well and thanked me in an attempted form of english, and several kissed my cheek. i felt overwhelmed when they left, and sort of awed that such a small thing turned into what it had.
vincenzo came over and offered me dessert. i was full, but i wanted to have a taste of something decadent to end my night. i asked him whether he thought the chocolate mousse pie or the tiramisu was better, to which he answered only a “yes” and whirled around to the kitchen. halfway there, he turned and came back.
“i’m sorry, i think it’s my english not too good. which?”
after some further discussion, he understood and told me the tiramisu was the better choice and went off to get it.
at this point, there were few patrons in the restaurant. the temperature outside had chilled considerably, and i was one of perhaps 5 people left.
vincenzo came back with both desserts and presented them in front of me, like i was a food critic. he told me to enjoy both and asked if i needed anything else.
“no, thank you. just the check.”
“the senorina doesn’t have a check.”
although somewhat drunk, i was certain i had a bill, and without really knowing how much my entree or any of the wine cost, i knew that said bill was well over a hundred dollars if not two hundred.
“vincenzo, yes, i do.”
“no, the senora already took care of the check,” he said, sounding as though i should have already known. “did the senora not say?”
“no, she didn’t,” i smiled, and realized the whole family knew what she had done as they walked by my table on the way out with their goodbyes. quite sneaky of her to leave before i found out, too.
vincenzo insisted he buy me a limoncello, which more or less was pure grain alcohol with some sugar and lemon in it, all rolled up into a shot-type glass that was meant to be sipped. needless to say, i had to sit there for quite some time before i was able to make my way home.
it was so cold as i walked outside, and the snow crunched under my feet. i silently wished i could magically be home in bed already, but enjoyed the quiet ride home with the radio off and the snow falling in front of my headlights.
i called my mom before bed and told her the story.
“mom, i gave that girl two dollars worth of hair sticks, how on earth does that equal a couple hundred bucks?”
“it wasn’t the sticks, sharon. it was the effort, and the attention. i’m sure that was worth more than money to them.”
i wasn’t convinced, but i was happy. and in no time at all, i was warm and sound asleep in my bed, dreaming limoncello dreams.