Checked Tablecloths I Have Known

September 28, 2013

An essay in the New York Review of Books got me thinking about memorable Italian restaurant experiences.

Red checked tablecloth

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Charles Simic recently wrote about the joys of discovering Italian food. The writer is Serbian-American and his mother didn’t cook Italian food at home in the 1940s-50s: he learnt everything by eating in restaurants years later in Chicago and New York.

His essay Spaghetti Lessons recalls his favourite Italian restaurants and the heady places they took him to. Dishes like fried artichokes and sautéed calf’s liver were a revelation to him.

My mother (and at times my father) cooked traditional northeastern Italian food that I loved, but there was something special about eating at our regular haunts in the late 1960s and 1970s in Sydney’s inner west and on trips back to Italy.

My homage is not only to the food in these family-run Italian restaurants, but also to the proprietors, wait staff and clientele who created the atmosphere.

. To the owners of the Sicilian restaurant where we ate our lasagne al forno or scaloppine alla pizzaiolathanks for allowing your pre-teen daughter to go-go dance along to the jukebox tunes like there was no tomorrow. A meal with a bonus floorshow is always great value.

. To the waiter at the Venetian restaurant in Stanmore who greeted us with a smile every Friday night when we ordered our fritto misto platter … thanks for giving me extra scoops of gelato when you were feeling happy after backing a winner at the racetrack.

. To the wily 70-something gent in the trattoria in Trieste who regularly complained to the waitress about his minute steak having the texture of old shoe leather; and to her for humouring you and patiently returning it to the kitchen every time … thanks for a sitcom in the making.

Add to these the other Italian dining experiences that offered us a piece of theatre and the portfolio of memories is rich and bountiful. I can’t eat any of these dishes nowadays without having flashbacks. 

There’s a touch of sentimentality in Simic’s essay as these types of restaurants may be a dying breed, but his affection for them and his gratitude to his mentors for his “education” is endearing.

One reader commented that the article was full of clichés. Some responses were more positive, with another reader suggesting “I didn’t pick that [cliché] up from the article. Now, if you want to talk about the movie Moonstruck” And I’d have to agree with him.



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