Carrying it off

I suppose I can't be the only man around who has Mittyish dreams, not so much of grandeur, as of effectiveness -- effectiveness in a very particular context, that of the Italian restaurant. Most restaurants of any ambition aim at style. It's just that the Itallians do it best. They are in love with gastronomic flair. The expensiveness of the restaurant has little to do with it. And it's not what you eat that counts so much as how you eat it. The client is expected to produce some approximation of urbanity. You soon know, if you go to an Italian restaurant, if you're good enough. . . . And you know if you're not. . . .

As was brought home to me with renewed force the other day in Notting Hill Gate.

I made three mistakes. The first was to want a meal too early in the evening. This meant that I was the only customer in the Rigoletto Restaurant (to disguise a name). There was just me, the waiter, the waitress, and a rather stout, stationary man I took to be the proprietor. At least he appeared to have nothing to do except propriet.

My second mistake, which I can't exactly explain, was to enter carrying a canvas bag that I sue as a small suitcase when away from home for only a night or two. Its one fault is a tendency to bulge and a zip that is not too sure of itself.

It was my third mistake, however, that made the occasion memorable -- if that is the right adjective for something you'd rather forget. The large menu arrived as if on wings. My eye fell on the less expensive pasta. Try something , said the voice of adventure, you haven't tried before. The waiter returned, expressively. "Signor?m "

Try as I will (and I really shouldn't), it is only in private that I can imitate an Italian accent with any semblance of a semblance. In public I come out very British. "I'd like -- um -- spaghetti er -- alla von-go-le, ahem, please." And then I heard myself adding: "Um -- what. . . is it?"

The waiter succeeded in covering me with the generous volubility of his explanation: "Shellafeesh."

Well, I'll tell you. If you've never had the misfortune to be served Spaghetti alla Vongole,m it is a scoop of seashore on a plate. Eating spaghetti efficiently is, at the best of times, problematical. One never quite manages to tie up the loose ends. But eating spaghetti through a topping of deceased and sea-weedy shells is on the edge, as someone or other said of the Sydney Opera House, of the impossible.

I was struck by a sense of indecision. Perhaps all that clutter and clatter of shells had been rendered edible by some softening culinary magic. Otherwise, why serve them up as a meal? Are you perhaps meantm to eat them along with the pasta underneath? As far as I could determined they had nothing inside them: whatever meat they might have once contained had long since been washed away, or ingested by some passing crab. But a surreptitious test with the fork quickly convinced me that even if you are meant to chew and swallow them, I, for one, wasn't going to try. So how on earth does one eat this complex dish? I grabbed a roll-and-butter, playing for time. Then, bracing myself, I plunged into the garlicky embranglement.

The quality of nightmare in the experience was not all that alleviated by the unblinking gaze of the major domo down at the other end of the restaurant. His attitude was one of supreme indifference coupled with supreme interest. The challenge was clear enough: I must not only eat my Spaghetti alla Vongolem so that it was quite evident that I had eaten it many times before, but I must do it with zest -- con briom -- and right up to the finishing post.

The practical problem to be solved was simple enough: how to achieve a mouthful of sauce and pasta without also achieving a mouthful of mollusk. As I did battle, I considered musingly the sober but not entirely relevant fact that this was precisely the kind of diet they feed to chickens to toughen up their eggs.

Just to make the obstacle course more fun, the cook had smashed up a few pieces of horny crust and mingled them invisibly in the melee so that even with the most meticulous care the eater's bite might still be surprised by a sudden salty crunch. I should have counted those tiny mineral butterflies as I patiently separated and lodged them precariously on the edge of the underplate. It might have calmed me.

But, finally, I triumphed. The dish was at last cleared. I had even begun to strike up a not unfriendly relationship with the flavor. Though I had in fact eaten very little, it felt like a lot.

The waiter offered dessert. I chose the safest: fruit salad. No tricks here , I thought, and leant back, stretching out my legs under the small table, rather pleased with my vanquishment of the dreaded vongolem .

"One fresh-a fruit salad," the waiter announced in recitative, placing it in front of me. "Ah, thank you," I, man-of-the-world, said, sitting up again. My feet caught the table bar, the salad lurched and threw its juice over the cloth and my shirt. We all -- waiter, waitress, even old Benvenuto Cellini himself -- decided the time had come to ignore me. Throwing all care to the winds I took a spoonful of fruit, and bit into it. The grape had at least five hard pips in it. I swallowed the lot.

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