La Paninoteca

On Via Industrie, near the Fincantieri shipyard, there was a small paninoteca to which the shipyard employees would often go for lunch. Though the other Americans on site often chose a fancier place to eat, I walked there every day because of its proximity and because its prices met my limited budget.

Bread and Mortadella from "momentaneamente" blog. Not quite the same sandwich, but close.Before I could even open my mouth to place my order, the shopkeeper would often recite from memory what I wanted to eat: “doppio prosciutto e formaggio”. I had learned early to order double meat on my panino[1] if I wanted an American-style sandwich. I only wish I knew how to ask for softer bread.

I will never forget my first day eating at the paninoteca. Even before I entered, the strong smell of grappa wafted through the door. While US businesses, even back then, did not want employees to drink during business hours, these Italian shipyard workers thought nothing of a liquid lunch comprised solely of a shot or two (or more) of hard liquor. It made the shipyard men’s room smell like a bar, and I had to wonder what effect it had on shipyard safety.

Beyond this surprise, however, was the unexpected sight when I first stepped through the door. Adjacent to the far wall stood one of the small round tables so common in European restaurants. There were a pair of shipyard workers seated at the table, the collection of empty shot glasses before them testifying that their lunch break was well underway. Norman Rockwell couldn’t have painted a better scene.

Between the men lay an ashtray, full to overflowing with cigarette butts. Both men were smoking, and as I watched one of them casually lit a fresh cigarette from the one he had just finished before adding the depleted butt to the pile. On the wall above the men hung a sign which read “Vietato Fumare” (smoking prohibited) in bright red letters.

I have since come to believe that Italy is a place where nearly everything is illegal, and few people seem to care. At least they were using the ashtray.


[1] For the benefit of American readers, let me emphasize that the proper word for a sandwich is “panino”.  “Panini”, in Italian, is a plural, and it is not meaningful to order “a panini” any more than you could roll “a dice” or raise “a cattle.”


Happy Resurrection Day

This holiday weekend, my dear wife has been out of town visiting the child she calls “the Princess” on her blog.  She has been somewhat concerned that I won’t eat well while she’s gone. To assuage those concerns, I took a picture of today’s lunch — a true balanced meal:balanced lunch

I call it a balanced meal because it contains all four basic food groups of geek culture:

  • salt (on the almonds)
  • sugar (figs, chocolate)
  • grease (chocolate)
  • caffeine (coffee)

Many of you are probably shaking your heads in solidarity with my poor wife, thinking what a fool I am for calling this a meal.  Those with deep understanding of geek culture are asking why I needed anything more than the Hershey bar:  after all, prepared chocolate contains all four of the aforementioned ingredients to some degree. But before you decide to crucify me for gastronomical sacrilege, please look past my joke and consider the following:

  1. figs are loaded with fiber, and are actually a healthy snack;
  2. dark chocolate is full of antioxidants, and good for your heart;
  3. almonds are a provide key minerals, and lower my bad cholesterol;
  4. taken black, this coffee reduces my cancer risk, and adds few calories;
  5. these four items were only a garnish to my actual meal:

actual lunchClam chowder is one of the great foods of my youth that my wife and children don’t like–so when they’re out of town, I eat it.  And my primary beverage for that meal was (filtered) tap water.

Maybe my ability to eat well isn’t so dependent on my wife as some may incorrectly presume.

Do y’all have any Marlots?

Some time ago, I travelled to Venice, Italy, to work on the control system of a cruise ship being constructed at the Fincantieri shipyard in Mestre. While I was there, my customer, G, was asked to dinner by his customer, D. Since D was going to invite a “technical” member of his team (T) to the meal, G wanted to do likewise, to schmooze with him–and therein lay the problem.

During his time in Italy, T had established a reputation for being less than pleasant company. As a result, G’s technical people all demurred when invited to join the dinner, which led to him inviting me. I can schmooze, and I like to eat, so I agreed. I was then asked where we should go, and suggested Da Bepi’s, a nearby seafood restaurant that the team regularly enjoyed.

I see online that Da Bepi’s has mixed reviews, and to some degree, I understand. the two Da Bepi brothers who ran the place (mama stayed in the kitchen) ran the place like a traditional Italian home. You show up, you socialize, you eat what you are given, and you eat a lot. When asked for a menu during my first visit, they told us “you don’t need a menu–you just tell us how hungry you are.” If you want to be in control of your surroundings, Da Bepi’s was not the place for you–but the seafood was excellent.

The four of us arrived at about 7pm to find that the place was full, and we couldn’t get a seat. Apparently my customer, who was planning the event, hadn’t considered making a reservation. This was a problem, because a meal at Da Bepi’s often ran for hours. We weren’t getting a table there any time soon.

Fortunately, there was a third Da Bepi brother, the eldest, who had opened a restaurant of his own across town. The Da Bepi’s called their brother, made us a reservation, and sent us on our way. There is something truly beautiful about Italian hospitality.

The Da Bepi’s brother’s restaurant wasn’t quite as fancy a place, and the four of us sat in a booth for our meal. Still, we were happy to be there, and all went well until the waiter came to ask us for our wine order. T spoke first:

Do y’all have any Marlots?

The waiter was perplexed, and the Americans at the table weren’t faring much better, so T repeated himself. We still had no idea what he was asking. In all fairness, T was a Texan, and his thick drawl didn’t help things any. After a bit of discussion, we were finally able to discern that my customer’s customer wanted to order Merlot.

A French wine.

In Italy.

For the benefit of those who have never been to Italy, let me say simply that the Italian wines they send to the United States do not do them justice. From what I can tell, mediocre “house” wine in Italy is better than “good” wine over here. And it’s cheaper than Coca Cola.

There was no chance that the Da Bepis’ brother’s restaurant kept a stock of French wine for American idiots like us.

Our waiter called over the elder Da Bepi from his kitchen–a hulk of a man, looking somewhat like Luca Brasi from The Godfather–and we explained to him what T had requested. Da Bepi spoke to his waiter in Italian, too quickly for me to follow, and the waiter scurried off.

Because of my location at the end of the booth, I was the only one who could see that the waiter ran out the door and sprinted down the street. A few minutes later, we got our bottle of Merlot, which we drank.

Some time later, we asked for a second bottle, which we also drank. At this point Da Bepi showed up at our table again with a bottle of Chianti.

“This is from my own vineyard,” he said. “I want you to have it as a gift.”

Now, it is possible that Da Bepi was just being gracious with us–the other Da Bepi brothers would often open a bottle of their own wine to share with us when we ate with them–but I suspect a more complicated motive was at work.

Da Bepi had sent his waiter out of the restaurant–possibly to a wine shop, or more likely to his own wine cellar at home–from which he obtained the two bottles of Merlot we had enjoyed that night. But it was now 11pm, and the shops were all closed. There was no chance whatsoever that Da Bepi could get us another bottle of Merlot if we asked for it. So, acting preemptively, he gave us something better.

I later learned that Delta airlines had an article in its in-flight magazine about “the growing popularity of Merlot wines” that week, from which we inferred that T was trying to impress his boss. D was apparently none the wiser, and T’s reputation with the rest of us was confirmed.

For my own part, I’d still rather drink Chianti.