So I find myself invited to a dinner.
I have just moved to London and my English qualifies as understandable. I have no entertaining subjects for a dinner discussion for I am new in town and jobless, however I am pleased for being considered and want to do well. I am invited because I know someone who knows someone else and I am a single woman in my early twenties, which appears to be a golden ticket to this gathering. I intend to be interesting. Where do we go when we need to go somewhere in a conversation? I end up talking about what I think will be my career: I want to set up a villa rental company, with good properties, expensive ones, not the stuff you can find everywhere. A few people look at me blankly. More red is served.
Soon a white box of ‘vitamins’ appears on the table and everybody starts taking little tablets out. We are not even finished a very poor first course when fellow diners seem to abandon the idea of eating any more, yet they are very keen on food supplements, it seems. I see no other food coming. I am given a tablet myself and don’t feel like refusing it: I really loathe standing out. Take more, my friend says, but I don’t because I am very weight conscious and I know I’ve had too much bread already. On a second quick reconnaissance, I notice that I am the fattest girl in the room.
We move from our dining table to a comfortable living room with a fireplace. I know it is summer, however we are cold, at least I am. I get very anxious all of a sudden and decide to sit on a chaise-longue. I can’t help noticing how beautiful this mono-sofa is. Oh my, I think, this must be the most fantastic piece of furnishing I have ever, ever seen. I calculate how much money I have left in my bank account, I really want to bring this home with me when the party is over and I am prepared to pay for it. The idea that they won’t let me is unsustainable. The room gets darker and the fire sends waves of happiness: each flame makes me feel like I have to sneeze but I don’t; I feel happy just moving my hands in the air and I am mesmerised by my chair. The lights go off and we are now wrapped in the magical warmth of love, or something absolutely similar to it.
Let’s get naked a girl says. Men nod and toast their glasses clumsily.
All the girls jump up and take off something. The most beautiful one reveals fantastic girly white underwear, and a pair of impossibly round tiny boobs. It looks like she was waiting for this moment all evening. My friend is dancing to no music and whispers she’s an actress and in fact he screams it. You are shouting man, I say. I have never seen her on my television. A few more minutes and people are lying on each other, they kiss higgedly-piggedly. That’s not your girlfriend - I think to myself. It looks like a pile of worms with socks, a heap of limbs. They contort their faces and look like little constipated kids finally making it into the diaper. People having intercourse in front of others should never forget how ugly they look from a distance. Some guy invites me to join in but I can’t, I am grasping onto my chaise and won’t let anybody take a chance to sit over it. Minutes or maybe hours go by, this Swiss guy drags himself close to me and I feel very, very alarmed. I tell him resentfully that I have been sitting on this very chair for such a long time that now it is, like, mine. He leaves.
They all turn at me and start chanting my name.
I am in fact the only one left who’s not being affectionate to the other fellow diners and I think they are offended by that. We really want to see you boobs, one says, that’s why you were invited! I get it, I get it: I am fat and you expect someone like me to have large breasts. I can’t, I say (plus I can’t have my chair conquered). My mother and father’s faces are well projected in front of me, on the wall, the size of a Californian outdoor cinema screen: my good ole’ Catholic upbringing has had its expected effect. They forget about me in few seconds while the actress seems to be very happy to show her stuff all over again. The nice feeling I have been sensing for a while gives way to nervousness and an epic headache, I really need to eat something. I am really, really hungry - I think to myself. So off I go to the fridge and sadly get caught while eating left overs with my hands, as usual. I am given the owl eyes. It seems clear to me I won’t be invited again.
I haven’t held any grudges against my friend nor my fellow diners after that exclusive party: no offence was taken on my side for them trying to get me naked and none on theirs for me refusing to do it. One thought has, however, been raised after that night and it has stuck with me: consistency seems to be the toughest of tasks for almost all of us.
You see: for me there is no part time painting, you are either an artist or you are not. You can’t be the supreme night rollerblader if you are an accountant and you can’t become a rock’n’roll singer if you grew up in your parents’ mansion in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. It just doesn’t happen, despite rare exceptions. Being what we are requires continuous dedication and resolution, and while distracting ourselves with harmless hobbies such as karaoke or taking snaps with our phones is a delightful way to spend our free time; choosing the life of a singer or a photographer is a totally different proposition.
The sole idea of escapism, a place or a time where we can ‘finally’ be ourselves, is an absolute bummer for me: can we call life one where we only exist during our August get-away? Can we survive to the gloom of time passing us by if we spend nine hours of our day in an existential coma? Having different angles to look at ourselves leads only to long days and short years, it seems to me, rather than a continuing, captivating journey towards our real selves.
So, back to my own ‘Abigail’s Party’. My idea of liberated people kissing and casually making love to each other is associated with a hippie Hollywood community, maybe to a group of fellows embracing a cult of pantheistic love or to some remote tribe of natives who haven’t yet been morally castrated by any religion. Certainly it was an unexpected act performed by one fiscal accountant clerk, two insurance employees and one unknown actress - plus their significant others. Being wild requires guts and a great genetic mixture; it is no week-end activity.
Manero is a place for locals: a Trattoria
Don’t think you will get the royal treatment if you go there on a Tuesday; that sort of thank-God-we-have-customer type of welcoming, one would think, in this world’s economical crisis, with regard to Tuscan habits, because you are as far away from it as English people are from dry parties - and I say this with a whole lot of respect. It’s a rather simple environment, some nice wood tables and chairs, a great wood oven that serves T-bone steaks rather than pizzas with some paraphernalia at the entrance - a bucket of black olives, jars of artichokes, pieces of pork in different shapes wrapped in yellow paper. The place is jam-packed with local inhabitants of this village called Vellano, above Pescia in Tuscany, who come here for the late grappa as well as Sunday lunch. The place is like your better kitchen away from your countryside cottage minus the marketing fluff.
When Fabrizio, the owner, goes to the market to buy stuff he will let people know it: he writes it on a little keyboard just outside of his restaurant, so people call him and simply say We are eight. He doesn’t do cream or soft cheeses; people who know Tuscan cuisine consider this crass and useless: we have the ingredients and outstanding oil, butter is more for the kartoffen - the Germans. He also forages in the woods for porcini mushrooms which he cooks, he has his own pigs and cows somewhere in a happy farm, his wife ‘does’ the pasta (that means from scratch) and I suspect he kills those wild boars with his own hands.
He certainly doesn’t look dashing on a first sight, however he looks like Rhett Butler to me when I get his hand made pappardelle with a slightly spicy ragout in my mouth. Pantagruelic meal ends up less than twenty euros per person, including some unbelievably good red house wine from the hard core side of Tuscany, the Maremma, that you get at four euros per caraffe. His wife Chiara makes sure your olive plate is always full and will offer some chocolate salame she’s made at the end of the supper, in slices that recall Nefertiti’s bracelets: twenty centimetres wide.
After having eaten in Manero’s you want to embrace the life of a lumberjack.
After sampling the cuisine at Manero’s you look at him and think he makes complete sense in this world. He serves food that he prepares that very day and, it goes without saying, with seasonal ingredients only. You won’t find him at a dinner party of swingers because if anyone makes eyes at his wife he’ll probably punch them in the face. He is consistent with his job, his own image and the life he lives. He’s an artist, in his own way, and when entering his place you should just let him run his show, as you would do if he was a guitar player in a theatre.
No higgedly-piggedly. Just pig.
Credits and suggestions
Ristorante Da Manero, di Fabrizio Rastelli, as you would expect he has no website and doesn’t speak English, it’s closed on Thursday for sure but you better send him a text message to see if he’s open or not
Tel. +39 347 173 8259
Make room for some pizza at Bistrot as well, few meters away
Fly to Pisa from London Gatwick with Easy Jet starting at 31,61 GBP in November and enjoy a glorious season of truffle, mushrooms and wild bore menus in the north of Tuscany
Sleep in Vellano in one of the farmhouses, b&b or agriturismo
Visit the Miner Museum of Publio
and all the ‘Dieci Castella’, the ten villages surrounding Vellano
The absolutely off-the-beaten-track Valleriana