Everyone’s got their own version of comfort – being with the one you love, curling up with a good book and a better brandy, snuggling with your pet, eating spaghetti and meatballs. No, really, what? In a culinary world where pasta exists in so many shapes and sizes, to say nothing of a nearly infinite variety of gourmet iterations, are we really talking about plain old spaghetti and meatballs?
Well, I am. There’s something intrinsically joyful about the dish. Well, mostly the spaghetti. The very action of twirling it around the fork before popping it into your mouth builds the anticipation. Will it make a neat swirl? Will it all fit on the fork? Will you end up with a marinara mustache if you’re not careful? And the inevitable slurping up the stray strand or two is just plain fun. It feels like being six years old again. Seriously, how giggle-inducing is penne? Not very. Shells? Somewhat better because the sauce gets inside them but still not the same. Fettuccine? Come on, it’s just spaghetti’s fancier cousin. And don’t even get me started on capellini. Sure, it’s angelic looking in the package, but one wrong move and it’s overcooked.
When I think about eating spaghetti as a little kid – before it became known as pasta and got replaced in our pantry by those other shapes and styles – I remember my mom breaking it into shorter strands before cooking it to make it easier to eat. Not much twirling was required (good for little hands, not so good for becoming an expert at the art of dining).
And there’s the rub. Flash forward from my six-year-old self to me as a teenager – shy, unsure of myself, very smart but very awkward and, in my mind, somewhat lacking. I was lucky enough at that age to go to Italy for the first time (a bit intimidating) with my parents (a bit sheltering). It was sort of a conundrum, wanting to appear as the irresistibly, innocently sexy ingenue while a) not knowing how, and b) having my parents by my side, sort of cramping my style. I so wanted to be Audrey Hepburn in Rome but, even though my dad may have called me his princess, I was so clearly not ready for my spotlight.
Until. One day, we found ourselves at a small trattoria filled mostly with locals enjoying their late dinner. And there on the menu was my most favorite comfort food – spaghetti and meatballs – or, at least, what sounded like an incredibly delectable version of it, prepared and suited to authentic Roman tastes. The only problem? Those were full-length spaghetti strands. Cutting them was out of the question. Twirling them, however, resulted in unmanageable forkfuls way too big to eat. What to do?
I nibbled at the meatballs and sort of pushed the spaghetti around my plate, hoping no one would notice (there were worse things, I thought, than having just “and meatballs” for dinner), when my hero appeared. No, not Gregory Peck. Not even Eddie Albert. Showing up at my shoulder with a whispered “Signorina” was our very elderly, very courtly waiter, Antonio (to this day, I still remember his name), spoon at the ready.
And right then and there this chivalrous, oh-so-very European, grandfatherly waiter gently took my fork from my hand, expertly twirled a forkful of pasta against the spoon, and fed me my first taste of spaghetti in Rome. It was, as promised, delicioso. After a second forkful, I nodded in understanding and took the spoon from him. I tried the twirl-against-the-spoon ritual for myself to great success. Antonio then left to take care of his other diners. But not before bowing over my hand, kissing it as he brushed it with his silvery mustache, and saying, “Ciao, bella.”
That short encounter with that very kind waiter did more than teach me how to eat spaghetti. It gave me confidence in myself. It made me feel special. And it made me believe that there was hope for me yet, that my inner Audrey Hepburn would emerge one day. Never having known my own grandfathers, I felt like I’d been gifted one right there in the form of Antonio, if only for a few moments in an out-of-the-way trattoria in the Eternal City.
Roman holiday, indeed.
©2021 Claudia Grossman