At the Gran’Italia
We’ve been out for a meal tonight, Jeanie and me. Think Italian, in Spain. Not Pizza Express not Pizza House, nor even Ask! and certainly not an ubiquitous American Diner with an Italian flavour. Very Italian. Grumpy Gustavo, mine host, is a Lazio supporting Roman. The cuisine at his restaurant is exquisite. However, the Gran’Italia is as much noted for its decor as its cuisine. Prego.
Think quirky. Very quirky. The floors of this place are uneven, sloping and stepped in places. The interior is built from temporary materials - screens and asbestos type roof. I’m willing to bet that what looks like asbestos is not asbestos but some material more acceptable than the carcinogen identified these days. The exterior is covered in bougainvillea of many different shades which hides the temporary nature of the building materials. Although the tablecloths are sparkling white, the tables and chairs, to match the condition of the floor, are all odd, uneven and some even fairly rickety. The kitchen, the bar, the toilets are the only places made of proper, substantial building materials - the original part of the establishment.
It is the walls that grab attention. And the surfaces. And the hanging lights. It looks a mess until you look beyond the chaos. The hanging lights all have home made fringed light shades in Italian themes. For example, one proclaims - and the proclamation is well illustrated - Amore Pizza. If eyes can be torn away from the ceiling and fall on the walls, there is no spare space to be found anywhere. Walls are draped with fishing net, fishing boat, trawler or drifter net. This is to provide easy hanging opportunities for the rest of the decor. It is a multitude, an impossibility, a cacophony of images. The walls reveal a lifetime of collecting. No one particular taste, that says ‘style’. Just a hotch-potch of periods, modes, interpretations that in the end add up to this place’s individuality and cumulatively, its unique style. Starting with the paintings, most of them are modern interpretations of older times, with the odd still life thrust in. Always Mediterranean colourful fruit, of course. However, there are frequent references to fat ladies in their bathrooms, stout ladies wearing mantillas dancing, and even children dancing. Bucolic farm workers, taking a semi-naked siesta. One wonders what the generously proportioned lady, naked from the waist up, has been getting up to with her fellow male worker who is helpfully allowing her head rest on his knee as they sleep out, in the harvest field.
Where there are spaces on the walls, and there are not many of those, musical instruments hang, a mandolin instrument not the kitchen tool, Russian decorated spoons fill in, with an odd river fishing willow basket suspended, as though waiting for the next trout. And great serving plates, ‘assiettes’, now apparently redundant.There are even items hanging here whose purpose or origin are shrouded in mystery. And large puppet Pinocchio with small Pinocchio hanging from his nose.
Then, as if all this was not enough, every flat surface is covered, too. Here stands a Singer sewing machine similar to the one my mother occasionally used in my childhood. Here a trumpeted gramophone. My brother, who collects such things, was very interested in this until he took a closer look. ‘Reproduction’, he said, dismissively. Delicate miniature coffee cups in their scores cover one side table. On another, a collection of ships in bottles with one or two ships without bottles. Candles, table lamps with bulbs of different colours and intensities. A classic French table clock, black marble and telling no time, probably dating about 1750. Among this apparent clutter, plants intertwine, subtly joining all the objects together. Someone has a predilection for porcelain dolls, lots of them, standing together to attention as if on parade.
Then, almost unseen, out of the corner of an eye, at the swinging gate into the kitchen, a copper bedpan. And a home made placard advertising Pesce Fresca. Among all this, complementing the busy-ness of the decor, the busy-ness of the restaurant. The owner’s pleasant daughter/wife busying herself with customers. I’ve seen her described as both daughter and wife in restaurant recommendations. It is difficult to tell, looking too young to be a wife but described so by a visiting son as ‘my father’s wife’ and not ‘my sister’ and not ‘my mother’. There is little need to order. An experienced hand, she quickly recalls favourite meals and favourite wines, offering them before much consultation of the menu. So many customers, coming and going. The smiling sous-chef, determined not to be left out of the show, elegant scarlet chef’s hat, flamboyantly delivering delicious dessert for those who have room. The best tiramisu outside Venice. Fitting into all this, the babel of voices. So many languages, so many explanations in different languages of menu items and even so many misunderstandings at times. The English persistently calling for butter with their bread, despite Gustavo’s own piquant olive oil and herb addition on the table. My, how his mixture tingles on the palate. Those of a more delicate stomach asking for his tender steaks to be well done. ‘Shall it be burned?’ And my favourite, costolette di agnello, lamb chops. Never thick juicy lamb chops like a Barnsley double chop. Small, scrawny, thin things, lots of them on my plate, done in olive oil and a wonderful concoction of herbs with true Rosemary the only one I can recognize. But so tasty. So delicious. Vegetables in Mediterranean variety al dente, never stewed and tasteless. And then, chops taken in the fingers.
My mother taught me always to eat with knife and fork and occasionally spoon. What joy now, to disobey, to take a tiny lamb chop in the fingers and chew away at the wonderful taste. The meal cannot possibly be complete without wine here. The waitress knows: Frascati. A light, cool, perfumed white from a favourite part of Italy, the Veneto. Satisfaction. So much atmosphere. So much personality.
And a final word about Grumpy Gustavo. I think he is just being unsmilingly serious about his work, his business. Although I have seen him purple with rage on one occasion dealing with very awkward customers. Arriverderci.