Practicing 'al fresco'

May 20, 2008

Al fresco is a phrase that’s thrown around a lot on American restaurant menus, and it usually refers to a refreshingly cool dish. Its literal Italian translation is “in the open air.” And for Italians, that means having the ability to enjoy their dining experiences outdoors most of the year … but it also means having the ability to eat outdoors, while seeing and being seen by passersby.

Italians love to people watch, and one of the true experiences of observing daily life as it unfolds in Italy is to actually watch people practicing the art of al fresco. It is akin to being in a dress rehearsal for a Fellini film: much of the theatrics take place at open-air restaurants around the central piazza, or at tables crouched together on side streets where traffic whizzes by so closely that it’s best to keep your feet tucked in beneath the table.

The practice of al fresco in Italy is all about body language. This art form is especially popular in Florence near the Piazza Signoria, where many go to admire the Palazzo Vecchio. It is a crowded area, so one day while there doing research for one of my cookbooks, when I spotted a table with an umbrella I grabbed it and sat down. My feet immediately thanked me.

I was in no particular hurry that day, and a quick glance proved that neither was anyone else. What I observed was what really is the meaning of al fresco for Italians: food, yes; but fashion and flirtation, too.

At the table next to me there was a mysterious looking gentleman in a perfectly tailored pinstriped suit with gold cuff links that glistened in the sun; he was engrossed in a copy of Corriere della Sera in one hand, and a cigarette and a Campari and soda in the other. Circles of cigarette smoke wafted my way (at which point I quickly wished I had chosen another table…) but al fresco also means putting up with annoyances.

A little further away I spotted a chic, miniskirted bellezza with long polished fingernails, dark glasses, and Fendi scarf wrapped around her swan-like neck.  She was mechanically yet daintily twirling strands of fettucine around her fork. Next to her was a middle-aged couple hardly noticing one another as they sipped their espresso and nibbled at biscotti while pigeons circled their feet waiting for errant crumbs.

And of course there were lovers dining al fresco as well, using all of the body language they could muster to demonstrate their feelings on the worldwide stage of the piazza.  For them the meal getting cold was inconsequential: it was the emozione that was all important.

Adding a final bit of realism to the scene were clergy in their somber Franciscan garb, walking among the diners and passing the alms plate while not taking no for an answer. Off in a corner there was a zingara, gypsy, trying to relieve the weight of a young man’s wallet while speaking kindly to him; and there was an itinerant flower seller assuming that each table needed to have a rose or two that day.

Finally my waiter appeared. I ordered a limoncello and before I could say “mi porti un bicchiere d’aqua” (may I have a glass of water) he was gone, reappearing minutes later with a tall, frosty glass of really sour lemon liqueur. Grazie.  I slipped on my sunglasses (it’s more comfortable to be who you want to be behind them), and sipped my drink. But I told myself that I was all wrong as I tried to so-call “fit in” by hiding my penny loafered feet — a telltale label of un’americana , under the table. What I needed was a pair of Stiletto heels, more gold, a leather purse from Peruzzi, or at least a Gucci knockoff sold by hawkers on every street corner, and the latest cell phone to catch the minute-by-minute calls of someone who needed me at every moment to speak of nothing.  Ringing phones seemed to invade everyone’s private open space. But then I realized that the expressive nature of the Italians runs through everything that defines them as a culture, and there is no way that I could compete, even if 100 percent Italian blood runs in my veins.

Italians do life so well by living in the moment, which is the essential component to practicing the art of al fresco. As the weather warms up (slightly) here in New England and beyond, start thinking like an Italian and practice the fine art of al fresco for yourself. Don’t worry: Stiletto’s aren’t necessary. But no self-respecting Italian would be wearing sneakers.

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