Thursday, January 7, 2016

Waiter, What's This Fly Doing in My Soup? Looks Like the Backstroke, Sir.

 Your favorite waiter at your favorite Italian restaurant either knows your tastes and preferences or is a consummate actor.  After dining there for years, you have no idea which is true.  More often than not, you will go to this restaurant with a particular dish in mind, often the bronzing or sea bass, or the linguini with clams.

Before you get an opportunity to express your preferences, he will open a small bottle of San Pelegrino water, pour about half of it into a goblet with a few ice cubes and a slice of lime.  "Tonight,"  he will say, "the osso bucco will bring tears to your eyes, followed by a smile to your face."  He says this with such certainty that all thoughts of the branzini or clams vanish.  On some basic level, you understand that you have indeed come here for the osso bucco.

"A simple salad, yes?  Perhaps one fat anchovy, a splash of vinegar, a dot of the reduced balsamic vinegar.  I will bring you some bread and a glass of pinot grigio."

There are times when you wonder if he has any memory of you at all.  Being a waiter can, you imagine, have its boring aspects:  hungry people coming in, indecisive, cranky, impatient.  Perhaps you are an X-factor in some game he plays with himself in order to make his work shift interesting.  

Perhaps he has some complex contest going with the chef where each bets twenty or even fifty dollars on which dish will be most ordered on a particular shift.  Perhaps the matter of the osso bucco you will order has more to do with his winning a bet from the chef than bringing tears to your eyes and a smile to your face.

Through all the years you've been going there, alone or with friends, he has only confided in you once.  "That man, sitting over there,"  he said, indicating a middle-aged man with curly black hair, a suit with wide lapels, and wearing cowboy boots instead of shoes.  "He is not welcomed at my station.  He has been twice asked to leave the restaurant."

Of course you are curious.  "Why?"

With a sneer, your waiter tells you, "He seeks to have Pecorino Romano cheese grated on his vongole.  We have explained to him that one does not put cheese on pasta with clam sauce. We will not serve him vongole.  He knows this."

"What does he order?"

Again, the sneer.  "Lasagna.  The man has no sense."

In some way, at past meals, you were given to understand that if one were to have coffee after a meal, it would be a demitasse, the small, thick, espresso.  You were also given to understand that some behavioral code would be broken if you asked for cream.  Possibly one biscotti, but no cream.

Of course you will return to this restaurant.  Of course you will in some probability have a particular dish in mind.  Of course you will be given to understand on some sub-vocal way that you were only considering your choice, you were going instead for a full experience built on mystery, surprise, ritualized behavior, suspense, suspicion, and the chemistry of ambiance. This waiter is your favorite waiter because he is predictable, up to a point, impenetrable up to another point, perhaps as consummate a show person as an accomplished actor.

In so many ways, this waiter is like the writer you discover, then follow, knowing you are in for the experiences related to showmanship, mystery, suspense, the ritualized behavior of story, surprise, and ambiance.  When the bill comes, you gladly pay because you have this sense of having taken somewhere other than your intended destination, then made to realize how important this aspect of destination has become in your life.

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