Pollo e dumplings
William Stewart | Tuesday, November 9, 2010
When she asked “soup or salad,” I asked in turn what my choices for the soups were.
“Zuppa Toscana, Pasta e Fagioli, Minestrone and Pollo e Gnocchi,” she unintelligibly rattled off from rote, not quite speaking Italian so much as putting the syllables in the places she imagined a native would.
My roommate and I turned confused glances toward each other, hoping that the other would be able to provide some helpful translation or an illumination of her words, the slightly furrowed brows and slack jaws betraying our complete bewilderment.
We snickered softly through our noses as the waitress’s shoulders slowly rose, and she, slightly exasperated, let out a barely audible sigh. The silence from the menus prompted her to try again.
“Cream of Potato, Chili, Vegetable, or Chicken and Dumplings.”
It may have been the sheer stupidity of the situation that made me pause as she walked away with our menus. The entire exchange, I realized, could have been easily avoided had she not begun with terms whose descriptive qualities were unrecognizable to the guests. Yes, but I’m missing the whole point of the restaurant experience: the atmosphere is intended to be reminiscent of a quaint little ristorante in Florence or Rome.
Yet, after the bumbled ordering scene, in no way was it that, or, for that matter, anything close to resembling that. The frustrated translation revealed that we weren’t the first table of gringos ignorant of the restaurant’s pseudo-Italian jargon, and it stripped away whatever gilded veneer of Italian mimicry that may have been established when I walked through the door. This bothered me — how could the whole atmosphere turn so sour so quickly?
It’s not that my expectations are too high. I don’t expect a franchised restaurant that pays a reluctant minimum wage to employ native Italians or attract patrons who would understand what “fagioli” actually designates. I don’t expect this restaurant to be the paragon of authentic Italian cuisine.
What gets to me is the fact that the entire interaction with the waitress was a charade. Beneath the foreign appellations and Tuscan names, what she ultimately brought to the table were nothing more than plain, American soups. Maybe with a dash of oregano and a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese. Yes, I grant happily that, with a few exceptions, the same ingredients constitute the majority of dishes eaten in Western cuisines. Perhaps the exchange over the soups should demonstrate to me the inherent similarities between so many facets of any two given cultures.
But when the English description is longer than the Italian name of the daily special, I can’t help but feel that the entire meal is staged, that the entire meal is an attempt to fool me into believing that my meal is more authentic than a pepperoni pizza from delivery, that the entire meal is an exercise in unnecessary rhetoric and meaningless words. I can’t help but feel that the restaurant serves a large helping of fraud on the side of their masked courses.
“Tonight our special is Pansotti con Pollo, large ravioli stuffed with four cheese, in a cream sauce with mushrooms and peppers, and served with grilled chicken.”
Tonight your special is feeble, empty words, words that must be qualified by long definitions in English and whose strange syllables are the only thing creating the illusion that we dine somewhere other than a strip mall, the illusion that we have escaped the suburban Midwest for the hillside of Assisi.
Who am I kidding? That is astounding.
In spite of the undeniable absurdity of the scene of exasperated translation, without the foreign jargon, without those unintelligible words, the restaurant is no different than the American-themed fern bar across the street. Even in spite of the fact that they needed to be translated, it is those words and those names that transform this restaurant into something different than the fern bar. It is nothing more than the words themselves that create the stage and allow the actual, banal, domestic ingredients to charade as imported cuisine and culture. Just the mere act of saying them forces one to acknowledge an expectation, no matter how small — not of a plate of Costco pasta sauce but a true Italian experience.
So I yield to the supremacy of the word and swallow my annoyance.
“I’ll have the Pansotti and the Pasta e Fagioli. Thanks.”
William Stewart is a junior. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.