During a recent trip to Rome I experienced the effects of the well renowned Latin machismo in an unlikely place, a peaceful and elegant restaurant. It was a unique encounter with a restaurant group formed of a captain, greeter, wine steward, waiters, bus boys and other stylish servers; all were tall with broad shoulders, tiny waistlines, curly dark hair brushing their foreheads, bright smiles under eagle noses, and penetrating black eyes. Each had a superior attitude, eager to put his virility in full display.
The entire ordeal began with my ill-fated presence in this four-star restaurant, empty at 6:30 PM. Because the maitre d’ was too busy talking on his cellular phone while arranging the flowers in little vases, I seated myself at the first table next to me. Because the restaurant was on top of the hotel, the views of the Old Forum were breathtaking. Therefore, I was busy looking at the old ruins. After waiting a long time, I walked over to the only host I saw.
This was an obvious mistake, perceived as a confrontation by the impeccably dressed Italian male who was ready to put me in my place. In a patronizing tone he told me to come at 7:00 PM when the restaurant would be open for business. It was a lesson in humility, but I had enough guts to ask for a reservation, which was reluctantly accepted.
Back at 7:30, I found the restaurant still empty, with the exception of a team of five suitably dressed Italian waiters who were talking and hand signaling each other as they stood in the aisle between the front tables. They paid no attention to me, and I sat at the same table as before. I expected a glass of water, bread and butter, like in America, but I was wrong again.
After long minutes, the wine steward presented me with a voluminous menu of drinks. Ignoring it, I asked for a draft beer, a large order of French fries and ketchup, to start. The Italian listened in shock while I re-ordered a bottle of water with gas, and he left with a compassionate smile. He never came to my table again.
A long wait followed, during which I admired the perfectly arranged yellow-covered tables, the yellow folded napkins, the flowers and most of all, the tumultuous group of well rooted waiters. Finally, a nonchalant waiter came and took my order of vegetable soup and steak. For the next fifteen minutes I continued to look out at the ancient ruins, but secretly I envied the waiters who were entertaining themselves and radiating a strong brotherhood. I was beginning to feel poorly dressed, unimportant, unwanted, un-welcomed—and invisible.
A family of four American tourists entered the restaurant and stopped right in front of the noisy Italian team that blocked the aisle to the tables. The Americans tried to make their presence noticed, but the waiters remained oblivious. Eventually, a host strolled over, walking around the laughing and gesturing waiters, and directed the Americans, one at a time, to squeeze past the group of highly amused waiters.
The “intruders” sat at a table and, like me, looked out at the ruins. Soon, I noticed how the Italians and Americans raised their voices to dominate the other group. I have to admit that the Italian team with fast waving arms won, while we, the paying tourists, kept on waiting for food. The ruins were beautiful, but as the sky darkened, they became indistinguishable.
Another party arrived, speaking a language that wasn’t Italian or English, and they likewise faced the same neglect. Squeezing by the group of waiters, who had not budged, the newcomers learned their lesson in submission. At this point I was feeling better: the treatment had nothing to do with me, but rather to do with the Italians who were determined that while in Rome, one must do what the Romans want: submit to their will.
Finally, two waiters came with my soup in a silver bowl and a small raised platter. One placed the platter before me, and the other set the bowl on it. A third waiter arrived with serving dish and theatrically poured about a half-cup of soup into the bowl. (I wondered if I would have been better off if I had ordered a cup of soup, and didn’t have the expectation of a “bowl.”) Ceremoniously all three retreated like a fire squad after a successful execution, eager to study my reaction.
In normal circumstances, I put an ice cube from the water glass in the soup to cool it. But in this case, I skipped that healthy step. I burned my mouth, but nodded at the waiters. In fact the watery soup (priced at 16 Euros, or $20) tasted like boiled chopped vegetables and had no specific taste. The three Italians nodded back with smiles: one more sucker had submitted to their superiority. Any revolt on my part was out of question. I knew how Spartacus felt…
After I finished the soup, just a broth, I felt better and I began to study the entire saga of the other clients, all trapped in the classy eatery dominated by the group of Italian hosts and servers. Even as men periodically left the group to wait on a customer, others returned to the group, so there was a constant, slightly shifting team of chatting and dramatically gesticulating Italian men, focused on each other. As for the tourists, they made the same long faces after tasting their food. Yet, not a protest was uttered: the group of waiters was too close, too noisy and too numerous…
At this point I began to pay closer attention to the alpha Italian males who showed a superior command of the events and a powerful determination to prove who was the ultimate ruler inside that Roman establishment. Only one thing was in their disfavor: the loud speakers blasted not their canzonets or tarantellas, but the R &B of Ray Charles. I, for once, felt vindicated, that I understood all the lyrics, and my Italian opponents probably not a single word. How sweet revenge could be!
The highlight of my stay was marked by the arrival of other two Italian men who exchanged screaming laughter with the group and made the aisle an almost impossible place to pass. Even the busboys had a problem squeezing between the domineering men. Not to respect the alpha herd was an impossibility.
Another forty-five minutes passed but the steak I ordered did not appear on my table. By now, even the ancient ruins had lost their appeal. Somehow, I succeeded in getting the captain to my table. He interrupted the group of chattering waiters, all of whom shrugged their shoulders, giving me accusatory looks. He returned to me and coldly explained that I had not ordered a steak. With a sigh, I re-ordered it, specifying that I wanted it cooked medium-well. However, the captain had the last word saying confusia to his men as he pointed to me. Obviously it was my fault, which in the name of hunger, I accepted.
For the next hour, not too much changed in the restaurant routine, except that the standing group of waiters began to drink red wine from expensive glasses and their conversation crescendoed. As for the tourists, they had already accepted their humiliation and prepared to pay for it with a compensatory tip.
The moment of truth came when another two waiters, different from the “soup” ones, came with a portable hot plate and the steak on a wooden platter. The steak had been prepared on the hot plate. A third waiter rushed to slice it. The smell and the sizzling was divine, but I recollected myself and stopped the slicing. I wanted to cut my steak the way I wanted.
It was an astonishing moment: the Italians were hurt when I indicated that the steak was so raw that it could walk. One of the waiters slammed the steak on my plate. I pushed the plate back. I was told that the steak was too thick to be cooked otherwise. I advised them to cut it in half parallel with the table and cooked the two halves as individual steaks. It was already a mano-to- mano issue of the survival of the fittest in the culinary matters.
A fourth waiter and the captain came to analyze my suggestion and to my amazement, they agreed with me. At that supreme moment on my part, I realized that for the first time the Italian team admitted defeat and recognized a foreign opposition to be superior.
They served me the steak exactly the way I wanted and to my utter delight, another waiter came with French fries and a bottle of ketchup with an Italian label. It was the most delicious steak and the fries could not have tasted better. Somehow, the rest of the tourists who had followed the entire confrontation also felt vindicated. There was a change in the balance of forces dictated by the meare cut of a thick steak. That macho element gained me the respect in the fiery eyes of the entire la dolce vita Italian team. And to teach them a final lesson, I refused to leave a tip. Later I learned that a compulsory tip had already been included in my bill…
Upon my departure from Rome, I flew Alitalia business class and could not be more pleased with everything, except that all flight attendants were alpha males. Just like those I confronted in the restaurant. The female attendants worked in the economy class, so again I faced the self-infatuated Italian males whose uniforms matched their egos. But en route to New York City, the announcements were increasingly in English and the closer we flew to America, the less machismo was displayed by the herd of alpha servants. To their credit, they tried hard to please the passengers, me included. It was obvious that at 36,000 feet above the Atlantic, they lost their home roots with all the male traditions attached to them. From what I heard, Italian men do not travel well outside their national boundary, and my experience confirmed this. The closer the plane came to landing, the lesser machismo was displayed. Until it mysteriously vanished.
When finally I arrived at the airport and stepped on American land, to my delight and by chance, all the flying personnel I saw were beautiful women in elegant uniforms. It was great to face the victory of the American feminist movement, even though I have some observations about that as well. But that will be the subject of another article dedicated to alpha women.
Forum Hotel, Rome
New York City
© 2006 Ion Grumeza