The Fake Italian


As a typical Italian, I need a fix of my childhood food on a regular basis. Even better if it comes with a proper setting, proper accents and proper faces.  That’s why every Wednesday  I meet with a fellow Italian-expat-who-married-out-of-the-tribe and we treat our pale, half-blooded children to a real pizzeria for lunch.

Everything looks right there: the staff speak with a southern Italian accent, they run around with more plates than any human being could keep on two arms and affectionately scold the kids when they become too loud. The pizza is the right balance of crisp and fluffy, the tomato sauce yummy and they happen to have very-close-to-the-real-thing cannoli, filled with sweet ricotta and topped with a tear of chocolate fudge.

I look forward to going there every week with the same enthusiasm and it’s become for the kids too a special moment of Italianness. “You know, papa – they tell their father – we go to this restaurant with mummy where everybody speaks Italian. You can’t come, though. It’s only for Italians like us”. 

Last Wednesday, unfortunately, they didn’t have a table for us, a merry little crowd needing buggy space close to the table. We waited a little bit, hoping for someone to ask the check and go but no one was moving. So we decided to take the offspring to the pizzeria next door, where we had never been before.

We had just closed the door behind us when something looked, sounded and smelled clearly wrong. We were welcomed by a woman with a Snow White-meets-Sophia-Loren look (chalk white skin, ultra-black hair and red lipstick) who at the sight of the three boys and the baby girl in the pushchair shrilled: “OOOOOOOH, ‘a famiiiiya” with an accent and intonation that reminded me more of a background actor in a third-class American movie than of an authentic southern mamma.

A look at the tables confirmed my worst doubts: little roses as centerpieces, fake-chic setting, even faker pictures of famous Italian places all around and not a single Italian among the patrons.

I looked at my friend hoping for her to read my mind, which was shouting: “RUN! I am not having fake pizzas!”. Luckily they didn’t have a highchair for the baby and we had the perfect excuse to get away. The counterfeited Sophia Loren proposed us even take away pizzas but no, no, we forgot something and have to go.

And then I thought of all the times I have been naively eating at a fake Japanese restaurant, run by smart Chinese who understood quickly that Europeans weren’t so keen anymore on greasy Peking duck.

How do you spot a fake Italian restaurant?

1. There are no Italians inside

2. If it looks too authentic to be true it probably is. (beware especially of too many Godfather’s references in the decor or on the walls)

3. If the owner greets you speaking Italian, he probably isn’t. (He would do so only to a known patron)

4. If the menu contains too many variations to the “spaghetti with meatballs” theme, run away.

5. If the decor looks more French than Italian (brocade tablecloths, stiff chairs, elaborated centerpieces) it’s never a good sign.

What are your tips to spot “fake” restaurants all over the world?

The unexpected truthfulness of stereotypes: summer stories

When I first landed in Brussels, ten years ago, I had an accurate list of stereotypes in my mind and I was determined to prove them wrong. My working day usually started in the European Commission’s press room, which offered the unique opportunity to observe journalists coming from almost any country in the world. Friendships, hostilities, affairs, marriages, arguments and intellectual (and less so) debates originated in that room.

Journalists tend to sit together by nationality, in order both to socialize and to keep control of their competitors’ interests and possible stories.

There was the Italian corner, where young correspondents would dutifully keep empty seats for their seniors, who would show up at the very last minute with a calculated indolence and stylish clothes.

On the opposite side, the British were at least a decade younger and always surprised me for their extreme competitiveness and their sharp questions.

The French, somewhere in the middle of the room, wore trench coats with any weather and did their best to live up to the Parisian intellectual, politically active look anyone expected from them. The Germans were reserved and very diligent when taking notes, the Spanish managed to have a better tan than Italians and seemed constantly busy in some endless argument. The few Americans of the group stayed discreetly in the back and had that Robert-Redford-in-“All the President’s men” style, plus tortoise shell glasses.

I spent some of my happiest times in that room but I had to give up on my original purpose since I learnt that stereotypes exist for a reason and they are way more accurate than we’d like to admit. (I guess one of the main reason I wanted them to be false was that I hated the Italian-mama-cooking-lasagna label I was destined to). Of course, I have a couple of German friends who are constantly late and I happen to know a few Portuguese who are way more organized that any Scandinavian but they are exceptions.

Italians are known to be obsessed with their own food and two moments made my heart smile in the past weeks:

1. End of July on the Sardinian coast. We are in the car, 8.30 pm, with a stack of boiling-hot take away pizzas, on our way home. There’s a police block on the road, an elegant Carabiniere in his typical black and red uniform stops us. He’s about to ask for papers when he sees the pizzas on my lap. “Oh, you have hot pizzas! Please, go, you don’t want to eat them cold”. That was just…priceless.

2. Yesterday, in a supermarket in the Belgian countryside. Literally, the middle of nowhere. I hear someone saying in Italian: “Have you found the pine nuts? We have to make pesto tonight”. I turn my head and see two men in Ferrari red and white outfits (the same that pilots wear), shopping around for pasta, pizzas and – apparently – pine nuts. We are only around 15 miles from the Francorchamps circuit, where this Sunday’s Grand Prix will take place. I talked to them and they went like: “Are you really Italian?” (Yes, I am, of course. Please don’t tell me again I speak it very well) and “Do you live here like all the time?” (Yes, I do. Well, not exactly here but a couple of hours away).

The Ferrari guys checking out of the supermarket, only picture I ended up taking

The Ferrari guys checking out of the supermarket, only picture I ended up taking

I was so excited to meet some real Ferrari technicians that I tried to convince my kids to take a picture with them but they didn’t show any interest and I still had enough common sense to avoid asking for a picture myself. So we watched them go, with their pile of frozen pizzas, tomato sauce bottles, basil boxes, olive oil and the famous pine nuts. Of course, they drove away in a red Fiat Punto. Rented.