The Pasta Nazi

Travel Stories: Not long after moving to Rome, David Farley thought he had the city wired. Then he visited Al Cardello restaurant and met chef Angelo.

03.16.06 | 1:13 PM ET

RomeWithin weeks of moving to Rome, Jessie and I convinced ourselves we were well on our way to blending in with the locals. Aided by our newly bought sleek shoes, we’d mastered crossing the street (step off the curb with confidence and the traffic will stop); we ordered the right coffee at the right time of day (cappuccino in the morning, espresso later); and we spoke enough Italian to get us through most restaurant situations without relying on English.

It didn’t take long before our neighborhood, a small patchwork of quiet medieval streets—wedged between the Forum, the Coliseum, and the busy thoroughfare, Via Cavour—felt like a self-contained village: Paulo would throw a slice in the oven for me the second I’d step into the curiously named “Pizza’s House”; when I’d blur the pronunciation of aglio and aouli, the woman at the vegetable shop around the corner still knew I wanted garlic and not oil; the lesbians who ran the Internet café would play the Indigo Girls for me because I once mentioned I’d seen them in concert; I even started to get used to the instrumental flute versions of Beatles songs played by the Peruvian band who’d set up near the Forum.

But we weren’t prepared for Al Cardello, an 85-year-old eatery that’s been run by Angelo and his wife Lidia for as long as anyone can remember. The first time we ate there, it was a warm fall day and Jessie and I took a seat at one of the two white-clothed picnic tables in front. It was half past noon, and, naturally, we were alone—most Romans’ stomachs don’t begin to growl for at least another hour.

Lidia sauntered out to greet us. After we ordered a liter of the house wine, she asked if we wanted an antipasto misto—a starter of mixed grilled vegetables. “Well, perhaps I could see a menu first,” I said, pleased that I could use my newly learned modal verbs in Italian. She nodded her head and stepped back inside. Five minutes later she delivered our wine, but still no menus. We shrugged and poured ourselves a glass.

“Prego!” I hollered, when I saw Lidia dart by the doorway. Instead, a large, lumbering man finally emerged.

“So, do you want the antipasto misto or what?” said Angelo, wiping his hands on his stained white apron, his voice grumbled and breathy like he’d just trekked up Capitoline Hill to get to us. 

“Um…I’m not sure,” I said, biting down on my lower lip and sneaking a glance at Jessie.
“It’s buonissimo,” he replied, shaking his hand in front of my face, his fingers clasped together in that oh-so-Italian hand gesture. “You won’t regret it.” But before I could consider his offer, he changed the subject to the main course.

“Today I’m making a delicious seafood fettuccini. You must have it. It’s also buonissimo.”

“It sounds nice,” I said, “but we’d really like to see a menu.” I was actually craving spaghetti carbonara, a classic Roman dish made with eggs and bacon.

“I could show you a menu,” said the lumbering chef, his gaze through his thick grease-stained spectacles as strong as a Roman emperor who had just condemned me to the lions in the nearby Coliseum, “but I think you should get the seafood fettuccini.”

I looked across the table at Jessie and she gave me that look—lightly shrugging her shoulders, and arching her eyebrows—that says: We’re going to be lion food. And when I turned back, Angelo had started his descent into the subterranean restaurant.  Maybe, I wishfully thought, he was going to fetch us some menus.

That is, until Lidia emerged with two heaping plates of grilled vegetables. She was right: the fresh zucchini, eggplant, olives, green pepper, all slathered in olive oil, really were buonissimo. Jessie tossed a slice of eggplant in her mouth and shrugged again: Neither of us actually remembered ordering the antipasto misto.

About 20 minutes later, Angelo appeared in front of us holding two plates of steaming seafood fettuccini. “I guess we’re not going to be getting a menu now,” Jessie said, laughing. After putting the plates down in front of us, Angelo sidled up to two French tourists, who’d taken the table next to us.

“You must try the seafood fettuccini,” Angelo said, pointing to our food. The couple craned their necks to get a glimpse.

“Yes, that looks nice, but I’d like to see a menu,” said the man, struggling through Italian.  Jessie and I smiled at each other, and sat back to enjoy the inevitable outcome of this battle. 

“The seafood is very fresh—it was just delivered.”

“That’s nice,” said the French tourist, “but—”

Angelo interrupted him. “But…but…but,” he mimicked the man, pushing the back of his hand closer to the French man’s face with every “but,” as if he were threatening to slap an unruly child. “You’ll have the seafood fettuccini and like it,” Angelo announced and stormed into the restaurant. After exchanging what the fuck looks, the French couple turned to us. I gave them a sympathetic smile as I twirled some strands of fettuccini with a fork. “Don’t worry,” I told them. “It’s buonissimo.” 

I’ve been intimidated at restaurants before—usually when I’m eating above my class: those restaurants that feel so stuffy, you sit for hours in your chair with posture so perfect it makes your back ache. We try to use proper pronunciation, fearing that the mangling of a French menu item or an inappropriate use of “drank” (when we should have used “drunk”) will find ourselves laying on the sidewalk before the foie gras arrives. When I lived in Prague, my then-girlfriend and I took a visiting friend to such a place. And when I accidentally screeched my knife across the plate while cutting my fennel-encrusted roast duck stuffed with aioli-marinated foie gras, the fingernails-on-the-chalkboard sound turned my usually relaxed dining companions into schoolmarms. They shushed me—in stereo—temporarily drowning out the classical music. Then they pretended I didn’t exist for the rest of the dinner. 

But dining in Rome is different. Neither pretentious nor corporate, Roman restaurants boast an atmosphere that’s more haphazard than highfalutin: Tables are scattered throughout the room as if a blind person had arranged them, menus are often handwritten (as if a blind person had gotten a hold of a pen and paper), and wine is served in glass tumblers. If you feel like you’re eating in someone’s living room, there’s a good reason for it: The strong Italian attachment to family and the fact that the cuisine was more or less born in the home (as opposed to the wealthy royal courts, like in France), means the ideal meal for an average Roman is one he or she ate growing up. At home. “When Italians eat out, they expect food just like their mama made,” a Roman friend told me. “Elevating it, like French food, would ruin it.”

So, while sitting on the window sill of our second story apartment, smoking a roll up cigarette, and listening to the incongruent Andean sounds of “Let It Be” echo off the cobblestones, I realized that rather than let Angelo’s bullying leave a bad taste in my mouth, I needed to re-adjust the lenses in which I viewed Roman culture; Angelo wasn’t a grumpy old chef who cooks what he wants and is prone to backhanding patrons; he was a stern father who knew what was best for my taste buds. And it was only fitting that after a few visits to Al Cardello, Lidia would greet us with a hug and refer to herself as our “Roman mama.”

Travel comes from the Latin for travail, which comes from the word tripalium, an instrument of Roman torture. And, evidenced by the word’s etymology alone, it’s not easy. We can’t expect to really get to know a place after three weeks or three months of being there, but we can let the place challenge ourselves, our identities, and our worldview so that when we walk through our front door after a trip we’re different people. We’re stronger, more open minded, more tolerant. And maybe, if we’re lucky, we’ve acquired an additional set of parents along the way.

A few weeks and a few more perplexing Al Cardello experiences later, Jessie’s parents were in town. When her dad announced he wanted to eat at a real Roman restaurant—a place that didn’t have tiramisu on the menu, where the waiters didn’t start off speaking English, or where there’d be no guidebooks resting on the tables—Jessie and I looked at each other and giggled. I’ll be right back, I said, slipping on my shoes, and heading out the door. 

Al Cardello wasn’t open yet, but the front door was ajar and I could see Angelo sitting at the stainless steel kitchen counter, which faces out to the smaller of the two dining rooms. He was bent over a heaping plate of thick pasta noodles, the steam fogging up his bulletproof glasses, and one of his giant hands wrapped around a half-drunk bottle of white wine.  I stepped down into the subterranean restaurant and he grunted an acknowledgment of my presence. When I told him that I needed to make a reservation for four people at nine o’clock that night, he grunted again, and then let his chin fall to his chest, which I took to be an affirmative nod.

Five hours later, we were all seated in Al Cardello’s small dining room eyeing the menu (yes, we were actually given a badly Xeroxed menu this time) when Angelo stumbled over to take our orders. I held my breath as Jessie went first.

“I’ll have the spaghetti all’ amatriciana, please.”

“Okay,” he said. “And who else is having the amatriciana?”

Everyone was silent. We’d all carefully selected different dishes so that we could share.

“Carbonara…?” Jessie’s dad said.

“No,” Angelo barked.

We all paused. No?

“No carbonara!” Angelo said.

“Oh, I guess they don’t have carbonara tonight,” Jessie’s dad said, quickly running his eyes down the menu for something else to order. “Okay then, I’d like the lasagna, please,” he said, offering the menu in Angelo’s direction. 

“No!” Angelo said again. “You’re all having what she’s having,” he grunted, pointing to Jessie. “You’re all having the amatriciana!” Then he walked back into the kitchen.

And somewhere between Jessie’s parents exchanging shocked expressions and her dad labeling Angelo “The Pasta Nazi,” I mimicked the bad Italian-American voiceover on those Olive Garden commercials: “Al Cardello: when you’re here, you’re family.”

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