FLORENCE, Italy — We were looking for a restaurant, my husband and I, some honest place where natives ate, some place not written up in every guidebook.
The search drew us down a secretive alley, away from the main streets clogged with Florentine strollers who managed to combine containment and kinetic energy at the same time.
We found it: a noisy, warmly-lit little restaurant bursting with customers. We entered, and stood in the middle of a throng of people, dazed and disoriented. The owner came swiftly up to us before we could turn away.
"Prego, signor, signora! Qui c'e una tavola " (here is a table).
He propelled us in the direction of a table where a man and three women were seated close together, absorbed in their meals. The man scraped back his chair, rose, bowed and gestured for us to sit down. A waiter appeared with two settings, did a wizardly shuffling of the plates already there and we were seated at their table.
The man introduced himself.
He was somewhere in his 50s. What remained of his hair was carefully pomaded. His white silk suit contrasted sharply with a dusky complexion and glistening black eyes. He put his well-manicured hand on that of the woman's next to him and said:
"Mia moglie, Signora Ceccati." (my wife, Signora Ceccati).
Signora Ceccati, at least 25 years younger than her husband, pushed back a head full of luxurious blonde hair with a languid gesture and smiled through a pair of smoky glasses. He continued the introductions.
"La mama de mia moglie ... y la zia de mia moglie." (the mother and aunt of my wife).
We said: "Buena sera." The two elderly women, dressed entirely in black, looked up at us like a pair of startled ravens, bobbed their heads in unison and turned their rapt attention back to the food on their plates.
We ordered our dinner in broken Italian, and then my husband, who lives dangerously when it concerns small things, attempted a joke in a language he hardly knew. Pointing to the fowl on Signor Ceccati's plate, he said, "Pigione importate di San Marco?" (pigeon imported from St. Mark's Square?).
A great burst of laughter erupted from the signor, who repeated the joke to his wife. She graced us with another smile. The ravens stared at us, then went back to their eating again.
In between courses of excellent Tuscan food we attempted a sort of conversation made up of grimaces, elaborate charades, broken Italian on our part and almost no English on theirs. The matter of professions came up. My husband borrowed Mimi's famous question from "La Boheme": "Que fa?" (what do you do?).
"Io?" His face pleated with the effort to explain, then he gave it all up and spread his arms wide.
"Io--millionario!" (I'm a millionaire).
We burst out laughing at the absurdity of such a boast.
"Si, si!" he insisted, and pulling out a gold pencil from his pocket, drew on the tablecloth a jagged shape surrounded by water and on that shape he drew a large house.
"Elba," he said, and pointed to us and then to the house with a welcoming gesture, which we took to mean that he wanted us to visit his home on Elba.
"Yes, why not?" we, or perhaps the wine, said. It was my husband's turn to describe his profession and because a systems analyst was beyond his linguistic talents, he simply said, "Professario," which produced eyebrows raised in respect and a deep bow.
Throughout this exchange his wife smiled beneficently and the two other women continued to chew as if their mouths were connected to a metronome: tick, tock, tick, tock . . . open, shut, chew, swallow . . . tick, tock, tick, tock.
The meal went on for more than an hour, and my husband finally motioned for the waiter to bring the check. When it was placed on the table, Signor Ceccati lunged for it, like a fish darting out of water. "No, no, no!" He pushed our hands away and turned a deaf ear to our protests.
In an inspired moment my husband ordered brandies all around. Signor Ceccati clapped his hands in pleasure, whereupon the two crones looked up. For the first time since our arrival a faint glimmer of interest passed over their faces. When the brandies arrived and they were each given a glass, they smiled identical smiles with identical store teeth. They downed it in one gulp and belched loudly.
By the second round of brandies the Ceccatis felt like old friends. Signor Ceccati suddenly leaned over to us and said something to the effect that we must spend the evening together. We caught "notte ... con mio ... chauffeur . " We looked at each other. Why stop now? Perhaps we'd get a glimpse of La Dolce Vita, Florence style. We nodded yes and he immediately jumped up and walked out of the restaurant, followed by his wife and her kin.