The local and the tourist

Posted on
Mar 31, 2011

We are sitting in a restaurant in Rome. The Peroni Brewery Restaurant, to be exact. Shockingly, it is neither touristy, nor overpriced, nor terrible, but it is overrun with locals and the staff is gruff and rushed. My aunt, uncle, and cousin have come to meet us for a day in Rome, and my aunt suggested we eat there as it was on the way. Rand and I were hesitant, anticipating the Italian equivalent of Gordon Biersch, but once inside, we see that’s not the case. It’s locked in time in the 60s, serving an occasional kitschy German dish alongside traditional Italian ones.

The waiter comes by with the haughtiness and exasperation of someone who knows that the gratuity is included in the bill. My uncle will remind me that this isn’t just because we’re in Italy, but also because we’re in Rome. It’s somewhat like New York – people are rushed, people are busy, people are yelling. It isn’t because they are angry at you (or if they are, it isn’t because it’s personal). It’s simply what life in the city is like. As we rattle off our orders in Italian (yes, Rand included), our waiter seems less disgusted with our table. My uncle’s Roman accent surely helps, as do, I suspect, my cousin’s big green eyes.

My family laughs at my reaction to the service, but I tell them I’m just glad I haven’t been yelled at. It seems that I’m always getting yelled at in Italy … or by Italians (that is another post. I promise you).

I order cacio e pepe pasta – a dish so absurdly simple, I’m wondering why I’ve never ordered it, much less made it. Butter, pecorino, a tiny bit of pepper swirled over fresh pasta.

Carciofi romani in the background.

Rand  doesn’t get what the big deal is, but trust me: it is fantastic. My cousin orders the same thing, and my uncle, ever the local, goes full-Roman:

Trippa Romana. Notice the hands, so constantly in motion, that they're blurry. It's my belief this is how Italians burn off all the extra calories.

Tripe doesn’t scare me. I actually like it a lot, and I grew up eating it. My grandmother would make it in a runny, tomatoey broth, and I’d gobble it up without the addition of cheese. I remember my brother hating it, but I loved it. I ordered it once stateside, at Lidia Bastianich‘s restaurant Felidia in New York, and was disappointed. It was mushy and tasted – forgive me on this one – too clean. I ate barely half. The waiter looked at me sympathetically – I was the girl who was trying to be a foodie, who took a risk and couldn’t stomach it (sorry, again). I wanted to explain to him the whole story, but obviously didn’t.

Here, though, in the touristy-restaurant that isn’t touristy at all, my uncle’s tripe is perfect – salty and chewy and intensely flavored. I keep stealing pieces and dragging them onto my plate, a streak of orangey-red against the white of my noodles, and feel suspiciously like I did when I was a kid.

The tripe is salty, and it makes me thirsty. I notice that our bottle of water – ordered with our food – never arrived, and I decide to ask the waiter about it. My family warns me – service in Italy isn’t like it is the states. Water glasses never reaching empty, bottomless baskets of bread – these do not exist in Europe. And so, out of fear of committing a huge Roman faux pas, I gently grab the waiter’s attention.

“I am terribly sorry,” I tell him, flashing the brightest smile I can. “I know the gentleman is busy” (yes, I used third-person formal) “but when he has a moment, could we please have a bottle of water?”

Now, compare this the traditional Roman way of asking:

“Hey, asshole, where the fuck is my water?”

No, I’m not kidding. Cuss words pepper Roman dialect and no one bats an eye. But here I am, at the equivalent of the local diner, using third person formal to ask for water that we had already ordered. There were two ways in which this could go down: I was either going to make someone feel very badly, or I was going to get laughed at.

In actuality, both happen.

The waiter, after looking shell-shocked for a few long seconds, cracks. I have caught him so off-guard, this foreigner with her extreme politeness, that he is immediately apologizing. “I am so sorry,” he says. “My colleague brought your bottle to another table.” He immediately brings us glasses and a bottle, again blaming his coworker and apologizing.

I smile and thank him profusely. Someone feeling badly? Check. Someone laughing at me?

She lost it.


My little cousin (and my aunt and uncle for that matter) can not keep her shit together. She, my aunt, and my uncle, all collectively lose it when I ask for water, and again when the waiter responds so sweetly.

“That’s not how people talk in Rome!” she manages to spit out.

“Well, it’s how I talk to waitstaff,” I explain, smiling.

After lunch – one of those midday too-long extravaganzas the Italians are known for – we go for a walk, and I feel slightly out-of-place. A stranger in a familiar land. It’s an odd feeling. I take to my camera, snapping pictures of things here and there. When a tourist in Rome, act like one, right?

I see a boot on a car, and I take a picture, because I find it so ridiculous (seriously, if someone is parked where they shouldn’t be, tow their car – don’t immobilize it!)

This is just bad practice, but I'm guessing it's the only way to get a Roman to pay a parking ticket.

As we walk away, I hear some gentleman talking about the boot.

“Well who the hell put it on here?”

“That woman just took a picture of it.”

“Well, did she put it on?”

Now, I don’t know why on earth they think this, but I turn around, abruptly. And without thinking, my hand is up, my index and middle finger pressed against my thumb in a pinched gesture, which I am waving back and forth.

And I am shouting.

“What, now you think I did this?” I scream.

And the gentleman are taken aback. No, no, of course not, they say. They are just curious as to who it was.

Okay, then. Well, it wasn’t me. And I turn and walk away. My response, this time, is quick and instinctual, and purely Roman.

And once again, my family is laughing.

Leave a Comment

  • It is a testament to Rome, Italian cuisine, and your writing that I am being ripped apart by first trimester illness and food sensitivities…and I STILL want that tripe. Which I have never had before.

  • I do not want tripe, but I do want to go to Italy and flip people off.

  • German dishes are never kitschy..never ever ever….well, except maybe Schwarzwaelder Kirsch Torte..but that is another story.

    • Everywhereist

      Sebastian – I promise, their dishes are kitschy. They upend a sausage and balance it so that it looks phallic, and when it arrives at the table, they smash your face into it (no, we didn’t order it. But we’ve heard stories).

  • To see those wheel locks was like a time travel for me. When living in Roma I suffered them a few times.

    Geraldine, I loved this post, seriously. You captured the Roman people spirit… something that I too needed to discover when from Milan I moved to live and work in Roma.

    Romans are rude, abrupt and overly sarcastic, but it is really a façade they show to the world as a self-defense attitude. But if you are able to gain their trust, Romans are generous, friendly and sincere (well… brutally sincere).

    But you have to understand them… I mean, they live in a city founded more than 2.500 years ago, ruled the world and suffered any kind of tyranny: self-defense is in their chromosomes.

    P.S.: that trippa made feel so nostalgic of my grandma. She was used to cook it and it’s simply fabulous.

  • That boot looks like it pre-dates automobiles. I’d have photographed it, too.

  • fd

    Well I don’t know . I’ m not from Rome, but I’m Italian, from the north(Lombardy) and where I come from if you ask he waiter “where’s my fucking bottle”..well I don’t k now because I’ve never witnessed anything like that in a restaurant or even in a bar, anyway I sure they would asky you to live the place. Just to remember the readers that NOT the whole of Italy is like that roman restaurant

    • Everywhereist

      I think it’s safe to say that Northern Italy is a different animal. 🙂

  • Hahahahahaha, this is AMAZING. So much told here in just a simple story. I love it.

  • Love this!!!! A truly refreshing travel account. I want to board a plane to Rome NOW.

  • We clamp in London, though it is intrinsically paradoxical. Thanks for the insight into Roman slang, too.

  • Ciao Geraldine, sounds like you had a wonderful time. Anytime I go home (Napoli) I hear the same thing. “We don’t talk to people like that” “You’re not in the US Gabriella people here don’t do that” It doesn’t really matter what I’m doing I stick out like a sore thumb.

    I’m polite, nice, respectful to anyone around me. I know it’s not because I was raised in the US ( was raised in the Middle East) it’s because that’s how I was raised period. Granted, I haven’t lived in Italy for years but I go every summer when I can. Funny, my family thinks I’m too “Americana”. What I noticed is it’s not just every day life but even in business.

    At this point in my life I’m ready to go back and share all the years of experience and knowledge I learned here in the US back to my bella Italia. I’m constantly reading how a lot of Italy’s youth are leaving to find work elsewhere. There is so much talent there but no one wants to invest in it’s youth because of the politics. So I’ve decided to put my money where my mouth is by leading workshops in Rimini this summer. It’s exciting yet, it’s a bit unnerving when I hear how “In Italy we don’t do things like that”…yeah, I know and I’ve always been tempted to ask “So how’s that working for you?” I think it may get lost in the translation. 😉

    I know a lot of industries like tourism, hospitality, publishing and online business still struggle to make sense of everything we take for granted in this country. Not sure how I went on off on a tangent lolol. Reading your post makes me wonder if I’m crazy to be doing this. Politically, the country scares me but reading stories like yours makes me realize how much I miss that chaos. By the way the food looks delicious, I can’t wait!

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