He was the first chef I ever worked for, and I apprenticed under him some twenty-four years ago. Over the last twenty years, I would fill in for him at his restaurant when he would take his annual vacation back to his hometown of Ascoli. Unfortunately, two years ago on his last trip, Giovanni simply never came back. His niece came by the trattoria on the day he was due back and said that he had had a major heart attack. While he survived the coronary, he was left weakened and couldn’t stand up for more than a few minutes at a time.
Giovanni’s niece, Eleanora, asked me if I could take over the restaurant in his place, as she believed that if it closed, it would kill him. So, I reluctantly gave notice to the restaurant that I had been grinding away at for the last two decades and took over the trattoria.
What a difference it was between running this joint for a couple of weeks, and running it even a day beyond that. It was an exhausting endeavor. Attached to the back of the eatery was Gianni’s green house, where he kept his large garden. In it were fresh basil, fragrant rosemary, bright red tomatoes, Italian parsley, chard, garlic, eggplant, and three different kinds of onions. Even though he had a fairly simple drip system feeding water to the plants, the garden still required a fair amount of maintenance.
Gianni also insisted on grinding his own sausage and he made his own bread, and the latter was the bane of my existence. I can cook virtually anything you ask me to, but I cannot bake to save my life. The customers were not happy with the salty or cardboard-like results, and I wound up having to buy bread from a bakery. That was the last straw for a few of our regulars and they stopped coming altogether.
Still, things went smoothly for the most part, but trying to be all things restaurateur to all people took its toll on me. It was debilitating and my health began to suffer. My empathy for Giovanni must have increased three times over, and I wondered how much longer it would be until I wound up like him. In the meantime, Eleanora suffered a few financial setbacks and she desperately needed money. She asked me if I would buy the trattoria from her and I told her that I really couldn’t afford to.
His niece went to Italy and explained to Giovanni that she couldn’t afford to keep the restaurant open, and that it might be better if they sold it. I imagine that he reluctantly agreed, though I don’t know because I wasn’t there. I didn’t find out about this until a couple of days after she got back to The States. She didn’t even have the heart to tell me directly that the place was for sale. She cryptically said, “I want you to cancel all food orders for next week, because we will be remodeling.”
Our meat wholesaler was actually the one to break the bad news to me. What could I say to her? I didn’t have a partnership with Eleanora, so she could do whatever the hell she wanted to do with trattoria. I tried to throw a nice farewell fete, but a couple of inebriated customers ruined it. The less said about that, the better.
Seven months later, I’m on my feet again at a fairly nice place that almost cares about their food and menu as Giovanni did. As this is a very-close knit industry, ugly rumors would pop up every known and then, like the earwigs that loved the basil in Giovanni’s garden. I went by the old joint one night to see if they were true. Gone was the subtle “Trattoria Di Giovanni” sign and in its place a giant, cold logo. You know, the kind that people pay companies and focus groups to come up with.
I went inside and even though there were plenty of employees, there was no one at the front to greet me. I picked up a menu, looked it over and it was like a sucker-punch to the gut. There before me was the Americanized version of Italian food, and a quick glance at the tables confirmed it. Everything that wasn’t canned, came from a deep freezer or looked dubious at best. All of the fresh herbs and spices were replaced by the sawdust that passes for Parmesan and mozzarella that must have come from cows that grazed on Astro Turf.
The seating was expanded and the garden in the greenhouse was paved over. All the better to seat you, my dear, as we serve you processed and microwaved mystery foodstuffs. Unlike before, there was little space between the tables and the diners were wedged against each other. The waitstaff loomed over the customers like vultures, swooping down on their plates before people were finished, and giving them the checks while they were still eating dessert. I felt a tear welling up and I had to leave, before I became the chef version of that old TV ad with the Native American chief surveying the polluted land.
I’d like to tell you that the plastic clone of Trattoria Di Gianni closed down, but it’s going somehow. Remember this, though; food without quality, care and love, is merely sustenance. It’s an oxymoron of the definition of the word “substance.” If you feed your soul nothing but the ersatz and the empty, it will remain unfulfilled.