On the Ristorante Abruzzi, Rome
I forget which biography of Napoleon it is- I read it, pages dusty and his story then fresh to me, as a teenager many years ago- but in it an English historian, pivoting on a Whig pin head so as to look both up at and down upon the little corporal, dedicates a whole paragraph to sneering at his preference for ‘peasant’ cuisine. Amidst the initials and crowns and bees so carefully embroidered in gold, the Terror of Europe would wolf down dishes of beans and onions and pork whilst the Tsars and Kings and Popes whom he confounded quailed over their daintily prepared repasts. If only Gillray had had access to the great tyrant’s stodgy and simplistic menus, how much more eviscerating would that master’s pen and ink have been!
Sadly, our histories of Bonaparte- in English at least- focus on those aspects considered worthy; his conquests or his politics or his women. I blame the Romantics. Shelley’s ‘child of a fierce hour’ might have oscillated in their fevered imaginations between being the daystar of a radical new order and a blood soaked monster, but he was never, for any of that fervid breed, simply a flatulent Corsican. Such a need for flesh to become marble has classical origins, specifically Roman ones: the English countryside, the ancient universities, and London, those other formative zones for these men, all have their manifold faults, but they rarely shower with laurel leaves unironically. Rome, I think, does strange things to people, and especially the English. I have visited the original urbs more times than any other outside these islands and yet always come away astonished at those of my compatriots who, after a visit or two, retune the signals of their hearts to its tunes in response to feelings I never found evoked by the choirs of St Peters or the ghostly lyres of the Forum nor even by the chatter of Trastevere.
It is because I am small minded, I suppose. It would be hypocritical for me to claim it was a worthy hatred of its gildedness; for I glory in a gilt restaurant corner table or an overwrought bar interior that sit in shabby chic defiance of modern utility. Nor is it an especially Protestant reaction to ecclesial excess, for I hold such things to be our attempts at Mary Magdalene’s alabaster jars- though I will confess that a gothic clerestory makes my heart soar, whereas rococo reredoses make my head ache. Indeed, the delusions of grandeur with which Rome is peppered are not my issue: for what is simultaneously more deluded and more grand than a show of faux humility? Instead, it is a pleasing reminder of my different delusions, of my delight in being a backwoodsman, learned from all those cautionary tales of Bonaparte read all those years ago. I walk around Rome paradoxically delighting in what it is not and find affection stirred for a patch of land where its Bishop hath no authority and where there is, in place of an Eternal City, a village bound by the cycles of life and death that come dancing on the Kentish breeze. This is no pharisaic exercise, giving thanks that I am not like other men, nor it is it malicious little Englanding, sneering at the foreign, rather, in the middle of great stone statements to the universal, it is a way of giving thanks for those things that are local, are particular, to and for me.
Here, then, is the issue with the idea of Rome as loved and distilled by the Romantics, it requires grandeur which cannot, will not, indulge the locally beautiful. It sows the mind with seed-visions of chiselled marble torsos and laurelled brows which force one into the mental contortions necessary to see an Augustus in a little Corsican slurping the last bean juice from the bottom of his dish. The greatest Romans knew the folly of sacrificing local joys for greater glories; Juvenal’s laceration of her pretensions is yet to be equalled by any satirist and I firmly believe that, for all his hatred of rural exile, Ovid’s best writing was in contrasting the welcoming homeliness of Baucis and Philemon with an unwelcoming city, Phrygian in supposed location but Roman in every other sense. The glory of our differences and the beauty of the local are hard to discern amidst universalism carved into marble, and so, for all its claims to be home- of the west, of faith, of civilisation etc- Rome makes me feel discernibly alien and aware of my foreignness. The irony is, of course, as Juvenal knew, everyone in Rome is a foreigner.
My favourite of these foreigners are the staff of Ristorante Abruzzi. Their native land is just a god’s stone throw over the Apennines but, for all the efforts in drawing them by Bonaparte and others, maps of Italy have always been theoretical and fantastic. The Abruzzesi will, of course, insist that carbonara is not from Rome or even Lazio at all, but that the recipe crept down the foothills, like Jupiter in disguise, from Abruzzo. Of course he never came to Rome- preferring to play Attila at Venice and Nero at Moscow- but I think Bonaparte would have liked it, the sage leaves and butter dribbling down his chin as he devoured the last slimy slice of veal. I go every time I visit Rome and sit, either in its heavy and unfashionable wooden interior or else outside in a maze of tables tightly packed onto the thin tranche of curb allotted by the powers that were and are, and there I devour that non-Roman carbonara- although, for my darkest secret joy- trippa alla romana- I go elsewhere, far away from the judgemental glares of the pious and brainy Americans who trot down the steep street next door from the Gregorian University. For me, paradoxically, Ristorante Abruzzi is the true Rome, shorn of grandiosity of vision and as local and limited in its delights as it has doubtless ever been; if, as I loll back in my seat replete with several glasses of the bitterest Amaro they have, I try hard enough, I can smell the pig back smoked by Baucis from the rafters.
But I never laze forever and my first stop after lunch is always another strange bastion of the explicitly foreign found a short wander away, back up past the Pantheon- the church of San Luigi dei Francese. In the heat and post lunch haze I wander to the back corner to a button, normally guarded by a nun, which, when pressed, illuminates a dark tavern interior. I squint at it, almost imagining a red and white chequered cloth from Ristorante Abruzzi in its midst. It is, of course, Caravaggio’s Matthew being called, in his particular place and particular time, to something shared and greater. It flits through my mind, as the Amaro does its work, that I hope to be called to his presence thus- from the well worn corner of a tavern of my choosing. For I do feel called, and called to an Eternal City; just not that one. Her most endearing call- for she is endearing and despite all the failings shown by her pretensions and for reasons quite different to Shelley, I like visiting her very much- is the echo of her simple, local particularities. The call that will get me back there is not of Augustus, or Bonaparte, or St Peter, but the voices of the crickets bouncing against the dead stone in the Forum or the crackling of the guanciale’s fat in those wide bottomed Abruzzese pans.