Italian Stirrings




Neighborhood: England

There was once a very good film called Breaking Away about a working-class boy in Bloomington, Indiana, who yearned to be Italian. He sat for hours in his bedroom practising the guitar and playing records of Italian opera. He invented an Italian character for himself, and he successfully wooed a college girl by singing her Italian love songs.

It seems to me that many people in England share that young man’s identity problem. They may not specifically want to be Italian, but they want to be like continental Europeans, with all the sophistication and panache that they imagine foreigners to have. Even those who are Eurosceptical in matters political privately resent their Englishness, because they think it makes them seem clumsy, bovine and provincial.

Actor Dennis Christopher in a scene from Breaking Away.

One way they show their envy of the glamorous continentals is by a feigned interest in foreign food. They actually like sausages and baked beans best, but they pretend to prefer anything of exotic origin. This weakness is ruthlessly exploited by restaurateurs, who not only charge them too much for dishes that they do not particularly like, but also try to intimidate them with fancy menus.

It is customary for London restaurants to include in the description of any dish at least one word that customers will find incomprehensible. This undermines their self-confidence, and makes them even easier to fleece. What, for example, is a "duo of beef"? A pair of matching steaks? I saw this on the menu of one elegant restaurant this week, and I don’t think anyone can have known what it meant.

The same restaurant provided "sun-blushed tomatoes" (how do you blush a tomato?) and something it called a "tian" of Cornish crab. The word "tian" doesn’t feature in my complete Oxford Dictionary, though it could, I suppose, be an ancient Cornish expression for something. Perhaps it is simply the Cornish word for "tin", or perhaps the restaurant inserted the letter "a" into the word "tin" to disguise the fact that the crabmeat came out of one.

It could, on the other hand, have been a misprint or a misspelling, since these appear frequently on the menus of even the most expensive London restaurants, showing how idle or ignorant some of these restaurateurs really are. The restaurant cited above also offered "mille fueille" [sic] of chargrilled vegetables, accompanied by "buffalo mozzarello" [sic].

In another very posh restaurant I went to the other day, the starters included figs with "prosciutto San Danielli", whereas this Italian ham is, of course, called San Daniele. (Even the famous hotel in Venice is called Danieli and not Danielli.) And nearly all restaurants seem to have problems with the Italian dried beef called bresaola – during the past week, I have seen it spelled both as "braseola" and as "bresola". Why bother to serve it if you can’t spell it? I doubt if many people order it, anyway.

As part of the growing continentalisation of the English, new research reveals that the young are now 50% more extrovert than they were in the 60s. But not only the young – the newspapers have been covering the interesting case of the five- foot-five-inch, 53-year-old businessman Richard Davis, who has been suing, among others, the Camden and Islington Health Authority, for prescribing him drugs that turned him from a "shy virgin" into a "deranged sex maniac".

At the time of writing, the court has yet to decide on whether to award Mr Davis the millions of pounds in damages he wants. But lawyers for the other side have disputed his claim that, until he started taking the drugs for a non-malignant tumour, he had never done anything more exciting than occasionally play bridge and drink the odd glass of wine.

They have said that even before that he had been rather more flamboyant. He had owned a lilac Triumph Stag sports car, a BMW and a personalised numberplate worth more than £2,000. Maybe there were already Italian stirrings within him before the drugs, as he maintains, turned him from a responsible publisher of trade magazines into "a highly over-excited teenager" who frequented "hostess clubs" and spent "thousands of pounds every day" on presents for girls and natty clothes for himself. He even varnished his fingernails and wore a gold neck chain.

Mr Davis is now a bankrupt with a criminal record, though, judging from his photographs, a reformed character who wears a conventional double-breasted business suit and tie. Whatever the outcome of his case, it is yet another reminder that there is a lot to be said for the traditional English qualities of dinginess and reticence. We should leave the showing off to the Italians.

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