The Upsides of Pandemic Dining

Most of you know that Italy got hit pretty hard early in the pandemic.  I think because of that, they are very cautious about how they proceed.  Almost everyone wears a mask and you can’t go into stores, offices, or restaurants without one.  They still limit the number of people allowed inside and you have to socially distance.  It was like that in the US in the early days, but before we left in late July, things had really relaxed a bit.  I remember the last time I went to Target, masks were only required for the vaccinated, as if there was any way to tell who was and wasn’t.  I hear it’s tightening back up again, but I can tell you that here it’s much stricter than in the US.

I don’t mind that.  In fact, I rather like it.  Most of these people take this thing seriously and I got the opposite feeling in the US.  Italy didn’t open restaurants for indoor dining until very recently.  The tables are very spaced out, which means there are only a few tables because the places are generally tiny.  Some are still closed to indoor dining.  And forget about eating inside if you don’t have proof of vaccination.  We don’t leave the house without our CDC vaccination cards and masks.  It took us a while to get into the habit – in fact, I sometimes still forget.  I got all the way to the piazza the other day before I realized I had forgot my mask.  I had climb back up and get it.  The upside of this is that I got over 14,000 steps and climbed 75 flights of stairs that day.  I was a busy girl.

But the glorious thing about all this is that outdoor dining has exploded.  There are tables set up in every little nook and cranny.  When you’re walking around, it’s kind of hard to tell which restaurant the tables go with.  The streets here are winding and crooked.  Nothing is laid out in a grid .  Where we have right angles, they have round edges.  So there’s not always a spot right outside the restaurant to put tables.  They wind them around the alleys and tuck them into coves.  Because it is so hilly, you can’t just plop a table on the street.  There’s not a flat surface to be found.  So they build these platforms that level things out and give a nice smooth surface instead of the wobbly cobblestones.

There have always been some outdoor tables around town.  We often wondered why there weren’t more.  We found out that the city (not just Anghiari, but most Italian towns) charge restaurants to set up outdoor tables.  When they were finally allowed to reopen, the city waived those fees.  The result is a lively, vibrant street scene.  I love walking around at lunchtime or suppertime and seeing people enjoying their meals outside.  As you’re walking, you’ll come upon a waiter or waitress scurrying around with steaming plates of wonderful smelling food.  And because the historic center of Anghiari is closed to car traffic, it’s such a pleasant place to dine and to stroll.

Food is central to the Italian way of life.  It’s not just eating because you’re hungry or to get nutrition.  It’s a ritual, something beyond sustenance, something almost sacred.  I’m not sure why this is, but I know that it’s true all over this country.  In the big busy cities and the sleepy rural villages, meals are special and food is important.  And every meal is enjoyed with wine.  We went into a favorite wine store in Sansepolcro recently and talked with the owner.  We knew her from previous trips and told her we were so glad she had survived the pandemic.  She looked at us and said of course she survived.  Wine is essential.  And outside her little shop she, too, had tables set up for having a glass.  That was a new addition.  A pandemic improvement.

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