Oh, Italia!

One evening, after a long day of exploring the sites of Florence (i.e. shopping in the leather markets, gobbling pizza in the cafes and accosting the gelaterias with some fine art sprinkled here and there), our group of nine decided to split up.

Having missed out on the big lunch that the sleepers-in had enjoyed, three of us (including MC’s very own Kelley Blankenship) ventured to find a budget-friendly place to fill our bellies with carbs, a daunting task in Florence’s touristy district.

In order to avoid a €15 plate of spaghetti at a place where the words “tap water” mean nothing, the bread basket they put in front of you is not free and you pay a 20-percent service fee just for sitting your bum at their white, cloth-covered tables (I’m a little bitter, if you can’t tell.), we wandered off of the wide, elegant pedestrian walkway and into the charming shadows of the narrow lanes and alleys.

After what seemed like ages of belly-rumbling hunting, we spotted a likely place—just sketchy enough to promise reasonable prices without a side dish of salmonella.

The windows were plastered with brightly colored pictures of their food, the kind you see behind the counter at the Hibachi place at the mall food court that you know don’t look a thing like the heaping Styrofoam plate you’ll be handed (as delicious as that is), and the interior closely resembled a chromed-out, has-been ‘50s diner.

I think it says a lot about what our previous dining experiences had done to our finances that this place actually looked appealing.

Before we could even make it close enough to really read the menu posted in the window, we had one thrust into our hands by a grinning Vietnamese woman(specifically Vietnamese if my extremely informed…cough, cough…opinion is correct).

“No service charge! Good prices! Good food!” she shouted at us, apparently knowing that the way to our hearts was through our wallets.

We had that moment in which we all looked at one another trying to communicate, “This place kind of looks like a dump, but are we hungry and poor enough to look past that?” without actually calling it a dump in front of the employees.

Each of us shrugged in acceptance and pasted optimistic looks on our faces as we allowed her to escort us to the white-washed seating area.

In the empty restaurant, she directed us to a table as if she were bestowing upon us the honor of the last available table at a Michelin starred restaurant.

We sat down, and she pulled a notepad out of the too-long apron she had cinched around her waist.

“So I cut you a deal on drinks.  Bottle soda for just €2,” she said conspiratorially.

We took her up on her offer and enjoyed our Cokes, especially me, since Easter had just released me from my Lenten no-soda promise.

As always, I was debating between two different dishes until the last minute, even after pulling out my you-two-order-first card.

Our Vietnamese waitress says, “Get the lasagna! I just made it and it’s delicious,” even though neither of my two options were lasagna.

I ignored her suggestion and asked for the pesto.

“You sure you don’t want lasagna?” she wheedled, and I had to reassure her, that yes, I did want what I had ordered.

She turned and went into the kitchen, but soon returned with a plate of bread and a little caddy of oil and balsamic.

After she assured us that it was complementary (no tricky business here, thank goodness), we dug into what we quickly realized was probably sliced white bread from the supermarket—a bit more robust than American white bread, but definitely nothing to get too excited about.

As we waited for our main courses, we were entertained by our waitress’s rousing rendition, complete with dance moves, of Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical.”

Watching a Vietnamese woman jamming out to ‘80s workout songs in a janky Italian restaurant: added to the bucket list and checked off the bucket list all in one moment.

We really enjoyed our food which was, of course, served on plates that looked as though they were filched from your elementary school cafeteria. Each dish got the seal of approval after the compulsory bite-for-a-bite sharing routine, all of us relieved that this place hadn’t been a nightmare.

When we asked our waitress/showgirl for the check, she swiftly pulled a pen out of her bun and did the calculations, including making a mark as she carried the one, on our super-classy paper placemats.

She trotted away and we all dug in our wallets debating, as always, what the heck tipping etiquette is in Italy. We erred on the side of being too generous, also as always.

When she returned, she picked up our bills and coins. As she counted, she went to hand us the tip back, but we politely declined and told her to take it.

Next thing we know, she slammed the money down on the table and whipped around the corner.  We sat looking at each other, wondering if we had unknowingly offended her, but she soon reappeared back at our table with a smile on her face and three lollipops in her hand.

“I have two strawberries and one cherry. For you,” she encouraged as she placed them on our table.

We took them and went to leave, but this little lady had one more surprise up her sleeve.

“You know, it’s getting late and no where going to let you use the bathroom without buying things.  You need to go now. Use our toilet. Go, go!”

After a slight hesitation, we scurried, one by one, to do the bidding of our newly-acquired Vietnamese momma bear, stymied only slightly by the foot-lever operated tap.

After all was said and done, she waved us out the front door and gave us her best wishes.

We fittingly concluded the entertaining evening by stopping crowds as we ate our dessert in the street (waffle No. 1 + nutella + gelato + waffle No. 2 is quite a sight to see) and laughed at the adventures of the day, most especially our Vietnamese/Italian/’50s-diner eating experience.

Oh, Italia!

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