Showing off in Rome

The humble tablecloth loves to show off in Italy. It’s everywhere! Different colours, plains, checks and stripes, playing up to the summer crowds alfresco style, dressed simply and elegantly, covering tables on so many of Rome’s sampietrini pavements. The colourful cloths seem to sing in tune with the sights and smells of pastas, pizzas, tomato salads, cheese platters, vino carafes, the rainbow colours of spritz, not to forget gelato.

Who can forget gelato in Rome on a summer’s evening. It’s everywhere, but thanks to my hosts, we were able to avoid tourist crowds last night at Giolitti’s in Testaccio. Filippo was surprised at 10pm I would choose caffe, but I’m glad I also went with his tip of ricotta, fig and nuts. It was a great way to finish a special night and so, so good to rest my feet after 28km walking the city with Elettra and Filippo.

Yes, Rome is a special city, and there is something magical as you twist and turn your way around cobbled streets and suddenly there appears another small piazza packed with people enjoying good food, but more importantly connection and conversation, over a colourful cloth covered table.

On Thursday I found my way to Via Cavour for a photo of the L’Archetto Di Cavour – ristorante and pizzeria. This humble venue was where 11 years ago Megan and I had our first European meal together, just across the road from the Hotel Valle, where I can still remember arriving jet-lagged mid-afternoon to be given our key for our room, both of us yearning for sleep.

And as I opened the door of the darkened room, suddenly I hear the shocked voices of other recently arrived guests we have woken. “Spiacente” … “Sorry, sorry” says the hotel attendant as he quickly finds us another room, this one on the top floor, which can only be accessed by the thinnest of winding staircase.

Many memories of that trip are centred on dining experiences shared around bright tablecloths; memories forged around shared conversation, new, sometimes daring menu selections and the chance to reflect on the sights of the day gone by. Like snails in Brussels, wild boar and bean stew on polenta in Pisa and a Flemish beef pot in Yper, all the richer as a meal after visiting my great-grandfather’s war grave in nearby Ploegstreet in Belgium.

When you think about dining experiences around the world what meals come to mind? It may have been a Michelin experience where checks and stripes were replaced by a starched, white tablecloth and silver service? Or like me, some of your best experiences may have been in the most unlikely places, where the quality of the food was secondary to who you were with or why you found yourself in that corner of the world.

Already from this trip, I will never forget the simple pepperoni pizza I bought by the slice this week at Pizza Mozarella E in the backstreets of Rome – rated the best in Rome by Trip Advisor. Or a few years back sampling Lonely Planet’s suggested “best burger in New York City” at a small British pub – a huge round rare-cooked beef pattie topped only with melted blue cheese. No onions, beetroot or pineapple in sight!

And thinking of checked tablecloths I am reminded of my visit to Kenya in January 2018 with Baptist World Aid. We stayed in some very modest hotel digs in the backwaters of Kenya but no one was complaining – it was one of those trips of a lifetime, seeing the amazing, life-transforming work of Baptist World Aid.

I had the privilege of travelling with a small group of Australian Baptist pastoral colleagues. Sometimes we were uncertain what we were being served, but the meal was made not by the menu – but the company and the shared, stretching life experiences – made all the better with a few Kenyan Tusker beers at the end of hot, long and dusty days.

And there have been some humorous misses – like when I thought I was ordering a special local potato dish in Sienna in Italy only to discover that “potatoes of the day” was a bowl of fries. And then there was my encounter in France with andouillette, which I had seen on the menu in a number of French bistros. Little did I know that my pork sausage was coming out with chunks of pig intestines and other large cut offal pieces piercing out of the oblong snag. Today I would have googled it in advance, which in some way has taken the fun out of daring dining orders.

I couldn’t stomach my andouillette and as I tried to explain this to my French waiter with very little English, he laughed and began to play charades, putting on his best pig impersonation, complete with snorting, while yelling “cochon” … “cochon” much to the amusement of other French diners around me.

Yes sometimes tablecloth experiences lead to lasting culinary highlights, but other times it is the menu misses that spark lasting memories. My older children still reflect on one day in Hong Kong many years back when by mistake I ordered them worm soup! They made their way through it, one worm at a time!

As I sit at my appropriately Italian-flag coloured tablecloth today with my Café Americano some wonderful tablecloth-inspired memories are on my mind, including this family favourite.

My father brought this tablecloth back from an European work trip as a gift for my grandmother more than 50 years ago. It has stood the test of time and many meal spillages. It’s served countless picnics and it used to cover the Christmas “kids table”.

My extended family would pack into my grandparents small, humble house in The Junction in Newcastle. Only the adults could fit at the main table which was in the kitchen – always a warm place to sit as my grandmother cooked a baked dinner on Christmas Day.

The children, myself included, were positioned in the lounge room at the “kids table”. Roast lunch was washed down with GI Lime cordial and I waited in expectation for my Aunty’s famous pavlova. It was a tradition that lasted many years and brings back so many memories. At a recent picnic with a few of my little kids my mum pulled out the trusty blue tablecloth and it was time to share a few childhood yarns with my kids.

I’ve had the privilege over the past few days to get out of the hustle of the city centre and enjoy some time in a Roman suburban apartment, enjoying time on the terrace and riding the 1950s lift that my kids would love to play in if they were here.

On arrival yesterday Elettra and Filippo put on lunch – simple Italian style – looking so good on the table – and tasting even better, including the experience of dipping the crispy bread in water before eating with Tuscan oil on top.

Yes, there it is again – the humble, singing tablecloth – capturing one of life’s simplest, but greatest spaces – the dining table – where together we can eat, talk, laugh, cry and celebrate what we were created for – community.

Recently we had the privilege at Crossway of hosting Jon Owen, the CEO and Senior Pastor of Sydney’s Wayside Chapel. Let me finish with this challenge from Jon.

“We are who we eat with. Who is sitting at your table? How can we build genuine community around our tables?”

My wife does this so well – with her eyes open to see who she can invite to our table – who through a simple meal can we encourage and invite into deeper community.

I’m so thankful for a few days doing just that here in Rome with people like Ricardo, Elettra  and Fillipo. And people you can meet over a common table, like Daniella, an Italian friend of Ricardo’s who was born in Melbourne and who has visited 57 countries around the globe – a lady with many wonderful tablecloth-inspired stories. 

This weekend let’s enjoy time around the table with others and celebrate one’s of life’s greatest treasures, God’s wonderful provisions of food, company and conversation. And yes I’m looking forward to some new tablecloth experiences in the next few weeks. Have a great weekend! Cheers

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