New Year’s Eve Dinner

(Eugenio Montale — Cena di S. Silvestro)

‘Has the gentleman reserved by telephone?’ asked the maître d’, consulting his reservation book. ‘Your name, please? Pantaleoni? Perfect: we’ve given you table 15, in the middle of the room, well removed from the orchestra, as requested.’

‘The menu, please.’

‘Here it is, Your Eminence. Crème de Parmentier, sole meunière, pheasant on the spit with red radicchio from Treviso, peach Melba and sparkling wine — Italian, of course.’

‘And all for 4,500 lire,’ said the customer with a grimace. ‘I can’t compliment you on your imagination. I’d like something better.’

‘Will the gentleman dine à la carte? A good idea. Have a look at the list. There’s a very wide choice.’

Signor Pantaleoni bent over the heavily ornate parchment, knitting his brows. Then, irritably banging his fist on the table, he said, ‘Fetch me the people in charge: the chef and the sommelier. This is all flimflam; there’s too much of it; and the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.’

The maître d’ shrugged his shoulders and withdrew, to reappear with the chef de cuisine, in a white hat, and the wine waiter, carrying an impressive volume bound in leather.

‘My friends, I’ve called you for a consultation,’ said Signor Pantaleoni. ‘Expense is not the issue, but I want to eat like a god. I’m not at all sure: I see that I could begin with caviar on toast accompanied by vodka, but if it’s all the same to you I’d rather have a little plate of Tuscan beans from the jar. Agreed, chef? They’re just to taste, warm; and a cup of doppio brodo on the side, with a drop of sherry. Tocón, for example, dry and slightly bitter. Do you have Tocón, vintner? You’re an angel. Now we come on to the main dishes. I confess that a piece of turbot from the Adriatic, grilled, tempts me greatly. But will it really be from the Adriatic, and not brought here from Basel, like your dreadful sole? If you’re inclined to recommend it, I’ll try it. Let it be served, as befits the most prized visitor to Venice’s lagoon, just as it is, with lemon and parsley, or with a tartare sauce, as you prefer. Now: I’m undecided between a roast and a stew. Roast woodcock, or wild boar cacciatore? Hmm. Mightn’t it be possible, my friend, to do me lamb innards in a sauce, with porcini mushrooms and potatoes? It’s a dish that needs relatively slow cooking, and it’s essential that you use an earthenware pot. And don’t forget to put in a tiny bit — the merest suspicion — of catmint. I hope you’ve got all that, maître. Then there’s the problem of dessert. Personally, I would go without, but one must follow the conventions. So let’s try crêpes in Grand Marnier. Almost no one knows how to do them; we shall wait and see. Thank you, chef; you may withdraw. Now, sommelier, we come to you. A white Valtellina would go with the fish, don’t you think? I’m quite undecided as to a light red to accompany the offal. A rosé d’Anjou? Let’s try it. With the dessert, bring a good bottle of Roederer or Charles Heidsieck brut: vintage, mind you. Many thanks; I’m counting on you… And now that we’re alone, maître, there’s the matter of the bill.’

‘There’s no hurry, signore; we can attend to that later.’

‘I’m sorry; I’d like it now.’

The maître d’ seemed most surprised. He went to consult with the wine waiter, made numerous notes, and a few minutes later came back with a precisely calculated bill.

‘23,500 lire,’ said Signor Pantaleoni, ‘including taxes and service charge. Excellent. Here are 25,000 lire. Keep the change. And now…’

‘Yes, Your Eminence?’

‘Let it be clearly understood that the chef can save himself the trouble of preparing this banquet for me; unless you, and all your staff, might prefer to accept it yourselves, drinking to my health. At my table here, I only want a few walnut shells on a plate, a cup of camomile tea and an empty bottle of spumante. In front of the other customers, I obviously need to look like someone who has already eaten his meal. To tell you the truth, and perhaps you’ve already realised it, my own meal holds no interest for me; I am interested in others’. Is that clear?’

The maître d’ made a silent gesture of incomprehension.

‘I have been a great gourmand, and more recently a refined gourmet. But now the only pleasure in my life is to see others eating. Those who are aware of this weakness of mine call me ‘The Prophet’. In reality, I’m not a freak; I’m an epicurean moralist. Unable to study mankind in all his faculties and habits, I’ve chosen the longest lasting and also the most pleasurable: nutrition. From others’ ways of eating, from their choices, from the fashion in which they conduct themselves in this daily ritual, I draw considerations of a general nature, which I trace back to root causes and ultimate ends. Am I making myself clear?’

Another perplexed gesture from the maître d’.

‘I understand your puzzlement. Why don’t I invite large numbers of people to eat at my house and observe them there? First of all, that would cost me a lot more; then, the guest is not a free man, he doesn’t independently choose his food; he is bound, imprisoned in his movements and his reactions. Add to this that those I invited would inevitably belong to a particular type of humanity, and not always a type offering the most interest. I could become a waiter in a restaurant or a strolling player frequenting the eating-houses, strumming his guitar, but then I couldn’t observe with much degree of attention. The only way is that which I’ve chosen: to purchase the right to sit at a table where I can survey at least a dozen sumptuous meals, one by one. If the carving or the pressing of some rare fowl, or the flaring of a spirit stove, has a particular effect on my salivary glands, I can follow the operations more closely by pretending to be called to the telephone. On which subject, dear maître and friend, please be sure to remember, whenever I give you my signal, to send the waiter to tell me that there’s a long-distance call for me. I shall then rise, pass close to the most interesting table, and attend to the spectacle in all its particulars, proceeding very slowly both in going and returning. I identify myself with it in its entirety, to the point of indigestion and drunkenness. This is why my doctor has advised me not to over-indulge in the practice. At a certain age even a prophet has to look after himself. Ah, I see that the first customers are arriving. Now remember, cher maître, I don’t wish anyone to suspect anything. Prepare my table so I may keep a convenient eye on things, and arrange for me to be called when it looks to me as if there is something worth observing. Be “ready for my signals”, like Spoletta in Tosca. I’m in your hands, cher maître.’

‘Don’t worry, signore. Your wishes will be attended to.’