As far as this evening getting ahead, Rome and the rest of Italy joined the north of the country in the almost-total isolation laid by the government in order to fight the spread of the Corona virus. But the crisis has already left Rome almost tourist-empty, and me at home thinking.
The first to get hit – including me as a culinary consultant working with tourists – has been the international tourist industry: hotels, airlines, and cruise ships. Remember Diamond Princess? It has its own column on the world case chart. It’s better to stay home, especially if you don’t know if they let you return without getting isolated – and anyway it’s worldwide, so why bother?
The second shockwave hit the hospitality world, an everyday very fragile area, that needs to fight restrictions by authorities and clients who probably would prefer to avoid breathing other people’s air. Even before the situation got very serious, restaurateurs around Italy, the main European victim of the disease, tried to keep it cool and called the clients to show that things are as usual with the hashtag #milanononsiferma (“Milan doesn’t stop”) and #ancheromanonsiferma (“Also Rome doesn’t stop”).
In just a few days, when numbers of cases and especially deaths took a steep rise, the call changed to #iorestoacasa/#restiamoacasa (“Also I stay home”/”We stay home”) – as everyone should.
Even Massimo Bottura announced that he closes all his restaurants until the 3rd of April, the date when the Italian government should reassess the situation. Michelin starred restaurants should be the first ones to feel the blow since by definition they are establishments to which people go on purpose, so Bottura’s announcement should be considered as even more dignified, and hopefully lead other elite chefs to announce the same.
As I write these words, the Italian prime minister announced that all restaurants around the country must be closed not later than 18:00. You could think it’s going to be Aperitivo’s finest hour, but I guess you won’t see a bunch of people standing outside bars holding Aperol glasses.
I think the third wave will get to whoever finds inspiration in restaurants and eating in general – food writers and critics. Set aside the numbers of people who would be willing to get to that kind of a mission (although eating in an empty restaurant should be safer…), it’s less clear who will read such articles and critiques.
Good food writing is much more than a report about food or atmosphere, but like any other good story, it gives the readers an illusion in which they take part. With lots of options for traveling, supported by massive photo sharing and food descriptions, this illusion became very easy to achieve.
But now, when it’s impossible to get to restaurants in order to have that specific dish you desire, the illusion evaporates and disappears into the void, so food writing becomes science fiction. Being a great and beloved genre – it never feels as powerful as being able to take part in the experience itself, or even in the illusion you might take part sometime in the future. Especially for that reason, I think that the “high” restaurants will be the first ones to suffer this third wave, whether from lack of patrons or lack of writers.
On the contrary, it can be the finest hour of the real storytellers. Not the ones who joke around over Instagram accounts with great chefs, who in turn pour their Michelin stardust over the former, but those who go to the local trattoria which anyway is open only for lunch, to the fruitmonger who works at the same spot at the market for 50 years, and to the food stand that is run by the same family for over a century.
These are the places where you can find real stories you don’t have to carve out of fancy dinner, but just listen and know how to serve them to others. And the audience? I would like to believe that the right audience will read and savor this kind of story, and when things get back to normal and airplanes are full again, they will head to this trattoria, fruitmonger and food stand in order to experience the small-big story hidden in each.