My purse strings were taut in Italy. I had booked my trip long before The Great Candice Depression of 2016, and so I approached Italia with the frugality of a college kid.
Other than ancient history, food was the main reason for my journey. I wanted real, authentic Italian food. I wanted to be fed by an Italian grandmother. I wanted them to shove wooden spoons of pasta sauce into my mouth. I decided I’d eat very little during the days, and then splurge (30 euros max!) on my dinners.
I would not let fear of calories interfere. I would ingest all of the carbs. And I would write this story entirely alone.
By the time I check into my hostel, I’m ravenous. Foursquare tells me there’s a highly rated “fast food” pasta joint just around the corner. “Just around the corner” means through a maze-like web of streets, each one leading to a dead end on a canal where cute couples huddle together in gondolas. The gondoliers are all muscles, and winks, and hat tips.
Pasta in a cardboard box
I see people eating out of cardboard containers, and I think, how lame, people eating Asian food in Italy. But I soon learn they’ve come from Del Moro’s, the place of fast and fresh pasta. I have to step over people huddled on the stairs, shovelling food into their faces. I order cacio e pepe — a simple cheese and pepper pasta. I could be in any fast food restaurant. A line of men work at the pasta bar, and when I tip them, they start cheering, and one guy furiously rings a bell. I run back to my hostel and eat my pasta from a cardboard box, in front of my laptop.
Pizza for one
Rossopomodoro is also near my hostel; I pass it nearly everyday on my way back from Piazza San Marco. It’s supposed to have the best pizza in Venice. Now I no longer trust Foursquare.
I order the verdure provola and it comes with mozza di buffalo, smoked provola cheese, cherry tomatoes, and char-grilled aubergines. There are courgettes, and peppers, and basil. I’m surrounded by Americans talking about Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. I finish with tiramisu, which is forever my go-to dessert. I practically choke on cocoa powder.
When the bill arrives, there’s no dessert listed. That’s a six euro dessert. That’s practically 20 Canadian dollars. I wrestle with my conscience; I’ve always spoken up when things are wrong on the bill. I always assume that karma will have my back, but now I’m struggling. I decide not to give into my guilt.
I’m not going to do it! Karma is all a lie! I am a badass! I’m broke! This food is a rip-off anyway!
I point out the error to my server immediately. He is ridiculously grateful. He looks like he might kiss me.
Maybe I’ve saved his life. Maybe now he won’t get fired. Maybe I’ve rewritten the course of history.
Gelato in the canals
A Twitter friend tells me I have to try the gelato at Gelateria Ca’ D’oro. I buy a scoop of ricotta and honey gelato — my first ever Italian gelato. I sit on the steps of a bridge and watch people come and go. A grandmother and her young grandson come teetering along. The boy has a red ball, which he starts throwing at the pigeons with a startling intensity. He’s a little hell-raising devil. The grandmother is chasing him around, unable to control him. Finally I kick the ball to her so she can scoop it up.
On my free walking tour, an Asian girl from my hostel becomes my first friend in Italy. The tour guide tells us to go to Nico’s for the best gelato. She’s right. Oh my god, it’s perfect. The sun is so hot and brilliant, it takes two seconds for the gelato to start melting and running down my hands. I am giddy with delight as I lick trails of gelato off my wrist and fingers. Me and the Asian girl exchange email addresses to stay in touch. She invites me to Hong Kong, and I never hear from her again.
Cod and wine
Fed up, I seek something a little further afield. Extensive research (Foursquare) has told me that Cantina do Spade is where to go for seafood. I make reservations for one.
As I’m getting ready, a girl named Kristen comes into my dorm. She’s Canadian, and also alone, and so as a last-minute gesture of goodwill I invite her to eat with me.
Cantina do Spade is exactly what I’m looking for. The servers are young hipsters; the men have tattooed sleeves. The setting is soft and blue. I order Venetian seafood — fried sardines in onions. Polenta. And the grand finale: creamed cod. It’s the best meal I’ve had so far. I’m enjoying the company. On the way back to the hostel, we get swept up in a crowded square. A bunch of youngsters are dancing to loud pop music under the awnings of a bar. So we order spritzers, sit back, and enjoy the shitty music.
I try really, really hard to be alone in Florence.
Truffles and gnocchi
I am craving pasta. All I want to do is eat pasta. Over the River Arno I seek a quieter part of town, where apparently more locals like to hang out. A friend has recommended Osteria San Spirito in Piazza San Spirito. There are a few people lingering around the outdoor deck, so I sit at an empty table…and I sit some more. And more. I know the waiter can see me from the doorway; she’s not blind. I’m fixing an evil eye on her.
Finally, I walk inside to ask about dinner, and she tells me the restaurant doesn’t open until 7. I throw up my hands, or at least that’s what I do in my head. Instead I stammer out an apology and start wandering around the square to kill time. In front of the church, I sit on a bench next to some locals. They greet people coming and going. The elders are gossiping. I don’t know what they’re saying, but I know it’s gossip. The Italian rhythm is all gossip.
At exactly 7 PM, I stroll into the restaurant and demand a table. Almost instantly the place fills up behind me, and the waiter has to turn people away. I’m seated at the same table as a French couple whom look as confuse as I do when I sit down across from them. I give them a brief smile and then I dig out my notebook.
I’m a writer on vrry important biznas. I’m not a 30 year old single, barren Canadian woman trotting around Italy with no money. Ha, ha! No. Gaze upon my self confidence.
I order more food than both of them combined. Gnocchi, with truffle oil and cheese. There’s so much cheese. I order wine. Two glasses of wine. The French couple offers me water. I say, “Non, merci!” I’m proud of my French. Crème brûlée, my favourite dish on this planet, is the dessert. I pray I don’t get dysentery on the walk home.
After a full day walking around Florence, elbowing tourists for space, I’m defeated. I want to sit in my hostel and have wine in a plastic cup and eat shitty pasta. And that’s exactly what I do.
My ulterior motive, of course, is to make friends. But no one talks to me. I’m way too old, first of all. I devour my pasta alone, instead. It’s like the stuff I made in college. It’s dry pasta with tomato sauce.
Uffizi and focaccia
It takes me all morning to explore out the Uffizi Gallery. There’s a lot of stuff to look at. Plus I downloaded a free audio guide from Rick Steeves, but everything is all mixed up because the gallery has restoration work in progress. Go figure.
I’m faint with hunger by the time I’m done, so I decide to check out the rooftop cafe. Because a rooftop cafe in a crowded touristy art gallery is exactly where you want to go for affordable, authentic Italian food.
I sit facing the rest of the cafe, but find myself blinded by the sun. So I rotate, facing nothing, and order focaccia. It’s overpriced and boring. I eat my focaccia staring at the rose bush directly in front of me, with my back against the other patrons. It’s a metaphor for life.
I don’t know what I ate here
After Uffizi, I decide to brave the line-up at Accademia to see Michelangelo’s David. The line-up is enormous, but I have time to kill. As I’m waiting, one of those guides comes along trying to sell a skip-the-line tour. I ask a few polite questions and then turn her down. She assumes the guy ahead of me in line-up is my boyfriend, and we all giggle about this misunderstanding.
Then the guy, Theo, starts talking to me. We’re both travelling alone, and he’s also staying at the PLUS hostel. He’s tall and dark-haired and from Chicago. He’s hot. As we’re chatting, he pauses to take off his sunglasses and I start to feel funny all over.
Inside, Michelangelo’s David blows my mind. I can’t wrap my head around this beautiful piece of work. Michelangelo created this sculpture when he was 26 years old. Meanwhile I’m 30 and I still collect ketchup packets “just in case.”
Because Theo is an attractive man, I assume he’s not that bright. It’s one of my many prejudices. He finds me at some point in the gallery and we end up deep into a 25-minute conversation about art. Well, it’s all over from there. I am smitten. He invites me to dinner and then we check out the Duomo, and then we head back to the hostel for drinks.
I don’t remember what I had for dinner. Those details are unimportant.
All you really need to know about that night was that I ended up wandering around Florence at 3 AM with a bunch of people from my hostel. I remember Theo making out with another American.
And then the sky cracked open, and there was hail, and I found myself clinging to a tiny Filipino man named Champ in the corner of the basilica while giant stones of ice pelted my body.
“You’re remarkably calm!” yells Champ over the loudest thunder I have ever heard.
“This is my life!” I yell back.
In which I meet an Australian and I’m never alone again.
Sunset and spritzers
In Corniglia, I check into my hostel and am immediately befriended by an Aussie girl named Sally. She’s like every Australian I’ve ever met — self-assured, fun, and friendly. I had planned to explore Corniglia alone — instead, we decide to wander. It doesn’t take long. Corniglia is small. After rescuing a baby frog from a barrel of water, we decide to reward ourselves with some wine.
At the end of the sole street in Corniglia, we find Cafe la Mer. There are seats right on a stone patio jutting over the sea. Cinque Terre is already a dream. I feel like I’m back in Santorini, but this time I’m far happier. When we order wine, it comes with crostini topped in sardines and crushed olives. We’re enjoying ourselves so much, we order a bottle of white. And then another. And then, another.
I’ve known Sally for less than a day, but we spend hours at that bar talking. (She’s a cop. I discover this later when she drunkenly pulls out her badge at the hostel, delighting the 18 year olds.) I am deliriously happy; the kind of intoxicated, drunk-on-life that can only be acquired through travel. And three bottles of white wine. If I had died at that sunset, it would have been the best life ever lived.
Sally even came to visit me in Berlin later. Because Italy brings people together. And so does three bottles of white wine.
In which I finally master the art of eating alone before never being alone again.
The meal I finally got right
I have confidence in my ability to ate alone now. I swagger into my hostel’s cafe at breakfast and sit down with authority; I’m older and wiser than all these young punks. At this point, I’ve had a lot of really good meals but they have mostly been with other people, or on food tours. I’m determined to have one extremely memorable solo dinner.
Mamma Angela’s is right next to my hostel at Alessandro’s Palace. I’m going to spend all evening here. Once again I’m seated next to a French couple. They’re everywhere, the French.
I order the vegetarian lasagna, and a glass of house white. My table is right on the sidewalk, and the people-watching advantage is the best ever. The vegetarian lasagna is also the best ever. Mamma Angela is awesome. She’s probably the Italian grandmother I’ve been seeking.
My friend Lisa is joining me tomorrow, so this is my final solo meal. I have failed spectacularly at this mission. I treat myself to a heaping plate of tiramisu. The French lady indicates to the server that she wants the same lasagna I ordered, and I’m so flattered. I’m swelling with pride. The French used me to help choose their dinner! The sophisticated French have made an example out of me! I must really look like I know what I’m doing.
Awhile later, back in Berlin, I’m recounting my failure to another writer, Michelle.
“Perhaps that’s your story,” she says. “You never really eat alone in Italy.”
And there you go. You never really eat alone in Italy.