Many years ago my wife and I traveled with friends to Venice, Florence, and Rome. The middle destination, Florence—Firenze—has been entertaining tourists for a thousand years. Florence can become so overwhelmingly pleasing that visitors succumb to a psychosomatic disorder called Stendahl’s Syndrome or Florence Syndrome, a rapid heartbeat and fainting spell allegedly brought on by exposure to too much beauty. In 1817 the French author Stendahl, nearly keeled over at the sight of Giotto’s ceiling fresco in the Basilica of Santa Croce. But it was not until 1979 that Graziella Magherini, a psychiatrist at the Santa Maria Nuova Hospital, described the palpitations and flashing lights that afflicted her patients—all of them foreign visitors who had seen Brunelleschi's dome, Michelangelo’s David, and Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.
Florence offers tourist other trials. Hungry after a visit to the famous Baptistery, the four of us stopped at one of Florence’s many fine trattoria that go by cheeky names. I can’t remember if they were calling the restaurant The Cow on the Roof, The Sticky Spoon, or The Broken Plate. This place might have been called The Surly Waitress, and with a name like that the food has to be good.
This restaurant kept another tradition. The owner, a maestro in the kitchen, was a scream with the usual diners. He’d come out front to banter at their expense. But his favorite targets, American tourists, proved the best crowd-pleaser. Our weakest point? Our dreadful shoes. This was Florence after all—home of the House of Gucci. It’s not just the art and architecture that makes you swoon in Florence, the sharpened fashion sense pokes at you, too. In practice the Floretines are as proud of their shoeleather as they are of their cinquecento masterpieces. Hi-tech, Gore-Tex, hiking shoes, stylish in the States that summer, made me a sitting duck with these experts, alas. They drew the comico like a magnet.
He moved toward our table, and one of our companions guessed the phrase facile bersaglio “must mean that you’re in for it.” When the owner doubled my group up with a barrage of one-liners, I said, “OK, hang on, let’s get the translator over here.” My dear wife leaned back, crossed her arms, and lowered her sunglasses, thinking “here we go.”
He yelled “traduttore,” and his amused sidekick, wearing the best pair of leather clogs I’d ever seen, ambled over. The sidekick said, “you wish to make the score even with him?” Conceding his advantage I said I’d like to try—“ask him what’s wrong with my shoes.” I heard the word gondola. “With shoes like those,” the sidekick translated, “why did you ever leave Venice?” Big laugh. I told him I couldn’t stay away from Florence because I’d heard about the city’s gracious restaurateurs. An encouraging snicker, maybe a chuckle or two. But the owner was soon killing them, again. Now I heard the word “Matterhorn.” The guy in the clogs was laughing too hard to translate.
Plainly, I was losing this match.
“Tell him that he’ll be wearing shoes like these next year,” I instructed, hoping that a weak lob would keep me in the game. Listeners waited for the chef to finish me off. He drew himself up and feigned a look of horror. “He says, ‘Were he to wear those shoes, big mushrooms would be sure to grow upon his feet!” Someone yelled, “Porcini! Porcini!”
It was now or never for me. “Tell him,” I waved my hands and shouted over the laughter, “listen,” I said. “Tell him, no problem,” I mimed, picking at my feet. “In that case you could take those porcini and use them to improve your food!”
Even my opponent cracked up. “Tenista, tenista!” “What’s he saying?” I asked. “He says, you must be a tennis player.” When all this back and forth was over we noticed that the owner had marked the wine that we’d enjoyed ditta casa, “on the house.”
But he wasn’t finished with me. As we moved to the sidewalk, we noted him hurrying out behind us, towing a small crowd. “Hey grasso! (fatso),” he called, “you forgot your acqua minerale!” And then he turned, raised the plastic bottle, tilted his head, counted due, tre, quattro, and led the regulars in the funniest, most mangled version of “Yankee Doodle” ever sung.