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How Not to Achieve the Elusive "Local Status" While Traveling
When I lived in Rome for a few months in 2002 my wife and I made it our regular spot. Why? For what happened on one unseasonably warm November night. After paying our bill, the server walked by and plunked the bottle of limoncello down on our table. And with that we became locals. At least at this restaurant. Which had benefits: a shorter wait time for a table, the allowance to linger longer, and, of course, all the lemony liqueur we could drink after dinner.
It was the holy grail of travel: getting local status. Many of us have yen to fit in, to look like we belong while on the road. We'd don brash muumuus to go native, trading one bad fashion plague for another in an attempt to avoiding looking like that guy in the khaki shorts and Tiva sandals carrying the Lonely Planet guidebook (a travelers vs. tourists argument, anyone?).
That didn't happen. In fact, despite my long looks, they never even recognized us. And at the end of the night, the only thing that appeared on our table was the check. So I made vow: I was going to find a new place that would give me "limoncello status." There were conditions though: it had to be largely patronized by locals and it had to be good.
So we tried a new restaurant every night until a friend recommended we check out Da Enzo, a salt-of-the-earth joint in the backstreets of the Trastevere neighborhood. As we turned the corner, a bevy of hungry Romans lingered in the cobbled alleyway in front of the restaurant. We were the only non-Italians from what I could see (and hear). A good sign. A better sign was the huge-portioned pasta dishes: creamy carbonara bolstered by pancetta; a spicy arabbiata sauce laced with whole cloves of garlic; and a meaty norcina sauce.
We began going at least three times per week. We were far from getting the limoncello treatment--Da Enzo, it turned out, didn't actually follow this tradition--but the main waiter, a portly middle-aged mustached man, began giving me a familiar nod when we'd walk in. And, after month of regular appearances, when I'd call to make a reservation, the staff would recognize my voice, perhaps because of my halting Italian: "Ah, ciao Davide. Si, ci Vediamo stasera," they'd say: see you tonight.
I'd made some serious inroads. One night I walked into Da Enzo expecting my usual nod and a swan-like sweep of the arm to my table, but instead I got an incredulous look from a new waiter. Perhaps the mustached waiter had a deserved night off. We were eventually seated and the food was as good as always. As we nursed the last dregs of our carafe of wine, the new waiter approached. He said they need the table and then set the check down. This almost never happens in Italy. I was baffled. I looked around, noticing that the other regulars--all Italian and also nearly finished with dinner--hadn't been asked to leave. I protested, saying in Italian that we come here all the time and that no one else had been asked to leave. "I've never seen you before," the waiter said.
And with that, our limoncello status--my craving to be accepted as a local--was swiped away from us as quickly as our table was cleared for the next costumers.
[Photo courtesy of Jason McArthur via Flickr]