Thursday, April 2, 2009

Roman Pizza, Mouth of Truth


In 1983, I made my one and only trip so far to Rome, Italy. I was in the eighth grade; at least, I'm pretty sure this was the spring of '83, not the spring of '82, when I would have been a seventh grader. It was one or the other. My parents and I visited Rome (click here to read the "Bambini!" post about our initial experience in the hotel), then we went down to Brindisi to catch the ferry boat to Corfu, Greece, and finally we ended the trip in Athens. I remember many things about our days in Rome, but for all of us I think the highlight was not so much a museum or other physical location that you'd find in a guidebook as it was our human guide, John. (Here I beg forgiveness for the abbreviation and the Americanization of his name. The original certainly began with the Italian prefix Gi-, but he was only ever "John" to me. I don't know his actual, full given name. Giovanni, perhaps.) John was everything you'd expect him to be—everything you'd dream of if you'd never had a Roman holiday and wanted one that conformed to the typical idea of Italian charisma and flamboyancy. He had an exaggerated personality, which was probably his authentic character in large measure, but also cultivated in part. John drove us to Ostia, the ancient port town, now dry and desolate (if you can manage to go at a time when the site is not overflowing with tourists, that is). I remember the color combination of earth-toned ruins, greenery in the form of grass and umbrella pines, and the ubiquitous black and white mosaics. In Ostia, John made us give up our "grip and grin" family portraits (in front of this or that monument, our poses and expressions the same—delighted but boring—with only the stunning backdrop changing). He took us to Ostia's public toilets, a row of twenty-four surprisingly modern looking toilets (or toilet-shaped holes) carved into an L-shaped marble bench structure. The picture John took of us there is certainly one of the best, if not the best photographic souvenir we've ever had taken of us as a group. Later, I'd be asked to stand alone on the stump of a pillar for a photo; John was the one who coaxed me into a pose like the statue of a Roman goddess—or as close to it as my awkward, teenage self could manage (I was a goddess with braces on her teeth, and a timid extension of the arms). John also pointed out the best places for us to eat, or the most entertaining. This is when I think of the Mouth of Truth (La Bocca della Verita), and of Roman pizza. We'd already had one sampling of pizza since coming to Rome, in a cozy little restaurant down below the Spanish Steps. I remember being very surprised, because it was nothing at all like the pizza I knew back home. For more than a decade, I'd been eating what I assumed was Italian cuisine, but of course now I recognize that the American versions of ethnic dishes are often much more American than they are examples of the home country's cooking. Our pizza is so doughy and undercooked, the cheese generally bland. In Rome, I ate my first brick-oven, paper-flat-crust pizza, burned at the delicate edges. It was crisp and salty, and delicious. So, I knew what to expect when John directed us to an Italian pizzeria—at least in terms of the food. That afternoon, we'd been to visit the famous "Mouth of Truth" at the church of Santa Maria, in Cosmedin. The statue is a giant disk that looks like the mask of a fierce river god; it is said that originally it was either part of a fountain or else perhaps a drain-pipe cover. Into the giant stone face is carved a hole for a mouth, two for eyes. The legend, born of an infidelity story, is that the mouth would shut upon a liar's hand, cutting it off. In the movie Roman Holiday, Gregory Peck takes Audrey Hepburn there and plays his own practical joke on her, pretending that his hand has been severed by the mouth (watch the clip on YouTube and ignore the Japanese subtitles). We had gone to see this attraction and had all left there with our hands intact and a growing appetite for lunch. In whichever restaurant (I cannot for the life of me come up with the name), John sat with us, which he had previously refused to do. While waiting for our food, he got up and asked me to follow him. He led me down a flight of stairs and then turned me around. On the wall hung a much smaller version of the Mouth of Truth. He asked me if I liked Rome, and when I said I did, he asked me to put my hand inside the mouth to see if I was telling the truth. I did, and was shocked by a loud buzzer and red lights glowing in the eyes. I jumped a mile, then ran upstairs to convince my dad to come down after me. When I tried the joke on him, he also jumped out of his skin, nearly hitting the low ceiling with his 6'2" frame and exclaiming "Shit!" which I of course thought was hilarious. Despite the rigged mouth's judgment upon us, what we'd said was true: we did like Rome, loved it in fact. We loved John, too, with his grand Italian gestures and sense of humor. I'd love to go back someday. Until I do, I have a couple of souvenirs: photos at Ostia, plus a small gold replica of the Mouth of Truth on a charm bracelet. And of course, always, I'll have a collection of fabulous memories.

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