When I was a child, grammar descended on me in Barbetta, a grand (to me) Italian restaurant in NYC. I must have been about eight. I was the only child in the room, which gave the event both solemnity and anxiety. I was instructed to be on my best behavior. In fact, this periodic theater-and-nice-dinner-in-New York was part of my Cultural Education which my parents took quite seriously.
I’d ordered spaghetti, which seemed a safe choice. The mound of pasta that arrived was approximately the size of my head. I had the idea of a restaurant jail if I didn’t finish (after all, at home I sometimes had to sit for hours alone in the kitchen until I finished). So I dug in dutifully, which was noticed, alas.
A waitress came around, cooed a bit, as grown ups do and began the interrogation. How old was I? Eight. What grade? Fourth. “Do you like the spaghetti?” Well duh, lady, I’m eating it. By now the whole vast room was listening. And I’m thinking I have to get back to eating because of the restaurant jail thing.
But the waitress wouldn’t let go. “Is this spaghetti better than your mother’s?” My mother was sitting right there. I still remember heat waves of anxiety. Mom jail or restaurant jail? Clearly, the waitress was delighted to have set up such an exquisite entrapment. The whole room was enjoying a kid’s distress, not a fork moved. Remember how horrible that was, having grownups’ eyes on you? I didn’t have the social skill for: “They’re both good.” And “Not your business” wasn’t an option because of the “be on your best behavior thing.”
And again: “Is it better than your mother’s?” My parents could have helped, but they were enjoying the show. Clearly, this was an either/or. I remember sheer panic, my mind blank. No help from any quarter, the breathless room.
Finally what seemed a solution came to me: “No, it’s worse.” I expected relief. Not what happened. The room erupted in laughter. Even the waitress. Waves and waves of laughter. It took awhile for even my father to stop laughing enough to explain that I’d managed to land myself simultaneously in two jails. That is, my mother’s was bad enough but this was worse. The laughter died down, then rippled up, and I could hear in various quarters, whispered “no, it’s worse” and chuckles again. And still the head-sized mound of spaghetti, now labeled “worse.” One brief respite: my father said I didn’t have to finish.
This weekend I was in NYC with my husband and we passed Barbetta, now the oldest restaurant in the city still owned by the founding family. We went in. Still grand, still no kids, but waiters, at least, and smaller, more elegant portions. We spoke to a couple of the staff, both very kind. I’d like to go back. In fact, the spaghetti was better than my mother’s.