Thursday, October 23, 2008


So while in London this past June, my husband and I had the great good fortune to watch the 2008 European Cup quarterfinals. Italy versus Spain. It was an exciting match that left us on the edge of our seats. But what was more exciting were the spectators watching. In the Italian wine bar where we happened to be. And the whole night happened purely by accident.

During the weekend in question, a friend had traveled in for a visit from Manchester and was staying at a posh hotel in Notting Hill. We had spent Saturday together, roaming around Knightsbridge in her huband's rented Jaguar, oohing and aahhing over the fashions in Harrods (and the husband's rented Jaguar) before going our separate ways for a rest, promising to meet later for after-dinner drinks. You see, hubby and I were *expected* to make an appearance at dinner with his family, or we would probably have gone straight from Harrods to drinks.

Except dinner ran late, then there was some sort of a communication breakdown, and so we missed each other on the phone multiple times and never hooked up for those drinks. Consequently, husband and I found ourselves in Notting Hill after dinner, on a Saturday night, with nothing to do. We decided to locate a payphone (no cell service us) and tuck in to a bar nearby – having some drinks and calling my friend every couple of hours to hopefully hook up once again before she and her husband had to travel back north.

We were looking for a pub that wasn't crowded to the gills. Instead what we found was, of all things, an Italian wine bar specializing in grappa. I had never even tasted the stuff, but understood from reading food books that it's basically the fermentation of the grape skins discarded after wine making. And it packs a powerful punch – often served in tiny aperitif glasses because of this. Looking at each other we thought, "Why not?" and ordered two - different ones of course, so we could trade and have a mini-tasting. The European cup quarterfinal was on the flat screen - Netherlands versus Russia. Russia, the underdog, was beating the pants off the Dutch. And so we tucked in to enjoy our match and our grappa.

The stuff packed a punch as promised. Strong spirity taste - more like liquor than port or sherry. I wasn't sure how I felt about it, but after tasting hubby's decided I was beginning to like it. The one he ordered was softer, but rather than order his for the second go round, we got two different ones. Why not make it a full tasting? The owner was more than happy to oblige. He and the waiters were full Italian, spoke almost no English, but were eager to show off their country's drink. I ask if he drank grappa, and laughed when he shook his head and replied, "No, no, no, too strong."

We enjoyed ourselves so much that evening we decided to come back the following evening for another quarterfinal match. Italy versus Spain. What better place to watch Italy trounce Spain than in an Italian wine bar? In London? I remembered as a newly-annointed college grad that I had watched a World Cup final in Scotland. At a pub that projected the game from Germany. It was big big fun. The announcers yelling things in German and Scottish football hooligans cursing in brogue at the screen. I didn't understand a thing, but it didn't matter. I could only imagine the excitement that these Italian owners would project during the game.

And so we returned the next night. The place was packed. Beyond packed. With Italians! Imagine that. It must be like Steeler bars in America. Doesn't matter what city you're in, you can always find a Steeler bar - full of people who used to live in Pittsburgh, who at one time passed through Pittsburgh, or their family is from Pittsburgh. Yeah, London isn't that far away from Italy - still it surprised me that it seemed as if every Italian currently visiting or residing in London was crowded into this tiny wine bar with room for maybe 20 people.

But that's what made it all the more exciting. Every goal that came close or just missed by "that much" was met with cheers, then groans. Curse words in Italian flew about the room. Bottles of beer were opened with a hiss, then gulped down. A few people sipped wine, most guzzled beer, just like at American football games. We American tourists were the only ones drinking grappa - working our way down the tasting menu. Looking back on it now I bet we came across as a little hoity-toity, but by that Sunday night I had develope a true taste for the stuff. They don't call it the water of life for nothing.

A few Brits were in the place as well - hooting and hollering along with the rest of them. At one point this guy walked up to the bar - imagine Alexi Sayle with the attitude of Begbie approaching the height of Andre the Giant. He slammed his fist down on the bar and yelled, "Milk! Gimme a milk!" The place howled with laughter. The owner looked confused. "Cosa?"

"Milk!!!" he yelled, slamming down his fist again. The whole place got quiet. "It's for my kid," he clarified, jerking his thumb over his shoulder. The place roared with laughter again.

The kid he spoke of was damn lucky he didn't get his ass kicked from here to Tuesday. Not sure what was in that milk, but as the night wore on, this kid got bolder and bolder. He was maybe 7 or 8 years old, but already had the attitude of a true football hooligan. Every time an Italian player missed a goal, he'd yell, "Haaaaaaa-Haaaaaaaaaa Italy is stuuuuuuupid! You're going to loooooose!" in this shrill, very loud, sing-songy voice. Yelling insults about Italy to a whole roomful of Italians. He was like a blond version of Damian - that creepy kid from the Omen movies. Every time they missed, he'd yell an insult, at one point calling the player, "A stupid girly Italian man," and other stuff that wouldn't dare come out of a hooligan's mouth. The father would just laugh and order another milk.

The kid's yelling ramped up when the penalty kicks began. I just knew someone was going to bean that kid in the head with a beer bottle. Spain would miss and the bar would cheer. Italy would miss and the kid would cheer. Spain would make one and the kid would cheer as if he just won a trip to Disneyworld. Italy would make one and you thought it was VE-day.

In the end, Italy just couldn't hold their end. Spain won, 4-2 on penalties. The kid was ecstatic, jumping up and down, hopped up on milk I guess. The bar was inconsolable. Ten minutes later, the bar was empty. We hadn't finished, and had planned on ordering another round. It was still early after all. The owner polished glasses, looking at us while shrugging his shoulders. The waiters, frowning and morose, started to upend chairs on the tables.

And so ended my introduction to the glorious elixir that is grappa. Putting chairs on tables is the universal sign of, "We're closing, get the hell out." An implied cue to go, and go now. To go very carefully in fact, staggering a little actually. Thing about grappa - you don't realize it's hit you until you stand up. Gotta remember that one for next time...


where i've escaped...

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