Our sense of delight is in a great measure comparative, and arises at once from the sensations we feel and those which we remember. Samuel Johnson, Rambler #80 (December 22, 1750)
It was the afternoon before the evening at La Scala and my husband, Bill, and I had bought expensive tickets. Well, one seat was expensive and the other was not. One was for a red velvet chair at the front of a red velvet box with a full view of the stage and the other was for a stool right behind the chair with only a partial view. (We planned to trade seats as the opera progressed.)
We were thrilled at the idea of going to La Scala—the history! the great performances! the discerning audience! the glittering chandeliers! I thought more than once about those Impressionist paintings that portray silk- and jewel-clad women, and soberly dressed men, lounging in gilded boxes that are stacked one on top of the other like layers in a golden wedding cake.
As a woman of the twenty-first century, of course, and as a traveler to boot, I would be dressed with more restraint—-in a black skirt and top and an insanely expensive purple sequin scarf that I had bought on sale. Not silk or jewels, to be sure, but the scarf was smart and in its own way worthy of a La Scala evening.
Two months before our trip we had stayed up well past midnight to buy tickets the moment they went on sale. Bill dialed the Italian phone number, which was always busy, while I tried to get through on the computer. I’m famously bad at technology, but I had studied La Scala’s website on and off for over two weeks. Despite baffling glitches and despite the way my heart raced as the diminishing number of tickets continually flashed on screen, I managed to buy us seats for Puccini’s Turandot.
I had also researched some restaurants in the vicinity of La Scala, and on the day of the opera we scouted them out. Still drugged from lack of sleep—we had arrived in Italy the day before—I had forgotten to bring the restaurant names but I did remember a street—-Marino Tommaso. We walked its length and saw a couple of places with outdoor seating and posted menus. Ristorante Papa Francesco sounded familiar, but I couldn’t remember what the reviews had said. A waiter came out to ask if he could help.
“A che ora si apre per cena? I asked in my traveler’s Italian.
“What time do you need,” he said in perfect English.
“Six thirty, I think. We’re going to La Scala.”
“Come here and I’ll give you 911 service,” he said. (He meant fast, pre-curtain service not terrorist activity of course.) He’d clearly spent some time in the U.S. Still I wasn’t ready to commit. There may be four of us, I told him. I need to consult our friends. It was the day of the opera, and dinner had to be good.
Early that evening we and our traveling companions showed up at Papa Francesco’s. (I’d checked the reviews and they were excellent.) We walked in to find wood paneling, old pictures on the walls, white table cloths, and pink flowers. It was both homelike and handsome. The waiter from earlier that afternoon greeted me with the enthusiasm of an old friend, one kiss on each cheek. “Only Judas kissed one kiss,” he said.
The “911 service” began when our waiter gifted us with a delicious garlicky spread, and then, at his suggestion, two of us ordered the squid ink pasta, one, the spaghetti and clams, another, three kinds of ravioli. The latter dishes, when they came, and they came fast, were excellent, but the squid ink ravioli, stuffed with sea bass and covered with a creamy sauce of mullet roe, was, well, operatic, a heavenly chorus of robust flavors.
“This is fabulous!” I said.
“This is fa-bu-lous!” our friend echoed. It would be the best dish I ate during our three week trip, a dish fit for La Scala.
And then onto to La Scala itself. And, like the ravioli, it was fabulous. My husband insisted on taking the seat with the partial view. (He’s a prince about those things.) I sat sideways facing the stage with one arm along the padded red velvet ledge. Although I was not living in nineteenth-century Paris, I thought about those paintings once again–women in gilt-covered loges holding fans and adorned in flowers. (If painted by Renoir they were there to be seen. If painted by Mary Cassatt they were actively watching.) I thought of Cassatt’s In the Theater—-a woman in white gloves, a green high necked dress, flowers in her auburn hair, holding a large crimson-splashed green fan. The same red velvet surrounds her as surrounded me. She is looking out at gilt boxes like those I also faced. Oh the history of it!
I wondered what she’d had for dinner. Yes, I wondered. Because the pleasures of sublime moments are an ensemble of what we experience in the present and what we remember of the past. As the elaborate costumes of Turandot merged with silken nineteenth-century dresses and my sequin scarf, and as the silvery aria Nessun Dorma connected me to legendary tenors of the past, reminding me of why we’d made the effort to call Italy at midnight, I also thought about the lyrical delights of squid ink ravioli, stuffed with sea bass in a creamy sauce of mullet roe. Like music, the pleasures of a stunning moment come in layers.
The recipe for squid ink ravioli was too complex to post. But here, in the most lovely aria from Turandot is a hint of what it tasted like. Click or paste. There are two versions: Placido Domingo’s and Pavarotti’s. (In “Nessun Dorma” or “None Shall Sleep” the hero yearns for the night to end so he can claim the hand of the Princess he loves.)
Which do you like best?
1. Placido Domingo on stage at La Scala. Thrilling despite the dark video. It’s dark, of course, because it’s nighttime on stage. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2RdJmqLrsbo
1. Pavarotti in concert. He’s famous for this aria. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RdTBml4oOZ8
Pictures of Papa Francesco’s and Squid Ink Ravioli Courtesy of Papa Francesco’s.