Lockdown is lifted in Milan. The shutters have finally come up on our neighbourhood family-run Sicilian fish restaurant, and we’re the first over the threshold. It’s been three months of cold turkey without fritto misto, and we’re gagging for a bit of deep-fried deliciousness.
Gloved and masked, the beaver-like brothers that look after front-of-house open up (dad’s in the kitchen). We’ve been coming here for years, but they let us in nervously tonight. Who knows, we might be doubling ups as health inspectors? Maybe it’s our N95 masks?
“We think we’ve done everything right,” says one brother, as a set of beady eyes darts over their collective handiwork. They tell us how they’ve implemented the social distancing measurements, and seem fairly confident they’ve digested all the legislation. “It’s not one-metre face-to-face. It’s one metre from the back of the head of each diner to the other.” We’re glad that’s been cleared up.
A sea of unlaid tables makes the restaurant feel remarkably unwelcoming. The wicker bread-baskets are long gone, as are the comforting faux-leather ‘80s-style menus littered with crossings out. Yet more safety measures. A gloved hand accidentally brushes mine as my place is set. Profuse apologies follow, as a waist-coated brother rushes back to the kitchen. My mind flits to the bottle of sanitiser in my bag.
The place is eerily empty, and only a few more diners trickle in. Official notices are plastered everywhere, which taints our sense of escapism. How can I forget we’re in the middle of a pandemic if a public health warning slaps me round the face every time I crunch on some calamari?
A young trio are seated (relatively) near us, giddy at their first meet up. But socially-distanced seats force them so far apart, the third wheel finds more interest in his phone.
We don’t hang around. The place is less than a quarter full, and the nerves still palpable. At least we got our fritto misto, but it’s still early days. We hot-foot it back to the safety of our prison of three months (home), under the cover of moonlight and our masks.
Onward and upward. Tonight is our first dinner out with friends since lockdown.
Awkward contactless ‘ciaos’ complete, we do a kind of dance around the outside table until we’re seated. It’s this couple’s first time out, and I note their wide eyes peeking above pristine masks. They’re newbies.
The table gets pushed backwards into a hedge, until twigs are sprouting out of our ears. It’s social distancing gone extreme. The volume of people eating al fresco, and a new online menu, has thrown normal service efficiency out the window.
Elsewhere, a couple are having a quiet dinner seated at diagonally opposite tables. Those that don’t live together can’t now comfortably eat together. Inside, a group of women seated around a repurposed billiard table are struggling to make themselves heard across an ocean of tablecloth.
It’s this popular city-restaurant’s second day of re-opening. We arrive glowing after a brisk half-hour walk in the sun. Fortunately, the thermal scanner pointing menacingly at our temples doesn’t betray us. We lube up with hand-sanitiser and are seated at a table with a couple attached to the other end. After warily eyeing each other up and down, all is well.
A coaster replete with a QR code is plonked in front of us and tensions rise as hot pointy fingers try to access the new digital menu. Relief, some grissini breadsticks, and a succession of staff in a pick 'n' mix selection of surgical-grade masks follow. A portal into a tight kitchen magnifies the number of animated chefs.
A comforting dish of golden risotto arrives. Cheerful staff continue with gentle table-side chat about the new hygiene procedures. I’m beginning to think we look more and more like health and safety inspectors.
Masks aside though, there are few reminders of the lurking enemy. In fact, less covers and more space only add to this restaurant’s appeal.
The Lombardy border finally re-opens, and it’s time to head for the hills of Langhe in neighbouring Piedmont. Perhaps dining in the countryside will be less intense?
“Could you remember to wear your masks when you arrive and every time you get up to go to the bathroom or go outside,” the restaurant-owner, our friend, calls in advance to tell us the new house rules. “Sorry, but I had a lot of trouble last night,” he continues. It seems some tourists have just arrived in the region and they are still rolling by their own rules.
Even with our masks firmly on, we’re not disappointed. It still feels like home here. A view of rolling vineyards and a bottle of Barbaresco do wonders for the soul. Even the gentle ‘spritz’ of sanitiser, protecting us from unseen nasties on chairs, tables and menus, is soothing.
We return to the last restaurant we ate at before the lockdown. It’s crazy to think it was over three months ago that we had to flee back to Milan to avoid being locked out of the city.
The owner’s a big man, and looks foreboding in his black mask and outfit. We don’t get the usual bear hug of a greeting, instead a polite elbow bump.
It’s pretty much business as usual here too. “Things are not too bad, could have been worse,” he reports. He goes on to reveal that he’s happy to have got through lockdown without hitting the bottle.
Little to report at this simple and trusted town-centre osteria. The signora still runs a tight ship. The tables lined up under the portico are larger and more distanced. Except for the disposable napkins and tablecloths, and a masked waitress, you could almost be forgiven for thinking times haven’t changed.
We’re led through this empty family-run pizzeria to the walled courtyard out back, only to find that’s also empty. It’s usually packed on a Sunday. People are too afraid to eat inside now, the owner tells us, and the chill in the air tonight means no-one wants to eat outside either. An entire town has turned to pizza takeaway tonight.
An enormous blackboard with a choice of pizzas is dragged to our lonely table, and we order our favourites. We’re left to dine alone and savour a familiar capricciosa without a worry in the world - until it’s time to mask up again.
We’re old hands now. Trepidation has turned to trust. And nowhere does trust feel better right now than being somewhere that feels like home. The new normal has become normalised, and it’s these old favourites and family-run restaurants that will keep us coming back. Night after night, surgical mask after surgical mask, lockdown after lockdown.