Dining Out with Niccolo — Picking the Perfect Dinner Companion

hen choosing a place to eat, whether breakfast, lunch, or dinner, my inner Goldilocks algorithm runs through a well-trained series of decisions and “if/thens”.

Will I splurge? Mostly, no. Budget? Usually, yes. It’s a short response that eliminates restaurants serving crab, great cuts of beef, roasted chicken, amazing salads and anything organically-grown-and-flown-in-today-from-Sweden. In fact, options edge toward the pedestrian but aim still for tasty. American? Breakfast is served all day. Reasonable portions? Yes! Italian? No, I’d rather eat Italian in Italy. Teriyaki? Why does the chicken taste like it came out of a blender? I used to like that place. Indian? It closed. Oh, and the other one moved. That’s the same as closing, fool! So, no Indian. Chinese? Fast or in-house? Um, no. Not in the mood. Thai? Too expensive. American and breakfast it is.

This compilation of parallel internal debates runs concurrently with estimates of distance, ease of parking, courtesy of wait-staff, and quiet, which is critical. Restaurant meals, while providing necessary nutrition, also minister to other essential needs including conversation, self-reflection, and for me, the sublime pleasure of immersing myself in the pages of a good book.

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Currently, I am soaking up ancient Florentine culture along with the life of Nicolo Machiavelli. The book is “The Making of a Prince” by Maurizio Marmorstein, who, as one reviewer put it, “ flits elegantly throughout Niccolò’s life — his ascension through the ranks to a position in the Second Chancery; various diplomatic missions …and his role in deploying a citizen-staffed army …against Pisa.”

Reading while eating, a gross assault against fine dining for some, is, in itself, a fine art, requiring a book of the right size, tone, and engagement. I find that non-fiction, particularly if it is data driven, with statistics and processes, does not work in the semi-distracted environment of a restaurant dining table where the reader, me, is forking up bites, chewing, and swallowing while attempting to read but not drop food directly on to my chest, the book, or the table.

So a Kindle, moderately sized hardback, or paperback are all appropriate. In the case of the Kindle or another ereader (I am receiving no money from Amazon), the book is lean-able. It can be propped against the wall, a ketchup bottle if full, or the condiments tray. Only one finger is necessary to tap and turn the page. An traditional, bound book, with its seams, hard or soft cover, and hundreds of pages, must be managed with a full hand to spread the cover, though a dinner knife, laid horizontally and carefully about two inches from the top edge is also heavy enough to hold the pages open for reading.

“Despite all the discouragement and ridicule, Niccolo had discerned his tutor’s deep respect for him from the first time he set foot in his studio, but rather than take advantage of the soft spot Ser Battista had for him by ignoring his studies as any normal young student might do, Niccolo reveled in peppering him with questions on Florence’s heritage.”

Machiavelli is a reclaimed literary companion, one who lay fallow in memory from my 20s, those frantic years when I sought to understand every conundrum of the human world through books. Even then, when I questioned Niccolo’s incomprehensible leniency toward a brutal regime, his politics confused, his devotion to the state stymied my own, younger intellect.

From the earliest age, as this Italian wizard’s keen eye partnered with mundane or motley experiences and acquaintances, he contrived to forge a cognitive scaffold worthy of an organizational savant. Machiavelli knew, for example, the myriad ways Florentine and other societies worked and why they took one path over another. He accepted society as it was, suffering regularly under its yoke but bowing to the Republic’s reality.

“His interrogators showed little mercy. They jerked his hands behind his back, fastened them to chains linked to pulleys, and hoisted him into the air with savage indifference…He could hardly be accused of being averse to such methods, however. Far from it. The state and the security of its people ranked supreme in his eyes. In fact, he firmly held that the state and its institutions had a sacred duty to preserve their powers…”

Of course, that was long ago and far away, but, still, how could a man of dazzling intellect approve such barbaric practices, all in aid of a system that purportedly extended freedom, yet which actually subjugated its people behind a flimsy veil of liberty?

It is rare for anyone to ask what I am reading, though I am always curious to know when I spot someone else with his or her eyes glued to the page. I often introduce the question: “What are you reading?” followed by, “Are you enjoying it?” Still, 99 times out of a 100, I am the only reader in the restaurant. In lieu of talking or reading, many people now surf, scrolling a thumb or forefinger from the top to bottom or bottom to top of the phone screen. This silent endeavor brings frowns, smiles, and even laughter to the surface, but all in mental isolation, even when dinner companions are sitting mere inches away. Conversation ebbs and flows depending on customer demographics. iPhones and Androids rest in patrons’ palms while my book is tilted against the condiments tray or a bottle of acqua fresca.

Machiavelli, flourishing within a constant, dynamic swirl of ideas, lived and thrived at the steering of his values and the working or his agile cerebral cortex. The rhythms of a farmer’s life or a salaried job would never nourish his eager, nay, demanding brain. Consider how few of our current forms of entertainment or boredom breakers existed 550 years ago. A father of four, his children’s chatter and youthful discourse, while affectionately tolerated, could not long stimulate a mind that saw kings, popes, and whole realms rise and fall, or watched as power, like a mammoth tunnel drill, worked its way through the mountains of social resistance to breach the other side and reclaim the throne.

Caterina Sforza by Lorenzo di Credi

These stories muted the calls of hunger as I tapped from page to page, curious as to how Machiavelli’s specific set of skills gained essential information and earned agreement. In 1499, for example, he traveled over the Apennines and along the road to Ravenna to negotiate with one of the most colorful women in Italian history, Countess Caterina Sforza Riario. “She governed her small, turbulent state from the time she was a young widow of twenty-six, when her first husband Girolamo Riario, …was murdered in his own palace…In the aftermath of her husband’s assassination by the rival Orsi family, Caterina and her children were taken prisoner. It didn’t take long for Caterina’s captors to realize that they needed to gain access to her castle…their numerous attempts …were rebuffed by the castellan. Caterina …agreed to leave her children as hostages. The moment she entered the castle walls however, she climbed atop its ramparts and proceeded to rebuke her husband’s killers…threatening revenge. And as to the fate of her children, she lifted her gown and petticoat to reveal her genitals in a gesture of bold defiance, reminding her captors that she possessed the apparatus to generate as many children as she so desired.”

I may have swallowed an olive pit with that tale, but I kept reading, and eating, and then I realized why. Since long before my ancestors arrived in North American in 1637, meals have been a time for storytelling. Between courses, those around the table would share narratives of daily life, tales of heroes, or myths from ages past. Thus, lacking a dinner partner, how better to spend that hour than with food to nourish the body and literature to nourish the imagination and whisper of adventure?

Writer, ESL instructor, editor, traveler, seasonal ex-pat— my life is both an intentional and serendipitous circumstance. Motto — “Buy the ticket, and go!”

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