‘Ritratto di signora…’ Portrait of a lady

A window on language and customs in Italy

Linda Falcone
November 30, 2006

Today I’m waging a silent war against a blank page and an enemy expression that has yet to reveal itself. It is Saturday and, gratefully, the office is quiet. Most of the theatre troupe that makes this newspaper have all trooped home to their weekend stage-plays. The death of my home computer has compelled me to stay here to write Italian Voices in hard-earned silence. But, despite logistic difficulties, I’m feeling optimistic; Santo Spirito is always a good corner for creating things.

As I sit in front of my computer, Elleci stands at the foot of his half finished canvas. He has been painting a portrait since early morn-ing. By the sound his brush behind me, he is busy winning his own silent war against Sofia Loren’s face. Or maybe it is love, not war, that he is battling against on his side of the room.

At half past twelve, we stop our weekend artistic endeavours and walk to Lola’s for lunch, along with the rest of the neighbourhood rabble. She’s serving up braciole fritte with fried potatoes and artichoke hearts, as if she’d coined the phrase ‘comfort food.’  Fried steak is what she makes for us mother-less cubs every weekend to celebrate the coming of Sunday.

Today, as I squeeze into my Saturday bench-spot between the blacksmith and the frame-maker, I wonder as usual what good I’ve un-wittingly done over the last six days to deserve such lunch-time love. Other unworthy but happy souls feel the same way, and Saturday is the day that Lola gets kissed. Hungry men turn back into boys as they step over the threshold of Lola’s too-small kitchen to thank her for her trouble. I love to watch the love scenes. These men are twice her size, but she seems bigger than they. That’s how it is with professional mothers who cook for a living.

Lola is both cook and waitress and serves her crowds with the curt affection of one who has too many mouths to feed. Unsurprisingly, she calls the men who eat at her tables with the pet name amore. Lola’s brand of love is Italy’s truest form of affection. In this country, perhaps more than elsewhere, the purest sense of devotion is food-related commitment. There’s no greater affection than the kind that wor-ries over empty stomachs. To let your children, borrowed or otherwise, face life with empty pockets is possible. To send them into the world with unfilled bellies, however, is nothing short of unforgivable.

Amore is for the men only, because in Italy ladies are prone to love their boys best. Lola greets her women with the diminutive signorina bella. Beauty is the best way to care about girls. Whether you are technically a signora makes no difference. Married or not, Lola calls every lady by her single woman’s title. In her mini trattoria, we are all young maidens waiting to blossom. I suppose it’s easy to see people as little if your heart is big.

After lunch, Elleci and I walk back to the pressroom ‘full as eggs.’ ‘Lola makes art on Saturdays too,’ he tells me. ‘Like us.’

‘Yes, but her braciole are worth about five of my articles.’

‘Maybe,’ he grins. ‘But that just depends on how hungry you are.’

Once in the office again, Elleci quickly rediscovers his incurable infatuation with Sofia. Totally engrossed, he holds his breath as he paints, loving up a lady who is seventy and just got a calendar contract. And yet, I can’t help thinking that my own 70-year-old muse is much more beautiful. She passes her months without need of a pose and she feeds the hungry. Lola doles out love in the least pretentious and most Italian of ways and serves her fans like much-loved children.

I turn and watch Elleci paint a while. There is no uncertainty in him. He knows the woman he is searching for. And La Loren does have her charm, there’s no arguing that. Sofia represents the Italian ideal when it comes to beautiful women. But Lola—Lola is the real signorina bella.

more articles