The More Beautiful the Setting, the More Awful the Food


Faith Willinger

I think it's an unwritten banquet rule. The more beautiful the setting, the more terrible the food. I've undergone gastronomic torture in the most beautiful places, Venetian palace ballrooms with massive chandeliers, Amalfi coast gardens with heartbreaking views, museums, archeological sites. There's often a procession in appropriate ancient garb—usually Roman or Renaissance (note the cool footwear, sandals or Mary Jane-type shoes on the guys), bugles trumpet the entrance of dignitaries, flags are tossed in the air. In Florence the venue of choice is the Salone dei Cinqucento in Palazzo Vecchio, where logistics—vast room, no real kitchen—make fine dining impossible.

Trumpet fanfare announced the arrival of the vice-mayor and award winners, and there was a confused rush to the tables.

I recently attended a dinner at the Loggia del Porcellino. Stalls selling handbags, scarves, and souvenirs were removed; hedges ringed the loggia, separating it from the street; and the space was glorious, with tall archways, huge stone columns, vaulted ceilings. The "Premio Porcellino" award would be given to people who had enhanced Florence's role in science, culture, and sensibility. Carapina was supplying gelato that would accompany dessert, and owner Simone Bonini invited me to sit at his table. An aperitivo of spumante or juice was dispensed at a bar, and waiters passed paper cones of deep-fried porcini, zucchini flowers, sage, and onion rings while 420 diners tried to figure out where they were sitting. Trumpet fanfare announced the arrival of the vice-mayor and award winners, and there was a confused rush to the tables.

The menu was strong in diminutives—timballino—tiny timbale, of pappa al pomodoro, risottino (little risotto of porcini and zucchini flowers), maccheroncetti (little fresh pasta tubes with sausage, zucchini, and prosciutto). Everything sounded much better than it tasted, which was of MSG, and service was unbearably slow. I was entertained by Simone's daughter Emma, age seven, who drew pictures of everyone at our table. I baled at 11, as the "maialino baby," suckling pig medallions, were served a table at a time, cloched plates set before diners and uncovered in unison. Clearly they didn't have enough cloches for the crowd. I missed Simone's gelato—Vin Santo and Arabica coffee flavors, but didn't mind since I can visit his gelateria when I'm in need.

I'm curious. What's the most beautiful setting where you've been subjected to gastronomic torture?