Everything is ready at Mangia e Bevi. The tables are spaced out, the seats reduced from 60 to only 18, in the kitchen Marilena – owner Luigi Grasso’s wife and the trattoria’s cook – is dressed like an astronaut, the wine is chilled and wonderful smells waft from the kitchen.
My favorite restaurant, “my” Trattoria Mangia e Bevi, has reopened after being closed for 80 days. And that’s already good news.
“I’m so happy to see you again,” Luigi exclaims, while we touch our elbows, both protected by masks that hides our smiles. To tell the truth, his eyes, the only thing on his face that I see, seem to reveal a great concern, and he sounds somewhat saddened as he says, “Excuse me but I have to take your complete data.”
For years I have been praying every night for the continued success of places like Mangia e Bevi, one of the finest examples of a no-frills restaurant (starting from the name, which translates as “Eat and Drink”), where you eat simple yet excellent classics of the Neapolitan kitchen. I want these spots to remain intact forever, monuments to the city’s gastronomy, so that even my daughters can enjoy the sensations that I have been able to experience.
In this post-pandemic world, Mangia e Bevi is intact but transformed. Red and white tape – just like you see at a crime scene – marks the places where patrons cannot sit, and the paper menus have been replaced by a chalkboard menu and an online menu. For the latter, Luigi announces the menu of the day each morning on the restaurant’s Facebook page.
I immediately ask for the legendary pasta alla boscaiola (“the lumberjack pasta”), the one with minced meat, mushrooms and peas. That hasn’t changed, thank goodness.
Another novelty is that Mangia e Bevi now takes reservations (this is a real innovation, one imposed by law, as this restaurant has never taken reservations since it’s booming lunch business relies on the fast turnover of tables).
There is no chaos, though! What a pity, as I love the bustle of customers and waiters. Plus, the restaurant is missing its most significant feature: the shared tables, the beauty of eating next to a stranger and striking up a conversation with them.
“The economic activities of the area have not yet started again,” says a disheartened Luigi, “and the university is still closed. Teachers and students” – the heart of Luigi’s clientele – “are missing.”
“We reopened two weeks ago with delivery only. But you know, Naples has never been a city where people get food delivered at home,” he adds. In Naples, people love to eat with others. There is a saying that goes, “Whoever eats alone, drowns.” And that’s why here, even if you come alone you are not alone. Luigi seats you at a table with one or two strangers.
At least that was the case pre-coronavirus. “But now this is not possible,” Luigi laments. He’s sad because he believes he has lost the true added value of his restaurant, the community and the sharing. “Now I can’t bring anyone closer, indeed I have to push people as far as possible,” he adds. “For us it is very strange to work in this way. We take it as an intermediate step. We hope that things can change and return to the usual festive atmosphere of the restaurant.”
Looking disheartened, Luigi takes a glass of wine and sits down next to me. There is not much to do. “It is almost worse than the total closure. As long as it was closed, we were somewhat resigned, everything is closed and therefore there is no possibility. Now, however, it is as if I were looking at the true nature of the problem,” he explains.
For me, too, a poor gastronomic chronicler, who has always been in love with the din of Trattoria Mangia e Bevi, seeing the semi-empty room gives me a sense of anguish. I have always brought my friends here to try Luigi’s amazing dishes, particularly the pasta and potatoes with provola that “rests” on the plate for at least one hour before it’s served.
“I reduced the total seats from 60 to just 18,” he adds, “but the strength of my restaurant has always been the shared tables. Foreign people who came here alone and made friends here, talking about food, of Naples, of beauty.”
“But having only 18 seats was not a problem today,” Luigi continues. “Do you know why? Because only 12 people came in today. If the offices, the facilities around them are closed, if the university is closed [the courses will be remote at least until October] my average number of clients will drastically decrease.”
Smart working may have important social and health benefits, says Luigi, “but it is certainly an enormous damage for us.”
Now we pin our hopes on the return of tourists. On June 3 the borders between the Italian regions were finally opened and freedom of movement was permitted. Many believe there may be a small recovery in local tourism, at least.
“Obviously I had to narrow down the menu, at least temporarily,” says Luigi. “I eliminated the dishes with legumes (pasta and beans, pasta and chickpeas), pasta and potatoes, which were the strength of our place.”
“Rested” pasta and potatoes is one of those dishes that I dreamed about during lockdown. It is prepared in the morning around 11 a.m., after which it is plated and left to rest for a couple of hours. Each plate is covered and stacked on top of each other – up to 10 plates at a time.
It’s not worth the effort for only a few customers. So right now they’re only making “express” first courses: spaghetti carbonara (eggs and bacon), pasta alla Bolognese (with sauce and minced meat) and boscaiola.
“Marilena and I tried for a long time to think about what could really be done to relaunch the business,” adds Luigi. “We are thinking of investing in home delivery, we could open for dinner.” It’s heartening to see that brainstorming is in full swing, and we eagerly await any new developments.
“But it’s bad, bad, bad,” he repeats. “I had entrusted great hopes of recovery to the reopening. But unfortunately it is still early to talk about reopening. Let’s say that we have at least rekindled the fires of the kitchens.”
At least that’s some good news!
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