Last Sunday, we went to have lunch in a trattoria in Borgo Grappa, one of a handful of satellite villages built under pre-war fascism between the sea and Latina, the whole area created ad hoc from the malarial Pontine marshes by workers imported from the north-east.
The roads are straight, laid out in a grid and lined with maritime pines or palms, my favourite combination of trees and typical of this part of Italy, strung as it is between north and south; though clumps of eucalyptus, believed to provide protection against malaria, are also present. We pass stables, newly-built villas, squat prefabricated houses, fields of buffalo, the kind that produce mozzarella, as we drive from the Via Pontina towards the sea.
The trattoria’s called Da Giggetto and it’s been recommended to us by Joanna, who meets us there. It’s on a corner, set back a little from the road and the forecourt is occupied by a collection of ill-assorted tables, except that their ill assortment is the source of their charm. As in every trattoria worthy of its calling, the tablecloths are white and starched, the space between tables generous, the bread in its basket already on the table. Above our heads is a sort of dense green tarpaulin, slightly sagging, with direct light filtering through the cracks. A breeze blows through the oleanders planted in tubs between the tables and the road.
We’ve booked, but there’s no need. Apart from us, there’s a table of six to my right, ten yards away, and behind us, in a patch of sun, an oldish man with tattoos and a cap. The waiter is the owner’s son, the owner takes our order, his wife, or a woman who might be his wife, pops over to see how we’re getting on, the puddings are made by their daughter. The menu’s typed and there are odd, amusing comments, also typed, and quotations from Pavese and writers I don’t remember. When he isn’t serving the owner joins the tattooed man with the cap. The wine is local, and cold, and good. The food is excellent: seafood, fish, porcini mushrooms, served in abundance and without frills.
In the middle of the forecourt is a narrow wooden boat, the kind of craft you’d expect to see native Americans in; we almost, but finally don’t, ask how it got there. Inside, in a long high-ceilinged room, there are photographs of the great and good, and merely famous. The whole place has a dolce vita air about it, of an Italy that was still provincial and unstandardised, generous with itself and others. A backwater, really, in the best sense of the word. Much of its charm comes from the fact that there is nothing here of the self-important cultural Italy of the great cities, nothing that dates back more than sixty or seventy years. It can still afford to be relaxed, and unselfconscious.
Afterwards we go to a kiosk on the beach and the mood’s the same. I half expect Alberto Sordi to wander in and order a glass of chinotto. An elderly gay couple, the fatter one with a jet black fringe, the other with blond hair twisted up and held in place by what looks like an ornament of bone, are enjoying this early, unexpected sun.