From Slow Stories 7, letter III, published in December 2017 in Dutch.
Yesterday I have gone back to Bevagna with Keng Sen to have a meal there. We ambled into the city gate way before the clock of one. Within the strict Italian timeframe we thus had some time to spare before pranzo. We walked past the church of St Francis where in a side chapel they conserve the stone on which the holy man would have preached to the birds. We didn’t enter.
Then, along the former decumanus between the Roman temple and the ditto bathhouse towards the cardo, the principal street, which still traverses the full length of the small city. We turned sharply to the right passing the solitary pillar of a temple at the square till the point where in former times the Via Flamina entered from Rome. So also until the stream that flows there, coming from Clitumnus. And still gives its clear water to the public washing point. All be it the washing machine has won the battle. Then towards the left along the city wall built in the middle ages, to look for the restaurant where I will visit every year but had never before with my friend. The terrace at this hour is in the shadow and notwithstanding a major American group of tourists on an educational trip, we managed to find a table for two. But of this ecological eatery that I have seen started by a student couple, I will not talk more.
On my tendency to go to Bevagna once a year without fail, Keng Sen has a theory. It is not the old Mevania of the Romans that attracts me or the so-called Syrian early Christian architecture of the churches, but the memory of a restaurant that disappeared ten years ago. I mean not the chic restaurant in the corridors beneath the former Roman circus, nor the vinothek specialised in local wines, oil and spelt. But it is the regretted restaurant of Nina and Quinto that attracts me there. It disappeared from the face of the earth with a stroke of the pen when the owner of the medieval premises called an end to their lease. It had become more profitable for the landlord to invest in apartments there.
As Robert Musil said about himself, Quinto the chef and his wife as the hostess had a small but great reputation. Locally nobody was alarmed by the sinking of Da Nina. Yet the closure of the restaurant reached the columns of The New York Times and the dismay in Parisian circles was large enough to make them invite the chef and his wife for a final visit to France. Nina told me that she sat at the table in Paris with a famous conductor who asked her what instrument she played. She had the wit to answer “I play the battery of the kitchen”.
I would have to do some research to find out what her actual name was. It had something to do with a woman being industrious at home. But she had kept the name of the old restaurant and everybody therefore called her Nina.
Did we ever eat there together? I believe not. In that case it is necessary to tell you something about her appearance. She resembled in a striking manner Anna Magnani. Flaming eyes and black wild hair. She was great in stature and much more than her Umbrian little bear of a husband, she waved the sceptre. She served the tables in the sequence that pleased her. There was also no menu and only her word for it. She was upbeat and autocratic. When once I asked her where the linen on her tables, with the embroidered crest of Perugia, could be bought, she shouted “That we will rob.” And she stripped three of the dressed tables clear of the rented tablecloths and donated them to me. They now enhance intimate dinners in the parlour at the Hooigracht. I asked her “How will you justify this to the owner?” Simply she said “Lost in the washing.”
She did not come from Umbria like her husband but from sunny Puglia. From Santa Maria de Leuca, a fishing town, that is more a drifted away piece of Greece than a part of Italy. I had been there once and heard about an Italian poet who retreated yearly to it as if on an island. But when the Umbrian culinary adventure stranded on the landlord with the restaurant being shut instantly, she decided to go and amuse herself on the coast of her birth. She bought a rod and went fishing on the jetty. I have never seen her again.
Her daughter that I happen to encounter occasionally on the aforementioned street tells me that her mother will phone her from a thousand kilometres south when she catches a fish from the sea.
At her departure, Nina explained to me that she was now fifty years old and too old to start a new restaurant again. Quinto could gain some money by cooking as a guest chef for hotels and parties and on the basis of that they hoped to be able to get along.
She also lives in my memory as a companion while searching for a small table. For the large terrace of the Casa Giano I had developed the desire to obtain a table big enough to have light meals at but also useful to have tea and read. Together with her I rummaged all the auction houses to find something simple. Nina played the guide. She was absolutely arbitrary in directing the way. Time after another, we passed the right addresses or we ended up on a thoroughfare having to search for a way back into town. Sitting next to me in the front seat, she filled the car with her chatter and smoked with abandon. During one of her outpourings, she said to me “I love you but only as if you were my sister.” For her first grandchild, a girl, I bought a pink ceremonial bib as a gift. A decade later I saw this child flirt with the priest of Bevagna.
The small table, dear Jaap, was ultimately found and you have been sitting and reading at it. It is a thing without pretension, with wood veneer, it is round with three bamboo legs. It came to me for nothing more than a handful of coins and just fitted into the boot of my car. At it, I pass peaceful moments when the sun sets in the distance over Lake Trasimeno and projects, across the tops of the hills between Tuscany and Umbria, its rays on the white chalk of the interior of the house through the five arches of the doors.