I have a favorite hotel in Venice, a tiny place which bought the old Danieli furnishings when they renovated. It's hard to find, tucked into a corner of Cannaregio that you have to be really looking for, and opposite its front door is a little osteria. Mario runs it. He's a big guy--imagine Mario Batali meets James Gandolfini. If you become a semi-regular, he'll pour you shots of his homemade grappa which would melt the rubber off a steel-belted radial. His waiter-cum-busboy Franco only knows three words of English, and wanders around the five tiny tables singing "I luff you" to everyone as Mario puts things on your plate that you won't recognize as food and he won't tell you till you're done eating that it was a calf's hoof.
One Monday night, I was relaxing over a half-litre of red wine with a friend I'd made at the bookshop when Mario called me over to the bar and poured me another shot.
"Wednesday night," he said. "You come back. You can meet my wife. Private party here, family only. My wife is cooking."
"Me?" I said, delighted to my toes. "You want me to come to your family's party?"
"My wife cooks good. Better than me."
I thought of the calf's hoof and decided that yes, this would be wonderful. A true Venetian experience.
All day Wednesday, I could only think about the evening to come--what I'd wear, what I'd say. I brushed up on my Idiot's Guide to Italian.
I put on makeup and a pretty dress, pulled on my high boots. I walked through the lobby, chatting with Santina at the desk as if I wasn't nervous, but my heart was racing. I crossed the narrow alley (so narrow if I turned sideways, I could touch both walls) and pushed open the door of the darkened restaurant.
Mario was behind the bar. Instead of his kitchen whites, he wore a dark, well-fitting suit.
There was no one else in the room.
"Where's the party?" I asked, confused, thinking perhaps I'd gotten the time wrong.
"Here," he said, holding out his arms.
"But your family?"
"Is just me."
I couldn't quite wrap my brain around it. "But your wife?"
"I wanted to meet your wife! I wanted to taste her cooking!" I'd been duped, and I hadn't seen it coming.
"Andiamo," he said, offering me his arm.
I went. He bought spritz and polpette at another osteria, and we chatted, awkwardly. He tried to kiss me, and I didn't let him, pleading tiredness. I practically sprinted back to the hotel.
It wasn't that he'd tricked me. It wasn't even really that he was married. It was that I'd been so excited to meet his wife, to taste her cooking, to sit in a room with a Venetian family and be welcomed as a guest, not a tourist.
Also, it has to be the worst pick-up line that's ever been used on me. You can meet my wife. Please.
(When you read this, I'll be in Venice again, staying in an apartment on the Zattere. I'm not really that eager to see Mario, but I'll pop by to see if Franco still luffs me.)