Dead poets put my mother in a melancholy mood, so after our visit to the Keats-Shelley Memorial House, I took her shopping across the Piazza di Spagna on the Via Condotti, Rome’s most fashionable street. I thought this would cheer her up, but my plan backfired when she saw the prices. In addition to being sad, she now felt terribly poor. Luckily, the Caffé Greco was close at hand. The Greco has been in business since 1760, and is the second oldest bar in Italy, after Florian’s in Venice. Casanova drank there, as did Byron and Keats and Shelley.
Inside, convivial Romans lined the bar, decked out in tweedy jackets and scarves. Everyone was having a good time, but Mother continued to look glum. I prescribed a shot of grappa, which is enough to bring even the most funereal depressive around to a brighter way of thinking.
“Uh-uh,” she said. “I’m not drinking that rocket fuel.”
Grappa is a high-proof brandy distilled from pomace, the sludge left over after pressing grapes for wine. I’d wanted to try it since reading Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms.” Thanks to Hemingway, I always thought I’d take my first sip of grappa from a goatskin, high in a mountain cave, with a naughty peasant girl on my lap. As caves and peasant girls are somewhat hard to come by on the Via Condotti, the Caffé Greco would have to do.
I elbowed my way to the counter and hailed a barman in a white jacket. I told him I wanted grappa, and he asked me for tickets. My response was a clueless stare, one that apparently mimicked the aftereffects of a debilitating stroke. He snapped his fingers and told me to see the cashier.
Mother joined me in line at the register. When we reached the cashier (same white jacket, ultra-thin mustache) he scrutinized us and hissed, “Yes-s-s?”
I ordered a grappa.
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