Eating Out

Requiem for a bad meal

Lisa Hilton mourns the pleasure of good company – even in a cynically awful faux Italian in Berlin

In his beautiful, heartbreaking and immensely funny book The Third Tower, the great Hungarian writer Antal Szerb describes a 1936 visit to Vicenza, the small Veneto city where Goethe first encountered the work of Palladio. Goethe’s vision of the interconnectedness of European culture was profoundly in influenced by Vicenza, whose architecture embodied for him the “calm perfection of the soul” expressed in Classicism.

It is Italy, Szerb reflects, which shaped the Northern psyche and whose existence as an ideal beyond geography was in turn the product of that psyche: “Italy would not be Italy if the dreams of these men from the North did not still hover over its landscapes.”

Food is of course part of the synchronicity which has established “Italy” as a state of mind, but Szerb’s gastronomic experiences during his last journey across the peninsula were less than sublime. A short chapter of his travelogue, Confessions of a Bourgeois, discusses his experience at a trattoria in Verona, investigating Szerb’s response to his own discomfort at eating “excellent pasta asciutta” in a charming garden where he shares a table with a chauffeur.

He suspects that his fellow diners may be janitors and admits to his shameful humiliation at finding himself in the sort of lower-class restaurant that none of his acquaintances in Budapest would ever set foot in. Szerb’s loathing of bourgeois morality is nonetheless unable to overcome his “entrenched snobbery” and despite the quality of the food he can’t enjoy his dinner.

Szerb could perhaps have solved his quandary at Sale e Tabacchi in Berlin, an exclusive restaurant masquerading as an Italian corner shop, complete with the classic blue sign offering salt, tobacco and “Valori Bollati”, (the government-taxed stamps required for the processing of Italian documents — so handy to get your divorce certified whilst picking up a packet of fags). The government salt concession was abolished in Italy in 1976, but no one ever got round to redesigning the logo, so like so much of exported Italian culture, Sale e Tabacchi trades on a fantasy of Italian authenticity which, if it ever existed, is half a century out of date.

The restaurant is in Kreuzberg, in the former American Zone, a Molotov cocktail’s throw from Checkpoint Charlie. Kreuzberg used to be arty and edgy; these days it’s as bland as Sale e Tabacchi’s menu, a predictable run through all the worn-out classics, from limp zucchini flowers stuffed with mint and ricotta to chilled claggy lumps of tiramisu.

The space, with six-metre-high ceilings and a tree-filled courtyard looks as though it could be boisterous and flamboyant, if only it could work up the energy. Supposedly Sale e Tabacchi is a hangout for Berlin’s hip art set, but they were obviously having a quiet night in.

As far as the food was concerned we could have been in Denver or Dubai, or anywhere that still thinks balsamic vinegar is a thing

There’s more than a whiff of authenticity about the waiters’ white jackets and serene ability to avoid their clients’ increasingly desperate eye contact, but as far as the food was concerned we could have been in Denver or Dubai, or anywhere that still thinks balsamic vinegar is a thing.

Antipasti of grilled vegetables, prawns and average prosciutto arrived 20 minutes before the wine, followed at a sprightly tempo by tagliatelle with ragù, all of it vaguely brown and profoundly mediocre. The aubergine caponata tasted much like the exhausted mince, whose long-lost flavour was drowned in the tinned tomato bouquet of the Chianti.

Aside from the ubiquitous tiramisu, puddings were a dried-out apple cake and an amaretto “trifle” knocked up from a can of squirty cream and a bottle of Disaronno. Even in the Piazza Navona in August they’d be having a laugh.

Sale e Tabacchi serves despicable international-nowhere food in a particularly cynical manner. A month ago I should have been delighted to learn that it had gone bankrupt. Yet its nonchalant awfulness now seems to belong to a moment as irrecoverable as that polyglot, cosmopolitan European tradition which straddled the skeleton of the Austro-Hungarian empire and of which Szerb was a product.

That evening in Berlin I dined with a Swedish theatre director, a French artist based in Marrakech, an American gallerist living in Spain, a Portuguese musician just in from Bucharest and a German curator who lives in London. No one thought that the chance to meet in a fake Italian restaurant in Berlin was anything out of the ordinary, that we were enjoying something special, luxurious even.

We grumbled in several languages about the menu and didn’t stay too late, because we all had planes to catch, to Moscow, Paris, Rome. The Third Tower opens with Szerb’s declaration that he must go to Italy, since he doesn’t know for how much longer he or anyone else will be able to go anywhere. Foreign travel is not one of life’s basic needs and “no doubt the totalitarian state will sooner or later decree that the true patriot is the one who stays at home”.

Sale e Tabacchi, Rudi-Dutschke- Straße 25, 10969 Berlin, Germany

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