Lean in: I have a secret for you
There’s a place in Tuscany, high in the verdant hills over Florence that truly understands the art of dining.
You see, there is a striking difference between the art of eating and the art of dining.
It is as the violinist is to the orchestra.
One sings a delicate tune on its own while the other is cloaked in a true sense of occasion and requires a skilled conductor to bring it to a crescendo.
This place, nestled in a plump explosion of spring flora, has a room with a view.
Its dining hall is at once grand and yet understated.
Gargantuan wrought iron light fittings dangle from the high-beamed ceiling.
Three tall windows wink their silk drapes at the sparkling vista of Florence below.
Tables are aligned in knee-grazing proximity under tapestry veiled lamps in long elegant rows. Places are set with gleaming silver cutlery and gold rimmed porcelain.
But as anyone in the last century who has eaten in this room knows; the art of dining doesn’t begin at the table.
At this place I know, one dresses for dinner. If ladies have jewellery, they adorn themselves. If gentlemen own suits, then don them.
Perfume and cologne is daubed.
Then, once frocked, the shimmering attendees assemble in a peppering of prosecco-sipping elegance on the upper terrace as fireflies at dusk.
The great Italian tradition of an aperitif before dinner is a breathlessly inspired way to prepare one for the dining room.
The informal occasion provides an opportunity for people to introduce themselves, to gaze at the layered horizon and to infuse a little fizz into their blood.
At this place I know, high on the hills of Florence, the diners mingle on the terrace or dot themselves in the many lamp-lit reception rooms on the evenings when it’s a little cooler.
There’s conversation, there’s laughter, there’s the quite social dance of placing the people you meet.
Perhaps a widow is grieving, or honeymooners are quarrelling; the grand array of social minutia are all assessed silently with prosecco in hand.
And then, ladies and gentlemen, one is called to dinner.
I swear there is nothing that demarks a sense of occasion more than a suited Italian thronging a great brass bell for dinner.
The grand room is seated precisely at seven thirty. This is not the sort of place where you ask to change your table because every placement has been decided upon with the utmost attention to detail.
The morose widowed gentlemen who neatly tucks a stiff linen napkin into his collar and sadly sprinkles his pasta with lashings of parmesan lights up when the younger German couple who have been seated next to him immediately engage a conversation.
The more privately ensconced romantics are placed in a long line of loving gazes and seem internally lit by the tall candles emanating from silver candlesticks between them.
The larger groups of families are seated in the middle of the room and their boisterous familiarity radiates outwards and sets a flame to the room as a match to a firecracker.
Then dinner is served.
It comes in three courses. There is always a choice between a pasta or soup for first and something dolce or fruit for dessert but the main is always set.
It is served on broad silver trays with enough helpings for the table. Each portion is delicately proffered between two clasped spoons and lands as a delicious assertion on your plate.
Salad leaves are served to the entire room from one bowl. Dressed in nothing but ground salt and olive oil so young it tastes like the colour green, it’s placed leaf by leaf on side plates.
When the entire room is served, the dance begins.
Each table, placed so closely together, bleeds conversation onto the next until the room is brought to a crescendo that most symphonies would envy.
When all somehow simultaneously arrive at third course, such is the comradery that when another table notices that someone has only bread to accompany their gooey slab of gorgonzola, they slide across a gnarled apple from their fruit basket so that they may enjoy a better match.
Afterwards, gentlemen order whiskies and ladies limoncello. They wander back to the terrace and gaze at the twinkling nebula that is Florence and the olive grove before it; now lit silver with the moon.
There will be always be expensive restaurants with silver service and gilded cutlery. But there are few, even with their sense of refinery and etiquette, who have a true sense of the art of dining.
Luckily then, that somewhere on the slopes of a Tuscan hillside, on a bougainvillea draped terrace, there is a place that does.
And for a price of a three course meal, I might just let you in on it.