Sommelier and wine writer Andrea Gori is the current generation of a Florence restaurant legacy: Trattoria da Burde, one of the Renaissance city’s most beloved dining spots. “We’re hanging in there,” he wrote me when I asked him to write a post for the blog. “Italians are fantastic team players.” Earlier this week, in its ongoing effort to curb the spread of Covid-19, the Italian government ordered all restaurants, bars, and cafés to shutter.
Above: There are no lines this week at the famous Uffizi museum in Florence (photo by Elena Farinelli). All public gatherings have been banned in Italy until April 3.
Does 16 days seem like a long time to you? Or a short time? Just 16 days ago, we were counting our covers, ordering wine and meat, we were planning wine dinners. Covid-19 was already here and things had already slowed down as if a spell had been cast over the outskirts of the city where our restaurant is located. Things were slowing down for us but in downtown Florence, the tourist apocalypse had already taken shape three weeks ago. The initial reaction was one of pride enabled by the inability to accept that the entire world had turned its back on us — all at once.
Everywhere, people were claiming that Italy was infected. Other countries were competing to see who could impose the most restrictive measures on our travel. And every day, we didn’t know whether we should be worried about the fact that we could no longer move around or whether Italy — the most beautiful country in the world, where everyone says they would love to live or visit — was suddenly going to become a country that everyone wanted to avoid at all costs. It was madness. Impossible to believe. It was as if the day before you were the belle of the ball and the next day you were the girl that nobody wanted to ask for a dance. Day after day, it became clear that the problem was real and that the advice from politicians, trade groups, journalists, and colleagues on how to get people into restaurants were useless, out of touch, and counter-productive.
Few understand the mathematics behind an epidemic. But I remember enough from molecular biology to know that everything will get worse before it gets better. It was roughly a week ago that we all wrapped our minds around the fact that concrete steps needed to be taken to ask business owners to shut down and limit movement.
For us here at our family’s restaurant, it was a dramatic moment. We are restaurateurs and we are accustomed to welcoming people with hugs and kisses. And we love mingling with our guests. Being forced to keep people at a distance, to refuse reservations, and to cancel long-planned events was extremely tough for us as restaurateurs and business owners. But it was also hard for us as people who value relationships and the warmth and passion of human interaction.
But we started to wrap our minds around it last Saturday night when prime minister Conte told us what fate had in store for us. Many of us realized then that it had already been decided and there was no turning back. We were being forced to close, to shutter, and to isolate.
For Italians, it’s like a death sentence. We are people who live our lives in cafés and restaurants. We cherish our aperitivo and all occasions when we can connect with others and interact. From football championships to coffee at the café in the morning and dinner with friends and family in the morning, we had to progressively shut it all down.
The Italian lockdown is true torture. But Italians follow the rules when they are laid out with conviction. They do what needs to be done when the goal is to change an unsustainable situation. And when the prime minister spoke, surprisingly, we all became aware of what needed to happen. People ask for a coffee and you explain to them that you can’t give it to them. Their first reaction is anger and then acceptance. And then comes a smile that expresses true compassion. We are all in the same boat and we all will paddle together.
This lockdown, and the millions of business owners, restaurateurs, waiters, and sommeliers who are at risk of losing their jobs (and we’re just talking about people who work in the restaurant business), is devastating. It’s absurd, cruel, and terrifying. It makes you shake in your boots as you realize how difficult it will be to get back to normal. Then you begin to understand that “normal” doesn’t mean what it used to. Globalization as we knew it has finally found its tipping point. The restaurant trade in Italy (just like everyone else) will have to change if it wants to be ready for the future. Whatever that future will be.
Today, I opened the shutters at Burde, our family’s restaurant, because even though bars and restaurants are required to stay closed, we have also been a food market and tobacco shop since 1901. We’ve been through two wars. We’ve served German soldiers, American soldiers, fascists and partisans who came to us for cigarettes and bread. We’re still here and we’re not giving up now.