I don’t have any difficulty recalling my most memorable meal but I couldn’t tell you a single thing I ate. When you’ve just had a pistol pointed at you by a jumpy man disguised by a bandana, little details like food go a bit hazy.
It was 2003. We had had 10 days strolling through Italy on a walking holiday, the kind where there’s just the two of you with a route map between pre-booked hotels and your luggage goes on ahead by taxi. We were treating ourselves with two final days in Rome.
Even better, our hotel had upgraded us and we asked them to find us a really posh restaurant. The enoteca, a wine bar with food, was easily found by walking in a straight line for several blocks in the shadow of the Vatican.
We ate early. There were just two other couples, dressed smartly as only Italians can, leaving us standing out as a little bit shabby. Well, you don’t bring your Armani with you on a hike.
Then it happened. A man, with his face half covered by a bandana, burst through the door waving a gun. A big gun. I particularly remember that. It all happened so quickly, the bartender was spread-eagled on the floor, the man was shouting and waving that gun and frightened faces were appearing in the porthole-shaped window of the kitchen door.
I started as if to get up but one of the two male customers shook his head in my direction. They each put their wallets on the table then the man was shouting at me. I thought ‘That bugger’s not getting my money’ and took a keen interest in bottles on shelves. In any case, my wallet was in my wife’s handbag under her seat.
The man was still shouting and pointing and I recall wondering if the pistol was loaded. I couldn’t understand him but it was clear what he wanted. There was no time to be scared. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the same customer put his finger to his head and tell the gunman ‘Inglese,’ shorthand for ‘that man is stupid.’
Then the robber was gone and, amazingly, the place returned to normal, as if hold-ups happened in Roman restaurants every week of the year. My wife wanted to go but I said this was now the safest place as he was unlikely to return. They took our order – it was a little difficult – and we found it hard to pay attention to the food. The police arrived but they ignored us.
We wondered whether we would get a bill because of the drama but of course they did, the restaurant had already lost the contents of the bar till. It was a long, scary walk back and we jumped at every shadow, thinking it might conceal the gunman. You don’t forget a thing like that but don’t ask me what I ate.