April 26, 2010

Antonio's restaurant near pigalle

The place is hopping… The waiters are all efficient smart alecky young men with infectious smiles. People come all the way from the outskirts of Paris to eat in this restaurant run by a short rolly polly French man and his Italian wife. The place is packed at every meal and people with plates of pizza and glasses of fruity tasting Chianti never fail to spill out into the street in front of the restaurant.

The clientele is varied as people from all walks and stations of life come eat here. Jocular red faced politicians eat next angry young students who marching in the streets just last year… Hardworking secretaries and factory workers rub elbows with dissolute musicians from the nightclubs on Pigalle, right next door… Young women with hard faces and short hair try ineffectually to impress the significance of their burgeoning movement upon the ladies of negotiable affections who work in nearby bars.

All these people congregate in a fragile understanding that for the duration of a meal, in this place, peace can be had... The penalty for breaking the peace is invoking the Antoine’s wrath (“Just call me Antonio, as does my wife…”), which usually meant a permanent banning. And people prefer to at least tolerate each other rather than to risk losing access to Antoine’s marvelous pizzas and pasta.

In the evening, the crowd thins and only the regulars who know what comes next remain. Antoine comes out of the kitchen and grabs his mandolin from its hooks on the wall. When he was sure that he had everyone’s attention, the short squat Frenchman in his off-white tomato-sauce stained apron would start playing, softly at first and then more strongly, as if gaining momentum. Finally, he would open his mouth and the purest baritone anyone had ever heard would spill out and fill the restaurant with ringing beauty, would fill the world it seemed, and Antoine sang. He would sing popular Italian and French operas stories of passionate love tried by life, of dark court machinations, of brotherhood betrayed, and for a time… time stopped…

Forty years have passed… and it has been a very long time since Antoine has left. The clientele has changed and though the restaurant still serves good food, it now has three wide-screen TVs showing non-stop football (aka soccer). No one remembers Antoine’s voice or the way he once moved Tito Gobi to tears with his rendition of Gioachino Rossini’s Guglielmo Tell. The mandolin is still up on the wall, untouched amidst a clutter of knickknacks and trinkets… And I expect that if I could put my ear to it, I could still hear that beautiful baritone echoing within. 

All pictures courtesy of yours truly.