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A pie to remember

Written By: daveski on January 12, 2009 6 Comments

The highlight of my day yesterday was definitely the pizza. Sure, it tasted good, my first pizza, and first pizzas are always a special experience. But it was the buying itself that was a linguistic victory of sorts.

This was my first day in Sienna. My first day in Italy. I’d had a few other conversations, if you want to call them that, earlier in the day. Mostly when I was standing on the street looking lost and someone actually pulled up in their car and asked me for directions. This happened twice. I hear it happens a lot here. But I was incredulous. The first time I even forgot how to say “I’m sorry” before blurting out a little too loud, “Non parlo Italiano” (I don’t speak Italian). And the second time I couldn’t remember either phrase, which just an awkward pause while I stared at the car and they stared back at me, and finally they figured it out. Don’t I look ignorant enough to not be approached in the first place? Apparently not. Thanks for the compliment, guys…

But back to the pizza. I was hungry, it was cold, and I didn’t want to spend a ton of money. Walking up one of the main streets away from the famous Palazzo Pubblico (pics next time) back to the city gates at Piazza Chigi-Saracini, I smelled the pizza place before I could see it. The nose knows! It was one of few places open on Sunday night, and seeing people standing inside definitely gave me confidence. Still, I thought I didn’t want to commit myself to something that was way over my head. Was it really a pizza place? Did they have a menu on the wall? Most importantly, did I have the guts to go up in front of other people with my Berlitz phrase book in hand and try to stammer out an order?

After circling a few times, I finally decided I did. But not before stopping twice on my way and checking the book. How do you say that again? “Una pizza, per favore” (A pizza, please). “E da portare via” (It’s to go[take away]). “Grazie”. (Thank you).

Yeah, I’m really a beginner.

I went inside and passed a few guys sitting on the stools on either side of the narrow waiting area. The three or four of them were relaxed, talking as they waited for their pies to come out of the oven. I was nervous. I made eye contact with the woman behind the counter, but only briefly…I didn’t want her to come over just yet. I must have stared at the menu, leaning over someone’s shoulder, for a minute or two. It was a pretty awkward moment, and I could feel her waiting for my order. Let’s see…I better pick one that has at least a few ingredients I recognize, and one I can pronounce. That leaves…

Actually I don’t remember the name now. I was too focused on the task at hand. Apparently I said something, repeated it twice I think, and she started walking away, writing it down. Then, my worst fear came to be—she turned and looked over her shoulder and asked a question. What was she asking? Sounded like a yes-no question. She wanted to confirm something. Did I want something with that? Did I want it fully cooked? I didn’t know, but just said “Si, si, si”…that much I could muster. Luckily that seemed to satisfy her, and she went off to the back. I hoped it didn’t come out half-baked.

That left me to my own devices for the next 15 minutes or so, and I could feel the excitement building, as the pizza—my pizza—was getting cooked. Whoo-hoo! I remember feeling much less nervous, though equally perplexed when a man (I hadn’t seen him before) poked his head around the ovens and asked something which of course I didn’t get. But the guys next to me turned slightly in my direction. One of them pointed, I think. OK, so he’s asking who has the ____ pizza. He looked at me and asked something, and thankfully when I looked quizzically back at him, inclining my head forward, he knew to repeat with body language: did I want the pizza cut into slices, he must have asked, as his hand sawed back and forth.

Yes, I mean, si, per favore, whatever it takes.

He walked up to the counter with the pizza in the box, I paid, and off I went. And it was delicious, fully baked.

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6 Responses to “A pie to remember”

  1. Youki on: 12 January 2009 at 11:13 am

    in the spirit of this post, I went on youtube to learn some Italian.

    Come stai, Dave?
    Sto bene.
    Mio nome e’ Youki.
    Sono un turista.
    Buona fortuna!
    Ci vediamo dopo. Ciao!

    hmm maybe FIT needs a “top 10 youtube videos that teach you _________ language” series.

  2. sandra on: 13 January 2009 at 9:17 am

    Dear Dave,

    I enjoyed reading your post quite a bit! Here is something for you everyone who reads the blog to enjoy…and perhaps learn! 😉


    Looking forward to read about some more adventures.
    ps/re your chin..perhaps you should start growing an artsy-fartsy beard ;)!

    Maya’s secretary 😉

  3. Jeremiah on: 13 January 2009 at 10:34 am

    Hey Dave!

    It seems like you’re having a great time in Siena! I’m an expert at saying “Mi dispiace!” or “I’m sorry!” as it seems I was doing that a lot during my stay in Italy. If you’re looking for the cheapest pizza anywhere, try a pizza marinara (only tomato sauce) or a pizza margherita (only tomato sauce and cheese) by saying “Vorrei (I would like) una pizza marinara” or “Vorrei una pizza margherita per favore.” At most places you can also omit the word “pizza” from the sentence and just use the name of the pie. Every once in a while you stumble upon a place that makes a pizza “con patatine fritte” (with french fries) that can be quite tasty. The guy in the back probably asked if you wanted it “tagliata” (“cut/sliced”). It took me a few tries to learn that one. If you want pizza by the slice (if that particular place offers it) you can request one by saying “Vorrei un trancio di… (+ name of the pizza).” Pizza places are usually the easiest to order from but watch out for those tricky cafes! Sometimes you have to order your drink from a cashier before you go redeem your receipt for a drink at the bar. It helps to observe people for a bit to pick up the rhythm (ignore that sensation that makes you feel like a total creep while staring at them, you’re learning!.) And remember that it’s almost always cheaper to drink at the bar vs. at a table. At most places people will not form a line for service, so you have to defend your place and fight your way up (this includes fending off old ladies). You can verbally defend your position by saying “Tocca a me” (“It’s my turn”). An employee may also ask “A chi tocca?” (“Whose turn is it?”). Also, no one ever leaves a tip (“la mancia”) unless the service is extraordinary and you’re feeling super super generous. At some places they include the tip/cover charge (“il coperto”) in your bill. Have fun and hit me up for advice any time.


  4. juski on: 13 January 2009 at 1:14 pm

    I’m with you, man. Who says ignorance is bliss?
    But I don’t think you get points for being proud, so what the heck. Haul out that phrase book, and if need be, even let your prospective listener read what you have trouble saying. That will certainly make it clear that you would appreciate a little help, grazzie beaucoup…

  5. daveski on: 14 January 2009 at 7:17 am

    –youki, thanks for the tips! It makes me wonder, why doesn’t the Berlitz book have the expression for “How are you?” or something appropriate in Italian, much more up-front. I haven’t found it yet. Instead, there’s so much transactional language…where can I buy a stamp (hello? does anyone buy stamps nowadays?), my stomach hurts, I didn’t order that…

    –sandra, er, I mean, Maya’s secretary (there’s a job!), yeah Russell Peters is the best! I was going for the beard (how do you say “goatee” in Italian? there are lots of ’em here) but couldn’t handle it after a week or so…

    –Jeremiah, wow, you have a good part of a chapter from a guide book here. Thanks! I hear you about having to keep your place in line…makes me think about how agitated we all get waiting in line in the U.S….either fighting for your place or chilling out seem like the road to happiness but I find myself being less assertive and then getting po’d when someone steps in front of me.

    I’m going for a margherita next time for sure.

    –juski, touche…

  6. Jinny on: 17 January 2009 at 7:01 am

    ha ha ha…^^ I enjoyed reading your first experience of speaking in Itailian. Did the Itailian guy at the Pizza place use the same body langauge as you do? What if Itailians use their own body langauge? Oh, I don’t want to even imagine that! Anyway, cheers on your successful communication in a new langauge!

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