Saturday, March 24, 2018

Forbidden Fruit

Some pomodori cuore di bue (Beefsteak tomatoes) at the Rialto market

The other day at the Rialto market I found myself in the extremely uncomfortable position of listening to the wife of a friend recount how he'd been caught cheating red-handed.

Now, contrary to the still rather common Anglo-American depiction of Italians as considering even the sternest moral laws as no more than quaint suggestions, the kind of transgression I'm writing about is taken very seriously by Venetians. There are certain sacred bonds that are not to be betrayed under any circumstances, and to have to listen to an account of such a betrayal while the injured party stands just a few yards from you is awkward, to say the least.

"A few yards from you!" some readers might exclaim. "At that distance she must have been shouting her story of treachery for all to hear!"

But, in fact, my friend's wife stood just a couple of feet from me. For she was not the injured party in question. This wasn't a banal matter of marital infidelity. It was something far more scandalous, and hardly to be borne by its victim, who stood a few yards off behind a long table of fruits and vegetables heaped up in terraced trays.

You see, it was this fruttivendolo, from whom her husband and she always bought their produce, who'd caught her husband in the act--in flagrante delicto--of buying a head of cavolo verde (Romanesco broccoli) at the stall of another fruttivendolo.

And, as the Restoration playwright William Congreve famously put it, "Heav'n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turn'd, Nor Hell a Fury, like a Fruttivendolo scorn'd."

Because her husband is American and has lived here for less than two years, he wasn't even aware at the moment of his discovery of the gravity of his crime, or of its dire consequences. I suspect he might easily have missed, or even shrugged off as a merely passing pique, the daggers flung his way in the look of his usual fruttivendolo.

Not until his next visit to his usual fruttivendolo did he learn the dire truth of the situation. 

Having been guilty of the same disloyalty myself, I'll admit that nothing could seem more innocent to we naive perpetrators of such crimes than our decision--on certain rare occasions--to give a bit of our business to another vendor.

After all, it's not as if we're committing the truly perfidious act of buying our produce from one of the supermarket chains. From those "convenient," "one-stop," "contemporary" solutions to every tourist need which are likely (in tandem with the resident population's continued decline) to one day drive every independent Venetian fruttivendolo and butcher and fishmonger out of business.

On the contrary, it's precisely our concern for the survival of independent produce stalls that motivates us to sometimes shop at more than just one.

But, go ahead, try this high-minded argument with your usual fruttivendolo and see how far it gets you. You might as well tell your wife that the three or four children you've secretly fathered with other women while you've been married were motivated by a similarly noble commitment to the broader social good.

The fact is, once you've been found out, your usual fruttivendolo may continue to take your money in exchange for his (or, less frequently, her) produce, but the conversation and good cheer, the samples and little discounts, the bright-eyed greetings you were used to receiving become things of your long lost salad days, so to speak.

What you get instead is cold disdain, intended (as any escapee from an Italian-American family will surely recognize) to inspire in you an overwhelming sense of guilt and regret: a sad, burdensome sense of what you've thrown away.

Again, I speak from experience, having left what would strike any Venetian fruttivendolo as a wake of infidelity behind me in my more than seven years of living here.

When the fruttivendolo near our old apartment in Sant'Elena surmised that my regular visits to his stand weren't quite frequent enough to supply all of our produce needs, he not only stopped speaking to me when I did show up to buy from him, but once--and this was the ultimate insult, clearly intended as such by him and understood as such by me--he charged me what was clearly the (much higher) tourist price for a couple of apples I bought from him, having not even bothered to weigh them.

This was as unmistakable a message as those dead fish wrapped in newspaper in The Godfather. I never bought another thing from him after that. I'd always preferred the wider selection and better prices on Via Garibaldi anyway.

And this is where the Cavalleria Rusticana-like passione of the average fruttivendolo leaves an outsider like me bemused: they have made their point--and driven off a loyal customer.

More recently, I've had a similar experience with a fruttivendolo in the Rialto market--in spite of the fact that this particular proprietor's limited range of fruits and vegetables left me no choice but to buy from another vendor as well. In fact, it was loyalty alone that kept me buying from the smaller stall when I could have simply bought everything I needed from a single larger vendor. 

It was loyalty, too, that kept me buying from that stall even as the service degenerated and I felt the all-too-familiar chill of my Rialto fruttivendolo's silent, wounded hauteur. Indeed, I continued to stop by his stall even after he neglected to add a bunch of parsley to a bag of bottoli I'd bought (an addition which is second-nature to a fruttivendolo, as it's one of the few inviolable commandments in Italy that no matter how one prepares artichokes parsley must always be used).

But it was no use. I'd violated his Trust and our relationship was, at least in his opinion, irreparable.

Of course I told none of these things to my friend's wife the other day at the Rialto. For she seemed to assume that after a period of penance, during which her husband would demonstrate an appropriate degree of remorse and a renewed devotion, he would be accepted back into the good graces of their usual fruit stall.

It was not my place to trample on such hope. Though I doubt it's possible for one who has sinned against their usual fruttivendolo to ever really get right again with these kitchen gods. 

For that reason I now buy almost exclusively from one stall.  


And when I don't, no cheating spouse, no spy, no conspirator against any crown--whether of heaven or earth--has ever taken more precautions against being found out.


  1. Even I, as a mere Venice loving "tourist" discovered this unwritten commandment by my second visit. How dare I buy from the "immigrants" by the Rialto Mercato! What did I was Sunday and they were one of the few open. And the crazy American woman had a craving for a handful of lovely pomodori on a Sunday.
    Lesson learned.
    Be careful my friend....I think they have hidden cameras or at least a well worn grapevine.

    1. Alas, Michelle, it becomes even more complicated--and serious--when it comes to "immigrant" vendors at the Rialto who, according to Venetian fruttivendolo, don't pay taxes and upon being cracked down on, simply transfer their stalls to fellow country men, who also don't pay taxes. Is this actually true, or is this merely an ugly expression of xenophobia and racism? I really don't know. Although, unfortunately, the latter is all-too-prevalent here (as elsewhere). I can try to look into this a bit more, but I suspect it won't be pretty.