• A taste of La Scala

    by Judith Newton

    Our sense of delight is in a great measure comparative, and arises at once from the sensations we feel and those which we remember. Samuel Johnson, Rambler #80 (December 22, 1750)

    Figure 1 La Scala

    It was the afternoon before the evening at La Scala and my husband, Bill, and I had bought expensive tickets. Well, one seat was expensive and the other was not. One was for a red velvet chair at the front of a red velvet box with a full view of the stage and the other was for a stool right behind the chair that had only a partial view. (We planned to trade seats as the opera progressed.)

    We were thrilled at the idea of going to La Scala—the history! The great performances! The discerning audience! The glittering chandeliers! I thought more than once about those Impressionist paintings that portray silk-and-jewel-clad women, and soberly dressed men, lounging in gilded boxes that are stacked one on top of one another like layers in a golden wedding cake.

    Figure 2 Pierre-Auguste Renoir La Loge, 1874

    As a woman of the twenty-first century, of course, and as a traveler to boot, I would be dressed with more restraint—in a black skirt and top and an insanely expensive purple sequined scarf that I had bought on sale. Not nineteenth-century silk or jewels, to be sure, but the scarf was smart and in its own way I thought it worthy of a La Scala evening.

    Two months before our trip we had stayed up well past midnight to buy tickets the moment they went on sale. Bill dialed the Italian phone number, which was always busy, while I tried to get through on the computer. I’m famously bad at technology, but I had studied La Scala’s website on and off for over two weeks. Despite some baffling glitches and despite the way my heart raced as the diminishing number of available tickets continually flashed on screen, I managed to buy us seats for Puccini’s Turandot.

    I had also researched some restaurants in the vicinity of La Scala, and on the day of the opera we scouted them out. Still drugged from lack of sleep—we had arrived in Italy the day before—I had forgotten to bring the restaurant names, but I did remember a street—Marino Tommaso. We walked its length and saw a couple of places with outdoor seating and posted menus. Ristorante Papa Francesco sounded familiar, but I couldn’t remember what the reviews had actually said. A waiter came out to ask if he could help.

    “A che ora si apre per cena?” I asked in my traveler’s Italian.

    “What time do you need,” he said in perfect English.

    “Six thirty, I think. We’re going to La Scala.”

    “Come here and I’ll give you 911 service,” he said. (He meant fast, pre-curtain service, not terrorist activity, of course.) He’d clearly spent some time in the U.S. Still I wasn’t ready to commit. There may be four of us, I told him. I need to consult our friends. It was the day of the opera, and dinner had to be good.

    Early that evening we and our traveling companions showed up at Papa Francesco’s. (I’d checked the reviews and they were excellent.) We walked in to find wood paneling, old pictures on the walls, white table cloths, and pink flowers. It was both homelike and handsome. The waiter from earlier that afternoon greeted me with the enthusiasm of an old friend, one kiss on each cheek.

    “Only Judas kissed one kiss,” he said.

    Figure 3 Ristorante Papa Franceso

    The “911 service” began when our waiter gifted us with a delicious garlicky spread, and then, at his suggestion, two of us ordered the squid ink pasta, one the spaghetti and clams, another three kinds of ravioli. The latter dishes, when they came—and they came fast—were excellent, but the squid ink ravioli stuffed with sea bass and covered with a creamy sauce of mullet roe was, well, operatic; a heavenly chorus of robust flavors.

    “This is fabulous!” I said.

    “This is fa-bu-lous!” our friend echoed. It would be the best dish I ate during our three-week trip; a dish fit for La Scala.

    Figure 4 Squid Ink Ravioli

    And then onto to La Scala itself. Like the ravioli, it was fabulous. My husband insisted on taking the seat with the partial view. (He’s a prince about those things.) I sat sideways facing the stage with one arm along the padded red velvet ledge. Although I was not living in nineteenth-century Paris, I thought about those paintings once more—women in gilt-covered loges holding fans and adorned in flowers. (If painted by Renoir they were there to be seen. If painted by Mary Cassatt they were actively watching.) I thought of Cassatt’s In the Theater—a woman in white gloves, a green high-necked dress, flowers in her auburn hair, holding a large crimson-splashed green fan. The same red velvet surrounds her as surrounded me. She is looking out at gilt boxes like those I also faced. Oh the history of it!

    I wondered what she’d had for dinner. Yes, I wondered. Because the pleasures of sublime moments are an ensemble of what we experience in the present and what we remember of the past. As the elaborate costumes of Turandot merged with silken nineteenth-century dresses and my sequined scarf, and as the silvery aria Nessun Dorma connected me to legendary tenors of the past—reminding me of why we’d made the effort to call Italy at midnight—I also thought about the lyrical delights of squid ink ravioli, stuffed with sea bass in a creamy sauce of mullet roe. Like music, the pleasures of a stunning moment come in layers.

    Figure 5 Mary Cassatt's At the Theater, 1879



    The recipe for squid ink ravioli was too complex to post. But here, in the most lovely aria from Turandot, is a hint of what it tasted like. There are three versions (also listed with a little more context below): Placido Domingo’s, Pavarotti’s, and Paul Potts’. Which do you like best? (In “Nessun Dorma” or “None Shall Sleep,” the hero yearns for the night to end so he can claim the hand of the Princess he loves.)


    1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2RdJmqLrsbo. Placido Domingo on stage at La Scala. Thrilling despite the dark video. It’s dark, of course, because it’s nighttime on stage.
    2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RdTBml4oOZ8. Pavarotti in concert. He’s famous for this aria.
    3. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wDa03_EHdJU. Paul Potts (winner of Britain’s Got Talent) recording in what appears to be La Scala. The gilt boxes are on fine display.

    Images of Papa Francesco’s and Squid Ink Ravioli Courtesy of Papa Francesco’s. Photo of La Scala by jovike on flickr.

    • what a gorgeous experience! I hope to get there one day. And I hope you ate a LOT of delicious and decadent pastas and cheeses and drank a lot of fabulous wines. What a dream!

    • I think your voice is growing strongly and more distinctive and it’s a pleasure to read this—Ruth

      • Judy N

      • September 7, 2011 at 5:34 pm
      • Reply

      Hollye, I’m afraid I did eat a lot of decadent pasta and enjoyed it, though now I’m not enjoying its legacy so much!

      Ruth, thank you for reading and for your good words.

      • Susan W.

      • September 7, 2011 at 6:33 pm
      • Reply

      Sitting at my desk bawling my eyes out after listening to PD and LP and then watching Paul wow the judges in Britain’s Got Talent. But through my tears, let me say that your description of The Big Night is as multilayered and delightful as must have been the squid ink ravioli and the music. Thank you for sharing your experience(s).
      (And I think my vote goes to Placido, but maybe because that was my first listen.)

      • BRAD

      • September 7, 2011 at 8:02 pm
      • Reply

      What an evocative, multi-layered, synesthetic evening of experiences. Did you and Bill share a quiet moment together in one of those private little “apartments” across the hall?

      • Judy N

      • September 7, 2011 at 8:11 pm
      • Reply

      Brad, how do you know about those apartments?

    • Something I would have no interest in doing but loved your telling. You made the Opera come alive as well as the food of Italy. I have had the food in Italy and it was always a delight. The opera for me not so much, ever. But you wove a wonderful story and I felt I was there.

      • Carol Brill

      • September 7, 2011 at 10:12 pm
      • Reply

      Judy–This essay was uterly charming. It flows,and intrigues. Your writing improves each time I read you. Carol

    • I want to swoon just reading this! I wonder if the dishes at Scala’s Bistro in San Francisco are patterned after this? I believe they have squid-ink ravioli on the menu. I know for sure they have lemon creme ravioli that is to DIE for!
      Lovely story! 🙂

      • Judy N

      • September 8, 2011 at 10:19 am
      • Reply

      Dear Madge, Thank you! So glad you connected even without loving opera. Do listen to the Placido Domingo link. It’s very short. Think of love and pasta.

      Debra, Thanks for the good words and for putting me on to Scala in SF. I’d go a long way for more squid ink ravioli! Lemon Creme also sounds great.

      • Judy N

      • September 8, 2011 at 3:26 pm
      • Reply

      Dear Susan, I cried too. And Placido is my favorite as well. Thank you for reading and sharing!

      Dear Carol, Thank you so much!

      • Mardi

      • September 10, 2011 at 12:53 am
      • Reply

      I loved the last paragraph especially – a seamless transition from music to food, beautifully wrought. And the paintings and observations about them!

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