First Words — 13 August 2021
By Mark Gauert
City & Shore Magazine
Everybody said to get the risotto. Just maybe not now.
“You’re going … to Europe?” they said.
“I am,” I said.
“Now?” they said. “During … a pandemic?”
“My wife and I have family there we haven’t seen in two years,” I said. “We’re vaccinated, masked and careful after 18 months of COVID-19 precautions. We’re taking a ‘COVID-tested’ flight from New York to Milan, then a socially distanced train to see the vaccinated family in Switzerland and France.”
“Well,” they said, “a pandemic doesn’t seem like the best time to be going to Europe…
“But if you’re going to be in Milan, you’ve got to get the risotto.”
Everybody then proceeded to tell stories in rapturous detail about the risotto alla Milanese they’d had when they were college students, backpacking through Italy. Or in some little trattoria on their honeymoon. Or in the basement of a cathedral as a reward for confirming religious convictions upstairs at the door. (Regardless of actual conviction.)
All worth it, they said, for a steaming bowl of Carnaroli rice, saffron, butter and Parmesan cheese in heaven.
I mean Milan.
“You’ve got to get it,” everybody said. “The risotto, that is. Not the COVID.”
No, nobody wanted that. Not them, not us. And especially not the airline.
To fly on one of Delta’s “COVID-tested” flights to Italy, we needed certificates of full vaccination, certificates of negative COVID tests 48 hours before departure and temperature checks before boarding. Check, check, check.
We’d also have to confirm in writing that we’d wear masks during the flight. That we’d put them right back on after eating or drinking. That there would be spot checks to ensure our masks hadn’t slipped even a little while we were sleeping or watching a movie or thinking about risotto.
They were serious about all of these policies, too. So serious they made us sit on the tarmac at JFK for two hours after our departure time because one (1) of the about 300 passengers had somehow slipped through the vaccination/test/temperature gauntlet without all the required paperwork. They escorted the passenger off the flight – no certificates, no Carnaroli! – but it took time to find her bag in the cargo hold.
“I’m sure you can understand how difficult it is to find one bag among all the others in there,” the captain announced from the flight deck.
We could. We also wondered how they’d let her and her luggage on the plane without all the paperwork in the first place.
We also wondered how we were going to catch the train we were supposed to catch on the other side because somebody – perhaps understandably blinded by the need for risotto – had skirted protocol.
The captain eventually made up some time over the Atlantic, we caught our train, and we spent the next two weeks in happy family reunions in Switzerland, with a side trip to France. It was great – all the reasons we go to Europe are still fully there – but we did feel watched, contact-traced and generally suspected we might not be following all the rules.
“IMPORTANT: COVID-19…information for travellers,’’ my phone buzzed, as I was shopping for groceries in Switzerland. “Mandatory quarantine for persons arriving from certain regions.”
“Oh!” I said. They know I’m here – out of quarantine, and out shopping for groceries! I clicked the link and – whew! – we weren’t from a region on the list. It would have been bad to get busted by the Swiss Guard for grocery shopping. (Although I wondered, briefly, if Swiss jails might be serving fondue – which everybody had said I should get in Switzerland.)
We spent the night before the flight back at the Sheraton at Malpensa Airport in Milan https://www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/milmp-sheraton-milan-malpensa-airport-hotel-and-conference-centre/. Having come this far without any symptoms, we didn’t want to press our luck in a city still celebrating Italy’s victory in the Euro Cup the week before, so the hotel’s restaurant was our last chance for risotto.
Masks were mandatory there. There was a questionnaire at the door, too: How were we feeling? Had we been in contact with anyone feeling unwell? We’re we vaccinated? Does any of this feel like a Fellini movie? If so, which one? Then temperature checks on a facial-recognition screen that, inexplicably, kept thanking us – apparently for having body temperature.
Finally cleared to sit at a table in the socially distanced dining room, we then had to fill out contact-tracing information with one-time use pens in plastic wrappers. We were allowed to take off our masks, but there were plastic bags to put them in so no one would have to touch them. There were signs on tables, indicating we were seated in an Area Sanificata. Salt and pepper shakers were one-time-use only. There was no menu – just a QR code to scan to see the menu on our phones.
But there it was, about three-quarters of a scroll down: “Risotto alla Milanese, Carnaroli rice risotto with saffron, butter & Parmesan cheese.” There were other tempting choices – Orecchiette di semola con asparagi, branzino, bottarga e olio all’arancia (pasta shells with asparagus, sea bass, dried fish roe and orange-scented oil) and Linguine di farro con gamberi ed pomodorini (linguine with prawns and baby plum tomatoes) – but everybody had said … well, you know.
Our masked server, Francesco, wheeled a black bowl near-brimming with risotto out of the kitchen on what looked like a hospital crash cart. I wondered for a moment if he was going to toss it Frisbee style from across the room to reduce human contact – but, instead, he stood on tiptoe and passed it over at maximum social distance. I opened the inspected-before-sealed jar of Parmesan cheese, sprinkled some over the steaming bowl of Carnaroli rice, saffron, butter, and raised a spoonful to my lips.
I’m not saying travel to Europe during a pandemic is for everyone, or even recommended. There are plenty of chefs and restaurants in South Florida who will serve you a fine dish without a certificate or jet lag or facial-recognition screens that thank you repeatedly for having a body temperature.
But if you’re ever in Milan, even during a pandemic, you’ve got to get the risotto.
PHOTO: My risotto alla Milanese.