“Good morning, Armando al Pantheon”. “I’m Dario Fo, can I speak to Franca?”
That was the first time I heard and spoke to Nobel Prize in Literature, Dario Fo.
Franca was Franca Rame, obviously, Senator of the Republic then. We’re now 2006 and she used to have lunch at least once a week in our restaurant in the two years she served in the Se- nate. Dario Fu didn’t come in quite as often but even back then, and after Franca died, we frequently had the pleasure of his company when he was in Rome, either alone or with his son Jacopo.
I’d like to talk about Franca Rame first.
When she first came to Armando’s, she had a girl with her who, I presumed, was her secretary. I didn’t recognize her right away but, when I came into the dining room to say goodbye to a couple of our regular customers, I noticed her right away and went straight over to her table to say hello. Very naively, I re- marked that she looked a lot like a famous customer of ours, the legendary Franca Rame.
She looked at me, as if to check if I were serious or not then, realizing I had spoken in good faith, smiled and told me she was, in fact, one and the same.
She was writing for theatre in that period and I was fascinated by her: she was Franca Rame, not just any old person! She’d been a regular at the restaurant many years prior to that when
she would come in with an all-girl theatre company called “La Stelletta”, on a left-wing mission to do their bit in the battle for female emancipation. e company was called Stelletta be- cause the theatre they performed in was in Via della Stelletta, a street that runs off Via della Scrofa, near the Pantheon. Obviously, Franca was much younger back then and that’s why I didn’t recognize her right away in 2006. For a beginner like me, she was “the theatre” personified. We were not close in those days, I was shy and hadn’t yet written a theatre script but with the other actresses in the company, especially the lead actress, whose name I can’t remember now, I was like a buddy. I went to see them at the theatre but, when the show they were staging reached the end of its run, their habits slowly changed and, as is often the case, I didn’t see any more of them.
Franca, clearly remembering how things were, had found us and picked up her old haunt where she had left off.
I talked to her about my plays and I remember inviting her, towards the end of her political career when she was already ill to come and see one of them on stage at Tor di Nona. She caressed my hand and promised that, health permitting, she would love to come. She didn’t. She’d gone back to Milan a few weeks before my play was due to open and I never saw her again.
Fabiana (my daughter) booked Franca Rame’s hairdresser for her. In fact, Franca would ring my daughter, not her secretary, whenever she needed something. She often came to the restaurant without a booking and we had no choice but to find her a table, she wouldn’t take no for an answer. My brother Fabrizio ran the dining room and managed the bookings back then and whenever he saw her come in, his hair would go green. Fabiana was the only one who knew how to handle our illustrious customer, and Franca listened to her. Fabrizio couldn’t relax until the senator had left. Once, during a very friendly conversation, I asked her:
“Franca, what does it feel like to be the wife of a living Nobel prize winner?”
She nodded at me to lean in and, smiling, replied:
“A pain, Claudio! A royal pain in the arse!”
I know she loved her husband very much but, no doubt, it
can’t have been easy living with such an eclectic person, an artist, a man of letters, a genius like him.
Bye Franca, I was very fond of you.
Dario Fo was crazy, enlightened by the God in which he never believed.
When he used to walk into the restaurant in his white panama hat, he’d ll the scene without saying a word He’d sit at the table with his wife and order ossobuco with cep mushrooms.
It was his favourite dish, I don’t remember seeing him eating anything else. When I knew he’d be coming come in, I’d make sure I had everything I needed, and ossobuco would definitely be on the menu that day. Each time he’d ask me if the cep mushrooms were frozen and, when I’d say they weren’t, he’d make a puzzled face. en, after eating them, he’d compliment me on the food.
Dario didn’t show off, he was modest, and if someone recognised him, tried to speak to him or asked for an autograph, he was approachable and would willingly granted their request.
I remember the last time he came, we took a photo together and he gave me his hand and shook mine very tight. I never spoke about theatre with him, I was embarrassed. But my book, with a special dedication, should be somewhere, in some corner of his house.
I have another story that regards Dario Fo: it was June and he came in for lunch. He cut a striking sight, inseparable from his Panama. He hadn’t booked but there were a few politicians he knew at one table so he sat down beside them. ere were several Americans in the room and one of them, a girl, before leaving the restaurant, whipped Dario’s hat off his head, put it on, gave him a massive kiss on the cheek then whispered in his ear, in perfect Italian:
“Maestro, I love you!” Thanks for everything!”
Dario, very courteously, asked for his hat back. But he didn’t put it on: he held it in his hands, signed it then gave it to the American girl. She nearly fainted with joy. She kissed him again on the cheek and, with an amazing, and very unexpected souvenir in hand, went out into the street yelling, “I love Dario! I love Dario.”
Dario, we’ll miss you. at the sky might be your theatre and the stars your stage… Franca will always be your favourite actress!
I’m not going to dedicate the ossobuco recipe to them, it’s al- ready in my first book. Instead, I’ve chosen the “fresh not fro- zen” cep mushrooms dish that Dario adored.
Roast cep mushrooms
Ingredients (serves 4)
8 fresh cep mushrooms 2 garlic cloves chopped parsley extra-virgin olive oil salt to taste
The secret to making delicious roast cep mushrooms all lies in the quality and provenance of the mushrooms.
What makes the perfect cep? First and foremost, they must be Italian. You’ll find some excellent ones from Calabria and from across the Apennines. They must be rm to touch. e stalk should be chunky, not porous and with no holes left by worms. e spongy part under the cap should be green to yellow in colour, dry, and not be joined to the cap. In other words, a healthy mushroom should smell of earth, moss and grass, a very pleasant smell that you’ll from a distance. If the mushroom is not fresh or has gone off, shock horror, when you pick it up you’ll notice an army of worms crawling up your arms, your neck, your nose, your ears, slowing and inexorably eating you up. Don’t worry I’m only joking! Essentially, a bad mushroom will have a bad smell and there may be small worms on the stalk and under the cap.
Great. Now that you know how to tell a healthy cep mushroom from a bad one, you can head down to the market, wander through the stalls and stop by the one with the prettiest, most expensive ceps you’ve ever seen. Very calmly, put your hands in your pocket and pull out enough money to buy eight medium–sized and very gorgeous ones.
Ask the mushroom seller to pop some garlic and parsley into your bag as well, free of course. With all the money he’s just fleeced off you, he’ll already be planning a trip to the Carib- bean with the wife, kids and the in laws.
But back to business. Cradling your treasure in your hands, head back to the kitchen. You won’t need to ring up your friends to invite them over: the scent of the mushrooms will have reached them already and they’ll be queuing up to get in. Amen.”
At this point, shut the door behind you and, as calm as a mountain lake, start to clean the mushrooms. With a sharp knife, cut off the bottom part of the stalk then, pass a cotton cloth across the cap, eliminating any remaining soil and other impurities. Separate the stalks from the caps the slice them longways and lay both out on the table, facing up. Next step.
Drizzle some oil into a non-stick frying pan and place the mushrooms in it. Keep the ame low. You’ll notice that the spongy underside of the mushrooms release the water they contain and, if you are patient enough to turn the caps and stalks often enough, you’ll see them gradually turn light brown, an overture for how tasty they’re going to be.
When the caps have released all their water, the mushrooms are ready: they just need to be plated, sprinkled with fresh par- sley and treated to a drizzle of fresh extra virgin olive oil.
They are amazing served hot but not to be sneezed at either when cold.