We were eavesdropping last night. We couldn’t help ourselves. And we were glad we did.
We were sitting outside at Biberius in Rimini, our second night in town. Our second night back in Italy. A guy sitting directly behind me was talking about a cook. He had two children, this cook. He was thinking about moving to London to work, this cook. And the guy on the phone was saying, What does he think life will be like in London? If he finds work, does he think he will make more money? Will he make that much more money? Does he want to live in London, where he doesn’t know anyone? This went on for a while. When he shifted to a new subject, the tone changed. He was moving toward ending the call. The word “polenta” came up, repeatedly.
An explanation: Biberius is a wine bar. It’s right next to the Tiberius bridge, in a section of Rimini called San Giuliano, where the fishermen lived years ago, where Fellini hung out, where right around the corner from Biberius are two of our favorite restaurants.
Tizi said, “He keeps talking about polenta.”
It was 7:20, aperitivo time. I was finishing my second glass of wine, thinking about the time change between home and San Giuliano (six hours, so to my brain and body it felt like early afternoon), and what my sleep would be like that night. If we were careful, we would pay the bill, drive up to San Marino, let ourselves in our apartment, and go to bed. But, polenta.
“Excuse me,” Tizi said when the guy ended the call and stood up to go. “Where do we find this polenta you were talking about?”
He stopped next to our table, gazed down at us, and smiled. He looked to be in his fifties, with a mop of brown hair and a respectable mustache. He was dressed in jeans and a jacket.
“You’ll find it right here,” he said. “This is my wine bar.”
She told him we loved polenta, which we do, and that one of our favorite places to get it was right around the corner, polenta with clams, at Trattoria Mariana.
He said, “That’s my restaurant, too.”
“And Nud e Crud?” Our other favorite.
“Yes, that one too,” he said. “Every Thursday night I make something special to serve for aperitivo here at Biberius. If you can wait a few minutes, you can have some polenta.”
Could we wait a few minutes? Why yes we could. And did.
Biberius used to be called Ricky’s. We discovered it 10-15 years ago and began hanging out there at mid-day, for a glass of wine before lunch at Mariana’s or Nud e Crud. Inside were three stools at the bar and room for four people to stand. Outside were two wine barrels serving as tabletops. Ricky knew Italian wine. In a fifty mile radius, there are probably a hundred producers. He knew them all. Any given noon hour he poured 10-15 different local reds, also that many local whites. Any given noon hour 10-15 men, spiffy older guys enjoying retirement, shaded themselves under the two umbrellas outside and huddled around the barrels. Tizi and I huddled within earshot of them and listened.
What did they talk about?
Where they ate the night before. Where they were doing that night. Where to go for snails? Zagante. Where to buy porchetta? From the guy across the road from Zagante. Where to go for tagliatelle? Delinda on the Marecchiese. This was free local knowledge. Talking about food in Italy is almost as pleasurable as eating it. We joined some of these chats.
Some days Ricky was open, some days not. One day when I walked back inside for another noon pour, I noticed the tremor. In his right hand, holding the bottle, barely noticeable, but continuous.
“I hope he’s all right,” I said to Tizi later. A year later, Ricky’s was closed. A year after that, Ricky’s re-opened. New management, new name. We loved Ricky. Could we be happy going there? What kind of word is Biberius?
Biberius, rhymes with Tiberius. Right, that bridge over there. Also, Biberius was a punning nickname for emperor Tiberius Claudius Nero, a drink-loving fellow. Also, Biberius rhymes with gregarious.
We waited for the polenta. I finished the second and had started a third glass of Sangiovese when two guys in white chef jackets came around the corner lugging a polenta pot. Then, a few minutes later, the two guys passed us again, this time lugging a pot of beans.
Beans and polenta. Earlier that day in Pesaro I’d had tagliatelle with beans and sausage and cotichino. Pretty good. The night before Tizi had had a pasta fagioli at Mulazzani, a hillside joint at the edge of the Italy-San Marino border. Not great. Funny beans, she decided. Now the wait staff at Biberius, greatly expanded since it was Ricky’s, started bringing out the polenta.
“Wow,” Tizi said. Wow, indeed, I said back.
The guy–why didn’t we get his name–came by our table. “Good?” he said.
“Not good. Great,” Tizi said. “We’re coming back. Remember these faces. You’re going to see us again.”
“I’ve already photographed them,” he said with a smile.
We had a fifteen minute walk back to the car, back across Tiberius Bridge, through old Roman Rimini. When we stood to go, I said to Tizi, “I for one would not want to move to London.”
“I’m hungry,” she said. “Let’s see if Mariana will seat us.”
It was a rash decision. And the right one. At the door we met Valentina, who took us to a table. She said the restaurant was packed because of a convention in town so we had to finish by 9:00. We ordered the polenta with clams. And assorted appetizers. Another time we could ask her about the guy, his name.
We met our 9:00 deadline. Home before 10:00. In bed at 11:00. Good food. Bad sleep. But good vibes and good food. Biberius.