Life, death and the best truckstop restaurant in Italy

Paul was dying. At lunch. In Rome. And just around the corner from the Trevi Fountain. Which didn’t seem like worst place in the world to spend the last moments of one’s life. Ten minutes earlier, the waiter had put a bowl of spaghetti alle vongole in front of Paul, the steam from the pasta and mussels fogging up his glasses. So much so we didn’t notice he was suddenly slumped over and passed out. But now, laid out flat on the cobblestones five feet from our table where he could get medical attention, my friend Pancho and I (along with Paul’s little dog Jack) could only stand there and watch as the waiters flagged over some paramedics they’d called a few minutes earlier. “It’s Paul Steffen,” the waiter whispered to one of the paramedics.

He was eighty-six years, two weeks, and three days old, to be exact. I always knew the day of his death would come, probably sooner than later, and I guess in a perverse way it was fitting that he’d die over lunch.

Which is the meal I’ll always associate with Paul. I was living in Calcata, a hippie-and-artist-laden medieval hill town about an hour north of the Italian capital. Paul, along with his longtime friend, Pancho, 56, a chef, mosaic artist and former dancer, had lived in the village since the early 1980s.

They became two of my first friends when I moved to the village to research a book. Because there were no restaurants open in Calcata on Tuesdays, we’d drive out of the village on that day every week and have lunch somewhere.

It was exciting for me because I’d get to see new places around central Italy: sometimes we’d go up to Viterbo, an off-the-radar city that was clad in gothic architecture and surrounded by giant, thick walls; sometimes we’d go to Civita Castellana, a medieval hill town about 20 minutes away; sometimes we’d eat in Rome.

But my favorite was always the truckstop. A truckstop in the middle of nowhere that happened to serve some of the best Italian food I’ve ever eaten. Would eating there ever be the same without Paul? We’d go there–located out on the Via Flaminia toward the A1 autostrada–and sometimes he’d settle a dilemma I was having with two sage words: we’ll see. Which, as I interpreted it, was a Buddhist-like way of saying: don’t get stuck in a moment (of anxiety or fear, for example) because all situations, attitudes, beliefs, relationships, feelings, etc. are constantly in flux; they’re impermanent and will change. So don’t grasp on to it. Let it work itself out with time. (And it always did.)

Sometimes, if I was lucky, Paul would talk about his extraordinary 20th-century life. After all, as I watched the paramedics try to rouse him to consciousness on the cobblestones outside the restaurant in Rome, I thought: this was no ordinary man dying in front of me. Paul’s career as a dancer and choreographer was kick started in Hollywood when he began dancing in films beside Rita Hayworth. In the late forties, his friend, film director (and eventual name namer) Elia Kazan told him that this Senator McCarthy guy in Washington didn’t bode well for them. Paul wasn’t a Communist, but he was gay and liberal, which for that time pretty much made him a Communist anyway. Kazan’s advice to the young up-and-coming dancer: Get the hell out of this place.

So he moved to Paris where he’d hung out regularly with Jean-Paul Sarte, Lena Horne, and other celebrities of the age. Jean Cocteau even gave him an apartment. After moving to Rome in the 1960s, he quickly fell in with the Via Veneto crowd, carousing with Fellini and Marcelo Mastrioanni and becoming the choreographer for Italy’s then-only TV channel, RAI. It’s hard to imagine a dancer achieving household name status–the closest might be Barishnikov, I suppose–but in Italy Paul was it.

Though still famous with people of a certain age, Paul’s star has long faded. Not at the truckstop, though. People would greet Paul warmly there. Or maybe it was because we went there so much.

If somehow you’d just materialized at a table at L’Aquila, the truckstop restaurant, you’d never realize you were cavorting with truckers until you sauntered outside to see the lorries fueling up. Shaded in white and yellow and bathed–like nearly all restaurants in Italy–in fluorescent lighting and a TV always screaming in the background, L’Aquila didn’t try to reinvent anything. After all, this is Italy. Instead, the carbonara and amatriciana, for example, tasted fresh. Flavors seemed amplified, as if the nonna cooking back in the kitchen was sprinkling culinary steroids in every dish. Arugula was often of the wild variety (which was so naturally peppery, you’d want to sneeze).

Pancho, Paul and I would settle in and do the lunch course: antipasti, primi, and secondi. Several bottles of wine would be consumed as well. But at the restaurant in Rome, the day Paul passed out in front of his spaghetti alle vongole, we hadn’t even gotten through the primi course. And it didn’t seem like we were going to. Paul was dying. Or at least we thought so. A few minutes later, however, he was awake. Then he was sitting up. A few minutes after that, we resumed eating. And after lunch, we went on a crawl through Rome’s wine bars. Paul Steffen went from nearly dead to drunk in a matter of hours. Not a bad way to live. Paul eventually did die a year later. Sadly, not in a restaurant but in a hospital like most people.

On my next trip to Italy, I’m going to visit L’Aquila, perhaps the best truckstop restaurant in Italy (if not Europe or the planet). I’m going to eat three courses and if I’m masticating on the problems and anxieties in my life (why wouldn’t I?), I’ll pour myself a glass of wine and remind myself of Paul’s favorite phrase:

We’ll see.