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A night out on the tiles with a Sicilian corker
Editor access_time 9 min read

When Italian business people go for an impromptu night out in a famed gastronomic city, you would feel confident the food would be good and the wine outstanding. However, what happens after the meal can sometimes provide “la ciliegina sulla torta”.

In the 1970s, I had PR and marketing clients involved in the Italian ceramic tile industry and every year or so I travelled to Bologna, famous gastronomic city and location for the construction industry Fiere. Here hefty men, materials and equipment gathered for updates on previous exhibitions. Many thousands attended and at times it was like Old Trafford on match days – but noisier, maybe.

I spent days helping to man the exhibition stands of clients and stalking the press office. I talked to potential clients who designed and baked floor tiles. Then there were distributors and retailers to provide their thoughts on the future of their industry,

There were side trips to nearby Sassuolo, the heartland of the country’s tile manufacturing. Here I could cycle along the football pitch length tile production lines of the big boys and chat with family bosses of the more artisan tile makers. 20,000 people work in Tile Valley, close to Moderna and 70% of the tiles produced are exported – and UK sales needed a big boost.

With a little persuasion and clever marketing, ceramic tiles might begin the replace the “fitted carpet” era of British interior design brought about by new loom technology and cheap Belgian labour.

Italian-style sit-down lunches

By midweek at the exhibition, along with hundreds of others toiling away on the stands, and traipsing the aisles, I was suffering from “Fiera Feet”. This manifested itself as a raw numbness of soles, ankles and knees. It can be assuaged only by long Italian-style sit-down lunches. Luckily, there are excellent cafes and trattoria dotted around the extensive exhibition centre. Or, in the even better city centre restaurants offering the best of the Bolognese cuisine.

A group of tile-makers and their agents, mainly couples, decided they wanted dinner at one of Bologna’s best-kept secret ristorantes Apparently it was located in a village off the Tangenziale. That’s the crazy, jam-packed ring road that keeps more people out of Bologna than did the medieval walls they demolished to make way for it.

I was invited to join them for their night on the tiles and we set off in three cars. Other tiles people promised to join us later. I was in the rear seat and shielded from most of the driving excesses of rush hour Italians crammed together heading to and along the Tangenziale. Soon though, I was able to yell “Basta, Basta” in support of our driver and in unison with my fellow passengers.

Bologna Tangenziale  is slow-going in rush hours
Bologna Tangenziale is slow-going in rush hours

Eventually, we arrived at the village where we were told we would find the chosen amazing eating-place. There were quite a few cars, parked nose-in and haphazardly, around what looked like a small grocery shop. Our driver likewise observed the local parking habits. Our party entered the grocer’s shop and were ushered through a stringy fly curtain at the back.

The dining room looked like it had been a farm barn and there were long refectory-style tables and benches. Our reserved table for 16 was along the barn wall. I slid along the wall bench to mid-table. I could keep in touch with our party members and see what might be happening in the rest of the dining area. It looked quite busy even at that early hour.

No sooner were we seated then corked bottles of red and white wine were sent sliding along the table top by a waiter. It seemed there were at least two bottles for every diner. I was happy with a red that I grabbed en route to the end of the table.

Party tricks for the inpromptu cabaret

Sitting opposite me was the middle-aged, matronly wife of a Sicilian tile distributor. She looked a bit jolly housewifely, but she had a party trick that turned out to be a show-stopper.

Within seconds she was in action, extracting the cork from the wine bottle she had intercepted as it flew downtable.

Bottle neck into her mouth…pop…tugs, and the cork was between her teeth. She poured the newly available wine into her glass. I was gob-smacked. At home, my John Lewis air-pump wine opener would take longer than this slick signora. She grabbed my bottle and handed it back corkless a second or two later. She performed the service for others of our party, some of whom seemed familiar with the technique. Most were as amazed as I was. There are many bottle opening hacks on the internet – included one from Portugal involving heated tongs (please note the spelling) – for drinkers deprived of a corkscrew, but they hardly compare.

After the end of a glorious banquet and gallons of vino, we discovered our table corker’s husband had a little party trick of his own. He was wearing a coarse wool suit with waistcoat. He pushed back his chair and stood up. I noticed his suit had button flies when he starts what could be a speech. Not so, Sicilians like “performance” after a good nosh and he’s brought his little minchia along as a prop to his folklore recitation.

By the second verse, a fat, hairy finger is poking out through his flies and wiggling as the tale of minchia’s little adventure unfolds. I don’t need to understand every word (Sicilian accent) because the puppet-like action spells it out graphically and to ready audience appreciation. Other diners gather round and the tale of minchia – it literally means male organ – covers all manner of sexual allusion. The finale brings applause, cheers and a few gentile blushes from some of the women.

Two great acts, all the way from Sicily. Ladies and gentlemen, next up for your entertainment we have….

There’s a pause and the Sicilian, his wife and a couple of others have a short huddle This results in me (“l’unico inglese”) being chosen for the next act of the DIY cabaret. The score is Italy 1 England 0. Mamma mia…how can I beat that minchia performance. My minchia has never been briefed for public appearances so definitely, isn’t an Equity cardholder. I was never trained for this, my Italian is dodgy, particularly after the bottles of vino I have consumed.

Bottles of vino…consumed? I accept the challenge. Cry God for Harry, England and Saint George. The English, against the odds, might yet come up trumps?

I collected empty wine bottles from the tables and lined them up on a narrow shelf running along the wall behind me. I stopped when I had ten green bottles standing on the wall, well, shelf in this case. Kids of all ages love this nursery rhyme…

Even my Italian was up for this performance, but I stumbled over “should accidentally fall”. Deliberately flicking the first couple of bottles onto the floor added to the confusion for a short while.

By the time we got to seven green bottles left standing on the wall everyone was joining in. There was cheering and yelling if a bottle crashed onto the tiled floor and shattered. The other diners sang and waved their arms around in fine Italian style. The whole place was in a happy chaotic mood. I got up on my chair for a grand finale. This included many more bottles accidentally falling… Italy 1 England 1 – I got a draw, at least.

We closed the night out with a visit to a nearby la sala da ballo, where a live band played on the balcony, tables were topped with fine linen and the dancers dressed formally. Watching the carefully choreographed movements of couples was like going back 60 years, but there was an appreciative audience. Bologna has been the centre of this “folk-style” ballroom dancing for hundreds of years. However, I was keen to miss out, considering the amount of booze I’d drunk. Lack of fitness, lack of practise, any excuse really.

That wasn’t going to be. The Sicilian Corker hauled me onto the floor. This was sure to end in humiliation judging by the complex routines of the other dancers. My two left feet sorted themselves out after a short while. But, I would not have made week two on Strictly Come Dancing.

I am not quite sure how I even made it back to my hotel in nearby Moderna. I hoped the Sicilian Corker, her husband and minchia all returned safely to their family business. Everybody enjoyed our night out on the tiles and the very individual entertainment provided by the Sicilians – and the only Englishman.

UPDATE

Minchia is used a lot in Sicilian conversation. However, euphemisms like mizzica and milla come into play on more formal occasions. The word can be used to express joy, approval or irritation. For instance, the Sicilian author, Andrea Camilleri frequently has his famous Inspector Montalbano use the word as a curse. Minchia is the best Sicilian word to use if you see a beautiful female, thing, or person, You would say Minchia ch’è bedda! The double D is a Sicilian consonant somewhere between an N and a D.

The industrial growth of Sassuolo began in the 1950s using local clay deposits – now exhausted. Subsequently, it’s been described as “The ugliest town in Italy” by the LA Times. Eighty percent of all Italian ceramic tiles are produced there, with more than 300 ceramic factories. It is said week’s tile production would cover the whole of Greater London.

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