Its tables were spaced apart, each marked off by blue painter’s tape. Its capacity had been reduced by more than half, to 12 seats. A black spiral notebook sat on a back table, a log for customers’ names and phone numbers that would help if contact tracing ever became necessary.
“I am anxious,” said the owner, Enrica Sutrini, 66. In a country facing all sorts of risks in getting back to normal, it was unclear whether anybody would come through the door or whether Italy — so defined by the din and joys of dining — could reclaim one of its most emblematic traits.
Restaurant industry groups have warned of mass-scale closures. Across Rome, hundreds of places stayed shuttered this week, even as the government dropped its 10-week ban on sit-down dining. Sutrini said she was reopening as a trial: a few weeks to figure out whether her restaurant could be viable and whether the new Italy could feel like the old.
This country has never been much of a place for food delivery or takeout or tap-and-order apps, at least before the virus. And for Italians, the experience of eating together is often as or more important than the meal. Most of Sutrini’s food memories involve some kind of gathering: the communal plates of polenta she shared with her family during childhood. The big dinner parties she hosted with her husband. And, most recently, the nights at Zia Rilla when the place was packed — people staying late, stepping out for smoke breaks, finishing with an amaro nightcap.
“We’d keep on cooking until 11 p.m.,” Sutrini said. “A great happiness.”
Her husband, Stefano Ryan, said he believed people would find a way to again go out. “We’re social animals,” he said.
Sutrini wasn’t so sure. Restaurants have gone to great lengths to protect the health of their patrons and their staffs. But that has meant disposable place mats and impersonal spaced-out seating. Some establishments are taking diners’ temperatures and have introduced plexiglass partitions between tables.
“I wouldn’t go out to eat under these conditions,” she said. “I am going against my own interests when I say that, I know. But I’d rather eat at home. We could stay up until 1 a.m. and not wear masks.”
Now, the lunch hour was passing. The restaurant was still empty. One couple came by, poked their heads in, and made a reservation for two days later. Sutrini started moving around, cleaning off wineglasses, folding napkins, preparing for what she hoped might be a busier dinner service.
A beeping noise came from the back of the kitchen. It was a notification from Deliveroo, a food delivery service. Somebody had put in an order for a few appetizers and two raviolis.
In the kitchen, the chef, Ahmed Mezu, fired up the stovetop and started assembling the sauces. He spread out four delivery boxes, and by the time the cooking was finished, a 20-year-old with a bicycle and a cigarette came by to pick up the order.
The only food Zia Rilla prepared during lunch that day was eaten in somebody else’s home.
Preparing to reopen — or reinvent
In the days before the reopening, Sutrini and her husband had brainstormed for hours about how a small restaurant like theirs might survive. The tourists — 30 percent of their business — were gone. Italians had less money to spend. Maybe Zia Rilla could pare down its menu, depend on ingredients that wouldn’t quickly go bad. Maybe they could display cakes and tarts in the front, trying to catch the eyes of people on the street. Maybe they could focus more on selling pastas, becoming more like a store than a restaurant.
Or they could do more delivery.
Before being allowed to reopen to dine-in customers, Zia Rilla had spent a few weeks trying exactly that.
The restaurant had made 85 euros per day, 700 less than what it needed to break even.
Zia Rilla received a 25,000-euro government loan for businesses hurt by the outbreak. Rent had been discounted for two months.
Still, “we’re in survival mode,” said Ryan, whose father was American.
“Right now, I must be ready for anything,” Sutrini said. “Losing this place would be like getting stabbed.”
When Zia Rilla opened in 2017, Sutrini was 63, a first-time restaurateur. She had spent a lifetime cooking but had no formal training as a chef. In the decade prior, she’d been what she described as a “woman at home,” a bit bored, and the restaurant was a kind of personal challenge. She decorated the walls with cookware her grandmother had used, picked out mismatched antique plates. She filled the menu with the fresh pastas of northern Italy. Bolognese ragu, heavy on the meat, light on the tomatoes. Tortellini. Greens made in a cast-iron pan.
Most weekend nights, the restaurant was full, and, gradually, she placed more and more trust in Mezu, a migrant from Bangladesh who’d spent 10 years in Italian kitchens, until he was running Zia Rilla’s nearly on his own.
But Sutrini, in the days before the reopening, was worried more about the rules than the food. Italy’s government, trying to prevent an even deeper recession, had bumped up the reopening date for restaurants while offering scant guidance on how to open. Could the air conditioning run? Would the servers need to wear gloves? Would nonfamily members need to sit farther apart? From restaurant to restaurant, everybody seemed to be guessing. And when the rules finally came out — two days before the reopening — even that didn’t resolve the chaos.
Rome’s regional government, pressured by scientists and restaurateurs alike, said there must be “at least 1.5 meters between customers, but in any case no shorter than at least 1 meter.”
“These are words that make everybody happy but make no sense,” Ryan said.
Sutrini positioned Zia Rilla’s tables about 1.2 meters apart. The restaurant could survive that way, if the tables were filled.
A measuring tape was still on the shelf when the restaurant reopened.
The opening night test
Then, it was evening. Music was playing. The lights were a soft orange. Sutrini, wearing a mask, sat at one of the tables and then went outside to hang lanterns. Her husband cracked open a beer. Her son Nicolò, who was also there, unpacked a fancy thermometer that they would use on customers.
Outside, a food delivery rider went by on a bike.
A couple walked by holding two pizza boxes.
Foot traffic was scarce. Apartment lights were on.
Around 8:30 p.m., the first two diners of the day walked in. Sutrini knew them: a father and adult son.
“Ciao, Paolo,” she said, standing up, racing over. “Where would you like to sit?”
Ryan walked over, too, stopping before he got too close.
“Let’s pretend we hugged,” one of the diners told him.
The customers sat down and Sutrini brought over wineglasses, a basket of bread. Soon their masks were off, the drinks were on the table, and Nicolò came over with the thermoscanner. He pointed it at one of the diner’s heads. The reading was improbably low. Nicolò worked to reprogram the device and tried again. Same problem.
He retreated to read the instructions. In the kitchen, Mezu was preparing rib-eye for the pair who would end up being the restaurant’s only dine-in patrons that night.
For the following day, they had three reservations. And, soon, they’d add more outdoor seating — something that seemed to be working for other restaurants in the same neighborhood.
“Little by little, it will grow,” Sutrini said.
Then, around 9 p.m., the Deliveroo tablet beeped again.
Somewhere in Rome, another diner wanted to eat a meal from Zia Rilla — ravioli, stuffed with cod.
Mezu fired up the stovetop and opened the flaps of another to-go box.