“One of the times when Fellini took off his mask and was simply Federico was Christmas. Every year we spent Christmas Eve together at my house. […] Giulietta used to cook, helped by my wife, but I must say, in the kitchen he wasn’t exactly the best; instead Federico used to set the table. Master of direction that he was, he chose the seat arrangements and dressed the table as he pleased. I let him be without intervening.” So wrote Claudio Ciocca, host and owner of the restaurant Osteria del Fico Vecchio. Two great friends like brothers, who shared funny, hilarious moments, full of feelings. Claudio Ciocca, who passed away last year, was the great director’s confidant. He was a partner and family to one of the most acclaimed men in the world.
Fellini used to visit his friend in Grottaferrata practically every day, every time he was in Cinecittà shooting a movie or when he wanted to eat his beloved runny eggs: lightly cooked scrambled eggs of a creamy consistency. Fellini was a gourmand; he loved food, but above all, he loved the conviviality born at the table.
Anyone who had the privilege of sharing a meal with him could certainly confirm his unique and bizarre habit of drawing whatever came to his mind on tablecloths and placemats. He would take a napkin and jot down sketches of people around him, enjoying making caricatures of them, complete with comic strips. His drawings conveyed a pure and childish freedom of expression, almost as if created by an adolescent. It was amusing, simple, and authentic. It is no coincidence that Fellini’s first job was as a caricaturist.
Drawing on tablecloths was his way of finding inspiration again, which led to the birth of many of his films’ scenes. Claudio Ciocca would often get upset with him (although never seriously) since linens cost 2,000 lire, a very high figure for the time. At one point, Claudio started bringing him stacks of white paper every time he sat down at the table, so he could draw on those instead.
One of the director’s many peculiarities was to ask for a piece of Parmesan as soon as he sat down in a restaurant. His father, Urbano, was a liquor and food representative, and Federico used to say he was born with the scent of Parmesan under his nose and couldn’t do without it. He loved hanging out in his neighborhood wine bars, engaging in long conversations about wine, cooking in general and roasts, a dish he liked very much. Conversely, Anna Dente from Osteria San Cesario, said that she was struck by Fellini’s unpretentiousness and his impartial devotion to Roman cuisine.
At the age of nineteen, Federico Fellini was a young man trying to find his way, offering drawings and caricatures in restaurants. He worked odd jobs and didn’t always have the money to buy food. One day he entered Cesarina restaurant (on via Lombardia in Rome) and ate everything and more, but when the bill came he confessed he couldn’t pay and was thrown out of the place. Some time later, the owner found him in the neighborhood, cold and very thin, so she invited him back. For an entire season she fed him full meals, never asking for anything. Perhaps it is thanks to this very gesture that Federico Fellini started being a frequent visitor of restaurants, and maybe because of it he saw them as safe places to take refuge.
Fellini eventually grew up and became the great director we all know. When it was time to organize the press conference for the release of La Dolce Vita, he asked that it be held inside Cesarina restaurant. Completely unknown to most, it was a place he held close to his heart. Needless to say, after that event, the restaurant enjoyed worldwide success.
Restaurants for him were a place to relax and stimulate creativity. He frequented many, and some he visited so often that it became almost normal having him there; he even had the keys to the Ciocca family’s house, occasionally showing up without warning. Every morning he called Claudio on his home phone. The two men played a game of telling each other what they dreamt the previous night. These were the connections that Fellini established with restaurant owners and hosts. For him, they were not just places to eat, but rather worlds where he could be himself and nurture genuine relationships.
When he wanted to enjoy quality meat, Federico used to go to Dal Toscano al Girarrosto, on via Germanico. Here he drew a sketch of Paola, the restaurant’s owner, whom he nicknamed “Blessed Paola of the Meatballs”, since she made her meatballs in a specific flat shape just as he liked (they’re also named after him on the menu). Fellini was very picky and demanding with food, often giving directives on how to prepare a dish. He enjoyed giving his grandmother’s recipes or the ones that made him feel at home, seeking the flavors and memories of his childhood.
He also loved staging amusing situations without others knowing it. Sometimes, when he would go to Al Fico Vecchio for breakfast with journalists or friends, he wouldn’t order, but managed to make his guests get exactly what he wanted. He masterfully described a different dish to each person, explained so well that it made his companions’ mouths water, persuading them to order those dishes. He made it look as if he hadn’t ordered anything, but in the end, he sampled everyone’s dish.
Federico Fellini was a great lover of life, passionate about earthly things and the levity of laughter. He certainly liked to eat well, but there was unequivocally something stronger that made him love being at the table. It was about people, relationships and emotions. It was about real life.
When he walked into his favorite restaurants it was as if he stripped off his notoriety and went back to being a regular person, simply a man. He didn’t have to think about what others expected from him; he could abandon himself to the serenity of a moment among friends. Everything was lighthearted, and for a while, the life of sets, interviews and spotlights did not concern him.
It was in those moments of sharing that Fellini was able to see beyond, to feel that there was something more. “I think the only true realist is the visionary”, he often said. And when he drew on the tablecloths what his mind imagined, he did nothing else but show others a great truth: the authentic beauty of that moment.