Parla come mangi. In “correct” Italian, the “g” is soft. In the Roman dialect, it becomes a y-sound, so the word is pronounced: MAN-yee. Literally translated, it says, “Talk as you eat.” That “as” indicates similitude, by the way: If a Roman tells you to “talk as you eat” he isn’t telling you to speak with your mouth full. He is telling you to speak simply: frankly and forthrightly, directly and without adornment.
Rome is a city peopled with inveterate rhetors, born and bred. Roman cuisine, on the other hand, is simple: a “poor” cuisine, the principal dishes of which are made from a few powerfully flavorful ingredients that can be brought together in various combinations without much fuss.
Contrary to popular belief, the Romans are not doctrinaire when it comes to their typical dishes or to cooking in general. They just don’t like to be sold a bill of goods. If a Roman orders amatriciana — hearty pasta served with fried cheek bacon, tomato cooked in the rendered bacon fat, and hard goat cheese, grated — he wants that dish.
If it comes with pancetta — belly bacon — he will notice, and he will not be happy.
Feel free to use whatever you have to hand, if you’re just doing a spaghettata among friends — tomato paste or pulp, for example, or pancetta if there’s no guanciale — only, tell them, or let them see, or better: both. If you’re out, ask the waiter how the kitchen does its ‘matriciana (Romans eat the initial vowel). There are standard variations: a little extra lard to help cook and reduce the tomato (some folks use olive oil, though I personally recommend against it); peperoncino flakes or black pepper; a dollop of red wine or a drop of brandy. Feel free to ask for them or to ask for them to be left out.
Expect — and demand — a straight answer.
Parla come mangi. Like many characteristic expressions in the Roman idiom, this one admits of a range of application and intensity. It could be a simple invitation to “cut to the chase” or it could be expressive of something between flustered impatience with and consternated indifference to ancillary detail à la “keep it simple”.
Sometimes, however, it is a warning: “Quit giving me the run-around.”
That last English expression actually exists in Italian: Non mi prendere in giro, which — of course it does — also has shades of meaning. “Quit pulling my leg,” is one. “Don’t toy with me,” is another.
It’s funny. The first time I heard the expression — or rather, the first time someone used the expression with me — I misheard it. To the untrained, unpracticed ear, Parla come mangi! sounds like, Parla con le mani! — which is Italian for, “Talk with your hands!” — and while I was fairly certain my interlocutor did not intend me to sign him my side of the conversation, I was otherwise at a loss for what he meant. A learned companion, solicitous of my well-being, overheard and interceded.
The really interesting thing about the Roman forma mentis, is that it can countenance a great deal of run-around, rigamarole, and something very like what the Irish call “Malarkey”. They delight in it, in fact. In fact, they expect it.
When, however, there is serious business afoot, work to be done, or matter touching the general weal to be settled, Romans will not suffer verbal gamesmanship gladly.
Parla come mangi: It’s something I’ve been tempted to say to Churchmen of late, especially high Churchmen. I’ve been at table with high Churchmen, though, and the problem with telling them to talk as they eat, is that too many of them already do.
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