A pan-Italian feast -- in Geneva

David Downie discovers an extraordinary Italian restaurant in Geneva: Chez Roberto's delicacies encompass the savory spectrum of Italian fare -- and the haunting soul of the Swiss city

By David Downie
Published April 1, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Mist cloaked the snow-shagged Alps around Geneva. By the leafless lakeside promenade, steamers and swans slept their winter sleep, ignored by the polyglot bankers and U.N. personnel bustling among glassy offices nearby.

Swiss chocolates, cuckoo clocks, swans; gold, secret accounts and frenzied diplomacy to save distant peoples: It was a perfect Geneva day. Morpheus and Mammon cheek-by-jowl.

Geneva is an odd, wistful place. It seems to be inhabited exclusively by migratory Italians, Turks, French, Germans, British, Dutch, Saudis, Nigerians, Panamanians, Chinese, Americans. There are guest workers, bankers, exiles, refugees, diplomats. My late Italian uncle married a Russian here just after the war, then divorced and remarried a Dutch woman. In 20-odd years' worth of visits, I can't recall having met a native Genevois of Swiss stock.

Another funny thing about Geneva: I am always hungry here. I have no secret, numbered account and can't resolve the world's diplomatic crises. So what else is there to do but stroll and feed the swans and myself?

Apparently I'm not the only one to feel perpetual hunger pangs: Geneva is a surprisingly food-friendly city. Germanic, French and Italian cuisines meet and marry, often happily. The guest workers, exiles and refugees have brought their pots and pans with them.

Chocolate perfumed the air as I walked through the turn-of-the-century Rive neighborhood east of the lake toward Chez Roberto. I had been told by colleagues that it was a good, simple place. "They even serve pizza at lunch," said one.

By the time I arrived, with my wife and a New York friend, the restaurant was full. Or almost: A Neapolitan waiter in starched whites mixed four languages as he showed us to the last available table, in a side room.

There was no pizza oven. The tables were dressed in starched linen. The decor was plush, primarily crimson, circa 1970, but perfectly preserved. The wall sconces and chandeliers sported tiny lampshades, also crimson, one for each faux candlelight bulb. Bankers and secret-account holders were present in number. They weren't ordering pizza.

A glance at the menu told me that this was an "international Italian" restaurant. Such hybrid animals went extinct in Italy several decades ago. But Chez Roberto offered everything from saffron-scented risotto alla milanese to giant Sicilian raviolioni stuffed with eggplant, bell pepper and zucchini; osso buco, roast quail or Guinea fowl; wild salmon or scampi.

We decided to divide and conquer, ordering starters and main courses from the straps to the heel of the Italian boot. As the parade of dishes arrived, served and re-served from old-fashioned hot tables by several skillful waiters, we were utterly astonished. Waves of nostalgia crested like our pleated white napkins, carrying upon them the flotsam and jetsam of childhood memory. The waiters revolved, plying us with delicacies from the hot tables -- more pasta, more salad, more seafood, signori.

The scampi were firm and fleshy, tossed with crisply pungent rucola glistened by silky olive oil. The raviolioni's three-vegetable filling sang of Palermo. The baby octopus, squid, prawns and fish -- flash-fried -- were as light as a Japanese master's tempura.

This was -- I wanted to exclaim aloud -- some of the best Italian food I had ever eaten. A considerable claim in my book: I was suckled on spaghetti sauce and have lived on and off in Italy for quite some time.

As we teased out this extraordinary feed my mind returned to those seafood dishes on the menu, made with fresh -- not frozen -- products. How do fish swim from the ocean to landlocked Geneva by noon? We asked our waiter, who asked the maitre d', who called the owner. He arrived as the service was ending; ours was the only table left.

Monsieur/Herr/Signor Roberto, a small man with
white hair and smudged glasses, spoke to us warmly,
simultaneously in several tongues -- the house style. He
offered us coffee and quarter-dollar-sized cookies. "I
opened in 1946," he said, in German. He repeated the
phrase in French, English and Italian. "I'm from Milan," he
added. His Lombard accent curled out, all osso buco and
risotto alla milanese.

The fresh fish? It came by truck from Italy and
France, or by air from everywhere. Diplomats, exiles,
refugees, guest workers -- all want foods from home, said
Roberto. The word "home" hung in the air, rung by a
distant bell.

Had he, too, been a refugee or an exile? I wondered.
My uncle had refused to fight for the fascists and had
wound up here. Whether he had ever been happy in
Switzerland was a family mystery. The Swiss had
accepted him; he had had a successful career; his
children were Russian-Italian-Swiss and Dutch-Italian-Swiss. My father once said, "They speak five languages
and none." I always wondered which language, which
culture, which country they claimed as their own.

We reserved for dinner the following night. The crowd
was different: couples, families, tourists like us. Roberto
showed us his kitchen, impeccably clean, staffed by
Italians, French, Turks, even a few Swiss from other
cantons, I think. He made us spaghetti con le vongole,
Neapolitan style, and pasta e fagioli, Veneto style. The
bean-and-pasta soup was so good I wanted to weep, but
was too busy slurping it. Roberto showed us newspaper
clippings about him and his restaurant; in his mid-80s, he
was still working. This was his life.

We reserved for dinner, again, two nights later. The
Lombard maitre d' and the Neapolitan waiter clasped our
hands and squeezed our shoulders, flattered by our repeat
business. Another waiter showed us to a corner table in the
front room. He had the look of a friendly old wolf; he had
my uncle's nose. I said to my wife, this guy has to be from
Venice, like my mother's family.

"Twenty-seven years," sighed the wolfish waiter. "I've
been here a long time." He told us about his neighborhood
back in the Lagoon City, and his eyes sparkled when I
answered in stumbling Veneto dialect. We talked about
the way you pronounce bean-and-pasta soup in Padua
and Venice, about the house grappa from Bassano, and
he sang a few bars from "Noi ci darem la mano," that old
Veneto song Mozart stole for his "Don Giovanni."

A fat Sicilian couple sat across from us; the man -- a
taxi driver? -- preferred not to remove his shrink-wrap
leather jacket. He gobbled all the chunks of Parmigiano
offered as a pre-appetizer. The hot tables appeared, then
began the parade of pan-peninsular delicacies, each
made with the love only an exile or a refugee can impart. I
thought of my uncle again. I asked the waiter what life was
like in Geneva, and didn't he miss Venice?

"Si lavora bene qui," he answered wistfully as our
winter coats arrived from the cloakroom. "It's a good city to
work in." We stepped outside and headed toward the lake,
night-lit for strollers. The waiter and maitre d' rushed out
and waved after us. "That Saint Anthony of Padua bless
you!" shouted the Venetian.

The swans and the steamers slept. The banks and
offices winked across the dark, cold water.

An odd, wistful place, Geneva. But the food can be
surprisingly good.

David Downie

David Downie is Salon Travel's correspondent in Paris.

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