If you spend any time in Italy—and I’ve lived there twice for extended periods—you soon discover one of the country’s most powerful (and seductive) life concepts: la bella figura. Literally translated, it means “the beautiful gesture” or style. Actually, it’s much more than that.
In Italian, the typical phrase is fare una bella figura, “to make a beautiful gesture.” One of the most common examples is paying for a meal at a restaurant. The bella figura way of paying is to discreetly leave the table and settle the bill out of sight of your companions. Restaurant bills in better Italian restaurants are never presented at the table. The host, or whomever makes a preemptive strike at the bill, always pays well away from the dining room.
Inevitably, there’s bella’s dark twin, the dreaded brutta figura. People who can barely afford their monthly car payment will insist on paying for the entire table at a restaurant; never mind that everyone present knows he can’t afford it—it would be a brutta figura to have others think that you are a down-at-the-heels sponger.
Laugh if you like, but let me tell you that not only is bella figura (pronounced fee-GOOR-ah) a potent presence in daily Italian life, it’s important for all of us.
Making the beautiful gesture indeed might seem (or actually be) shallow. But the Italians have been around an awfully long time. And can anyone doubt that they know how to live, day to day, better than anyone else on the planet?
Wine has its own dichotomy of both the bella and the brutta. Not only do we see it every day, but, consciously or otherwise, we all practice it as well. For example:
Bella Figura: Picking Up a Modest Check
Maybe it’s a guy thing (see below), but the gesture of paying for a modest meal at a restaurant is utterly and absolutely bella figura. How many times have you seen a table of four or six friends parsing out how much each person owes for the meal? Granted, if it’s an extravagant lunch or dinner, that’s an expensive bella figura. But a modest meal? What are you making money for, to forever feed your mutual fund?
Brutta Figura: Dividing the Restaurant Check Down to the Last Nickel
I know that I’m going to get into a world of trouble for saying this, but why is it that women are forever divvying up the check? Recently, my wife had lunch with two friends whom she’s known and had occasional lunches with for decades. They went to a modestly priced restaurant. My wife brought wines with her, so there was only a corkage charge in terms of a bar bill. I’m guessing that the total tab was $125, if that.
When she returned home, I asked how the lunch went. She reported that it was a happy occasion. The food and wines were good, she said. They had a giggling good time. “By the way,” I asked, “who paid for lunch?” “Oh, we divided the check equally,” came the reply.
This, to me, is brutta figura. I know for a fact that each of the three women could easily have afforded to pay for the meal. And that the next time they had lunch together, one or the other could say, “Oh, you paid the last time. Let me.”
But apparently that’s not how it works. I don’t get it. Why not make the beautiful gesture of generosity, friendship, grace and welcome? What am I missing here?
Bella Figura: Serving Wine in Magnum
One of the most beautiful gestures in wine is flourishing a magnum of something good. Two regular-size bottles of the same wine have nowhere near the impact and, well, bella figura, of the magnum.
Magnums implicitly say how much you like a certain wine. Magnums speak of a certain generosity. And not least, they suggest a certain amount of forethought. After all, you don’t just happen upon magnums of good wines all that frequently. You’ve really got to care about a wine to buy it in magnum.
Brutta Figura: Serving Wines Blind at the Dinner Table
If serving magnums is one of the most bella of stylistic flourishes or gestures, then arriving at the dinner table with a bottle in a decanter (or uglier yet, in a brown paper bag) and declaring, "I thought you might enjoy tasting this wine blind," is the most brutta of gestures.
In all my years, I have yet to meet anyone who actually enjoys tasting wines blind at a dinner. Oh, I’ve met plenty of people, mostly wine trade professionals, who accept it as a duty or an obligation, or who profess that they don’t mind. But I’ve yet to meet anyone who really enjoys it.
Now, there are as always cultural differences involved here. British wine lovers seem to habitually subject their guests to blind tasting at the dinner table. I’ve never seen an Italian do so, nor, outside of Bordeaux, is it a common practice in France. Both cultures know that digestion is hardly aided by tension and potential humiliation.
Bella Figura: Consulting the Sommelier
This may seem an odd “beautiful gesture.” But I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen patrons in good restaurants practically wrestling with the sommelier about which wines to have with dinner. It can be surprisingly adversarial, with some diners apparently seeing the sommelier as more a pickpocket than a fellow wine lover. I’ll bet you’ve seen this too.
The bella figura way of consulting with a sommelier seems pretty straightforward to me. Tell him or her how much money, roughly, you’d care to spend on wine. And then toss in a few helpful guides, such as “I don’t like oaky wine” or “I’d like to try something really different, even goofy.” Then leave it up to the sommelier.
A really good sommelier will return to the table to see if his or her choice gratified. And if they sense that it didn’t, I’ll bet they’ll try to make it up to you in some fashion, either by bringing a different wine or a glass or two to have with dessert.
The bottom line with bella figura is simple: It can make life more beautiful, more graceful, more decorous. What’s not to like?
Stewart Lancaster — beaver,pa — September 20, 2011 12:54pm ET
Andrew S Bernardo — Ottawa, Ontario, Canada — September 20, 2011 1:56pm ET
David Lerer — Indialantic, FLorida, USA — September 21, 2011 9:27am ET
David Lerer — Indialantic, FLorida, USA — September 21, 2011 9:29am ET
Phil Talamo — Bron, NY — September 21, 2011 12:32pm ET
Kimberly Charles — San Francisco, CA, USA — September 21, 2011 4:54pm ET
David Rapoport — CA — September 22, 2011 11:30am ET
Martin Cousineau — Montreal, Qc, Canada — September 23, 2011 10:14am ET
Romano Sims — Loudon, TN, USA by way of Trieste, IT — September 24, 2011 4:21pm ET
Gherardo Fedrigo — Solana Beach, CA — September 28, 2011 11:29am ET
Nick Racco — Medina, Ohio — October 23, 2011 11:13am ET
Carlos Cherubin — Cleveland, Ohio, US — December 27, 2011 7:02pm ET
Sips & Tips | Wine & Healthy Living
Video Theater | Collecting & Auctions