It all started -- as many Italian political stories do -- at a quiet corner table at a small restaurant in a mossy alley in Rome, shadowed since 1599 by the imposing facade of the Church of San Nicola da Tolentino, a humble monk venerated for centuries in the east.
Tullio -- an old favorite of Romans and tourists alike -- still allows its regular patrons to light up cigarettes despite the draconian anti-smoking laws imposed in 2005. It thus attracts a regular clientele of politicians, fat cats, and the attendant crowds of hangers-on: Russian beauties, Versace-clad lobbyists, real estate developers with suitcases of euros, and one recent spring night, your humble columnist.
In Italy's latest crisis, the conversations taking place over mozzarella di bufala and pappardelle at Tullio may ultimately be a better indicator of where the country is heading than the endless debates in Parliament. When Italy is stuck in a nasty reality, that's when fantastic dreams take over. After all, Tullio is just a few blocks from where Anita Ekberg took her famous dip in the Trevi Fountain in La Dolce Vita.
Italy has been waiting for a new cabinet since February's inconclusive elections, which left former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's center-right and challenger Pier Luigi Bersani's center-left in a virtual tie, while Beppe Grillo, the rambunctious former comedian, raises hell thanks to his nearly 9 million populist votes. Wise old President Giorgio Napolitano is on his way out, with only a few days in his tenure, and there is no agreement on his successor. The presidency is a mostly ceremonial position, but with a single, crucial power: nominate the prime minister and decide when, and if, to dissolve his cabinet. The president rarely gets to touch the ball, but when he does, it's almost always a penalty kick that decides the game.
This was just one of the reasons for worry among the three VIPs sitting around the corner table that night. Filling his third glass of amarone, a former senator with a strong link to the conservative wing of the Roman Catholic Church bitterly remarked, "We have no friends left. This new pope only cares about his wretched favelas. He does not wear Prada shoes, but crummy stuff bought on sale in Buenos Aires, and cooks his own spaghetti. Ambassador Thorne -- Secretary Kerry's own onetime brother-in-law, you dig? -- told a bunch of students they act like Grillo's militants to reform Italy! It's like me joining Occupy Wall Street, right? Barbara Spinelli, the daughter of Altiero Spinelli, a founding father of the European Union whose sacred name is inscribed all over the official buildings in Brussels, now praises the moral strength of Grillo and his party, 5 Stelle. We are doomed!"
"And India?" interjected the second diner, a socialite from Milan, whose beautiful new face had been sculpted by a surgeon trying to duplicate Carla Bruni-Sarkozy's chic features. "What do you make of India? They are putting two Italian Navy officers on trial, almost arrested our ambassador, and we did not even flinch. We are Rodney Dangerfield at the G-20: 'We don't get no respect!'"
"No respect. Was Rodney Italian?" the senator asked gloomily.
The third guest, in his early 30s, was meticulously dressed, with a shining Jack Emerson tie knotted to perfection. No wine for him, only a glass of Pellegrino, and no cigarettes. "I am training for the marathon," he said, nibbling at a plate of steamed rice. He looked around, making sure the owner of Tullio would grant them privacy, and then quietly offered his plan: "We do have a solution. The pope will not care. The Americans pivoted to China. And the politicians, who cares about the politicians anymore? The country wants a new cabinet? Well, why not give them three new cabinets in three new capitals?"