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AA Gill Award Submission - April 2020

Deaths, Birthdays and a Italian restaurant.

The restaurant in question, no longer exists, Il Palio 2 (not even Number 1, which ironically we never visited) situated in my hometown of Brockenhurst, a stones throw from the train station. 

The kind of old school Italian restaurant that classically serves a side of boiled veg as an accompaniment to all the main dishes on the menu, excluding pizza and pasta of course. There was some, albeit little, restraint. The 'traditional' décor (everything from plastic grapes to fishing nets) lightly coated in dust hanging from the huge wooden ceiling beams, hand painted murals of rolling tuscan hills, red and white checkered table cloths and the obligatory candle in a wicker caged wine bottle. All good, slightly above average hometowns had one back then, then being the 80s. 

It was our staple for any and all events which required seating large groups (for when the northerners aka Aunts, Uncles & Cousins came to visit) to small tables on low key nights when it was just the four of us, occasionally 3 when I demanded to gate crash what was probably one of the only times my parents would have eating without myself and my sister. 

It was the place that greeted my parents with open arms, calling my father Mr Nigel rather than using his last name, he must have been the only Nigel in the village. Our table always ready, chairs pulled out by servers, an overstuffed pot of breadsticks ready for our greedy impatient fingers to grab. This was the place I would discover dishes like Grilled Swordfish, Veal Milanese and Linguine Scoglio which was always referred to as seafood pasta. My eyes widened with every visit. The initial excitement and amazement when my Dad would order zabaglione, whisked by the waiter at the table to the “Why are you drawing attention to our table, this is humiliating” utterly mortifying moments of my teenage years. 


For the former part of my years of experiencing the delights of Il Palio (we never included the 2 when referring to the place) wine or any alcohol for that matter would not play a major role, apart from the occasional small sip of fizzy white, not champagne, on the most special birthdays as I was only a child. However once I was of the legal age (sixteen was it back then?) my parents sipping shots of Sambuca at the end of their meal would become one of my most treasured, 'oh my god' moments of my oblivious misunderstanding of how the rest of the world could actually drink and enjoy the aniseed liqueur. 


Then the events and our visits changed, a friends birthday being my first visit without my parents, or any parents for that fact. There was 20 of us, aged 16 & 17, we were given a huge long table in the 'newly' renovated vivid yellow conservatory at the back, I had never seen it before, apart from peaking through the closed curtain once via a trip to the toilets. Everyone ordering margarita pizzas except me, I knew this place, I knew the menu, I order my favourite deep fried seafood platter which came with a large ramekin of what was a cross between Marie Rose sauce and a very pungent garlic mayo and of course giant chunks of lemon for squeezing over the crisp batter. All of us ordering pints of nondescript Italian lager, generally being loud and obnoxious teenagers, this absolutely mortifies me now when I think back of how much of a pain we must have been for the servers that night. But to their credit our waiters were still as welcoming, kind and patient as ever.

There would also be the times particularly in the summer months when I would order pizza to takeaway, my favourite being the one with jarred artichokes, black olives and mushrooms. Always using my Dad's name when placing the order over the phone as I strongly believed it meant I would jump the queue and receive my order quicker than others. This was never proven. 


But most memorably would be one of the last times I would eat there, the day before my Dad's funeral. The northerners had joined us on mass, my partner was there, this being the first time he would meet my extended family, heck even my sisters partner was there (a rarity). Walking in, with the sadden looks in all our eyes, the greeting from the owners, grabbing my Mum in a huge all embracing bear hug. Tears swiftly wiped away in a typically english fashion. 

We settled at our huge table (made up of several smaller tables pushed together) , quickly relaxing into such a instantly familiar and comforting space. House Wine in its signature ceramic jugs was immediately brought to the table, menus passed around and the reminiscing began. 'Is there anything on this menu you haven't tried? proclaimed my cousin to the whole table, but actually addressing me. We searched through the menu, eyes racing across the laminated pages, 'How about this?' my cousin pointed to a main dish of Halibut in a garlic, white wine and cream sauce. I shot him a 'are you actually being serious, obviously I have, younger cousin look'. 

For the life of me though, I cannot remember what I ate that night. I imagine it was probably the aforementioned seafood pasta, often a go to. Plates and glasses filled the table, with far too many sides of boiled vegetables being passed around as I think the waiters lost track of the amount required for a party of our size. Mains came and went, desserts definitely happened. Nobody brave enough to order the zabaglione in fear of in sighting more tears, and then of course the digestifs. I think these were on the house as they seemed to grace everyone at the table or maybe considering the circumstances my extended family not huge on the idea of shots of alcohol at the end of the meal (unlike my parents), more fans of a strong black coffee, caved. 


And then it was gone. Il Palio closed. In my own personal timeline it felt like this happened rather abruptly and near enough within months of my Dad passing. Officially (according to the internet and some serious facebook sleuthing) it actually closed the following year. 

I often wonder if it were still open would I go back, return to the place that holds so many warm memories and order the Zabaglione, but then just like your favourite childhood film that you fear rewatching, only to see cracks and flaws, breaking the happy illusion you once had. I think those plastic grapes would be more than just lightly coated in dust by now.

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