Restaurant Critic Goes Time Traveling on Italy’s Quickest Train

We’ve left Rome on Italy’s fastest regular train, a luxurious beast called the Frecciarossa, or Red Arrow, and as I watch the countryside turn to a blur from my leather armchair the decades also dissolve.

I’m back in the 1950s when I was a child and my parents used to take me and my brother to London on steam locomotives from our home city of Oxford. I remember the excitement, waiting on the platform for the train to arrive and then the thrill as the journey began.

Those feelings are now reawakened even as the overhead screen shows we’re traveling to Naples at 300 kilometers per hour (186 miles per hour). I’m in Executive class and the adjoining conference room is empty, as are the other seven reclining chairs.

The hostess is there just for me and has recommended a Puglian red. She is serving food from a menu with dishes by Michelin-starred Italian chef Carlo Cracco, who will be cooking at Harrods in London this month as part of a pop-up restaurant event called Stelle di Stelle.

This Trenitalia SpA train is a regular public service and it’s like a private jet. The journey takes 70 minutes. I’ve never experienced anything like it. I almost regret that we arrive bang on time.

I love trains. In fact, I might be a rail executive if my first career had worked out. I could be in charge of a station.

Oxford Station

My father died when I was 18 and I decided to quit college (where I had just begun to train as a teacher) and return home. I needed a job, cold-called Oxford railway station and joined the staff of British Rail as a clerical officer in 1973.

I made 1,080 pounds ($1,790) a year answering travel queries. There were about eight of us covering multiple shifts and we couldn’t cope with the number of calls. People were left waiting on hold and sometimes tried repeatedly for days.

We took it in turns to be the train announcer, advising passengers on arrivals and departures we could not see from where we sat. I used to guess, based on the timetable and the sounds I heard, and sometimes guessed wrong.

Once, I advised passengers to board a freight train carrying coal that had stopped on a middle track, away from the platform. Another time, I misidentified a holiday special to Wales as a scheduled service to central England. Staff had to run up and down the train telling commuters to get off.

Experimental Psychology

Being an announcer was still fun. If friends were coming to Oxford, I could greet them with funny names and fake messages over the loud speakers, advising them they urgently needed to contact Oxford University’s Department of Experimental Psychology.

Six months after I started work, my mother moved back to her home town of Doncaster. I went with her and joined British Rail’s signaling and accidents section. It sounded intriguing. I had a ghoulish fascination with train crashes and here I knew I’d be at the heart of the action. Only I wasn’t.

My job was to record, in longhand, minor incidents such as trains leaving stations without a door properly closed. It was spectacularly boring and I’d spend days staring at the clock, longing to escape. But to where? I had no friends in Doncaster and for this teen, a family’s warm embrace felt stifling.

After four months, I managed to switch to become a “train rider.” The job involved traveling around the north of England surveying passengers’ tickets. Most of my journeys were on local trains that were overheated and smelled of fuel. I shall never forget those fumes. Marcel Proust had madeleines; I have diesel.

Dark Mornings

Each day, I had to strike up relationships with various conductors as I switched from train to train. It’s not so different from my current job, where I find myself frequently traveling, and talking to multiple strangers as I make my way around the party circuit.

(No -- now is better: Many of the people I meet are glamorous and I usually have a glass of Champagne.)

Although I enjoyed it, it was a lonely job. I’d often start long before dawn; sometimes I worked overnight. I would find myself waiting alone for hours at small local stations.

I remember cold, dark mornings, hanging around for commuter trains. Small seaside resorts, out of season, were among the most depressing. Other times, I would sit in the mess with drivers and guards, who didn’t entirely trust a white-collar employee who might be a management stooge.

This wasn’t a gap year. It was my job.

Joni Mitchell

Things looked up in those railway days when I met a beautiful woman on a train. I started to fall in love when I checked her ticket. She was 21 and about to move to Lesotho to help manage a textile plant. I had never met anyone so exotic. She had a wonderful, modulated voice and a free spirit.

It was one of the happiest times of my life.

We dated for a few weeks and she made me laugh until she dropped me as suddenly as she had picked me up. I was devastated. At the time, I spent a couple of days at a tiny rural station called Broomfleet. All I had to do was count how many passengers got off the few trains that stopped there.

Between arrivals, I’d take sad walks down country lanes, singing the Joni Mitchell song “All I Want”: “I am on a lonely road and I am traveling, traveling, traveling, traveling.”

I was so upset that one afternoon I found myself on the platform at Doncaster station, remembering the movie “Brief Encounter”: Celia Johnson contemplates throwing herself under a train after a romance with a man she met at a railway station.

Journalism School

Thirty years later, I found my ex-girlfriend on the Internet and e-mailed her. She sent a friendly reply but couldn’t remember me. She agreed to meet anyway and we spent a pleasant evening together. She said she’d had a lot of boyfriends at the time.

Back then I realized my life was going nowhere. So I started taking evening classes in economics. I studied while waiting for trains or on board after checking tickets. In September 1974, I quit the job and took up a place at the London School of Economics.

My dorm was opposite Sadler’s Wells theater and I began going regularly to the ballet, later writing dance reviews for student newspapers. Those clips helped to get me a place at postgraduate journalism school, and I joined a newspaper in 1978.

Costly Pizza

Jump forward 36 years and I know how fortunate I have been. I still like trains so much, I fashioned a holiday in Italy around day trips from Rome to Naples and Florence for lunch.

I didn’t have much luck in either city. Most restaurants were closed, either for lunch or for August. In Naples, I went for a pizza that proved costly: The taxi meter moved faster than Usain Bolt. In Florence, I ate beside the pool at the Four Seasons. It was good but I prefer my flesh on the plate.

The ticket to Naples costs 80 euros ($106) each way and there are four classes on the Frecciarossa: Standard, Premium, Business and Executive.

So here I am on board. I settle down for a snack of spianata piccante salami from Calabria and provola cheese, accompanied by raw vegetables with an olive-oil dip.

A half-bottle of Cantalupi Rosso Salice Salentino DOC goes down well, along with a glass of San Pellegrino with ice.

The hostess offers a fresh fruit salad. Would I like a slice of citrus fruit tart? What sort of coffee would I take? If only life were always like this.

Back in London, I board the service from Gatwick Airport. I’ve paid for first class. The seats look like any others. I make do with the standard class, which is less crowded. But hey, it’s still a train. I love them all.

I am home.

(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg. Opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines)

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