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QUESTION: I must ask you a question that has been bothering me for
quite some time now. Last year I had dinner at Valentino with three other people.
When our waiter took our order, he addressed me with the Italian “Mrs.,” and
possibly because he found the other woman in our party attractive (a doctored-up
gold digger, if you ask me), he addressed her as “Miss.” We had earlier been
speaking of marriage with our waiter, and he knew I wasn’t married, and I said
to him calmly, “I’m not married.” And the waiter looked at me and said, “I thought
you were married to yourself.” I was dumbfounded. I didn’t know what to say.
I didn’t know how rude he really had been; I just knew I was terribly hurt.

Months later I wrote a letter to Valentino’s owner, Piero Selvaggio, but I
got no response. The sad thing about this incident is that I’m not a chef groupie,
but I do like good food, and since then I’ve been reluctant to venture out and
eat at restaurants. I’m from a working-class family (my mom was a maid for an
actor — a B-level actor), and I’ll never forget my first great meal at La Toque.
Please tell me your thoughts regarding this horrible incident at this so-called
fine restaurant.

—Shirley, Los Angeles

ANSWER: Rest assured: The waiter was a sleaze. But in Italy itself,
I gather, signorina basically applies only to girls in their teens; high
school kids. Women are almost automatically called signora, which seems
to be more of an honorific than a statement of marital status — it would be
something of an insult to call a woman in her mid-20s signorina as it
would be here to call a woman “Miss” instead of “Ma’am.” Unless the waiter was
hitting on your friend, in which case he was laying it on pretty thick, or was
engaging in the expensive-Italian-restaurant version of what we used to call
minimum-wage attitude. His unamusing retort was, of course, inexcusable.

Personally, I’m not sure where I stand on the basic issue. On the one hand,
I am rarely happy to be called “dude” by a man to whom I am paying $120 for
a plate of white-truffle risotto, while on the other, being called “sir” makes
me cringe. Still, I suspect the original signora was meant as no insult
to your no doubt spectacular beauty. Monica Bellucci is probably called signora,
too.

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