Usually I don’t eat wheat. I try to limit dairy. And only occasionally do I sip some alcohol. But then again, I was in Italy…
If you stepped out of Marco’s door and took three steps to the left there was a short wooden gate, and a small courtyard framed by the tall walls of the villa. The whole complex, I learned, was owned by a baron. Around the courtyard were tufts of potted herbs and tomato vines and veggies, sprigs of color on the dark stone pavers. This was the home of Angelo and Anna.
“Would you like to go to a dinner,” Marco asked me. And I almost didn’t go, content to stay in and pick away at little projects. But as it was right next door, and I could come home whenever, I dressed my best in my travel skirt and black cashmere sweater, and followed him into the cramped house, to an eruption of cheers, and wide open arms and kisses on the cheeks.
I sat at the head of the table, across from Angelo, who had just turned seventy-five the day before. He looked like he might be the mischievous imp of the party, a tiny man with an amused grin and little round glasses through which he gazed over the rest of the table.
Between us on either side were three more seats, eight in total, the neighbors from around the tiny courtyard.
I don’t think I stopped smiling. Their Italian flowed slow and smooth, and I caught most words, or at least usually the gist of the conversation, my studying and Spanish paying off. Marco sat to my left, leaning in to translate, even when I already understood.
Rudy (Rudolf) sat to my right. He spoke to me in English and helped me with words I didn’t understand. He had new glasses which his girlfriend Carmen kept teasing him for. She was not yet used to the thick round rims and lenses, and I had to admit they did add a warped effect to his blinking eyes. They explained that he had early glaucoma.
Rudy had just returned from France, bringing with him champagne and rose wine. “I only buy champagne and rose from France,” he explained. “And this red,” he said, pouring the burgundy wine into my glass, “is from Italy, from a region where my distant relatives owned a farm and grew up with Mussolini.”
So, of course, I drank the wine.
Then came focaccia. Thick, oiled bread. There were two kinds, potato or onion, both sprinkled with roasted rosemary from the pots on the patio. I didn’t usually eat bread, but Anna had baked it herself, pulling it right from her oven.
So, of course, I ate the focaccia.
Carmen and Rudy had brought the pizza, arriving late when it finished baking. But Carmen was from the South of Italy where, she explained, it’s normal to be at least fifteen minutes late. “There, noon is at 12:30,” she shrugged playfully, as the others groaned and rolled their eyes. I thought of my own tardy family. Maybe that’s why.
As soon as our plates were free of focaccia, came the pizza. Cheese, anchovies, olives, tomato, prosciutto.
So of course, I must try the pizza! (but I picked off the prosciutto…red meat was still a little too far for me, unless there was nothing else, like the pork stew in Cuba.)
I found myself thinking ahead to dessert. I’d heard there were at least three kinds. Surely that would be coming soon. Then again, I was a novice at these Italian dinners. But I knew there was a cake. I’d seen that younger couple bring a cake.
That young couple sat between Marco and Angelo. They were both teachers. She taught music, and was a Soprano (a female singer). She explained the different levels of soprano, ranging from operatic to dramatic, and showed us a video of her singing Ave Maria. ‘See’, I thought, ‘a singer in every Italian family!’
The man taught Math, but in the last twelve years had written nine books of the natural history of the area (plants, geology, archeology, even one about a specific oak tree, the first in Italy to be protected). I watched him light up animated as he talked about them, while his lady sat with a faraway, heard-it-all look. Well, nine books! No wonder. But still she smiled supportively, contributing a word or two.
I was delighted to find, that although I only understood maybe a third of the words, I always knew what was happening. I picked up on the sarcastic banter, catching the wink of the bully, the fake defense of the victim, and I lit up with the energy of the jokes as if I had understood every word.
I could tell when the talker was on topic, or, by the tone of his voice, when he had wandered onto some tangent, verified by a jesting nudge from Rudy, or the twirling hand gesture that meant ‘get on with it, already’, and laughter from the group. Maybe it was the Italian body language in my blood that carried me through the night.
Funny that language thing. Words are such a small part. Understanding the cycles of human relation is everything. Like how, through a simple change in her focus, a shift of her posture, I could tell when Anna, the lady of the house, was making a move to stand.
Just as Angelo surprised me with his humored silence, Anna surprised me with her vibrancy. She appeared at first a mature motherly figure. Straight grey hair cut in a line below her jaw, glasses with woven wires like a wrought iron fence, simple shirt and jeans. But she spoke in an even, low voice, her words walking in perfect line one after another, and she had no air of reserve, just confident presence, strong and jovial. She cleared the pizza plates, placing new ones, and asked if we want Italian cheese
‘But wasn’t there cheese on the pizza?’ I wondered, a bit concerned for my sensitive gut, and the delay of the desserts. But out came a platter of cheese, garnished with radish slices and greens, and a tray of preserves. Sweet chili jelly, fig mustard jam, zucchini pickled in olive oil, and red peperoncini stuffed with tuna and capers. All made by Anna. So, of course, I must try the cheese.
Then salad. I was full to the brim, but greens would go well in this mix, I thought, and served a plate. The olive oil was extra virgin made by Anna’s brother who has a farm in Sicily. I mentioned that I might have family from Sicily.
“Dove?!” demanded Rudy. Where. I said I didn’t know. “Well, you have to find out!” He said. I promised I would.
Finally, the dessert. Rudy left and returned with the Champagne from France, in a cooling jacket. It is a toast to the sweet Angelo and his birthday. So, of course…I drink the champagne!
Now the desserts needed no justification, but I tried just a taste of each, practicing moderation (or really just not a huge fan of cake). Until, that is, I realized the cookies sitting nearest me were actually crispy coconut with a chocolate bottom. I nudged the plate closer and nibbled continuously as we sat and chatted and laughed.
At one point near 10:00pm, Rudy looked over at Marco, “I think Marco has reached his limit,” he said, snickering.
“They always tease me for being the first to leave the party,” he sighed, eyes heavy. Followed by a brief discussion about how early everyone had to wake up, and who was a true Italian. My own heritage silently ashamed thinking of my customary ten hours of sleep. But they let us go, in good humor and with many kisses on the cheek. I was ready too. Full, in body and spirit.