As an American traveling abroad, Italy was the most welcoming foreign experience I ever had.
So it's no surprise that my wife and I live here now. Apart from being the nicest place in the world to live, it is also a wonderful and inspiring place to write about. Of course, being raised in an Italian-American family, I'm a little biased in my opinions towards this country, the culture, its people and all things Italiano.
But travelers to Italy, whether they have actual connections to 'the old country' or not, just can't help falling in love with this place. Obviously, there is tremendous natural beauty here; along with an enormous treasure trove of history; remarkable food and an amazing culture - but it's also true that Italians practice important values which have been lost in other places. Take hospitality, for example.
Quite a few autumns ago, my charming wife, the ever-lovely Ora and I 'trekked' about in a small hill town of central Italy. We lost track of time and let lunchtime slip right past. We must have also lost our minds because we never 'trek', and even less frequently do we miss a meal. It was very uncharacteristic of us, I assure you. But such is the fatal charm of Italy. By the time we realized how hungry we were, the town's one grocery store and its few restaurants had already shut their doors for the afternoon. We pinned our last hopes of getting a sandwich, a scrap of crust, anything, on a lovely little trattoria adjacent to a forest of huge chestnut trees near the edge of town. By the time we got there, it too was closed for the afternoon. However, there was an elderly lady gathering fallen chestnuts near the tiny trattoria. We will never know if she magically divined our dire circumstances, or just heard our stomachs growling like crazed weasels, but she asked if we were hungry and invited us right in to her son-in-law's locked up eatery. Far from being annoyed, her son-in-law happily whipped up some pasta con funghi, fresh from the forest, tossing in a handful of those wonderful chestnuts for good measure while she laid out heaping portions of prosciutto and local cheeses. Grilled chicken, salad, bread, fruit, pastry, liqueur, coffee and several hours later, we waddled out into the waning light content in the glow of excessive Italian hospitality.
That's my point. Italian hospitality tends towards the excessive. In fact, it's no coincidence that the word 'hospitality' contains the word 'hospital'. Here in Italy these two words should be permanently welded together. Nietzsche, (who was German) said, "That which does not kill you, makes you stronger." He was mostly right although Nietzsche never attended an Italian festival or he might have added "Uhm, except for Italian celebrations. They will not make you stronger. They will kill you". I have dubbed this phenomenon, 'Homicide by Hospitality'.
Italians have a sense of their universe as being one of abundance and nothing frames that belief more than the unfettered celebration of an Italian wedding. We were recently invited to such a wedding here in Italy and I hoped that I was up to the task since my charming wife, (yes, the ever-lovely one) would be inconveniently out-of-town. It fell on me alone to show great fortitude and social stamina. Now, being the recipient of Italian hospitality requires one to be in pretty good shape. Long ago, nature decided that the best shape for me would be 'round'. I have accepted that fate. Although in my defense, I was very athletic and competitive in school. It's just in my later years I realized that you can buy trophies and so now I'm good at pretty much everything. Sorry, I digress.
The real risk of 'Homicide by Hospitality' comes from not properly pacing yourself. You see, it's easy in Italy to have too much fun and too much food. As everybody knows, the trouble with Italian food is that in about 5-6 days you'll be hungry again. So the trick is to pace yourself. I stay home most nights and avoid wild parties. I don't stay up late. I don't drink too much or cavort loudly 'til the small hours of morning. I just go to bed and get a good sleep. Somehow, it seems that I have converted all my adolescent punishments into my adult objectives. Drawing on this rigorous regimen of dullness I prepared to attend the wedding.
That morning dawned fresh and bright. As they say in Italy, everything was all 'biscuits and wine'.
The home of the intended bride was artistically festooned with garlands of fresh flowers and diaphanous fabric. Guests arrived at the bride's family home, unending Prosecco was poured and mounds of sweet and savory snacks appeared out of nowhere. I enjoyed having a little wine for breakfast and casually sampling the snacks. This 'pre-event' was familiar to me since we had all gathered in the very same spot 30 days earlier to celebrate 'La Promessa', (The Promise). This wedding day had actually started a month prior at La Promessa where we ate and drank until the intended groom arrived. After he arrived, we really got down to business and the toasting and snacking started in earnest. We ate, drank, well-wished the happy couple, and ate some more before licking our plates, downing the final few drops of wine and careening off with horns blasting to the commune, (town hall) to sign the official documents. Afterwards, the bride and groom and guests were joined by city officials and several policemen who were wandering around town hall. We were all very pleased to eat pastry and have another glass or three of Prosecco. Excessive, you say? Maybe, because all this was just 'practice' for the party to come.
And today was the day... the wedding. I was as nervous as the bride. I felt like a tender young goose whose liver was soon to be plucked. I paced myself through the morning event and subsequent dash to the church; through the religious service and raucous convoy to the reception hall; and arrived right behind the wedding party at what must surely have been the pearly gates of hospitality heaven.
Stretched out before me was a cavernous ballroom with at least one hundred huge and sumptuously set tables. Each table was extravagantly draped in color-coordinated linens and adorned with elaborate silver and crystal centerpieces, 4 bottles of wine (two reds and two chilled whites) plus all the silver and crystal in western Europe; everything sparkled under dramatic lighting. I was momentarily staggered.
Once I was able to breathe again, I was directed to a table of 7 other guests - all lovely, if somewhat eager Italians. I was after all, the strange new kid at school or more like the fresh recruit before my first skirmish. Either way, I was bolstered by the presence of such veteran tablemates. I settled in and still pacing myself, studied the two-page, mouth-watering menu. Making a few mental selections from the long list of dishes, I smiled and thought, I can do this. Feeling downright comfortable thanks to a long pull on my aperitivo, I leaned over to my new best friend, who I knew only as 'right-side guy' and asked, "which of these sounds better... the Insalata Polipo or the Anelli di Calamari?" 'Right-side guy' looked at me and laughed as if I had told him a joke. "The menu is only for information. You don't get choices - you get everything on the menu." Before my brain could process what 'right-side guy' said, the kitchen doors burst open and an army of uniformed waiters marched forth in lock-step tandem carrying what can only be described as a veritable Vesuvius of food.
After the first 5 courses of appetizers... amazingly delicious seafood specialties... I sent my wife a long distance text message for help. Of course, she could do nothing. And by then we had moved on to elaborately decorative prosciutto, melon and formaggio. Several more courses followed in quick succession. We were now onto the risotto... still the beginning of the meal. After 10 courses, I managed to send a more urgent message. 'Right-side guy' had hit his stride and called for more wine. We were already 4 bottles deep, (1 white and 3 red) but apparently our table was falling behind. I took advantage of a brief pause in the campaign while they offered second helpings of everything. 'Left-side guy' wanted more calamari. Oh good lord. Were we really out of calamari already?
Something calling itself, Farcito di Antica Partonopea arrived... it was exquisite. The ancient bouncy-bouncy accordion music had started and the crowd was up and chanting for kisses between the groom and his bride. The Farcito was followed by Paccheri con Zucchini. Shamefully, I loosened the button on my pants. It's something I had seen elderly Italian men do when I was a kid. It felt good.
Oh good lord, I thought, this is getting serious.
Something wonderful was on my plate... it was fried and served in a fancy paper cone. In the food frenzy, I almost ate the cone. That seemed to encourage the waiters because after the fried things, the broiled things arrived with wedges of lemon and a sprig of something green. It all disappeared into my yawning craw. There was a momentary lull as the army of waiters retreated to the kitchen. I looked to make my escape knowing that they were cinching up their aprons and preparing to wage intense hospitality. The doors burst open again and the waiters reappeared with a caravan of shiny silver carts. Oh sweet lord, they have an armored division! All was lost and I lapsed into full food coma.
When I revived, an entire semi-frozen peach stuffed to the gunnels with an exquisite sorbet of creamy lemon goodness had appeared on my plate. Foolishly, I imagined this offering to be the white flag of dessert. Had I survived the final salvo in this onslaught of food? Rookie mistake... I was dismayed to see the kitchen preparing THE MAIN COURSES! Roasted lamb, veal, and breaded pork cutlets soon flooded our tables. Still more wine... they called in fruit and cheese as reinforcements. Pastries were waiting to leap from those shiny silver carts. At any moment, I expected tarts, cookies, and cakes, to airdrop onto my plate.
The dancing, shouting and kissing continued at a renewed pitch and now there was karaoke too.
Dante never foresaw a vision of such a joyous hell. Is it any wonder that certain tribes abandon their female children to languish in the desert? It saves them from having wedding feasts. It might have been the liquor or the tiny, little cup of coffee that got me to join the ancient pagan dancing but something moved me to lurch and leap with the others. Of course, I had to re-button my pants but my gyrations had the unanticipated benefit of moving me closer, ever closer to the bride. A plan had formed in my carbohydrate-saturated brain to bounce as close as possible to the bride, throw my gift envelope at her feet and make a mad dash for the door. I eased the envelope out of my suit jacket pocket. Oh sweet lord... they spotted me!
The beautiful bride and her handsome husband simply wanted to thank me... to thank ME! They insisted on giving me a gift too. From a mountain of gift boxes for their guests, they gave me an elegant box of handmade pastries and cookies. A moment ago I thought that I would never eat again, (although maybe I'll force down a snack at Thanksgiving), and they gave me a box of pastries. Even the bow on the box was tied up with a tiny bundle of candied almonds. They were all gone by morning.
The trick is to just pace yourself.
Frank is an award-winning advertising professional, now retired, from Denver, Colorado who is living the sweet life in southern Italy. In addition to a successful career in advertising, he had stints as the owner of an old west saloon, a film and stage character actor, a certified Santa Claus and a university professor... all of which, he says, are 'remarkably similar'.
He now focuses on traveling, honing his skills as an Italian chef, and writing about Italy as he and his charming wife, the ever lovely Ora, renovate their home in beautiful Basilicata.
Their journey back to Italy started 100 years ago when their ancestors first arrived in the United States. Frank and his wife had dreamed of completing the circle of immigration by returning to their ancestral roots in southern Italy.
Their collective memories of the traditions, values and Italian lifestyle drew Frank and his wife back many, many times until they finally bought their house in Italy and moved there permanently.
In honor of the past, and in anticipation of the future, their lovely home is named, 'La Casa Cent'anni', (The Hundred Years House). 'Cent'anni' is also a celebratory toast of goodwill.
So, "Cent'anni" to you, and to us, and to the next 100 years!