As I agonized over what to pack for our trip to Italy, Michael asked me what I most wanted out of the trip, besides meeting his family. “To eat lots of pasta,” I told him. Sight-seeing would be icing on the cake, I mused. I really wanted to just drink wine and eat pasta. I knew the Italian reputation for cuisine. When Michael cooked, only certain brands of pasta were good enough and each required a particular sauce. He shuddered when I added raw vegetables to linguini or used sauce from a can.
We were celebrating Michael’s fiftieth birthday in Rome so he could introduce me to the Italian side of his family. We would stay in the apartment building they owned in Rome where his sister and her family and his cousins lived, then head up to Portenone to his mother’s home, and visit Venice for a day.
His sister was preparing a welcome home meal with the help of her maid and she invited me to accompany her to the mercato to buy groceries. This was a side of Rome I had not expected to see. The mercato was underground and if I hadn’t had the entrance pointed out to me, would have walked right past it. Fresh vegetables and fruits were arrayed in spectacular arrangements of color and smells. We filled her basket, then shopped along the tiny alcoves where vendors sold fresh pasta, meats and cheeses. That night we had a feast of polenta drenched in a red sauce with freshly grated Parmigiano, and pasta shells stuffed with spinach and finally roast beef, each accompanied by wine. For dessert, the mille foglie, “thousand leaves” made of layers of puff pastry filled with cream, was served, and despite my groans, I had to taste it. An uncle brought out a special dessert wine for our final toasts to Michael.
Later we visited the beach house in Ladispoli where he had spent many glorious summers swimming and met his elderly neighbors, delighted to see Miguelito home again and meet his "lovely amica". We strolled down to the center of town for a meal. The cafe had run out of the chicken dish I ordered, so I asked for pasta as my secundo course as well as the primo. Ah, no no no,” I was told by the emphatic waiter, shaking his finger at me. I was not allowed to eat pasta twice! In fact, they brought me a dish they prepared without consulting me further. Obviously when it came to cuisine, this American did not know what she was doing so they would have to choose for me!
One evening an old friend of Michael’s took us for a night tour of the city. The coliseum, Trajan’s column, the pantheon and the forum ruins, elegantly ancient, were lit by a golden glow. Afterwards, we walked down a dark street behind the Trevi fountain where a pasta bar filled my every desire: cream sauces that melted on my tongue, stuffed raviolis, olives floating in virgin olive oil, and freshly baked crusty bread.
With Michael speaking Italian, we were greeted as old friends everywhere we went. Stopping at a café that was just closing, they insisted we stay, “Entrato, entrato, prego, per favore, serviamolo”. “Come in, come in, please, let us serve you,” they insisted, then served us the same delicious meal of pasta and grilled greens that they were serving their own family and staff.
But it wasn’t until we were in Florence that I discovered something I didn’t know about Italians. Michael loved Italian pizza with the crust thin and crisp. We seated ourselves in the pizza place and ordered, then he decided to run out to drop off the film from our camera so the photos would be ready by the time we left. Seeing me sitting alone, the waiter hovered over me. “Where is your husband? He is coming back soon, no?” He was very worried that I was alone. This just was not done! My assurances that I was fine did not deter him. He tried to convince me to eat with his family seated for their afternoon break. Fortunately Michael appeared before I had to make a decision. The waiter scowled at him for his bad manners but that did not stop us from enjoying our pizza. Soon we were on the train to the north. His mother would treat us to a meal on the air force base, using her special privilege as the wife of an American, a traditional Thanksgiving meal of turkey and yams covered in melted marshmallows, a meal that emphasized how much Italy had trained my palate to pasta.