By: Jackie Townsend
I went to Italy for the first time in the winter of 1994 with my boyfriend of one year. We stayed with his Godparents in Rome, where his mother met us and many of his cousins lived.
While I was excited to at last get a view into this secret life of the man I loved, he was nervous, I could tell, though I wasn’t sure exactly why at the time. Now I know why. One has certain expectations when they travel to Italy. For me, it was evening strolls along the Tiber River, long intimate conversations about the state of our relationship in outdoor cafés, sumptuous meals in back alley restaurants, those that you might have read about in Eat, Pray, Love. If you read Eat, Pray, Love. None of that happened. We ate at home with the family for every meal, and when we weren’t eating at home with the family, we were out shopping with the family for the next meal to eat at home with the family.
There was one exception. Pizza. Every Friday night, young Italians get a reprieve from family and meet up with their friends for pizza. So one night, we bid goodbye to his mother and Godparents, their hands wringing and faces distorted with worry, and headed out to the streets of Rome still wet from that evening’s rain. It was like a breath of fresh air, once I got over the guilty feeling, that is, the sense that we were doing something wrong.
The restaurant was tucked somewhere in the maze of streets that make up the old center. We met three more of his cousins and their significant others, ten of us in all, snuggled into a picnic table at the back corner of the tiny, packed, locals-only place.
My boyfriend was the second oldest of the crew. The oldest, in her late twenties, peppered me with questions that I don’t remember now. She spoke frighteningly fluent English, and was very curious about my life in the States. She told me stories about their childhood summers, silly stories about my boyfriend, and there was lots of laughter, if not nervous laughter on his part, for I could be sardonic at times, direct, and no doubt he was worried that I might say something American. But his cousin was just as direct, just as sardonic, and we got along fabulously.
Until I ordered my pizza.
In America, typically, you order a couple of large pizzas for the table. I assumed that it was no different here; it was not a question of if we would share, it was a question of what we would share. As I started to make suggestions, my boyfriend quietly yet firmly suggested that I get the Pizza Margherita.
“But what are you getting?” I asked, confused.
“Napoletana,” he replied, setting down our menus.
“But I can’t eat a whole pizza by myself,” I said.
“Yes you can,” he said, sharing a furtive glace with this cousin.
“I suppose we could just take home whatever we don’t eat,” I said.
Please stop talking, his eyes begged. (You do not take home food in Italy.)
The waiter came to take our order. I’ll have mine with half mushroom and half pepperoni, I told my boyfriend to tell the waiter. They both returned blank stares, and the table went quiet. I glanced around thinking, what? In San Francisco, when my boyfriend and I had gone to North Beach Pizza, we had always shared the medium, half pepperoni, half mushroom, or half cheese, half anchovy. We ordered it however the hell we wanted it. Nobody blinked. But now the entire restaurant was blinking, it seemed, waiting for me to figure it out, for me to say the only two words one needs to say when ordering a pizza in Italy: Pizza Margherita. Yes, that’s what I’ll have, I said at last, prepossessed, as if that’s what I had intended all along.
Later that night, I rationalized my behavior to my boyfriend using the North Beach Pizza analogy. “That’s not pizza, Jackie,” was his simple response. It didn’t take long for me to accept this truism as part of my being, for my heart and soul to desire no pizza BUT the Margherita—the colors of his country’s flag and the name of its favorite queen—at which point my boyfriend, for his part, relented and married me.
Jackie Townsend received her MBA from U.C. Berkeley and spent eight years on the fast track to becoming a partner with a financial services consulting company before burning out. After coming to terms with what is important in life (being married to an Italian didn’t hurt), she began writing and hasn’t stopped since. She just released her second novel, Imperfect Pairings, an exploration of these themes. For additional information please visit Townsend’s website at: http://jackietownsend.com/