I went to Italy for the first time in the winter of 1994 with my boyfriend of two years. 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 his, 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 get to meet up with their friends for pizza. So one night, we bid a 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. "Are you sure we shouldn't stay home?" My boyfriend and his cousin looked at me like I was nuts. "E' colpa, e' cosi." Guilt, it's just the way it is.
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 boyfriends there, 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. My boyfriend and she reminisced about their childhood summers, 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 large pizzas for the table. Assuming that it was no different here, for me it was not a question of if we would share, it was a question about what we would share. What toppings. But when I opened my mouth to brainstorm about it, my boyfriend quietly yet firmly suggested that I get the Pizza Margarita, and that he wanted his own pizza. "But I can't eat a whole pizza by myself," I responded, after a disconcerted pause. He turned to the person next to him, as if not hearing me. I turned to his cousin next to me, "Do you want to share?" I asked, as if we'd shared a million pizzas already together. For the first time that night, she didn't speak English. She was getting the Napoletana. "Oh," I said. Then I turned back to my boyfriend. "I suppose we could just take home whatever we don't eat." His eyes receded into darkness. I would soon learn that in Italy there is no such thing as a doggy bag, or take-away, that I was slowly digging myself into a hole. By the time the waiter came, my boyfriend's face was pale in anticipation of me making my third big mistake, which was to ask rather openly and for all to hear if he would order mine half with mushroom, half with pepperoni. His face, now a beet red. The waiter didn't even speak English and yet he seemed to know that I was a woman who complicated things. His cousin peered at me as if in a new light, then at my boyfriend with sympathy, you poor soul, look what you've gotten yourself into.
I relented and got the Margarita. But I was so confused.
Back in San Francisco, when my boyfriend and I went to the popular North Beach Pizza, we always shared the medium, half tomato, half mushroom and sausage. At Zachary's Pizza in Berkeley, the city where we'd met, we'd order their famous Chicago-style deep dish in a similar fashion. The waiter didn't blink. My boyfriend didn't blink. Nobody I'd ever eaten any pizza with had blinked.
Later that night, when I rationalized my behavior using the North Beach Pizza example, my boyfriend looked at me, point blank, and said, that was not pizza, Jackie.
I still can't believe he married me, and he was right, that was not pizza. The pizza I had in Rome was pizza, sumptuous-melt-in-your-salivating-mouth pizza, and yes, I ate the whole thing by myself!
Jackie Townsend is the author of Imperfect Pairings: A Novel, which, she assures you, is not your typical Italian love story. It won the 2013 Indie Reader Discovery award for Chick Lit, though she is certain they have redefined the category. Learn more about Jackie and her books at jackietownsend.com.