I wrote this travel story for Zach Everson, a former student of mine at Wake Forest now an editor at AOL Travel. I actually wrote it originally in the summer of 2006 while in Calabria doing research and reporting for my book. It was one of those classic Italian encounters that makes the country so irresistible to travelers — even in the most unexpected places and circumstances.
Falling in “love,” Italian style
By Justin Catanoso For AOL Travel
I’m in southern Italy for a month, doing research for my book. One evening, I walk into a pizzeria intent on ordering in Italian, pretending I’m local. The woman behind the counter — early 30s, light brown hair pulled back off a friendly, open face– asks me what I’d like. I scan the glass case and point to a rectangular slice of thick-crusted pizza.
“Quello,” I say, that one.
She responds. Uh-oh. I don’t catch a word. So I guess that she’s asked if I’d like it heated. Intent on staying undercover, I say, Si.
She looks at me as if I’ve just teased her, and I’m caught off guard by her lovely, playful smile. She slowly repeats what she said with a touch of attitude. In fact, she’s not asked me a yes or no question. Instead, she asked: are you eating here or taking out? My cover is blown. I close my eyes and shake my head; then I smile back.
At that moment, the looks we exchange are what make Italy so universally beloved by travelers. There is a kindness and playfulness in the simplest of encounters. Her eyes say it all. You’re not from here. You can’t speak Italian. But you’re giving it a shot and you’ve made me laugh. I’m glad you came in. At least, that’s what I read in her eyes — every time she stole a glance at me with another smile.
Now listen, I just talked with my wife long distance and each of m daughters; I’m entirely devoted to them. And yet, I feel like I’m falling in love. Right there in the pizzeria with the woman with the light brown hair.
I want to lean across the counter and speak Italian like Al Pacino in Godfather III – brooding softly and confidently. I am an American witer here to research the life of a saint, my cousin, of course. Perhaps you’ve heard of him, San Gaetano Catanoso? We should meet later for a glass of wine. I know a great little place on the Corso.
Naturally, whatever Italian I’ve learned cannot be recalled. I watch silently as she wraps the pizza in paper, tapes the package closed and asks if I’d like a bag (she holds one up, which is how I know what she said).
Si, I say. At least I remember that.
She smiles one more time, her eyes as lovely as stars, and hands me the package. I resist telling her that I love her. My wife would be proud of me.