1959 I have just really started noticing the world around me, my neighborhood, my town, the sea in which I swim. I notice that no one minds where or what I read as long as I am not in my father’s chair or my parents’ bed, that my father’s cigar smoking is something everyone complains about but no one can stop, that my grandmother is the smallest adult person I know and smells like her own kitchen (schmaltz, boiled chicken, rye bread, and schnapps) and my mother is tall and glamorous and smells like Ma Griffe, a cloud of sultry flowery scent that still gets my attention, 50 years later. In her wish to get away from the boiled chicken, boiled flanken, boiled potatoes (rolled in schmaltz, hold the parsley) of her parents, my mother embraced the time- and energy-saving foods of the New World. If there is a stronger word than embrace, imagine it here. My mother was a mediocre cook, not only from lack of talent but also from a furious lack of inclination (as I came to understand). I remember one celebratory dinner of incinerated lamb chops, Stouffer’s frozen corn soufflé, Del Monte canned green beans with Durkee French onion rings crumbled on top, and a Sara Lee cheesecake, barely defrosted, with a couple of spoonfuls of Cool Whip ladled over it; that was as good as it got. My mother liked entertaining; she was brilliant with improvised hors d’oeuvres, charades, and fruity drinks—she just hated housewifery—and I think now, “Who can blame her?”
1960 I have been invited to Debbie Ruggiero’s house, after Brownies. My life will never be the same. I behaved better than usual (played The Barbie Game without expressing contempt; played hide-and-seek without crying; resisted rummaging through the Ruggieros’ bedroom, in search of unspeakable things), and I was invited to stay on for dinner. Wonderful things are happening in the kitchen. Sauce is bubbling. (You can hear it bubble. I have never heard sauce bubble in my life.) There is something in the oven that has the scent of cheese, which I recognize, and garlic and olive oil (neither of which I know). Mr. Ruggiero kisses his wife on the neck and says, “Smells good, honeybunch,” and she smiles and sticks a wooden spoon in the pot, and he takes a little taste and rolls his eyes, appreciatively. In just that moment, I have seen and heard six foreign and deeply desirable things, and then, still thinking about men and women and endearments and the bubbling sauce, I bow my head during grace (and when Mr. Ruggiero says that we are grateful for this food, I want to yell, “You are so right,” but I just cross myself and say amen, like everyone else, and hope that the god of Jews will understand), and I eat spaghetti with a bolognese sauce, while a chunk of parmesan cheese is grated by whoever wants it, and garlic bread falls out of little tinfoil pockets onto each of our plates, next to a Caesar salad over which anchovies are draped like mermaids. Mr. Ruggiero has brought home cannoli in a box from an Italian bakery, and although they are delightful, with little candied cherries at their ends and powdered sugar all over, the truth is, they are not better than rugelach and lemon bars, and I decide not to convert. This meal is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me, including getting a pink bicycle for my birthday.
I go to the Ruggieros’ so often that Mrs. Ruggiero calls me her third daughter, and now that I’m their third daughter, it makes sense to bring me to Mass on Sundays when I am staying for Sunday dinner. When everyone is dipping and kneeling, I dip and kneel, too, and most of the time I think, not about the blood of Jesus or the Blessed Virgin’s heartache, but about whether or not we’ll be having Mrs. Ruggiero’s lasagne, which is first-rate, although Mr. Ruggiero has confided in me that he finds it a little heavy and I have nodded judiciously, or Mama Ruggiero’s linguine with pesto trapanese, which keeps me coming over, even when Debbie becomes boy crazy and I do not. When the Ruggieros move away, I’m eight years old, and I beg my mother to make Italian food. I describe the pasta and the pesto. I describe lasagne and veal roast with rosemary. I describe this stuff like a drunk locked out of his favorite bar, and my mother, who loves me, gives in. Our Italian dinner is Ronzoni spaghetti with meatballs that are half ground beef and half Progresso Italian Style Bread Crumbs and, brilliantly, a handful of Kraft Parmesan cheese, and it is all browned in A&P olive oil. The sauce is Ragu and it bubbles. My mother makes a loaf of “Italian” bread (meaning, with a crust and not pre-sliced) and sprinkles it with more of the olive oil, garlic powder, dried oregano, and more cheese and puts it in the oven for a half hour. Our kitchen smells, if not like the Ruggieros’ (which is like comparing a comic book to Monet), like something pleasant, like something that you would pause for. Our table is red with sauce, green with the Kraft can, and white with the linen napkins my mother likes. I ask for that meal at Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Passover, and my mother laughs and tells me to learn how to cook, and I do.
1962 I have been swimming for hours, wearing my new navy blue one-piece with the red vinyl anchor on one shoulder. I swim to the side of the pool and fall in love with Marcello Mastroianni. He’s the guest of my parents’ dear friends, who are in the movie business. Clouds blow past. Shafts of light fall upon il Signor Mastroianni, who is not quite 40 years old and so darkly handsome and loose-limbed and charmingly weary, but not too weary to splash me while he has a drink poolside. I suddenly understand why people like to kiss, why sitting in the company of another person is as thrilling as the Steeplechase at Coney Island, how watching a man pop a cracked green olive into his mouth and then lick his fingers could cause a person to be both breathless and uncomfortable. Il Signor Mastroianni brought out a plate of antipasti and we ate lunch under the patio umbrella, and in addition to discovering desire, I discovered roasted red peppers, soppressata, and marinated eggplant.
My mother picked me up, and I lay in the backseat, sighing, resting my face against the seat fabric and imagining it was il Signor Mastroianni’s stubble. I went straight to my room and opened the encyclopedia to I. I learned Italian so I could travel in Italy. I married a man named Ameche, whose family comes from a small town outside of Rome. I make chicken cacciatore for Passover and a version of Seven Fishes that includes my mother’s greatest hit.
My real Italy is like everyone’s: Tuscany, the yews and views, yellows and browns, good red wine, beautiful figs, north to Venezia and its perfect, tottering beauty, and south to Sicily, to Catania and Siracusa and the ruins and the olives and lavender and the trees bent over to meet the ground—all that. But my inner Italy is heaven on earth, it is always early June at the villa, the sauce bubbles, the dead and the living raise their glasses and the wild roses are everywhere.