An Italian cousin of ours recently married a Frenchman, the second to do so, and of all of the weddings I’ve attended in Italy (many) these are my favorite, if only because for once I am not the foreigner, they are, to each other. The Americana gets to fade into the background, enjoy the fruits of other people’s labors, and revel in the rivalry that the Italians and French are notorious for.
This one might have started with the fact that the wedding was not held in the bride’s country, but the groom’s. For myself, I was ecstatic. Paris, here I come.
A civil ceremony, a church ceremony, a slew of Pantheon inspired wedding photos, lots of waiting around and general Parisian gawking, at last, to the reception we sped. It was an hour drive outside of Paris, to the groom’s family’s country home. A charming retreat tucked away in the woods somewhere, I have no idea of the exact location; it was dark when our Italian contingent arrived, when the reception was to start—my bedtime: ten p.m.
Whatever my imaginations of what a celebratory French feast might look like, they were wildly exceeded. Starting with large baskets of unshucked oysters, the biggest oysters I’ve ever seen, adorning every nook and cranny and corner of the expansive back courtyard where the guests were slowly amassing. The mollusks were then baked, poached, fried, or served raw by a dizzying amount of waiters swirling around us with silver trays. An onslaught of the tiniest, most intricate hors d’oeuvres came with them—truffles and puffs and pastries and terrines, mousses and tarts and toasts and crepes; it was often hard to decipher what we were eating, exactly. But it was all spectacular, sumptuous, an explosion of flavors. Endless champagne.
Rumors ran rampant among the Italians. There were oysters baked in gold leaf, and foie gra with Armagnac floating around, apparently. You haven’t had the Pissaladieres? I had constant food envy, which was sort of the idea—first to the most farfetched delicacy had braggers rights. They’re slicing ten-hour cooked lamb from a spick on the south lawn, someone told me. If I was given a tip there was an unspoken agreement that I was to keep it to myself lest there be a surge. I was still looking for that mini croquet madam someone mentioned.
But while I was in heaven, there seemed to be a closed-mouthed discernment going on amongst the Italians (whose contingent was grossly outnumbered) about the food and drinks we were consuming. I assumed this was fueled by an undercurrent of long lingering debates and bias between the two nations—for instance, if it wasn’t in fact Caterina de Medici who introduced fine cuisine to France, not to mention the fork; all the football matches won, lost and stolen; the superiority of champagne vs. prosecco; and I won’t even go near the cheese debate.
Still starving after my thousandth serving of the tiniest piece of something I couldn’t recognize, I went on the hunt for the Italian food I’d heard rumors existed.
Ah, here’s where all the Italians are. Jammed in a room tucked in a far corner off the children’s wing. No wandering silver trays. Just massive platters, food served family style. At least I could recognize it—pasta, insalata, pomodori, salumi. There was even the token Pugliese woman seated at a table pinching out orecchiette from fresh dough like a circus sideshow. People came, they watched, they left. Even the music was different, Vivaldi, or at least that’s what I heard in my mind.
The orecchiette were served with sugo al pomodoro, and there was also a penne dish, with what looked and smelled like pesto. Wanting to save room for the cheese extravaganza I heard was to be unveiled later along with the brandy, I asked my husband and his Italian cousin which pasta I should eat. “The penne?” I said. Wrong guess, for they both immediately turned to me, alarmed. “No le penne no, ma dai,” they admonished in unison. My husband then shook his hands together as if praying for my soul. “Don’t eat the penne, ma che…” A rather violent reaction, as it tends to be when pasta is involved in a conversation with Italians. “Why not the penne?” I wanted to know. Their shoulders hunched; they looked at each other—boh. In fact, it didn’t seem like they really knew. It was just wrong. So all they said was, “Perche sono penne.” Because it’s penne. I will never know what this means. We eat penne at home sometimes, but in this instance, absolutely not.
I shake my head as I write this now—that secret club.