Vuoi pranzare insieme?

(Do you want to have lunch together?)

One never knows when the phone will ring with an invitation to lunch. Inviations are never to be refused. Well, that’s my rule anyway.
It took a while before the Bettonese felt comfortable enough to invite me to eat with them. I think it may be because of the house I lived in and people made assumptions about who I was. However, once they got to know me I think they realized that a house is just a house and began inviting me over.
Today, my decadent lunch was actually an Italian version of an American breakfast of bacon and eggs — pancetta e ove. On the third bite the phone rang and I saw that Angela was calling. I was conflicted mid-fork.
Pancetta is very different than bacon in the US. You buy a small slab (often covered with pepper and herbs) and, using your meat slicer, cut thin slices that don’t actually have to cook. The taste sensation is so wonderful that I did not want to answer for fear of not savoring it fully. I was conflicted because, given that it was 10 minutes to one, Angela could very well be inviting me to lunch with her family.      You can see the predicament.
Lunches with the Fratellini are sumptuous and not to be missed. I accepted the invitation and divided what was left on my plate, with smiles all around, between Rocco and Puccini. The buzzer announcing Angela’s arrival sounded a few minutes later as I was cleaning the frying pan. Passing from the museum where she works, Angela had come to bring me home with her. Her mother had made gnocchi and we needed to hurry because the water was boiling.
We quickly left by the back door and out into the alley that leads to the Porta Romana where we ran into Bibiana and Alessio. I had spoken to them earlier as they headed out to the cemetary but Angela had not seen them in ages — or so it seemed from the smiles, hugs, and kisses. Actually Angela greets most people with this much enthusiasim. Her warmth and pleasure at seeing you is part of her unique character.
Angela insisted that Bibiana and Alessio join us for lunch. From the flurry of Italian back-and-forth,  I gathered that Bibiana protested, but to no avail. Calling her mother, Angela assured them there was plenty of gnocchi to go around and Bibiana finally agreed saying they would arrive after she had closed the windows because it looked like rain. Angela and I headed down the hill, around the bend, and into the street of the monestary of San Antonio di Padova, where she lives.
In addition to truly being and angel to me, Angela is also the patron saint of animals in Bettona. Many a stray cat, after talking to the others in the neighborhood, has walked up to the Fratellini door asking for food or accommodation. They usually receive it. Whenever I find a lost or injured animal I head to Angela because she’ll know what to do.
Once, when out with the dogs, I heard a kitten crying only to discover the tiniest newborn I had ever seen. Rushing to Angela she made a couple calls and soon someone arrived with baby formula and a kitten sized bottle. The kitten could not have been more than a day old and literally fit in the palm of my hand. (I tried my best with it — even letting it sleep in a winter hat on my chest to keep it warm — but it survied only a day and a half.)
Another time I found a lost dog — the type they call cane da caccia (hunting dog) — roaming around the walls. It was scared and hungry and came to me timidly. Uncharacteristically, Puccini allowed me to bring the dog home. Covered with burrs, she let me comb her hair and then ate two bowls of dog food. Puccini was very kind to allow all this. I then brought her to Angela who began calling around to see if any of the nearby hunters had lost a dog. I dubbed her ‘Fortuna’ and kept her for most of the day.
Italians treat their dogs very differently than I do.  Well than Angela and I do. In fact I think most of them would be horrified to learn that mine actually sleep with me. Fortuna was a sweet dog and seemed to enjoy the attention. Eventually a man inaptly called “Bello” drove up to the museum to claim Fortuna. As he put her in the back of his old Panda, I asked what her name was. He responded that he didn’t name his work dogs and I wondered if Fortuna had indeed been an appropriate name.
Upon entering Angela’s house I was greeted by her somewhat startled nonna (grandmother) who smiled broadly dispite a missing tooth. I was pleased that Giulia recognized me and gave her a kiss on both cheeks as she said “Ben tornato.”
She asked if I knew that she was 94 and I, in turn, acted surprised and responded with, “Come possibile? (How is that possible?)” To which she smiled again.
Luisella called her greeting from the kitchen and I went in to give her a kiss as well. Being on the ground floor of the house shared with Angela’s uncle, the ceiling in the kitchen is quite low — only about 6 inches above my head. It’s small and even more crowded with the addition of the dishwasher Luisella received for her birthday last year. (Men seem to think dishwashers make the perfect birthday presents.) However small the kitchen, Luisella is able to turn out the most delicious meals. I don’t know how she does it given the limited counter space but she does.
If Angela is the patron saint of animals in Bettona, Luisella is the patron saint of desserts. There isn’t a gathering that can happen without one or two of Luisella’s crostate. I offered to help her one year for the town Sagra and was amazed that she routinely turns out 16 crostate every day. We set to work and by the 10th one I was an expert. It was an experience I will never forget. (I will also never forget the industrial sized barrel of Italian Crisco either.)
We started setting the table as Luisella announced the gnocchi were ready. I try to tell my guests that, here in Italy, pasta and gnocchi were to be eaten when they were served and here was a perfect example of why. Luisella appeared with two plates of hot gnocchi and, looking at Alessio and me, insisted we sit and eat even if the others were still standing about. Then there was the jockeying for who should sit at the head of the table opposite Guila since Angela’s father was away in Puglia. I declined and said that Luisella, who rarely sits down to lunch, should have the honor. Still holding the two plates, she said basically,  “Just sit down and eat.”
My Italian is getting better but I still don’t venture into jokes or sarcasm for fear of offending people. Luisella came in from the kitchen carrying her own plate and, tilting her head slightly, apologized that the gnocchi were a little hard.
“That’s it.” I said in Italian. I was leaving.
It took Luisella about 3 seconds to realize I was joking and Angela let out a high pitched chortle that passes for her laugh. Bibiana and Alessio laughed as well and Guilia, who did not know what had happened, just looked up from her gnocchi confused.
Luisella came and sat next to me and said that I was such a joker. I assured her the gnocchi were delicious, even if they were a bit hard.
I asked how Luisella learned to cook and Angela took the opportunity to tell me that her grandmother had cooked all the meals up until Angela was about 15 when her mother, who could stand it no longer, threw her out of the kitchen.
“It’s true,” Angela said, “she cooked for shit.” I was shocked and asked if I had heard correctly so she repeated it. Yep, that’s what I heard.
I looked back and forth between Angela and her nonna and Angela assured me,      “She doesn’t know what is going on.” Then she discribed a typical meal.
“First my grandmother would cook the pasta an hour early and let it get cold. Then she would cover it with a sauce she had boiled for 3 hours. No, really,” Angela continued, “it was terrible. I was 15 years old and weighed only 30kilos.”
At this Angela looked at me cross ways because, knowing me, she knew I’d find that difficult to believe. Her glance was enough to say, “Michael, don’t go there.” And I didn’t.
The rest of the meal went on with similar ease. Luisella asked who wanted to finish what was left of the gnocchi. I injected into the pause that I would love to but they were just a little heavy and I wanted to save room for the secondo. Peels of laughter from everyone except Giulia. Alessio said that he would have, “Solo un assaggio,” and Luisella filled his plate with what was left.
The second plate was a baked cabbage Parmigiana, which was excellent. A steaming dollop was placed next to the turkey polpette (meat ball) that Luisella prefaced with a disclaimer that they too were a little hard. I couldn’t tell if she was being serious or continuing the joke. Almost all of us laughed again anyway. After discussing how the cabbage was made a couple times — for my benefit that is — Luisella tried to pawn off the remaining polpette. By this time I realized that it didn’t matter that Alessio wanted only a ‘taste more,’ he would be obligied to finish whatever was left. Brave man was he.
Two desserts were then offered and I, being a stronzo, said “What, Luisella, only two?”
“Not so fast,” said Luisella who was able to pull three more dolce from the cupboard.
I didn’t know what to say because she had won.
I left the house totally sated with both the food and the good company as well as with some left overs for a snack later. This is the way it goes in Bettona. Truly extraordinary people.
(When I saw Luisella at the lecture the Pro Loco was sponsoring that evening she asked of me, “Tutto a posto?” I quietly told her that I was so tired after lunch I had to take a nap. She replied with one of her generous smiles and said it was because the gnocchi were so heavy.)

— 20 April 2013