Wanderlust

Verace Pizza Napoletana at Sorbillo in Naples.

Verace Pizza Napoletana at Sorbillo in Naples.

What do you think of when you think of Italy? I think of pizza. Donna and I rambled around the southernmost part of Italy for three weeks. It is a pizza culture. Verace Pizza Napoletana. I had to get over it looking skimpy by American standards.

Before I left New York I made a list of the best pizzerias in Naples. I wanted to make sure that I ate in at least one of them. The last day of the trip, the last pizza we ate in Italy, we went to Sorbillo. It was a late lunch. It was a delicious pizza. Charred floppy crust with a touch of tomato sauce and small chunks of fior di latte (cow’s milk mozzarella), a few pieces of basil.

All the pizza we had in Italy was good – pizza with olives, pizza with artichokes, pizza with mushrooms, pizza with salami (an indulgence for Donna). The pizza at Sorbillo was a notch better. I would have been happy just ordering pizza margherita (classic), but Donna likes a little something extra. To make it special.

It used to bother me. I grew up eating New York pizza. Plain pizza. By the slice for lunch; by the pie for dinner. Until I went away to college I’d never ordered a pizza with a topping. My parents told me it was a rip-off; why pay all that extra money for a few slices of pepperoni. It was an unnecessary extravagance. Plain pizza was honest pizza.

My parents were tight with money and not interested in making things special. They did not try to make me feel special. Donna does. If something can be tweaked to make it a little better, Donna wants to do it. Italy is full of opportunities for a little more pleasure. Full of ways to make life a little lighter and tastier.

In Italy I did not notice any hostility towards my gender ambiguity, just mild curiosity. I was an American puzzle. No one seemed annoyed that they had to figure me out. They were willing to play along. There were a lot of visible queers. They didn’t give me the butch nod; they gave me an up and a down and a smile and a big buongiorno. Maybe they do this for everyone, but it felt special for me.

It is possible that I missed the Italian nuances. It is possible that I didn’t understand people’s reactions. But for three weeks I didn’t notice any gender friction at all. It was a relief; I started my trip at Kennedy Airport by being read as male by the TSA agents, and then being called back and put through the X-ray machine a second time as female. They were grumpy, like I tried to pull a fast one. They patted me down. Very thoroughly.

In Italy everyone greets everyone with a big buongiorno. The last time we travelled in Italy, in 1997, Donna and I were chastised by the owner of an antiques store in Taormina. “Americans are so rude.” he said. “When you come into my shop you should greet me and say buongiorno or buona sera, but you should not ignore me.” We apologized. It was a good lesson, although the delivery was obnoxious.

This time, as soon as we could make eye contact, we offered a warm buongiorno. To everyone. Everywhere. Including the hostess at Sorbillo. At 2:30 P.M. there was a line. She was keeping a list of names and calling them out when a table was ready. She remembered us.

We never saw Italians share a pizza. We never saw an Italian finish a pizza. The pizza was about 13 inches in diameter and it hung over the edge of the plate. Even the big burly guys left something, as if it were an affront to the pizzaiolo to eat the whole thing. Some Italians ate 3/4, some 1/2, some ate only the inside and left the crust intact in a circle, some picked randomly at the pizza but ate all the toppings. No one asked the customer if everything was OK; the waiter eyed the table and asked “Posso?” and then cleared away the detritus.

At most pizzerias, Donna and I shared a pizza and a salad, but it felt gauche. We knew we were breaking the rules. I worried about having bad manners more than I worried about being judged for being butch or transgender. At Sorbillo they only serve pizza, no salad. We each ordered our own. I ate 2/3 of my pie and was so stuffed I couldn’t eat dinner. It killed me to leave that pizza on my plate. I loved the burnt pieces of crust. I loved the soggy inner center. I knew I’d never get to eat that pizza again. But I put down my fork and my knife and pretended I was a big burly Italian guy. Someday, there will be another pizza.

Oven at Pompeii, circa 79 AD.

Oven at Pompeii, circa 79 AD.

Note: While in Naples I took the train to see the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum. While walking around Pompeii I saw this oven. It looks like a classic pizza oven, circa 79 AD.

 

 

23 thoughts on “Wanderlust

  1. Veronica Haidar

    Glad you had a nice time. I’ve always loved Italy and we go there pretty often. In fact we’re heading in that direction in a few weeks time. I like the pizzas, but probably prefer the ice-creams, especially the famous gelato al limone!

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Lucky you to be going back to Italy. We’ve seen the advertisements for cheap flights via Ryanair and EasyJet and are envious. It would be nice to be able to spend a long weekend in a European city without jet lag or the expense of flying overseas. There are a lot of cities I’d like to visit, but I get very choosy when I know it is going to cost me $4,000 for the visit. I really wanted to see Pompeii.
      I’m a savory person, not a sweets person – if you put an olive and a piece of chocolate in-front of me I’d probably eat the olive (then the chocolate if no one was looking).
      We did have amazing dark chocolate gelato in Naples at Gay-Odin, and several lemon granitas along the way. Enjoy your trip.

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  2. gok9go

    Welcome home! So glad that you and Donna had a fabulous time. I was particularly drawn to one set of statements that you made: You said that your parents “did not try to make me feel special. Donna does. If something can be tweaked to make it a little better, Donna wants to do it.” This sounds very positive to me–you and Donna are partners in the true sense of the word, and the fact that Donna wants to tweak things to make them better makes me think that positive things can happen in terms of tweaking your body to make you feel better.

    Glad that there were no issues with your gender ambiguity, with the exception of the airport–that was rude of them to treat you that way. I am sorry that you had to experience that.

    But, glad you’re back and posting again. I’m sure that I am not the only one who missed your posts. 🙂

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Thanks! The trips was a good way for us to enjoy each other after a difficult winter. If you can’t enjoy three weeks in Italy then you might as well jump in your casket and nail down the lid.
      I’m still not sure why I felt so comfortable there, but it was much more comfortable than traveling in the US or Mexico.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      It was fabulous. I’ve made pizza at home, and it was tasty, but there is no way to crank up the oven to 900F to make a VPN style pizza at home (I’ve read some blogs that tell you to put your oven on auto clean and then make pizza but I’m not going to burn down the house trying to make a pizza).

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      1. urbanmythcafe

        I am terrified of oven autocleans, but I love the idea of cooking a pizza that way. I will save that experiment for a day when we have a firefighter over for dinner.

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  3. RonaFraser

    Hi! Welcome back! I absolutely loved your post! Even if it made me soooooooooooooo want pizza. I grew up with parents of similar values, even if they were Brits in Montreal… We always had pepperoni pizza. I think I grew up believing that was just how all pizzas came. Only when I started getting together with friends did all of these choices come up. One of my favourite combos is pepperoni, onion and pineapple (which I know is an affront to true aficionados).
    I have never been to Italy (yet), though I guess the first thing I used to think of was Roman ruins… now it will be pizza!
    PS. Leaving some delicious pizza on my plate would feel totally wrong to me too!

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I’m kind of glad to be back myself. I’m generally a member of the clean plate club, and assume that what is on the plate is a serving and I should eat it. I should have mentioned that Italians frequently left food on their plates, and no one (at least that I saw) ever got a doggy bag – although I might have missed it because they started eating dinner later than us (we tried to wait until 8:30, but they were coming in well after 9:00 PM with kids in tow).
      All the food was good, but I’m ready to be home in my own kitchen.

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  4. Lesboi

    Welcome home Jamie! So glad to hear you had a great trip and loved hearing about your pizza experiences. I’ve been to Italy two times and the picture you posted of the pizza there is very much what I remember from my visits. I remember my first trip when I was 15 and I was SO disappointed with the pizza there. I guess it takes a more mature palette to appreciate it. Glad to have you back too.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      The first time I went to Italy I had that experience too, of being surprised at how spare and pared down everything was compared to Italian-American abbondaza, even though it was all delicious. I’m still partial to a plain New York slice ($2.50 to $3), particularly since the pizza that was 3.5 euros in Naples costs about $15 in New York, and the experience isn’t quite the same.

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  5. txbridgefarmer

    Welcome back! Sounds like you had a good time and I for one am jealous!
    Your story of the airport reminds me of a time I was flying from Houston to St. Louis. I went through security and the woman stopped me on the other side. “What’s in your pockets?” As she asked me to turn them out and she started patting me down, I explained that what she was seeing was the line where my boxer briefs were. You’d have thought I was trying to sneak heroine on the plane by the expression on her face!
    Hope to hear more about your trip!!

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I may write a non-pizza follow-up. The trip was good for us – gave us an opportunity to relax and talk without pressure.
      I like the boxer story – I’ve tried to make sure my boxer briefs don’t leave a “panty line” and I wear my jeans a little loose. I keep wondering what all those guys wear under their new very stylish slim jeans.

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      1. gok9go

        I appreciate the boxer story as well. I’m a flannel boxers person, and my shorts and jeans tend to be large enough to not have the “what are you wearing” look from folks. Never thought that an agent would think I was trying to sneak something on a plane–now I’ll probably look suspicious when I hop on a plane in a couple of weeks to go to a workshop… (May I blame it on you, txbridgefarmer?) 🙂

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  6. underfrog

    My favorite sentence in this post is: “I worried about having bad manners more than I worried about being judged for being butch or transgender.” This is exactly where worry “should” be! (And being butch and/or trans shouldn’t be viewed as part of bad manners for that matter, either.) Glad you got some relief from the usual weight of identity questions — and got to have some great pizza!

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I always worry about being an “ugly American” when I travel; I’ve seen some atrocious tourist behavior. I was also conscious of how well the Italian men dressed (and in much brighter colors than guys in the US) and how well groomed they were (even the straight men). Donna and I are an odd looking couple unless you’ve had a lot of exposure to the queer community.

      On our first trip together to Italy, several guesthouses refused to give us a double bed (letto matrimoniale) and would only give us two separate single beds. We had some similarly awkward moments last year in Guatemala. This time, no one blinked an eye.

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  7. Georgeann

    I was so excited to get the e-mail letting me know that you had posted something new! And about pizza! Glad to hear that you enjoyed Italy. As usual, your story was introspective and a bit sweet. And it made me really want pizza!

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Sorry about the pizza cravings (I know you’ve been doing gluten free). I’m missing those pizzas too, although I’m happy to be back in my own kitchen cooking (pasta with asparagus and pistachio nuts, and sugar snap peas from the greenmarket for dinner).

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  8. Charlie

    In Naples, and much of southern Italy, they have the concept of the femminiello. Maybe you appeared as one to them? While the West has come to demonize them, they were, for the longest time, bringers of good luck. They overlapped concepts of gender identity with effeminate men. May they associated you as one of them?

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Thanks for the lead on femminiello; I think they probably registered me accurately as being on the spectrum – what was lovely was that there was no hostility associated with any of my interactions (which is better than New York) and no babbling of Sir-Ma’am-Sir honorifics (which I think I would have caught no matter how bad my non-existent Italian is).

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  9. The Little Butch That Could (TLBTC)

    Glad to hear you focused more on your table manners than how others perceived you. 🙂 Cheers.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      True. But it is odd how something that would be viewed as completely normal in NYC (share a pizza and a salad), is viewed as inappropriate and stingy in Italy.

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