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.
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.