*Read my newest short story, “Angie’s Shocking Revelation!” on The Burlesque Press Variety Show!*
Paul and I have returned from our two-week honeymoon to Sicily. It was a wonderful mix of adventure and relaxation, although the scales dipped decidedly towards adventure because, as it turns out, driving in Sicily is a nonstop thrill ride of challenge and terror. We rented a car so we could get around on the island, and Paul drove while I navigated. We quickly learned two things: 1.) The street signs in Sicily are either confusing or nonexistent 2.) Italian drivers abide by one rule and one rule only, which is this: just go, as fast as you can, and assume other cars will get out of your way. They adhere to this rule even on narrow, winding roads filled with pedestrians and dogs.
So Paul and I were routinely passed by cars and scooters going a good 100 kilometers over the speed limit, and once we were honked at while stopped at a red light. (We quickly learned that in Sicily everyone runs red lights, and we began to follow suit.) Also, a side note on scooters: those driving them adhere to absolutely no rules at all, and one day I saw a child who looked to be no more than seven years old driving one while talking on a cell phone. Naturally, he was not wearing a helmet.
Besides the driving, there were many other adventures to be had and interesting/beautiful things to see. We went to a festival in Noto where mosaics made of flowers and beans paved the streets. We hiked to the top of a smoking volcanic crater on an island aptly named Vulcano. We bathed in bubbling hot mud with alleged healing properties and then smelled like sulfur for days. We waded in the sparkling Mediterranean (the water was too cold for a proper swim), and we got caught in a thunderous downpour while touring Greek ruins in Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples.
Also we ate. Oh, how we ate! It’s no joke about the pasta in Italy — it’s the best. And the local red wine… I could drink it all day, and come to think of it, Paul and I often had wine at both lunch and dinner. Some of our most memorable meals included penne with swordfish and mint, linguine with black squid ink, ravioli stuffed with grouper and topped with shrimp, and pennette with eggplant, fresh ricotta, and a spicy pepper tomato sauce.
This being my first time in Italy, I also wanted an authentic Italian pizza. In fact, I wanted the pizza I had read about in Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, which she describes as “thin, doughy, strong, gummy, yummy, chewy, salty pizza paradise.” So, on Day 2 in Italy, I got a pizza. I got it with mushrooms, artichokes, prosciutto, and egg. It was pretty good… But, I told Paul, “it’s not gooey and slippery and filled with the flavor of Italy.”
We decided that my problem was getting too many toppings. “You need to try something basic,” Paul said. He suggested his favorite: Quattro Formagi, or Four Cheese. So the next time, that’s what I got. The four cheeses were mozzarella, pecorino, parmesan, and gorgonzola, and although it was obviously yummy because cheese is delicious (duh), it was somehow too cheesy, with not enough tomato, and it didn’t quite have that thin, gooey, chewy, slippery crust I was looking for.
After a third disappointing pizza (topped with what the waiter described as, “the little black pig that runs around the island”…we think he meant wild boar), I was ready to give up on Italian pizza. Maybe I was searching for something that didn’t exist. Or maybe I needed to go to Naples, the birthplace of pizza, like Gilbert did, to find what I was looking for.
On our very last night in Sicily, Paul and I went to a restaurant in the little town of Aci Trezza where legend has it the Cylclops from the Odyssey used to live. I wanted to order pasta with squid ink again, but they were all out. In fact, they seemed to be out of everything I wanted, and after I struck out a third time, I sighed and looked at Paul. “I guess I could try another pizza.”
I was nervous. I ordered the one with the most vegetables so that, even if the pizza was disappointing, at least I’d get some nutrition. The pizza was called Quattro Stagioni, or, The Four Seasons, and in addition to mozzarella, tomato, and basil, it had artichokes for spring, olives for summer, mushrooms for autumn and spinach for winter.
The pizza arrived, and I cut myself a slice (in Italy they don’t cut your pizza for you, and they also assume that you will eat a whole pie by yourself — they were always confused and slightly concerned when I asked for a take-home container.)
I picked up the slice, and the cheese and toppings slid right off onto my plate. My heart trembled. It was just as Elizabeth Gilbert had described — the slipperiness of an Italian pizza! I piled some cheese and spinach back onto the slice and took a bite… it was heaven. The crust was thin but chewy. The sauce was fresh tomato and basil and garlic and olive oil. The whole thing was gummy, yummy, gooey goodness (with some nutrition added!). It wasn’t a life-changing experience the way I had imagined it to be (in other words, I’m not ruined for grocery store frozen pizzas), but still, it was exciting: finally, at the eleventh hour, I had found my (nearly) perfect Italian pizza.
Those of you who read this blog know I often like to draw parallels between little life events and my writing career, or maybe to life in general. And I suppose I could make some here. That it took a lot of not-quite-rights before I found my (nearly) perfect Italian man. Or that I had to write a lot of mediocre novels (and maybe some that were too cheesy) before I ended up with one that made me happy. Or maybe it’s just that things happen when you least expect them, when you’ve all but given up and are planning on ordering the squid ink. I don’t know. I’ll let you pick your favorite analogy.
And as for Elizabeth Gilbert, I must say that I read her latest novel, The Signature of All Things, while in Italy, and I was incredibly impressed. It was a (nearly) perfect novel: a beautifully-written, expertly researched epic that manages to make a story about a spinster who researches moss in the 1800’s both gripping and heart-wrenching. I don’t know how she did it, but I’m glad she did. It was perfect vacation reading.
Ciao for now!