There are three degrees of over the top in southern Italy and they are the festa della promessa, the festa della sponsalia, and the festa delle nozze. Having survived the first, I can’t even conceive of the other two.
In this traditional part of Italy when young people decide to wed, they first publish their intent to become engaged, the promessa. And, this being Italy, that requires a party. Only about a month later do they actually become formally engaged, the sponsalia....and that requires a party. Then, of course, there are the actual nuptials and that requires...well, you see where this is going.
The daughter of one of Filomena’s cousins was becoming ‘promised’, and the family were kind enough to invite us to the festivities. We first met at the beautiful home of the girl’s family in the country outside Paestum. We arrived about 6:30 pm to find the exterior of the house beautifully decorated and the huge terrazza set up with buffet tables and lawn chairs. Obviously lilac was the color scheme for the day, and all the members of the wedding party were gorgeously dressed with various lilac accents.
The young woman, Felicia, is a classic southern Italian beauty: tall, thin, with long, jet-black hair that cascaded down her back in natural ringlets, bronzed skin and a dazzling smile. The lucky promesso was Antonello, a handsome fellow in a flashy blue silk suit with a lilac tie. Antonello’s mother, also a beauty, operates a local restaurant where we had enjoyed a memorable Sunday dinner, courtesy of our wonderful host family. More about that later. Felicia’s father sells the fruit of this area all over Europe.
On the buffet line were all sorts of dolci, the little sweets that southern Italians love so much. I sampled a traditional trarallo (I think that’s right; it’s dialect), a sort of Cilentane cruller with a subtle anise flavor, and several babè, little rum-soaked babas. Another part of the table was devoted to cocktails, soft drinks, and sparkling wine.
We sat for about two hours, enjoying meeting various members of the families, watching assorted cats and kids run around and wreak havoc (kids are the same, wherever you go), and just enjoying the spectacle of these folks obviously having a good time together.
About 8:30 we all piled into the machine and headed for a restaurant in Paestum at the Delfa Hotel. But this was a real sfilata (parade), complete with ribbons on the cars and lots of honking and laughter. Part of the road had even been decorated with the same type archways we had seen at the Saints’ festa in Agropoli the night before! The Astones explained that there were lots of private feste all the time in this region, and sure enough, as we drove along they pointed out at least five other houses in the few miles of country lane that took us to the highway. Fabio insisted that this was just a small festa by Italian standards. We were already wide-eyed with wonder.
At the hotel a huge buffet had been set up on the terrace surrounding the swimming pool and there we waited for the couple to arrive. It seems they had been taken by the photographer to the archaeological zone of Paestum to be photographed before the dramatically lit Doric temples there. Not too shabby! And this just for the promessa! What for the nozze, the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome?
The couple arrived about 30 minutes later and the guests tucked into the buffet with gusto. Fabio ran interference for us—it was pretty intense on that line—and retrieved little plates of local favorites. My favorite was tiny little fish, lightly battered, flash fried in their entirety and served in a cornetta like french fries. They should have been served piping hot and were not (I don’t know why more wedding photographers aren’t assassinated by chefs) but they were still delicious.
We should have known not to stuff ourselves, but we acted like the complete rookies that we were. In our defense, it was now after 9 pm and we were hungry. About 45 minutes later, an elaborate fireworks display announced the beginning of the serious eating, and the crowd made its way into the banquet hall of the hotel for the main attraction. We estimated there were close to 200 guests for the sit-down. On the tables beside the centerpieces were ice buckets with aqua minerale, a vino rosso, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, and a white, Trebbiano d’Abruzzo. The promessi, of course, were seated at the front of the hall at a table they shared, not with their parents, but with the witnesses, a formality that goes right back to Roman times.
Then at a signal the doors from the kitchen burst open and out paraded the waiters in their white and black dinner jackets, to a burst of applause. If you’ve never seen the way an Italian waiter carries himself, you’ve missed real drama. These guys know they are professionals and they flaunt it.
The antipasti were artfully arranged on plates and included prosciutto di Parma, another cured pork product called copicollo, little local bocconcini, and grilled vegetables. Meanwhile, a male keyboardist/vocalist/emcee and a female vocalist provided the bouncy Italian pop music we love so much.
There was a lull in the eating, mercifully, while guests took the time to meet and greet and listen to the music, and about 10:15, out came little cupolette (‘domes’), molded timbales lined with ‘planks’ of eggplant and stuffed with a type of homemade macaroni and cheese and ragù. Another minor truce in the war on our digestive systems and then out came the pasta course, in this case penette with a decadent creamy sauce and mushrooms.
By the time we reached the secondi it was after 11 pm and a number of the bambini had made their way to the sofas in the lobby and succumbed to blessed sleep. On the pretext of going to the gabinetto, I tried as well, but one of the little brats chased me out of my spot. The main course, if that term makes any sense in this context, was brought out to more fanfare, and consisted of veal cutlets served with potate ambrate, potatoes ‘ambered’, seemingly by being dipped in a brine to create a coating on the outside and then slow roasted to create an unctuous texture and a golden, crunchy exterior. With these was served a ‘polychrome salad’ created with the vibrant colors of the local greens and vegetables.
Another pause in the action, and Rolando shocked us both. Rolando is by no means shy, he is just quiet and reserved, tranquillo as Fabio describes his papa. But when the musicians struck up some traditional dance numbers, out came Rolando with another of Filomena’s cousins (Filomena is really hampered by the cast on her broken wrist) and danced his way through a tango and a polka, and darned well, too. As soon as he took the first step his face began to beam and he was still grinning with obvious pleasure when he came back to the table. Quiet Rolando loves to dance!
Next on the culinary expedition was ‘The Surprise of the Chef’, in this case what appeared to be spaghetti aglio olio, spaghetti dressed simply with a bit of garlic and olive oil. Apparently the guests were neither surprised nor especially amused by a second pasta course at this late hour (approaching 12:15) and I saw few takers for the waiters’ offers.
Another pause while the promessi were given a special dance and members of the wedding party surrounded them with linked hands and treated them to some good-natured teasing, ending with a demand for a bacio (kiss), a demand which the promessi were reluctant (seemingly) to oblige.
Then little cups of vanilla gelato served over a sponge cake and topped with whipped cream (bufala-milk?) and a variety of fresh berries. Then the obligatory slide shows behind the bandstand, but in this case not of the couple but of mama and papa, and a second one of the troop of cousins who were all obviously close. Perhaps significantly, two of the thirty-odd cousins had emigrated to the U.S.
Finally, a Delizia di limone, little domed sponge cakes with a lemon mousse in the center and iced with the same mousse, all brought out on a rolling serving cart with dramatic flair to be ‘offered’ to the couple under the watchful eye of the photographer and then rolled back to the kitchen to be apportioned and served. This was grand theater, and since the little desserts had obviously been designed to replicate the female breast, complete with a tiny berry nipple, I have no doubt there was some sort of fertility symbolism going on there. It’s funny how reserved the Italians can be about some elements of sexuality and how out-front about those that relate to the breeding and nurture of the next generation of la famiglia.
From the way many of the guests wolfed down the dessert and quickly made their way to the promessi to say their goodbyes and receive a party favor, it was obvious that many were as weary as we—it was now after 1 am—and mindful of the early morning awaiting them. For that matter, many of the guests seemed almost as jaded as we were about halfway through the meal.
So why this lavish excess? Part of it is tradition, of course, but I suppose part is also the sheer luxury of throwing caution to the wind. Unlike the prosperous families of our couple, many Italian families in this area struggle so much financially that the chance to let go and live, however momentarily, the lifestyle of the rich and famous, must be powerful. Accustomed as we Americans are to relative financial comfort, it is hard for us to appreciate that desire. Don’t misunderstand me, I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience, even now when my poor stomach is making trenchant comments about my mama and the idiot she bred, but I was also a bit discomfited by the whole thing. Part of that is doubtless the fact that I am the father of a nubile daughter and the thought of such financial excess gives me the heebie jeebies. Fabio assures me that the actual wedding feast will make this one pale in comparison, and that fathers in the area start saving for these feasts as soon as a daughter is born. All I can say in the last analysis is, God bless the Italian father who finds himself ‘blessed’ with a house full of daughters!