Michele’s arrival and our rescue from our sleeping bag on wheels was but the first of a flurry of activity leading up to the celebration scheduled for later that evening. I helped Michele lift the propane-fueled “American-style” grill from the back of his van and carry it out to the veranda where the festivities would take place. Michele then hurried off to some other obligation for which he was late and, Jessica and I turned to making our preparations for the party but, since we really didn’t know what to prepare for, our contributions to the efforts were limited. We placed the wooden table and the metal table from Euromobili end-to-end, providing seating for fifteen people. We set out our fourteen chairs accordingly and covered the tables with the paper tablecloths we had picked up the day before. At that point, we were stymied. Since we didn’t know how the food and beverage distribution was handled, we were unsure if the plastic plates and utensils should be placed on the tables so we decided to take a nap.
We awoke a little later to the ringing of the bell at the front gate. It was Francesco delivering two tables and ten more chairs. The three of us set them in place. We could now accommodate twenty-four, more than the twenty we were expecting. Francesco also brought a small refrigerator which we put in the garage. We needed it because our refrigerator was full to capacity with the food for the evening and we had no way to chill the white and rose wines. We managed to get two cases of wine into Francesco’s fridge and he, then, departed leaving Jessica and me with little to do but wait. Fortunately, we found, deep in the recesses of our refrigerator, a cold bottle of prosecco so we decided to start partying early.
An hour before the official festa start time, Michele arrived to begin the preparation of the food. The first thing he did was to place about 15 pounds of mussels into a plastic tub and begin to clean and de-beard them. I had never seen this done since the only mussels I had ever bought were already prepared. After ripping off the fuzzy protuberance, Michele proceeded to clean the outside of the shells by rubbing the mussels against each other as though using a rock to wash clothes. Three times he changed the water in the tub before declaring the mussels properly clean. Just to be certain, he opened one, removed the meat, and popped it into his mouth. I had never seen the consumption of a raw mussel, and I told him so, which prompted him, of course, to open one for me. It was the perfect combination of salty and sweet and guessed that this was not to be my only “first” this evening.
Keen to learn about Pugliesi cooking, I did what I could to help Michele in his preparations and he kindly tolerated my interference and appeared not the least bit annoyed. I was certain that his willingness to accept my “help” had a lot to do with the 60,000 euro we had recently paid him and the prospect of more to come but, as we spent more time together, my cynicism disappeared and I realized that Michele wasn’t acting kindly. He just is that way. He actually appreciated my interest and was happy to reward it by including me in the process. I have learned that his smile is genuine and quick. He’s the first into the fray and the last one standing. Michele is a good friend.
Once the mussels were ready to cook, Michele prepped the octopus. The baby octopods were spread over the bottom of a shallow pan, doused in olive oil, given a generous bath in lemon juice and seasoned with salt and pepper. They would marinate for an hour or so before throwing them onto the grill. The chicken, sausages and peppers which, along with the octopus would eventually see the grill, were simply drizzled with olive oil and seasoned.
It wasn’t long after the preparations were complete that our guests began to arrive. First to show was Michele’s family–bubbly Marisa, his wife, his two children, and his mother-in-law who looked none-too-happy to be there. They were followed shortly by Colleen and Francesco, our Guardian Angels. Michele’s brothers, Augustino and Luigi, came next with their significant-others. A group of young men, all of whom had worked on one aspect of the renovation or another, arrived along with their dates. The slurred speech and staggering gaits suggested that they had started the celebration much earlier in the day. Andrea and Anna, Francesco’s parents, joined the festivities, as did the ubiquitous Pietro and his wife, the former owners of Villa Tutto. It was a gathering of everyone who had much of anything to do with the fact that we owned a wonderful home in this little Italian village, and then some.
For example, Michele’s sister, Antonella and her mate, the vivacious Dario, showed up with Dario sporting a pair of sunglasses that had chasing lights around the lenses. By the end of the evening, I think that everyone but Michele’s mother-in-law had a go at them. Other people arrived, some of whom we knew, most of whom we didn’t, but we were thrilled to have them all be a part of this occasion.
As soon as they arrived, the women, led by Marisa and Anna, took control of the kitchen. Assisted by Pietro’s wife and Antonella, they chopped, ground, minced, diced and salted everything in sight. Like a limb to a wood chipper, the vegetables started at the line of seemingly furious women, and came out the other end unrecognizable. Jessica was summarily dismissed from kitchen participation when it was discovered that she did not know the necessity of rubbing the cut end of a cucumber against the place from which it was sliced until foam appeared, thus removing the bitterness. Jessica reacted to the discharge appropriately, grabbing a glass of prosecco and going out to the veranda with Colleen.
“What were they saying in there?” she asked Colleen.
“I don’t know,” our trusted translator replied, “They’re speaking Pugliese.”
It turns out that one of the things they were talking about was the work that we had done to the house. Apparently, Pietro’s wife was royally pissed off at him for not making the improvements we had made to the place when they owned it. Poor Pietro!
Meanwhile, back at the grill, Michele has the octopus spread out and is watching hundreds of little suckered arms curling happily. And, the first of what will be many glasses of wine is in the hand of each guest.
The rhythm of the evening went like this: the nonne would bring food from the kitchen, food from the grill would be brought on platters and more bottles of wine would be put in convenient places between the foods. The food and wine were passed around until they were gone. While the next courses were being prepared, dancing would break out. Then, the cycle would begin again. A word about the dancing. This was not a bunch of slightly inebriated revelers jumping around in hopes that their gyrations bore some reflection of the beat of the music. Not at all. These people can dance! We learned that Antonella had toured the States as part of a hip-hop dance team and that Agostino and Luigi started taking dance lessons when they were very young. I would buy a ticket to see people dance with such precision and ease.
After the last course had been served, the evening deteriorated a bit. A large tray of ruby-red cherries, compliments of Andrea, was placed on the table and people immediately began spitting the seeds at one another. This went on for quite some time and all Jessica and I could think of was the prospect of cherry trees popping up all over the yard come spring.
The night came to a reluctant end when someone (I don’t remember whom.) yelled, “Oh, my God, it’s three thirty.” Michele and his employees, most of whom were swallowing their second shots of grappa, had a 7:00 am job start so they put down their glasses and ran for their cars. Very soon thereafter, Jessica and I were alone again, but the joy that permeated the festivities somehow remained long after those who created it had gone.