Back in July I was invited to the wedding of my friend Tonia’s cousin in Naples: the event of the century, this was hands down one of the best experiences I’ve had in this country. And here’s why:

I grew up with a certain image of Italians in my head based on what surrounded me: they were loud (but like, embarrassingly loud), food-obsessed, in your business all the time, always ready to take you under their wing and constantly trying to feed you. Back in Rhode Island, any day of the week I had a cousin, aunt or uncle arrive at my house unannounced while we were eating. Not hard to imagine, as my entire family (a good 30 people), live within a 5 mile radius of each other. The Rotella and Di Maio family didn’t make it far out of Cranston. So to say I’m the black sheep of the family, is an understatement. At least I made it back to the motherland!

For me, this kind of behavior was “Italian.” And in that sense, Milan always left me a bit perplexed. There was something that was just missing.

And then I got invited to a wedding in Naples. And I had my proverbial AHA moment.

I had always heard about weddings in the South of Italy: long, drawn-out, all-day events with an ungodly amount of food and a party that lasts until 2 in the morning.

I thought, fun. Bring it! So when Tonia invited me to her cousin’s wedding in Naples, I couldn’t say yes fast enough.

We arrived at Napoli Centrale train station at 3:40 PM, got in the car, and immediately plowed our way through a billion vehicles, each one trying to strategically dodge the other while not hitting pedestrians on the crosswalk.

A four-way intersection in Naples is usually just four cars approaching simultaneously at warp speed, no obvious signs of braking. In case you wanted to know, this is exactly what they make those little handles above the window for.

Somehow, by the grace of God, there are no head-on collisions, no pedestrians splattered on the asphalt, and for the life of me, I can’t understand how they do it. It’s an art form, really.

And what’s really amazing is that people don’t get mad. Ok, they beep the horn, throw out a few curse words, but it’s more for the sake of having to say something. They’re never sincerely angry. There’s no follow through, they just continue on their way. They’ve got places to go, things to eat!

I was in the car with Tonia and her brother. The conversation quickly turned to the staple of Naples’ gastronomic heritage: mozzarella.

We’re going to get mozzarella, right? Should we get mozzarella? Where should we get it from?

Heather, will you eat mozzarella? (Do you people know me at all?)

Their mom, Pina, calls.

Mom, we’re going to get mozzarella, where should we go? Which place? Do you want some?

Heather, my mom wants to know if we’re hungry, do we want to eat when we get home? (Again, do you know me?)

And so, day 1, the eating ensued:

5 PM: We arrive at Tonia’s home and Pina greets us with a pot of pasta in addition to the much talked about mozzarella.

mozzarella

Several cigarettes are smoked in between and there is a trip to the bar to have the much raved about coffee of Napoli. For months I heard the same mantra from my friend: this coffee is not like it is in Naples, these tomatoes aren’t like the ones in Naples. Don’t even get her started on mozzarella in Milan…it’s a joke.

Well, after 24 hours in the holy land of mozz and coffee, I jumped on that bandwagon too. The coffee was pretty damn good.

10PM: Dinner #2. Pina made her twice-fried, eggplant parm, the “summer version” as she calls it, you know, the light kind. Then there were other delicious things that I literally overdosed on, but I’ll leave you with the visual because my words won’t do it justice.

italian food

11:30PM: We go to a bar to have a crema di caffè. A nice, light and refreshing way to end the night. But did you really think we were done? Oh no.

12:30AM: Riding home, Tonia and her brother had the idea to get hot croissants. They looked at me for approval and I gave them the whole “Guys, I’m gonna explode” look and shaking of the head.

No Heather. It’s tradition!!

And with that, I found myself putting away a hot croissant at 1AM.

Naples

Would you be surprised to know that 7 hours later at breakfast I was stuffing a sfogliatella in my pie hole? I mean, you don’t come to Naples and not have one…

And so, 8:50 AM, the eating commenced. But I will say, I went into this thing all wrong. And no matter how prepared you think you are for this event, trust me, you’re not. So heed my advice.

You must take into great consideration your dress. If you’re thinking of anything remotely fitted, toss it aside (unless you’re okay with looking 7 months pregnant in it by the time you reach the dessert portion, IF you make it to dessert). In fact, don’t wear anything that even remotely defines your waist. Spring for the potato sack look. You’ll thank me later.

After coffee and sfogliatelle, we were supposed to convene at the aunt’s house at 9:15. But you must take into account “Naples time” because 9:45 is really the same as 9:15. At the aunt’s house, the day began: endless trays of pastries and Napoletano dialect floating through the air, a look of confusion permanently on my face.

After, we walked with the groom’s family to the church. It was well into the 90s, my face was melting and the church brought no relief. In fact, if you ever go to an Italian wedding in the dead of summer, all you’ll notice in pictures from the ceremony is a sea of hand fans.

italian wedding

italian wedding

The wedding was followed by a beautiful reception in a villa on the top of a mountain. This is when things got serious.

I’ve often described moments in my life, periods when I was home on vacation, family birthday parties, as all-day-eat-a-thons. But in fact, until coming face to face with this Neopolitan wedding, I didn’t actually know what that was. Somewhere in between the 2nd pasta plate and the fish plate before the steak, and me trying to mentally psyche myself up to make it to the finish line, my friend’s cousin joked: “you really have to train your stomach all year to prepare for a wedding in Naples.”

He wasn’t kidding.

It started with an outdoor buffet. Americans and English folk do a one hour open bar before the dinner. People from Naples do food.

The buffet was tables and tables of food: a seafood table, a meat carving station, a mozzarella bar (are you seeing a theme here)? Then at a certain point, they come out with the serving carts on wheels with hot food: octopus in tomato sauce and fritelle di alghe (fried balls). Then we entered the villa….for the “lunch.”

I grabbed the menu when we sat down:

menu

My first question: ok so I pick one pasta and one entree?

What a stupid question from the American. No, they bring it all. An antipasto, two pastas, a fish dish, sorbet in between, then the meat dish. It looked something like this:

Antipasto:

antipasto fish

Pasta #1:

pasta

Pasta #2:

ravioli

Entree #1:

fish dish

Intermission:

sorbet

Home stretch:

steak and potatoes

Because I really needed to cap this thing off with a friggin STEAK. Needless to say, I finished, and still had a smile on my face:

wedding

However, much to my dismay, there still remained one course: the dessert buffet. I came perilously close to tossing in the towel for dessert. But all you need to do is mention to a couple of aunts from Naples that you can’t fit dessert and you’re in for a guilt trip.

So we were all herded outside where we sat until the buffet was opened. As soon as the waiters announced that it was good to go, I witnessed the best scene of the entire day: aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents flocking to the dessert buffet, stampeding me in the process. A massive and desperate dash to……more food.

How can you people be so aggressive to get to more food? We just ate for 5 straight hours!!

Plates in my back, people pushing me into the babà, guilt trips to take a piece of caprese, hands plucking the bignè from the serving platter, plates piled high with a piece of pastiera di grano teetering on the top, dangerously close to toppling over. At one point, I turned to a cousin and said, I don’t even want all this.

His response? Heather, it’s there! You just take it!

I think I laughed the entire day. I attempted and failed to converse with old aunts that only spoke in dialect, I danced to Napoletano music and had no idea what the hell was happening, I held cute babies with the fattest little legs and listened to Napoletano comedians and laughed when everyone else did.

All jokes aside though, it was one of the best days I’ve had in this country. My friend’s family are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. They let this American girl crash their wedding and all anyone kept asking me was, “Are you having fun? Are you eating?”

Even though I understood 50% of what was going on that day, I really looked around and thought, this right here is what it’s all about. THIS is Italy.

Italian Family