Dec. 2, 2013 at 9:12 AM ET
Novelist Adriana Trigiani returns with 'The Supreme Macaroni Company,' her latest exploration of love that spans from the streets of downtown Manhattan to the rustic hills of Italy and beyond. Here's an excerpt.
The Hudson River lay flat and black like a lost evening glove. The clouds parted overhead as the distant moon threw a single, bright beam over lower Manhattan as though it were looking for its other half.
The big Christmas Eve moon appeared out of nowhere, like the diamond on my hand. From the roof of the Angelini Shoe Company, as far as I could see, it seemed the world had stopped spinning.
The opera of roaring engines and horns and screeching brakes on the West Side Highway was suddenly mute. Not even the turning of a page could be heard as the trucks came to a stop at the light. My fiancé and I were surrounded by sweet silence until the canopy over the door snapped in the winter wind, reminding me that this wasn’t a dream. This moment was different from all the others that had come before it. I knew I would return to it in all its detail in the years to come, so I paid careful attention.
Gianluca Vechiarelli had asked me to marry him, and I had said yes to the man with the blue eyes, silver hair, and a full and complex past. But it was his future that I was invested in, that I would be a part of, and now he would be a part of mine.
A shoemaker would marry a tanner.
This could work.
Shoemakers and tanners form a symbiotic relationship out of necessity. One provides the leather while the other whips it into a glorious creation. At Vechiarelli & Son in Arezzo, Gianluca creates some of the most sumptuous leather, calfskin, and suede in Italy. He is also a meticulous artisan who monitors the silkworms in Prato as they spin glittering threads that are woven together to form their world-renowned fabrics.
Those Tuscan satins became our signature material used to build our family wedding shoes. My great-grandfather named his designs after memorable characters of the opera, so theatricality was as important to him as durability. For over a century, there has been and remains a shorthand between our families’ shops. The Angelini Shoe Company in Greenwich Village has proudly used Vechiarelli & Son’s goods for generations.
Gianluca is a master craftsman. He takes all kinds of leather and treats, dyes, presses, and buffs it so I might build the shoes I see in my imagination. The relationship is creative, but it’s also a business. A savvy tanner knows which leather the major designers have chosen for the upcoming season and can guide the storefront shoemaker into the heart of current trends. When the designers swarm Italy like bees in search of the best goods, the tanner extracts their creative impulses like honey.
I met Gianluca for the first time on a buying trip a few years ago. His father and my grandmother had fallen in love, and I was the first to know about their love affair. As my widowed grandmother started over and went her way with Dominic,
I was alone. When Roman Falconi, my boyfriend at the time (What is it about me and Italian men?), stood me up on the Isle of Capri, Gianluca, dispatched by my grandmother to check on me, arrived to make sure I was all right.
I didn’t need or want a tour guide on the island where Augustus conducted his clandestine Bronze Age sexcapades, so our friendship had a rocky start. I thought Gianluca was handsome, but the observation was strictly superficial.
You can throw a wooden nickel into any crowd of men in Italy, and it will hit a great-looking guy. Gianluca is older than me, and I’d never dated someone in that particular category, so I didn’t take his interest in me seriously. He had been married and had a grown daughter, so I had to drop a lot of my hard-and- fast rules to get to know him. I understand how a first impression is often just that, a quick snapshot that on its own merit is meaningless. After a vacation, in time, it gets lost in a shoe box full of them.
Gianluca is particular, exacting, and thorough when it comes to his work, a lot like me. We work well together, and now we’ll partner at home as we build a family of our own. A chill goes through me when I realize that this moment almost didn’t happen, and it would have been my fault.
Tonight began with a terrible mistake, a transgression that no other man or woman would overlook. But Gianluca forgave me. Sometimes redemption lands in your life like a bird and looks you straight in the eye, even when you believe you don’t deserve forgiveness.
“It means everything to me that you asked me to marry you on this roof,” I told him.
“I know how much you love your river. Whatever you love, I love.”
“You just made everything so simple.”
Gianluca lives and works in Tuscany, the creative heart of Italy. His only draw to New York City, Greenwich Village, and this roof is me. I wonder if he could be happy here.
Overhead, the sky was trying so hard to snow. The clouds moved over us like a silk canopy, and the two of us could have easily gotten lost beneath it, but Gianluca held me tight. It was as if he read my thoughts and wanted to reassure me. There was everything in his kiss, the glory of the moment, our high hopes for our future together, and forgiveness, the only proof of true love. I was ashamed that I had doubted him. After all, he still had faith in me, even when I had betrayed his trust.
“You know I love you,” I told him.
Gianluca pulled me close.
“But you can cut your losses right now. Nobody ever has to know you asked me to marry you.”
“But I did. And you said yes. And I want to marry you.”
“Even after what happened tonight?”
“I don’t care about that,” Gianluca said firmly. “Forget it. Let’s tell your family our news.”
“Once we tell my mother we’re getting married, it’s iron-clad.”
“Full disclosure. I have serious—what I would call . . . flaws. And by the way, I’m getting worse as I get older.”
“You’ll never catch up to me in years.”
“Or experience. Good point.”
“Everyone seems perfect in the moonlight.”
My truth seemed to take on a fever. I had to let him know every rotten thing about myself, right then, before he found out later and ran. “There are all sorts of predispositions to disease in my family tree.”
“Should I be worried?”
“Very. We’ve got diabetes, heart disease, and dyspepsia. Less alarming but equally annoying are the onset of eye tics in our late thirties. I have middle-aged cousins who blink more than stare. There’s a psoriasis that pops up after fifty. I t attacks the elbows. Usually hits the women, but Cousin Toot got it on his head. No one knows why.
“Aunt Feen has suffered from depression and a lifelong bitterness that comes from low serotonin. Yeah, yeah, a pill could help, but nobody takes it. Bitterness is chronic, and it comes with cold sores when we’re disappointed. Every now and then, there’s the emotional jaundice.”
“You turn orange?”
“In theory. Evidently we carry a glandular predisposition that prevents true happiness. It colors reality negatively, or at least that’s what D r. O z says. He did a whole show on it. It’s a mindset of certain Mediterranean DNA . Nothing can be good for long because it’s already in a state of rot. That includes everything from mascara to baked goods to relationships. Oh, yeah. On the addiction side, we’re sick.”
“Drinking? Drugs?” Gianluca wondered.
“Gambling. We have bookies, cardsharps, and dice throwers on the Roncalli side, and they aren’t necessarily talented. My uncle Peedee once lost everything including his shoes in a street game in Times Square and had to walk home to Queens barefoot. Luckily, he called it quits before he lost his pants. But now with Internet gambling, we can lose our shirts in the privacy of our own homes between courses at holiday meals. All bets are off.”
“And there’s the sugar. When you see any of the following surnames in any combination—Angelini, Roncalli, Bozzuto, or Fazzani—the confluence of those bloodlines creates a pancreatic nightmare that causes a glucose spike that gives way to a raging river of denial. We can’t cope with reality, so we pretend everything away. Real problems carry the same weight as imagined anxiety. We press the panic button just because.”
“I’ve seen the panic.”
“So you know. And you’ve observed the spiritual flailing firsthand. We pay mediums to connect to our dead ancestors, often just to remind them that they owe us money. Cousin Victoria is a coffee psychic who reads our espresso at the end of a meal. She saw my father’s prostate cancer in my mother’s cappuccino.”
“Is that it?”
“I’d like to leave the list open-ended, if that’s all right with you. Things will crop up as we go along.”
“I’m sure.” Gianluca smiled.
“By the way, and this is a big one . . . we aren’t good with money.”
“That’s a plus.”
“Not that it would matter.”
“Oh, it matters. I’m running a business here. We’re making shoes in Argentina. Money matters.”
“Whatever you say.”
“If my family were made of porcelain, you’d be marrying into a bunch of crackpots. You should think long and hard about your future. You will be legally bound to our family forever. You should require a full workup by a team of physicians in advance and, at the very least, a consultation with a one-eight-hundred lawyer. I’m only a member of this club because I was born into it, but I worry about you. You have to be a little off yourself to choose me.”
Gianluca threw his head back and laughed. “All families are crazy.”
“Why is that?”
“People are involved.”
“I’ve never seen a family as crazy as mine. Your family seems normal to me.”
“Look again. My daughter married a strange family. They never speak in full voice. They whisper and are very remote. Professors.”
“At least they have their keen intellects to hold them together. What have we got?”
Gianluca thought for a moment. Then he said, “You’re shoemakers. So, leather. Nails.”
The penultimate romantic rooftop moment plummeted into ruination as Gianluca compared what we felt toward one another to the components of the common penny loafer. “Oh, and love,” he said, catching himself. “Everlasting love.”
“Oh, right. That.”
“If you have love, what more do you need?”
Gianluca laughed. “When I asked your father for your hand, he cried.”
“He was disappointed you only requested the hand. He hoped you would take the entire kit.”
“I want the kit.”
Couldn’t Gianluca see that my father’s tears were not from joy but relief?
Ever since Dad got the radioactive seeds implanted for his bum prostate, he’d been an emotional wreck, worried about his children, fearing for our security, hoping that none of us would have to face the unknown of the future alone. (Never mind he also had to take female hormones and for a moment thought he’d permanently end up in a sports bra and tap pants instead of an old manly T-shirt and boxers.)
“You underestimate your father,” Gianluca said.
Dutch Roncalli defined security as marriage, a regular paycheck, and a roof over our heads with a spouse who never hits us. But instead of admitting to that very practical but low bar, I said, “Dad trusts my judgment. He always has. If I choose you, that’s good enough for him.”
“I think his love for you is beautiful. It’s every father’s dilemma: You hope for your daughter’s happiness, but you know no man is good enough.”
“Your daughter married a great guy.”
“A father doesn’t see a good man. He only sees the flaws.”
When I married Gianluca, I would have an instant family—his daughter, Orsola, and her husband, Matteo. This was where our age difference was most apparent. His daughter was the same age as Jaclyn, my baby sister. I hadn’t even thought about being a stepmother. Dear God, more to worry about!
Gianluca continued, “Matteo is a good man, but it was the strangest thing. When he came over to ask for Orsola’s hand in marriage, I thought I would be defensive. I wanted to make sure he knew what a treasure he had, that my daughter was so special, he should know it and I would be the one to tell him. Your father felt the same way. He confided that you were his favorite and that he would kill me if any harm ever came to you. Then he offered to take me for a drive.”
“Did you go?”
“He took Charlie and Tom for a drive too.”
“I see. It’s a ritual.”
“It’s an excuse to get the suitor alone and scare him. Charlie was driven to Home Depot. Dad parked by the dumpsters to make his point. Turns out Dad didn’t actually want to kill Charlie and dispose of his body, he wanted to test Charlie’s home repair skills. He had Charlie change out all the storm windows on the house in Forest Hills.”
“Did he pass the test?”
“Took him three Saturdays to install them, but he married Tess, didn’t he? And when it was Jaclyn’s turn to get married, we figured it would be another trip to the hardware store. Mom had been nagging Dad about putting a replica of the Trevi Fountain in the front yard, and rumor had it Tom has an uncle who owns a backhoe. But instead of fountain installation, Dad took Tom to the Queen of Martyrs cemetery, to find the grave of James Hurley, the only other Irishman who had married into our family. By the way, the symbolism was lost on Tom.”
“As it would have been on me. Are you hungry?”
“Starving. Want to go to Valbella’s? We could do the Feast of the One Fish. The crabmeat is unreal over there.”
“Let’s go to your sister’s,” Gianluca offered.
“You don’t want to be with your family on Christmas Eve?”
“Did nothing I just said sink in?”
“I think you exaggerate.”
“Going there would be a mistake.”
“We should share our news with your family.”
“The news can keep till tomorrow. You’ll be their Christmas Day surprise. It’s the Feast of the Seven Fishes. I’m freshly betrothed. I don’t want to smell like fried clams on the happiest day of my life.”
“This is the happiest day of your life?”
“Can’t you tell?” I plastered the biggest smile on my face and stood up straight, because Mom taught me that good posture is always important when you’re selling something. And I’m selling myself tonight. For a moment, I remembered my big mistake earlier that evening and wished I could erase it like a chalk mark on suede. But there were other things I was worried about too. Gianluca and I had a grand love affair that started in Italy, exploded in Argentina, and turned to marriage in America. We fell in love when we were apart, and when we were together, there was an urgency to express every feeling—and yet we didn’t. He was in his fifties, so he had a long life story, and mine, even though it was shorter, was no less complicated. There was so much I wanted to know about him, but between small fires at work and the constant tug of my family obligations, we hadn’t gotten around to sharing everything.
“I want to make you happy.”
I threw myself into Gianluca’s arms. “I can’t believe this is happening!” I shouted so loudly my voice echoed through the Holland Tunnel and over into Jersey. I didn’t want to pick the night apart, thread by thread, and leave it in a heap on the shop floor like linen slag. For once, I wanted to enjoy my good fortune and choose to be happy. There would be time to examine my conscience later.
“I told your father we’d be there. He’s expecting us. But I asked him not to tell your mother or the rest of the family. I want to tell them our news.”
“You really planned this out.”
My fiancé smiled. And then he said the words that are sheer music to a city girl’s ears, to those of us whose MetroCard is scanned more often than our Visas, to those of us who regularly take public transportation and long for a lift on four wheels and a bucket seat instead of twelve wheels and a plastic one.
“I rented a car.”
“In that case—”I actually felt a surge in my sexual desire for this man.
“So, we drive to Montclair, New Jersey.” Gianluca put his arm around me and turned to go downstairs.
“Wait.” I grabbed his arm.
“What’s the matter?”
“Please, give me one more minute on this roof, alone with you. Because when we walk in Tess’s door, our wedding belongs to my sisters and my father and my mother and my grandmother and your father and Gabriel . . . and the bridal registry departments at Saks Fifth Avenue, Restoration Hardware, Costco, and Lou Filippo’s Discount Crystal and More in Forest Hills. I want you to myself before my sisters lay claim to our wedding and go on crash diets so they can fit in sample-size bridesmaid gowns.”
“No worries. They’ll do the cabbage diet and be down to fighting weight in six weeks. They won’t have the muscle strength to lift a fork, but they will be thin. It’s the Roncalli girls’ seesaw. When the teeter goes up, the totter must go down. It’s all about the dress size.”
“I have a daughter. I know all about it.”
“Anything important that ever happened in the history of my family required a new outfit and therefore a diet to get into the outfit. You’ll see. The first thing my mom will say is, What will I wear? And the second thing she’ll say is, Have you set the date?
“For a woman who never worked in corporate America, she runs our family like the Ford Motor Company. This wedding will become her rollout of the new models. Or the old model, as it is.”
“Do you want a big wedding?”
“God, no. But here’s the problem: my cousins. I went to all their weddings, and now it’s payback time. If I don’t reciprocate, they’ll stop speaking to me.”
“Is that a bad thing?”
“Depends. You’ve got pluses and minuses either way. I really love some of them, but there will be a caravan of three buses from just Youngstown, Ohio, alone.”
“If you want them to come, then we invite them.”
“There will be negotiations.”
“Who will run the show? Will it be Trish Meiser, the wedding planner, or Vincenza Napoli, the event coordinator? My mom will make a big deal out of choosing the best woman for the job and waste three legal pads making lists of why she should choose one over the other.
“Then there’s the venue. That’s always a tussle. What borough, do they have valet parking, and what is their version of the Venetian table? For the passed hors d’oeuvres, do we go with the mini cheeseburgers or chicken sate on sticks? What do you do with the sticks? Go with the burgers. Skip the sushi. Italians don’t digest it well. Mini crab cakes? Yes. Eel roll? No.
“Then there’s the parting gift. The souvenir. I n the old days it was an embossed pack of matches with your choice of a cigar or cigarette case loaded with Lucky Strikes, but that was killing people, so we switched to the goody bag.”
“What’s in this bag?”
“Something to nosh on the way home. I t’s not enough that you just ate a nine-course meal, God forbid you drive three miles and have nothing to eat. Do we give a sack of hot doughnuts on the way out, or is there a sampler box of Godiva chocolate? Or do we get creative and give them the Sunday paper tied with a ribbon and a brioche? Come to think of it, I may get Hillary Clinton to do the negotiations. We need a big gun. My wedding planning committee will be one man short of a hostage situation. Do you have cookie trays in Italy?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Another Italian American institution. E very woman in the family bakes cookies, dozens of them. They box them up and meet at a disclosed location where they stack the cookies on trays lined with gold doilies. They wrap the pyramid of cookies in cellophane and tie it with curling ribbons that, once again, match the bridesmaids’ dresses. As dessert is served, the flowers are removed from the tables and the cookie trays become the centerpieces. They’re pretty and delicious, but never forget, it’s also a competition, fig bar against fig bar, but no one sings the National Anthem and gets a medal in the end—you just get bragging rights.”
“I see,” Gianluca said as he pondered the insanity of our cookie competition.
“Dress gloves are not for style—they were invented in the third century in Italy to hide the burn marks from pulling five hundred hot cookie sheets out of the oven the week before a wedding. The women bake as though their lives depend on it. It’s cookie-lookie! You got snowballs, pizzelles, amaretti, sesames, chocolate biscotti, mini cupcakes, jam-centered thumbprints, peanut butter rounds with a Hershey kiss hat, seven-layer cookies, coconut bonbons, and confetti—don’t forget those candy-coated almonds. They’re good luck, even when you crack a molar when you bite down on one.”
“I’ll avoid the confetti.” Gianluca smiled.
“While you’re at it, don’t eat the coconut cookies. They put something in the frosting dye that could survive a nuclear winter.”
I was beginning to lose patience with him, so I spoke slowly. “The frosting on the cookies is dyed to match the Barbie dolls dressed as the wedding party that become hood ornaments on the convertibles.”
“Borrowed cars that carry the wedding party from the church to Leonard’s.”
“Who is Leonard?”
I put my hand on Gianluca’s face. He had the bone structure and profile of an emperor on a lucky Roman coin that turned up in my life and changed everything on a dime.
“I’m getting ahead of myself. Forget all this. Let’s go to Tess and Charlie’s. But step on it, or we’ll miss the crab legs. They’re always the first to go.”
Copyright © 2013 Adriana Trigiani From the book The Supreme Macaroni Company, published by Harper, an imprint of the HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted with permission.