Looking back and looking forward

While to us the world still feels as if it has been jolted on its axis, for everyone else it continues to revolve as normal and the year rolls on, unaffected by our trials. So with the Sagra del Carciofo and Montelupone Medeovale having had their moment in the spotlight, the annual Festa della Pizza was next to take to the village stage. We wanted to go; we really did. But our still super-sensitive internal alarm bells had been set a-jangle when we read that the band of thieves the Carabinieri in a neighbouring town arrested recently had carried out a job lot of burglaries in a particular village while the victims were all out at their local festa. And so with work on our external version not yet complete either, we reluctantly decided we still weren’t quite ready to join in the fun. Instead we made pizzas at home and over a jug of our ‘house red’ contented ourselves with happy recollections of a year earlier when we walked the four kilometres from home up the hill into the village…

We had assumed that the four-day event would be held in the Piazza del Comune, the beating heart of the village. But although the square was humming with life, it was just the Caffé del Teatro and the Pizzeria del Borgo doing their normal roaring trade on a warm summer’s evening. Slightly puzzled, we looked around for some evidence of the festa and noticed a series of hand-written signs bearing the words ‘stands gastronomici’ with large arrows scrawled below them. These guided us up the narrow street behind the town hall and across the quiet square where the village war memorial is located and on to an imposing pair of metal gates in the far corner at the end of a tall, moss-clad wall. Normally chained shut, they were now flung wide and bidding us welcome to an expansive grassed area with a magnificent cedar tree bang in the middle, its ancient limbs fanned out in a giant parasol of gracefully arching green.

For a moment or two we were slightly disorientated: we had had absolutely no idea that this secret little park even existed. But here it was, thronged with easily half the village’s population, music blaring, strings of lights dancing in the breeze, and the evening air rich with the aroma of freshly baked pizza. To our left along the front wall a stage set up, ready for the live band that was due on later, and gaggles of over-excited children were charging and sliding across the raised dance floor that spread out in front of it. Clusters of people chatted animatedly as they queued at the banks of cash desks housed in a couple of small open-fronted marquees that stood around the right-hand edge of the space. Along the far wall stood another much larger open-fronted marquee from which spilled rows of trestle tables and benches already crammed with diners munching their pizzas. These were appearing in a steady stream from a bigger marquee still that, together with the bar, ran the entire length of the fourth side.

Once we had got our bearings, we worked out that we needed to order and pay for our food and drinks first, and then collect our order from the relevant marquee.  “Una pizza diavola e una pizza verdure,…” Mr. Blue-Shirt bellowed above the Euro-pop pounding away in the background when we finally reached the front of the queue, “…una birra grande e un vino bianco”. As she gave us our change, the cashier instructed us to keep our receipt as our order number – F180 – was printed across the bottom. So while Mr. Blue-Shirt joined the queue for the bar, I headed for the pizza marquee, receipt in hand. In front of the entrance stood a long bench behind which paced a chap in shorts and a bright blue ‘crew’ T-shirt armed with a microphone. “Effe cento quaranta cinque!”  he called over the crackly PA system, as he plucked a ticket from where it was tucked under the crust of the uppermost pizza in the stack that had just been deposited on the bench. Someone in the gaggle of people gathered in front of the table yelled “Si, io! – yes, me!” and waved his receipt at the caller who then checked the number before handing over the stack of pizza boxes to the hungry customer. If that was order number F145, there was quite a bit more pizza bingo to go before they got to F180, then. Fortunately, Mr. Blue-Shirt appeared beside me at that point, clutching our drinks and, balanced between the two plastic beakers, a portion of deep-fried artichoke slices to keep us going until our order was called.

Over our aperitivi, we watched the incredibly slick pizza-making operation that was in full swing in the marquee. This was swarming with a huge team of volunteers in their bright blue ‘crew’ T-shirts and white aprons, and was furnished with a long row of trestle tables, each of which formed a different pizza-making station. “Effe cento cinquanta cinque!” blasted over the PA.  At one stood a team of people forming dough into soft plump balls, at the next, amid clouds of flour, stood the dough-spinning, -tossing and -rolling team, and at a third a team of volunteers was ladling rich, chunky tomato sauce, fragrant with herbs and garlic, onto the wafer-thin bases. “Effe cento sessanta quattro!” Then came the topping-adding team, with their battery of plastic tubs overflowing with different ingredients, and finally the mozzarella-scattering crew. “Effe cento settanta due!” Here, the finished pizzas were lined up ready for the pizza chefs to slide them onto long-handled paddles and feed them into the roaring maw of the one of the two vast wood burning pizza ovens that dominated the marquee. “Effe cento settanta otto!” After just three or four minutes, the bubbling discs were slid back out of the fiery caverns and passed to the pizza-slicing, -boxing and -stacking crew who dispatched each completed order to the front of the marquee. “Effe cento ottanta!” “Si, io!” I cried, waving my receipt in the approved manner.

Mr. Blue-Shirt dabbed the final smears of garlicky tomato sauce from his lips. “That was top-notch”, he shouted over the band who were now in full swing just across from the trestle table where we had managed to squidge ourselves into a couple of spare seats. With my mouth still full of the final oozy, smoky forkful, I could only nod vigorously in agreement.
“The sausage on mine was properly spicy,” he continued. “As good as any pizza we’ve had from a proper pizzeria.”
“Absolutely!” I was able to say at last. “My vegetable topping was really generous and the crispy base was yummy.”
Replete, we swivelled round to face the dancefloor that was now filled couples of all ages performing the practised steps and twirls of traditional dances in time to the band’s rendition of their repertoire of popular foot-tappers.

We could still hear the band as we headed back down the hill, and as we descended into the cool night air, the rhythmic thump of the bass finally gave way to the gentle rasp of the crickets. Walking hand in hand beneath the inky sky we reflected on the evening and marvelled at what an incredibly energetic, vibrant and sociable village Montelupone was…

And it still is. For we know with unshakable certainty the break-in was nothing to do with Montelupone, and nothing to do with its residents, the doughty Monteluponesi. It is not their fault we have been made to feel the way we do. Indeed, those few Monteluponesi we know well enough to have told them about the burglary have been immensely kind and sympathetic to these two relative strangers in their midst. So despite recent events – or more likely, because of them – we are keener than ever to move from mere observers of community life to active participants. Who knows: at next year’s festa, there might even be two new faces in the pizza-making crew…

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