What a time it was..

I’m feeling a bit nostalgic. This is normally the weekend of Montelupone’s  annual Festa della Pizza. Mind you, even though this is our fourth July in the village, we’ve only been the once, the first year we were here – and it was terrific: a glorious celebration of practically everything we love about life in Italy concentrated into one fantastic evening. The following year, though, it was only a few weeks after our second burglary and we were still wary of leaving the house unattended, while last year Covid-19 restrictions meant that all such summer events were banned. And this year, although festivals and fairs are permitted now we are in the white zone’ (subject to an array of public health measures, of course), there was, presumably, insufficient time available to put together an event of this scale. But how I wished we might have had the opportunity to repeat the experience this year. Sitting on the terrace after dinner and holding the glass of grappa Mr Blue-Shirt had just poured me, I looked up towards the village, its crown of lights making its honeyed walls and stand out against the inky sky, and, as I leant my head on Mr Blue-Shirt’s shoulder and took a sip of grappa, my thoughts drifted back to that very special evening …

We plodded the final few metres up the hill into Montelupone’s main square, the Piazza del Comune, more than ready for a cool drink after our 4km walk from home. We had come into town for the Festa della Pizza and had assumed that the four-day event would be held here in the centre of the village, as this is where all village festivals tend to take place. But although the square was buzzing 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 soon noticed a series of hand-written signs bearing the words ‘stands gastronomici’ with large arrows drawn below them. These guided us out of the square and up the narrow street behind the town hall and eventually led us to the imposing pair of forged metal gates at the end of the high moss-clad wall that runs along the back of a small quiet square where the village war memorial is located. They look as if they are the gates to the courtyard of one of the tall slim houses facing onto the square, and for most of the year, it seems, they remain chained shut. But now they were flung wide in welcome, and stepping through them we discovered that they are in fact the entrance to what looked like a secret little park: a large grassy area about the size of half a football pitch surrounded on three sides by high stone walls with the fourth looking straight down over the sea, and a magnificent cedar tree bang in the middle, its ancient limbs fanned out in a giant parasol of gracefully arching green.

The little park wasn’t much of a secret tonight, however, for it was thronged with easily half the village’s 3000 population, music blaring and strings of lights dancing on the breeze and the evening air rich with the aroma of freshly baked pizza. To our left along the front wall was a stage with microphone stands and drum kit set up ready for that evening’s live band, and in front of this was a raised dance floor across which small children were charging and sliding, squealing with excitement. Around the right-hand edge of the space stood a couple of small open-fronted marquees housing banks of cash desks, in front of which queued groups of people chatting animatedly. 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 along the fourth side.

Once we had got our bearings, we worked out that we needed to order and pay for our food and drinks at the cash desks first before collecting 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”. Having handed over our €20, we received two receipts, one for our drinks order, the other for our pizza order, which crucially also included our order number: F180. We eased ourselves away from the crush around the tills and while Mr. Blue-Shirt joined the queue for the bar, I headed for the pizza marquee. In front of the entrance stood a long bench behind which stood a chap in shorts and a bright blue ‘crew’ T-shirt and clutching 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 flap of the uppermost pizza box 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 their receipt at the caller who then checked the number before finally handing over the stack of pizza boxes to the hungry customer. If order number F145 had only just been served, we were in for quite a bit more pizza bingo until they got to F180, then. Fortunately, Mr. Blue-Shirt re-appeared beside me at that point, clutching a large plastic beaker of beer, a smaller plastic beaker of white wine and, balanced between the two, a portion of deep-fried artichoke slices, so at least we would have something to keep us going until our order was called.

As we enjoyed our aperitivi, we watched the incredibly slick pizza-making operation 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-rolling, -spinning and -tossing team, and at a third a team of volunteers was ladling rich, chunky tomato sauce, fragrant with herbs and garlic, onto the paper-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, their faces glowing red in the blazing heat, to slide them onto long-handled paddles and feed them into the roaring maw of the one of the two huge wood burning pizza ovens that dominated the marquee. “Effe cento settanta otto!” After just three or four minutes, the bubbling, sizzling discs were slid back out of the fiery caverns and passed to the pizza-boxing, -slicing and -stacking crew who finally 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 delicious oozy, smoky forkful, I could only nod vigorously in agreement. “The sausage on mine was properly spicy”, he continued. “As good as anything 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 on our bench to watch the band. They were clearly going down well as the dance floor was now full of couples of all ages performing the practised steps and twirls of traditional dances taught by one generation to the next.

We could still hear the band as we headed back down the hill, but as we descended into the cool night air, the rhythmic thump of the bass finally gave way to the gentle rasping of the crickets. Walking hand in hand beneath the velvety sky we reflected on a wonderful evening that had effectively been some kind of vindication of our decision to move to Italy.

I lifted my head from Mr Blue-Shirt’s shoulder, drained my glass and sighed deeply. It had been wonderful not only in its own right, but also as a powerful affirmation of community and the bonds that maintain it. And as I remarked here a couple of weeks ago, it was such a cruel irony, therefore, that just when those bonds and the need to celebrate them seem more important than ever, we have had to be denied a much-missed means of doing so.

Mind you, I’m betting that next year’s pizza festival will be an absolute corker…

Title taken from ‘Bookends’ – Simon & Garfunkel

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