I realised when I saw the first posters for the event that we had actually only been once, back in 2018 – our first summer here. In 2019 we were still too fearful to leave the house empty following our second break-in only a couple of months earlier. In 2020 we were between lockdowns, but all public gatherings, even outdoor ones, were still prohibited. And in 2021, although outdoor events were allowed by mid-summer, Covid restrictions had been lifted too late to leave enough time to organise everything. So last weekend was the first time since that first summer that we had been to one of Montelupone’s biggest events, the four-day long annual Festa della Pizza.
Four years on, however, our experience of it felt very different, right from when sat down for an aperitivo on the terrace of the café in the main square. Back in 2018, we knew hardly anyone in the village and were still very new to village life. These days, though we are greeted by the café staff as regulars not tourists, and as we waited for our drinks to be served, we pinged messages back and forth with the two sets of friends we had arranged to meet, agreeing that Francesco and Donatella should go and get in the queue while we stayed at the café to wait for Lori and Antonio. Although they only live in the next village but one, they had never been to this event before, so this time they were the ‘newbies’ while we were the ‘old hands’, ready to show them the ropes.
So busy was the village, they eventually arrived a good half hour late having struggled to find a parking space, so we all set straight off to the little park where the festa was being held. This well-hidden space nestles between the square where the war memorial is located and the ancient walls that encircle the village centre. And as we walked through the gateway, we were delighted to find that the event we had such fond memories of seemed pretty much exactly as we had remembered. Just as before, the space was thronged with people, euro-pop was blaring from speakers, strings of lights were dancing in the breeze, and the warm evening air was rich with the aroma of freshly baked pizza. We ushered Antonio and Lori past the dance floor and the stage for the band that was due on later, both of which were in the same place as before beneath the magnificent cedar tree that dominates the park, and directed them towards the pair of cash desks on our right.
“We need to order and pay for our pizzas and drinks here and they’ll give us separate receipts for our pizzas and our drinks which we take over there.” I pointed towards the long narrow marquee where the pizzas were being made and that, together with the bar, ran the entire length of the far side of the park. Having placed our order, Mr Blue-Shirt took our drinks receipt and joined the queue for the bar and Antonio went off in search of Francesco and Donatella while Lori and I headed for the pizza marquee.
“Do we have to queue up again, then?” asked Lori.
“Not as such,” I said, indicating the gaggle of people crowding around a long bench across the entrance to the pizza marquee at which stood a tiny woman wearing a fluorescent yellow ‘crew’ T-shirt and holding a microphone. “But we do have to wait for them to call out our order number – look.” I showed her the number printed on the corner of our receipt.
“zeta cento quattro!” called the woman over the crackly PA system, plucking a ticket from where it was tucked into the stack of pizza boxes that had just been deposited on the bench.
“Si, io!” yelled someone in the crowd and waved their receipt at the caller who then checked the number before handing over the order.
“What number are we?” asked Mr Blue-Shirt, suddenly appearing at my elbow with a tray of drinks.
“Z123,” I said with a grimace.
“If they’re only up to Z104, we might as well go and find the others. Francesco has just messaged me to say they’ve got their pizzas and have bagged a table in there.” He gestured towards the open-sided marquee from which spilled rows of trestle tables and benches already crammed with diners munching pizza.
“You go,” said Lori, taking our drinks from the tray. “We’ll wait here. Our order shouldn’t take too long, should it?”
“A quaranta nove!” blasted over the tannoy as Mr Blue-Shirt disappeared into the marquee.
“A49 is from the other cash desk,” I explained in response to Lori’s puzzled expression as she passed me my drink. “So there are effectively two queues. We could be here quite a while.”
“Oh, well, it’s probably cooler out here anyway,” said Lori with a shrug.
So in between sipping our drinks and chatting, we watched the pizza-making operation going on in the marquee. This was teeming with volunteers in their acid yellow ‘crew’ T-shirts and white aprons, and was furnished with a row of tables that formed the pizza production line. At one stood a team forming dough into plump balls, at the next stood the dough-rolling team, and at a third volunteers were ladling rich tomato sauce onto the wafer-thin bases. Then came the topping-adding team, and finally the mozzarella-scattering crew. 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 four huge wood-burning pizza ovens that dominated the marquee. After just three or four minutes, the bubbling, sizzling discs were slid back out of the fiery caverns and passed to the pizza-boxing crew who brought each completed order to the front of the marquee. And eventually it was our order that arrived on the bench.
“Zeta cento venti tre!”
“Si, io!” I cried, waving our receipt in the approved manner.
We jostled our way out through the crowd with our pizza boxes and went to find the others. As we threaded our way among the tables I exchanged greetings with Luca, one of our local Carabinieri who was there with his family, then with Silvia who runs the village laundry and dry cleaners, and all but bumped into Alessandro, the builder who helped out with the demolition of the pigsty and who may well end up re-building out our cantina, before arriving at the table at the back of the marquee where the others were waiting for us. Francesco and Donatella had already finished their pizzas, so we just had time to say hello, have a chat with Lillia, Francesco’s mum (whose hens provide us with most of our eggs these days), and to be introduced to his sister and coo over his brand-new baby niece before they all went back to the square for an ice-cream and we took over their seats.
Since the live band had started their set by now, conversation was difficult, so while we ate, I looked around the marquee. Unlike four years earlier, I saw lots of faces I recognised from around the village as well as a couple of our neighbours with whom we are on regular nodding and waving terms, along with the chap who used to live in Cambridge and who always collars Mr Blue-Shirt whenever he seems him to ask what he thinks of Boris Johnson’s latest antics. And from over by the entrance, I even got a cheery wave from Massimiliano, the Carabinieri station commander who was so kind to us after the burglaries and who had clearly drawn the short straw that evening as he was there in uniform.
Antonio dabbed the last traces of tomato sauce from his lips. “That was excellent,” he bellowed over the music, tossing his napkin into the empty pizza box. “In fact, I’m already thinking about hiring a couple of those ovens for a pizza event at the motor cycle club. What do you reckon?” Lori and I rolled our eyes at each other as held forth on this latest big idea for the club into which he has drawn us both over the last year or so. And while we finished eating, I reflected just how far we had come since the last time we had eaten pizza in that marquee. Back then we felt like outsiders and mere observers of village life; now we felt like real participants and utterly at home.