It is August in Sardinia, where Italian vacationers sleep late, down an espresso, and then take to the beaches, packing themselves together like slippery fish in a tin. Historically, Sardinians—invaded frequently and from all sides—cozied into the interior; beach property was considered so worthless that only the women inherited the spectacular cliffs and wide expanses of sand. Today, like everyone else, I’m splashing around and getting abbronzata at the beach.
In the evening, the beachgoers gather at bars, laughing and teasing each other as only Sards can, with increasing drunkenness and daring, until nearly dawn. I’m visiting my friend Beppe, who brings me along to meet his friends, which means almost everyone between the ages of 18 and 50 from Sassari and Sorso. He introduces me to Giovanna and Giuliano and tells me they are getting married on Saturday. They kiss me on the cheeks and ask where I’m from. I say San Francisco, where Beppe is currently living, where friends called me in a panic several years ago because they needed someone to come speak Italian to this guy who had arrived to stay on their couch and cook seafood pasta. Beppe explains we became friends even though I am the most napoletano American he’s ever met, by which he means conniving and ball-busting, but which I attribute to the fact that I make such good pizza.
Giovanna and Giuliano invite me to their wedding.
I’m startled: at home in the United States, people agonize over the guest list, counting every head at $120, cutting cousins and former colleagues, wondering who will be insulted and who will send a present anyway. They meet weeks in advance with caterers who will dole out four ounces of salmon for every guest next to three baby rosemary potatoes, a dollop of spinach, and one white roll. There is no inviting of strangers to a wedding at the last minute. Brides, paying parents, wedding planners, place card letterers: everyone would freak out.
“It would be a pleasure,” says Giovanna, with a smile that says she means it and would even be sad if I were still in the country and not attending on Saturday.
“Un gran piacere,” I say, not only because they are such a charming couple but because (being a little napoletana) I know a wedding meal in Sardinia—perhaps my favorite destination among hundreds of beloved food destinations in Italy—will be the ultimate culinary pleasure.
The day of the wedding, I shop, because the only nice dress I brought is purple, and Beppe’s mother informs me that purple brings bad luck to a wedding, and under no circumstances may I wear that dress. I wander around the streets of Alghero, a little piece of Spain in Sardinia, until I find a shop with a suitable nonpurple dress. When I return, Beppe’s mother explains that we will be having only a light lunch, and then we all need to turn in for a nap. There is a definite order to things on a wedding day in Sardinia.
In the late afternoon, everyone drives from the beach up to the town of Sennori, high above the sea and overlooking the northwest part of the island. The gathering line of cars winds up the streets, honking. The procession stops first at the bride’s house, where relatives serve finger sandwiches, and the small crowd waits for the bride to appear in her huge frothy dress to snap photos and accompany her to the church.
Then Beppe asks me to accompany him to collect the groom. At the door, someone hands me a plate and Beppe tells me to smash it hard, or it’ll bring bad fortune to the newlyweds. I break it into smithereens, everyone claps, the parents offer us drinks and more snacks, and we eventually take the groom to the church, careening up narrow cobbled roads to the top of the hill.
The wedding is a traditional mass, where all the men stand outside on the piazza smoking, taking turns scouting inside so they can rush to the pews when it’s time to hear the vows. The couple departs in a hail of confetti, and the guests make their way back down to a restaurant near the sea, honking the whole way, to drink aperitifs while watching a Campari-colored sunset. Waiters pass around olives and stuzzichini—Sardinian antipasti (“to pick”)—with seafood, fat olives, mozzarella and tomatoes, bruschetta, everything irresistible that almost everyone seems to be resisting.
Read full excerpt