We followed Bernard out of the Grand Hotel lobby and onto the twilit streets of Naples. A sultry feeling hung in the air-heavy and salty. People strolled along sidewalks that wrapped around the sea. Across the street, the caf'es near the sailboats were bright and hopping.
“The best pizza in Naples,” Bernard said as we walked, “is a subject of massive debate. When I told people I was coming here, I started getting recommendations, and people really have opinions. They take this stuff seriously.”
Maggie gazed up at him and grinned, looking as if she was ready to hear more, to hear whatever Bernard had to say.
He’d changed from the baggy jeans and orange polo shirt to darker, still-baggy jeans and a navy blue polo shirt. I thought I spied a uniform of sorts.
“So, I’ve heard about this one restaurant from ten different people,” Bernard said. “Are you guys willing to try it?”
“Sure,” I said. “It’s good to know someone with the inside scoop.”
Bernard led us through the streets of Naples to Antica Pizzeria Brandi della Regina on a street called Anna di Palazzo. Like many other Naples streets, it was chaotic, but Pizzeria Brandi della Regina was a refuge, its ivory awnings shading it protectively from the craziness of the rest of the street.
I took a peek inside and saw a huge wood-burning oven, tiled in mosaic, the name of the restaurant spelled proudly on its flank.
As we took our seat outside, a waiter came over and boasted about the restaurant. “We are the inventors of the pizza Margherita.”
“The pizza Margherita?” Maggie said, and even in English, you couldn’t mistake her disbelief.
The waiter puffed up his chest. “Yes. In 1889. Other pizzerias, they will tell you that they invented it. They will tell you they have the real pizza of Napoli, but it is here. We invented it. We make it.”
He and Maggie had a standoff with their eyes. She caved and gave him a little shrug. Bernard laughed.
When the waiter walked away, Bernard leaned in. “They passed a law here. In order to be official pizzerias, your pizza has to be a certain width and height, and there are all these rules, like the dough has to be kneaded by hand and certain olive oil and mozzarella have to be used.”
“Seems like a lot of trouble,” Maggie said. “If a pizza is good, who cares if it’s official?”
A passing waiter apparently heard Maggie’s words and understood English. He stopped and gave her a grave look, his hand still holding aloft a tray of glasses, before he moved on.
“Sheesh,” Maggie said.
But when the pizza came, we could see what all the fuss was about. We had ordered the traditional Margherita, which sounded boring, but it was divine-the crust spongy and buttery, the buffalo mozzarella soft and bubbling, the tomatoes tasting as if they’d been picked today. We also took the recommendation of the waiter and ordered a broccoli and sausage pizza, which was enough to make all of us swoon.
In two minutes, both pizzas were gone.
Bernard looked at the empty pans, a forlorn expression passing over his features.
“We should order more,” Maggie said.
Bernard’s face lit up, and the two of them bent toward each other to consult the menu.
“What do you want, Izzy?” Bernard asked.
He seemed like the kindest of men, and since we’d left the hotel, he’d been trying hard to include me in their conversation, but it was impossible to ignore the feeling that I was on a date-their date-and yet I couldn’t have been more pleased about it. Other than Wyatt, the much-older two-timing slick boyfriend that Maggie had tried twice, she hadn’t dated much in the last few years. She’d been the third person on many an outing with Sam and me, and I was happy to return the favor.
“Whatever you guys want,” I said. “I’m game.”
As I sat across the table from the two of them, my thoughts crept to Theo. Why in the hell had I asked him to come to Italy? Aside from the night we met, I had spent very little time with him outside my condo. So what was I doing agreeing to have him come to Europe?
I looked at my watch. From what he told me, he would be landing at ten Naples time. Which was only three hours away. And what would I do with him then? Well, I mean, aside from what I usually did with him?
It was tough enough to travel internationally with a good friend. Could Theo and I handle being in another country together? Could he handle it? The kid was only twenty-two after all. Would I even like the guy outside the sex-charged confines of my condo?
After the second round of pizzas, we left the restaurant and wandered down the street until we came to a coffee bar across from a beautiful cathedral. The waiter in his white shirt and black vest frowned when I asked for something decaffeinato.
“Decaffeinato espresso?” he asked, clearly put off by the thought but willing, grudgingly, to put in the order.
“Actually, do you have decaffeinato tea?” The concept of decaf tea only made the waiter frown more.
Bernard stood, towering over the waiter as he did everyone else, although I noticed that he always stayed a step away from people, as if not wanting, intentionally, to intimidate them. But it was hard not to be intimidated when looking straight up at a huge Filipino guy, as the waiter was now doing.
Bernard said something in Italian to the man, gesturing at his watch.
“S'i, s'i!” the waiter said excitedly, before pulling Bernard away.
“Be right back,” he called over his shoulder.
“What is that about?” I asked Maggie.
“I have no idea.” Her voice was tinged with awe as she watched Bernard’s retreating back. “So when is Theo getting here?”
I put my phone on the table so I’d hear it when he called or texted. “Soon.”
“I can’t wait to meet him.”
“I’m just realizing that none of my friends has ever met him.”
“No time like the present. And hey, you look great tonight.”
That afternoon, when I’d gotten back to our room after talking to the concierge, I changed out of the dress I’d worn all day. I told Maggie now what I’d learned from the concierge. “Bizarre,” she said, and she was right. Whenever I thought of the Mafia, I imagined the Mob being involved in gambling, drugs, prostitution. But fashion?
I’d had a slightly more pressing fashion dilemma that afternoon. What to wear now that Theo was coming? Maggie and I had spent some time selecting my outfit-a navy-blue sundress that showed a little cleavage.
The waiter came back and placed white cups of espresso in front of Bernard and Maggie’s seats. Then he placed a blue cup on a saucer in front of me. A silver tea strainer drifted in the steaming water.
“Decaffeinato,” the waiter said with pride. He pointed to the flecks of white on the saucer. “Sugar, if you like.” He placed a tin with a spoon in it on the table. “More sugar, if you like.” He followed that with a tiny white pitcher full of milk. “And latte.”
“Thank you,” I said, not feeling marginalized anymore.
A few minutes later, Bernard returned to the table.
“What did you do?” Maggie said. “Suddenly, Izzy got the tea she wanted.”
“Good, good.” He lowered himself into his chair. “My first French horn teacher was Italian. From Naples. He made me an Italian football fan.”
“Soccer, right?” Maggie asked.
“Football. Always call it football.”
“We’re Bears fans,” Maggie said, giving him a frown. “That’s the only kind of football we recognize.”
Bernard paused, looked about to argue, then he smiled and nodded. “Well, the Naples soccer team has an interesting history. They dropped to Serie B. It’s like if the Cubs got demoted to a farm team. But they keep working their way back to Serie A, the top level. I asked the waiter if the game was on. He took me back in the kitchen and we watched for a while. We talked about the glory days of Diego Maradona, and-” he nodded at my cup “-you got your tea.”
“Thanks to you.”
“Well, if you’re a fan and you root for the same team, it almost doesn’t matter what you say. You have a bond. So I just had to give them a few words of encouragement.”
Maggie squeezed his massive upper arm. “You are so smart.”
He grinned bashfully in her direction, then looked at me. “It didn’t hurt that a couple of the waiters in the back were asking about the rossa.” He gestured at my head. “They must have a crush on you.”
“Any man who loves redheads loves Izzy,” Maggie said. “This is a constant thing.”
“No, it’s not,” I said. “God, I wish men were always having crushes on me.”
“Well, you’re always getting noticed for your hair.”
Bernard took a sip of his espresso. “I kind of understand that. I feel like I’m always noticed with this.” He gestured down at himself, at his big self.
Maggie looked over her shoulder. “Are those the rossa fans?”
Two men stood at the entrance to the kitchen, and they were staring at our table.
“That’s them,” Bernard said.
I smiled in their direction, but neither smiled in return.
“Sheesh,” Maggie said. “The Italian guys really are different than they used to be.”
My phone beeped from the table. A text message. I just landed, Theo wrote, and I can’t wait to see you. Where are you?
“Theo?” Maggie said.
Maggie turned to Bernard. “Theo is the guy Izzy has been dating that I told you about. A very young guy.”
Bernard raised his espresso cup to clink with mine. “Good for you,” he said. “From what you guys were telling me about your last year, you need that.”
I laughed. “I do actually.”
I texted Theo back. Grand Hotel Vesuvio, along with the address.
“Come with me?” I asked Maggie and Bernard. “We can have a nightcap in the lobby bar.”
Bernard downed his espresso, nodded. “Let’s go.”