Italian Saturdays are for pizza.
“We had some great years here, didn’t we?” Loredana, one of the owners of my hometown’s pizzeria La Rocca, stifled her tears and squeezed my brother’s shoulder across the table.
September 2021, I was coming from months of war within myself. Tears ran quick and quiet down my cheeks as I picked at the pizza crusts, left behind to be eaten last.
Even though I left Italy for London 9 years ago, La Rocca has always been the place of my returns.
There are many reasons why I returned to Italy this past September, but one of them was to eat at the tables of this pizzeria one last time, and to make sure my boyfriend got to witness the soul of a place that was key to my upbringing.
Pizzerias in Italy are intrinsically bound to a life of locality; they are places of comfort with the food and social environment they offer. They are THE place to be on a weekend, where you are known by your first name and the pizza you order most, and even whether you drink espresso in the evenings or jump straight to a glass of amaro. You will know the owners’ family members by name, as they often help out on Saturdays in different capacities, and you will remark the passage of time to one another as the years go by.
This measure of time, I think, is why people become regulars at bars, restaurants and cafes. It makes time-passing feel like the collective inevitable act it is, and turns its often lonely and bitter connotations into a shared tenderness.
Pizzeria La Rocca is named after the citadel inhabiting my hometown’s main square and opened its doors in 2000, on the same street where my parents and brother still live, above my mum’s shop. As you enter, you find the bar counter on your left, with beers on the tap, bottles of liqueurs, the till, and scribbled notes of takeaway orders. On the right, three chairs for the home diners, waiting for their orders. In front of you, the oven, pizza cartons piling up high, football memorabilia and photos of the staff during various town festivals. Familiar faces portrayed over the years, a timeline of our shared memories.
Loredana is the welcoming party, although you would often meet her outside the main door, sneaking a fag in-between waiting tables, guarding the till and chatting to guests. Gigi, Loredana’s husband, nods and cracks a joke as he works tirelessly with flour and heat, and welcomes everyone to the smell of just-about-done pizza crust. Behind him, the open doorframe leads into the kitchen, the domain of two women: Mari – an incredible, indulgent cook who has worked at La Rocca for 15 years – and Anna – an older and quieter lady who has kept the kitchen together for years with her precise and calm hand. Gigi focuses on pizza, while Anna and Mari look after everything else: the delicious seafood dishes, the popular meat and the pasta dishes I was obsessed with.
In the summer, Loredana would walk you to the back garden, where you’d be fighting off mosquitoes and the air would be filled with the smell of insect repellent, cigarette smoke and pizza. The familiar red tablecloths, the wooden chairs, and the exposed bricks of the arches separating one room from the other welcomed you into a place that had lived, and had made you live with it.
In the winter, with the tables inside packed with customers, Loredana would lead us to the small adjacent room that accommodated a handful of tables. This area was often reserved for loud kids or teenage birthdays, family gatherings or the local football team celebrating a Sunday victory.
Our families’ histories crossed paths when my brother and their younger son began nursery together and became best friends. Gigi and Loredana have tried to sell the pizzeria for a few years, as it’s a tiring life and they are close to retirement. But then the pandemic happened and La Rocca became once again a social connector for the town, an occasion to see people for the first time, while queuing – masked and distanced – for a Saturday night takeaway. For as long as I can remember, my parents have eaten pizza every Saturday – mostly at home since my dad loves having a beer and chatting to the staff while he waits for the pizzas and while mum tidies the shop at the end of the day.
When I returned home for the first time in April 2021, Italy was still under strict restrictions and I started partaking in this new ritual.It felt unfamiliar to sanitize my hands at the entrance and to wait outside for my order. Still, I was coming from months of staying home, so even walking down a few doors and waiting near others was a revolution. I left again five weeks later, with restaurants only open for outdoor dining, as Gigi and Loredana announced they would be closing the pizzeria on September 30th.
It sounds silly, in the midst of a global pandemic, to be longing to return home for such a futile and privileged action as that of sitting in a back garden for a pizza. Maybe it was my romantic brain that desperately needed to feel again after the last few months, but as I sat at one of the long tables outdoors and opened the familiar paper menu – where the pizzas added over the years all bear the name of a staff member to celebrate their favourite toppings – I looked around and felt overwhelmed with peace. I was home.
You would often see couples sharing a meal at La Rocca. The older guys, as my friends and I called them, whom we looked up to. Young women, only a few years older than us, dating the handsome men we all had secret crushes on at some point or another. But for my friends and I, it was never a place for romantic love. It was a place for sisterhood and big friendship groups, messy family gatherings and way too many rounds of amari. To me, it symbolised the power of dining out at a young age. At 15, I would dress up to walk the few metres separating my house and the pizzeria sign and meet up with my girlfriends. A table of one’s own. A shared space where we would gossip and plot our next moves, where we were in charge of looking at the menu and choosing our meal. The energy was incredible. Pizzeria La Rocca is the first place where I felt there was independence linked to the table, and I knew I never wanted to let go of it. The decision-making felt empowering, and it was an early emancipation from scrutinized meals, from comments about my choices and quantities and, consequently, my body. It became my safe space.
My approach to menus was already one of dissection and inspection. Meat or fish? What’s in season? Will it be too salty? Where’s the indulgence? I found it right there, under Primi Piatti: penne con panna, gamberetti e prezzemolo. A pasta dish so seventies, it was only missing the addition of a vodka shot. My friends rigorously ordered the same pizza every weekend, at a time when the most in vogue pizza for teenagers was with Frankfurters and fries. Though I would alternate my orders, I felt most excited about food at La Rocca when I waited for the steaming plate piled with short penne in a creamy tomato sauce, with shrimps and thinly chopped parsley. In my eyes, this was the height of sophistication, as I took large forkfuls of pasta and proceeded to tell my mates what I had learned from the latest episode of Sex and the City. We were four teenagers, sitting in front of a meal we would be paying for, and it was easy for a moment to think Manhattan was just outside.
I was back in London as the last day of La Rocca approached. Loredana stopped at my mum’s shop and told her they had been overwhelmed with affection from everyone in town. “Everyone wants a piece of La Rocca,” said Loredana softly while smiling. The smile of someone reaching the end of one of their biggest chapters in life.
On the last Saturday, Loredana took to Instagram to thank every single customer who was dining there or getting a takeaway one last time. The first photo featured Loredana and my father, holding two pizza cartons for him and my mum, smiling at a family tradition. The days went on and every day my Instagram homepage was filled with people sharing stories of La Rocca and the sadness of eating their favourite pizza one last time. Gigi and Loredana were signing plates, bowls, serving platters, pizza cartons, anything that could be taken home and kept, signalling another passage of time.
September 30th arrived and my parents brought home beer glasses from the bar where we had shared many drinks, and I had one more request. A La Rocca menu: the unpretentious beige paper containing over two decades of town life, growing up, and shared meals.
Irene, October 2021