Only in Naples – Katherine Wilson’s Story

US cover Only in Naples -3

Dear Blog Readers-

My journalist friend Barbie Nadeau (of Daily Beast and CNN fame)  wrote to me the other day introducing me to her friend Katherine Wilson, author of the recently published memoir about Naples, “Only in Naples: Lessons in Food and Famiglia from My Italian Mother-in-Law.”  Katherine wrote that she was eager to meet me to talk about my blog so we set up an appointment for a coffee.

There never seems to be a slow day working for AP anymore and on that particular day, I had to cover Richard Gere presenting his film “Time Out of My Mind” to homeless people at the Sant’Egidio soup kitchen in the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome. I was battling a bad cold. My ears were clogged and my nose was runny.  I had been rushing around all morning trying to get everything my daughter Chiara needed before her departure the next day for a summer program in New York.  And to be honest, I was also feeling frustrated that Katherine managed to get her book published when I have never published my original manuscript that was the original inspiration and source of material for this blog.

So, let’s just say I was not in the best of moods.  However, when I sat down with Katherine at a small table at the back of the Bar Doria, just down the street from the AP Rome office, all my aggravation was swept away (a cappuccino and a cornetto always help too).  Katherine is a lovely, generous, kind person and we spent over an hour talking about the difficulties of getting a book published and the pros and cons of having a blog.  She gave me a copy of her book and that night I went home and dove right in.

It took me just a few nights to finish Katherine’s book because I could not put it down.  Some of her experiences being an American woman in Italy and trying to raise children here were so similar to mine and others extremely different.  As I was reading the book I sent her a couple of emails with links to my blog posts pointing out my silly experiences with the Italian beach scene,  Italian traffic and Italian food.

What makes her book exceptional is the focus on Naples and the unusual figure of Raffaela Avallone, Katherine’s marvelous mother-in-law.

Katherine Wilson sharing a gelato with her mother-in-law Raffaele Avallone in Naples. Credit: Tara Crossley

Katherine Wilson sharing a gelato with her mother-in-law Raffaele Avallone in Naples. Credit: Tara Crossley

“Only in Naples” is a charming tale of Katherine’s experience coming to Naples to work as an intern in the US Consulate. She is immediately adopted by the lively, energetic Raffaela Avallone who finds her a place to live and invites her to dinner. Katherine is engulfed by the energy and affection of this remarkable Italian woman who makes a mission of teaching Katherine to cook.   But quickly the cooking lessons lead to a love story between Katherine and Raffaela’s son Salvatore.

Katherine has a delightful, bubbly style and manages to draw the reader into the city and culture of Naples with all its chaotic, throbbing intensity and its quirky traditions.

Food and family are the big themes of the book, but being a little weary of the whole Italian foodie scene, I will leave that part for others and talk about some of the family.

First, the famous mother-in-law Raffaella: here is how Katherine introduces us to her.

“I was led into the kitchen, where Raffaella was getting off the phone as she took the homemade pizza out of the oven and closed the refrigerator door with her heel. It was all movement, all action, all graceful ….. Her white jeans were tight and cinched at the waist with a rhinestone-studded leather belt. She was fully made up: lip liner melded into gloss, eyeliner smudged naturally into charcoal eye shadow. Her hair was short and blond, highlighted expertly…when Raffaela moved, whiffs of Chanel perfume cut through the aroma of baked dough and basil.”

Katherine Wilson's mother-in-lawe working on a Parmiginana di Melanzane (Eggplant Parmesan) dish with her sister. Credit: Tara Crossley

Katherine Wilson’s mother-in-law Raffaella Avallone working on a Parmiginana di Melanzane (Eggplant Parmesan) dish with her sister. Credit: Tara Crossley

Raffaella’s boundless energy and enthusiasm is in sharp contrast with her son Salvatore—who Katherine describes as the classic Italian Mama’s boy who lives at home and enjoys his mother’s good cooking.

“He was in his third year at the University of Naples, studying law….He studied in his room all day, every day, and went every few months to take an exam. No listening to lectures, no comparing notes with fellow students, no interaction with professors. Just memorizing law texts in his boyhood room, which was adorned with teddy bears and third-grade soccer trophies.”

In one of the many hilarious moments in this book Salvatore decides to make a move on this young American intern and takes Katherine to a popular makeout spot in Naples.

“Salvatore parked the little tin-can car in a row of similar cars perched on the high promontory of Posillipo, where during the day we could have seen the sea and the islands of Nisida, Procida and Ischia. The car next to us had newspapers covering all the windows and windshield and was rocking slightly back and forth. I later learned that coming to this spot to have sex in the car is a necessity for Neapolitan ragazzi, or young adults, who live in small apartments with their families and don’t have any privacy. (The very word privacy does not exist in the Italian language, so the English word is used. It is pronounced with a rolled r and a long, languorous, luxurious eye.) There was even a man who stood behind a little table selling condoms, year-old newspapers, Kleenex, and Scotch tape. (It took me a while, but I eventually figured out the uses for all of these accoutrements.). I never figured out, however, why all these ragazzi chose a place with a gorgeous view. I guess a romantic context helped to set the mood, even if the women ended up staring at newspaper print.”

Amid all the engaging tales of life in Naples, Katherine slowly reveals her background which is less amusing but provides some depth to her story and makes her passion for Naples understandable. She grew up in a WASPy Washington, D.C. family and is the great-granddaughter of the founder of Wilson Sporting Goods – the ones who make footballs and tennis racquets. This is how Katherine describes her father Ed. “Little Ed was the first grandson, and he had everything he could ever want: his own horse, a chauffeur, tickets on luxury liners to Europe at the age of nine.”

When Katherine brings her new boyfriend Salvatore to the United States, her mother organizes a whirlwind three weeks of travel which Katherine defines as the “Show Salva the USA Tour”. The tour, of course, included a cruise to the Caribbean for which, Katherine writes, his mother packed Armani suits.

Katherine explains that, as a girl, she came under a lot of pressure to perform– she studied acting and took private voice lessons– and her mother wanted her to be perfectly skinny.

This is how she describes her mother: “Bonnie Salango stopped eating breakfast and lunch in the early 1960s, and hasn’t partkaen in those daytime meals since.  She has never weighed more than 120 pounds, and looks, still, like Elizabeth Taylor in her prime.”

Apparently her mother wanted her daughters to be similarly slim.  According to Katherine:

“My mother first put me on a diet when I was in kindergarten. I was never called fat: the words that were thrown around our household in reference to my weight were chunky, heavy and plump. As a child, I was probably never more than eight pounds overweight. But for my mother, that was enough to call for drastic measures.”

Those measures included her mother insisting that she always get the blue milk carton when they handed out the little cartons at snack time at school. The blue cartons had the skim milk while the red cartons had the whole milk, and she was the only one who had to drink the skim stuff. She explains that all this pressure eventually led her to become a binge eater, an eating disorder that she overcame during her time in Naples.

She writes that growing up, “I could not complete with my Claudia Schiffer sister (no amounts of lemons at the beach could get my hair so blond; no diet could make my thighs as skinny), so I excelled at school and played the clown at home.”

Katherine excelled academically and eventually she was accepted at Princeton University, following in the footsteps of her grandfather, uncle and father. But the academic preparation she got at Princeton did not help her with the challenges of keeping up with Raffaella in a Neapolitan kitchen. Here is Katherine’s description of that.

“Her dance was perfectly choreographed: she simultaneously stirred the ragu’, fried the meatballs, sautéed the peas. I ducked and dodged. I was at times behind her, at times beside her. … “Ketrin, assagia.” Katherine, taste. Her wooden spoon was suddenly coming at me, full to overflowing with ragu’, her hand cupped underneath to catch any spills. She stuck the whole huge spoon into my mouth, and I almost gagged on the wood. “Come’e’?” How is it? I answered that it was buonissimo, and she dipped the same spoon back into the pot and tasted it herself.

Hm.

“I was told to cut the hard-boiled eggs into quarters. Raffaella laid the fried meatballs, spitting and sizzling, on freshly ironed dishrags. My Italian had improved enough to be able to ask, “How much egg? How many cheese? How many much peas?” Okay, my quantifying adjectives weren’t perfect, but I got my point across. In response, she put her arm around my waist and whispered conspiratorially, “Piu ci metti, piu ci trovi!” – the more you put in the more you get out. In other words: That analytical, precise, quantifying brain has no place in my kitchen, girl.”

So much for Princeton.

But what is fascinating is how Naples and the Italian obsession with food cured her eating disorder.  Here is how Katherine describes it:

“I am five feet, three inches tall, and in September of 1996 I weighed 155 pounds….During my first six weeks in Naples, I stopped bingeing and lost twenty pounds. I did not go on a diet; in fact, I’ve never enjoyed food as much as I did than.  What happened was in part a practical consequence of living in Italy, and at the same time something deeper.

Naples in an antibinge city. In Neapolitan culture, mealtimes are sacred- food is freshly prepared and consumed in compagnia. There is no rushing, and you will hear the Neapolitan Statte cuieto –Keep your pants on –if you look anxious or pressed for time at the table.  You eat when you are seated without distraction and preferably with a glass of wine. You eat when it is breakfast time, lunchtime, and dinnertime, period. Punto e basta.”

Raffaella is definitely the star of this story (or eventual film, can Meryl Streep do a Neapolitan accent?) and as a result the male protagonist, the love of Katherine’s life, Salvatore, gets a bit of a bad rap.  If you take Marcello Mastroianni out of the Trevi Fountain and stick him in a bedroom in a Neapolitan apartment with flannel jammies on, you’ve got Salvatore.

Throughout the book, Salvatore – who eventually becomes Katherine’s husband – makes various appearances in sleepwear. On a visit with her family to an estate in South Beach Florida, Salvatore slips into her bed wearing “Pajamas printed with flying soccer balls.” Later, she describes him as an anxious husband in Rome busily going around the apartment with the remote control of the air conditioner in hand always turning it down. Katherine – typically American- has insisted on air conditioning while Salvatore – typically Italian—fears that it might make their children sick.

“Recent sightings of Quick Draw Sal have revealed that, even in summer, he dresses in layers. The Italian expression is a cipolla, an onion. His loungewear begins with a white short-sleeved undershirt. Then come the pajamas – long-sleeved gray pajamas printed with little white curly-tailed cats interspersed with fluffy clouds. The legs of the pajamas are tucked into his very long navy-blue knee socks, so that no chilly air will come up his pajama legs. The undershirt and pajama top are tucked into the pants tightly so that, once again, no air will make its way to his exposed belly. As a general rule, air is not to touch exposed flesh unless one is at the beach in Sardinia and it is 101 degrees. Salvatore’s dressing gown, worn over his pajamas, is soft velour and is tied (tightly) around the waist.”

Author Katherine Wilson with her Mother-in-law Raffaella Avalone, her husband Salvatore and their children. Credit: Tara Crossley

Author Katherine Wilson with her Mother-in-law Raffaella Avallone, her husband Salvatore and their children. Credit: Tara Crossley

Katherine regales us with some hilarious tales like her disastrous experiences insisting on having a garbage disposal on her kitchen sink in Rome, the drama of trying to get her underwear (roba intima) washed in Naples, and the unwritten rules on the Positano beach. But I will let my blog readers buy the book and read those stories.

Her adoration and affection for her mother-in-law arrives at a rather astonishing crescendo towards the end of the book when she compares her mother-in-law to the Virgin Mary. I am sure that will go down well in Naples where the Virgin Mary probably takes a close second to San Gennaro, but as an American with an Italian Mother-in-law it was a bit hard for me to swallow. Instead, I would rather try Raffaella’s cooking.

The book concludes with four recipes from Raffaella’s kitchen:

Ragu’, Insalata di Polipo, Parmigiana Melanzane and Sartu’ di Riso.

This book is a delightful, easy summer read and I recommend it to all of you!

Katherine asked me to include the below links where you can buy it.

http://amzn.to/1YYnnXf in the US and http://amzn.to/1XxqQvF in the U.K.

 

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Trisha Thomas
Trisha is a TV journalist working for AP TV News in Rome. She is married to an Italian and is a Mamma of three.

17 Comments

  1. Kay
    2016/06/18

    Ha ha! I just adore your writing, Trisha! It always brightens my day and mirrors my own thought line of thinking and sense of humor. I was sitting here laughing out loud!!
    One takeaway which I must add…it seems she fell in love with her mother-in-law and married the son as an after thought. But hey, to each their own.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2016/06/19

      Thank you Kay. I think Katherine definitely fell in love with her Mother-in-law, but she also fell head over heels for Salvatore which comes across clearly in the book. Perhaps the excerpts that I took of him in his pajamas did not do him justice. You should really get the book and read the whole thing.

      Reply
      • Kay
        2016/06/19

        I should add that I really love Barbie’s articles in The Daily Beast. And while I absolutely adored the Elizabeth Spicer Story (and wrote a glowing review on Amazon), I think your own story told through these blog posts and through your own brilliant writing would make a most excellent book which I hope is published very soon.

        Reply
        • Trisha Thomas
          Trisha Thomas
          2016/06/19

          Thank you Kay. Barbie is fantastic –she a great journalist, author and a wonderful person. I was just at her apartment the other night for her birthday party and she has this incredible typewriter collection with typewriters on the walls and coffee tables and placed in interesting positions all over the house. She also has an interesting personal story– starting riding bareback on the family’s horse farm in South Dakota to becoming the star reporter on the Amanda Knox trial in Rome. She could write a great memoir some day but I think she is working on some fiction right now.

          Reply
  2. Kathy Woodall
    2016/06/19

    I was told about this book, Trisha and straight away I thought of you and all of your blog columns that could be combined to tell a similar story. Whenever I cook spaghetti I think of you hilarious story of the first time you cooked spaghetti for Gustavo and breaking it into pieces – which he heard from the living room. The ensuing horror about breaking the spaghetti always makes me chuckle. There is the other story about letting your children run barefoot in a park and your mother-in-law’s horror as the kids could ‘catch something’ – and one my all time favourites of yours – the vest/singlet that Italian mammina’s always have to wear so they don’t catch cold – even if it’s 120 degrees outside.
    I was reluctant to buy this book as it seems these people have such a perfect life and the difficulties we all face are left out or glossed over. I have read many ex-pat autobiographies and many are too good to be true and they just ‘give me the hump’ (as the British so eloquently put it) and make me resent my mundane life. By giving us a back story, Katherine has changed my mind somewhat and I may just buy it – although that last photo of the perfect family is a little hard to bear, lol.
    Anyway, Trisha, you must get onto Penguin and hand over your blog posts to an editor – I would love to read them in a bound format and laugh all over again.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2016/06/19

      Kathy, I can’t believe you remember all those blog posts! You must be one of my most loyal readers. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that. Since the blog is a lot of work and I don’t gain anything financially from doing it, your compliments are my reward and the reason I continue. You should definitely buy Katherine’s book since you also have a passion for Naples. I am sure there are many things in it that you can relate too. It is also just a lot of fun and she writes very well.

      Reply
  3. Joan Schmelzle
    2016/06/19

    Another fun read! Thanks much!A presto,
    Joan

    Reply
  4. Alan
    2016/06/20

    go on – do some editing of the blog and get the book out there. You have a lot of fans and they’d love to have you stories in their hands.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2016/06/21

      Thanks Alan, that is very sweet of you.

      Reply
  5. Allegra
    2016/06/20

    Dear Trisha,

    You honest and authentic approach is so refreshing! This is why we love your posts so much, it’s pure selfless sharing, a real Mamma all the way Trisha!
    If it can be of any consolation, I would argue that for an Italian boy it is not very healthy that Wife and Mother get along so well: my theory is that wife/mother-in-law conflicts are necessary- even healthy!- so that the Italian man can finally detach himself from his own Mamma, a process that ideally would take place during adolescence, but hey, better late than never!.. This is a revisited Italian version of the Oedipal complex!

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2016/06/21

      Allegra, as you know very well, I have to deal with the whole mother-in-law topic with kid gloves because my own relationship with my mother-in-law has always been between delicate to difficult. I think Katherine was able to establish a different relationship with her mother-in-law because she met her before she got together with her son. Whereas, I think my mother-in-law always saw me as an American intruder trying to drag her son away. By the time I met my mother-in-law I was already in my late 20s and working as a journalist so I had no intention of taking advice about food or children from her. So, the combination of her hostility towards me, my self-confidence and perhaps inflexibility in adapting to certain Italian habits has led to some tensions over the years.

      Reply
  6. Ciao Chow Linda
    2016/06/20

    Trisha – how coincidental that you posted this now. I typically read “paper” books but downloaded this as an e-book just the other day (along with Chernow’s “Hamilton”) in order to have a book to read on the plane on my way to our honeymoon in Croatia (yes, Ron and I got married Saturday!) . Now I’m doubly glad I downloaded this book, after reading your description of it. But like other commenters here, I think you have a really engaging story too and a terrific writing style and need to get to an agent and/or publisher soon.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2016/06/21

      CONGRATULATIONS!!! What wonderful news!!! I am so happy for you. Have a fantastic honeymoon in Croatia — I know you will– and I also know you will enjoy reading Katherine’s book on the beach. Have fun! Big hugs!

      Reply
  7. Nancy Rockwell
    2016/06/20

    What an astonishing story! And for me the astonishment begins after she meets the son, who is holed up in the apartment (why is he learning this way? can you become a lawyer this way? don’t they have to argue in court?) From then on, all the details are beyond my imagining. And that includes her own American family. I think I would leave the country too, if I came from such a home. Thanks for bringing us this vibrant picture of life. Hope your cold is better, and that Chiara is having a fine time in NY, exploring – – –

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2016/06/21

      My cold his better and I have gotten over my envy over Katherine’s publishing success. I assume there is room for all of us out there in the book world. As far as I know her husband did not become a lawyer but went into marketing instead. However, his system of studying is not uncommon in Italy. It deserves a post of its own– students spending years living in their parents homes, memorizing textbooks and taking exams when they feel ready. They can also reject exams if they think the grade was too low and try again. Strange system. You hardly pay anything for University here since it is all public so that encourages people who are not in a huge hurry to get a job and earn money to live at home and keep studying until they have perfect exams. Chiara is having a fabulous time in NYC! I was amazed at the things a modern-day mother has to worry about when getting their kid off to a summer program. It is no longer the tooth brush and enough clean underwear, it is the pre-paid debit card and a cell phone that will work in the US. What is this world coming to??

      Reply
  8. Liz
    2016/06/21

    Great post!
    Was needing a good summer read.
    And whenever you get a book published you can bet I will purchase it!
    Love your blog and I think I have been reading it for however long you have been writing it.
    Sending you love from Houston, Texas.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2016/06/21

      Thank you Liz!! Thrilled to hear you have been reading my blog all this time. I think you will enjoy Katherine’s book. It is a lot of fun.

      Reply

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