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The Wedding Officer: A Novel
by Anthony Capella

Published: 2008-05-20
Paperback : 423 pages
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In the sumptuous tradition of Chocolat and Captain Corelli's Mandolin, and already optioned for a major motion picture, comes a magical tale of romantic passion, culinary delight—and Italy. Captain James Gould arrives in wartime Naples assigned to discourage marriages between British soldiers ...
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In the sumptuous tradition of Chocolat and Captain Corelli's Mandolin, and already optioned for a major motion picture, comes a magical tale of romantic passion, culinary delight—and Italy. Captain James Gould arrives in wartime Naples assigned to discourage marriages between British soldiers and their gorgeous Italian girlfriends. But the innocent young officer is soon distracted by an intoxicating young widow who knows her way around a kitchen...Livia Pertini is creating feasts that stun the senses with their succulence—ruby-colored San Marzana tomatoes, glistening anchovies, and delectable new potatoes encrusted with the black volcanic earth of of Campania—and James is about to learn that his heart may rank higher than his orders. For romance can be born of the sweet and spicy passions of food and love—and time spent in the kitchen can be as joyful and exciting as the banquet of life itself!

Editorial Review

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Chapter One

The day Livia Pertini fell in love for the first time was the day the beauty contest was won by her favorite cow, Pupetta.

For as long as anyone in Fiscino could remember, the annual Feast of the Apricots had incorporated not only a competition to find the most perfect specimen of fruit from among the hundreds of tiny orchards that lined the sides of Monte Vesuvio, but also a contest to determine the loveliest young woman of the region. The former was always presided over by Livia's father, Nino, since it was generally accepted that as the owner of the village osteria he had a more subtle palate than most, while the latter was judged by Don Bernardo, the priest, since it was thought that as a celibate he would bring a certain objectivity to the proceedings.

Of the two competitions, the beauty contest was usually the more good-natured. This was partly because it was unencumbered by the accusations of fixing, bribing and even stealing of fruit from another man's orchard that dogged the judging of apricots, but also because the girls of the village were remarkably similar in appearance–dark haired, olive skinned and built along the voluptuous lines that a diet of fresh air and pasta invariably produces–and it was thus a relatively simple matter to decide which one combined these features in the most pleasing way. The apricots were another matter altogether. Each time Vesuvius erupted, it covered its slopes with a deep layer of a remarkable natural fertilizer called potash, and as a result the mountain supported dozens of species of fruit and vegetables which grew nowhere else in all Italy, a culinary advantage which more than compensated for the area's occasional dangers. In the case of apricots, the varieties included the firm-fleshed Cafona, the juicy Palummella, the bittersweet Boccuccia liscia, the peachlike Pellecchiella and the spiky-skinned but incomparably succulent Spinosa. Each had its ardent champions, and the thought of the honor going to the wrong sort of apricot provoked almost as much debate as the decision over which farmer had produced the finest specimen of fruit.

Livia was too busy to pay much attention to either contest. A feast day meant that the little osteria would be even busier at lunchtime than usual, and she and her sister Marisa had been up since before dawn preparing the dishes that would be spread out on the tables lining the length of the terrace, where vines provided shade from the fierce midday sun. In any case, she had a rather low opinion of both kinds of competition, her view being that with apricots it very much depended on what kind of mood you were in, while in the case of female beauty all the girls in the village got stared at quite enough already. Besides, everyone knew that one of the Farelli sisters would win in the end, and she didn't see why she should give them the satisfaction of beating her. So, while everyone else was out in the piazza, arguing, cheering, booing and clapping for the contenders, she concentrated on preparing the antipasto, deftly wrapping burrata in fresh asphodel leaves.

"Hello?" a male voice called from the little room which doubled as a bar and a dining room. "Is anyone here?"

Her hands were full of wet burrata and shreds of leaf. "No," she shouted back.

There was a short pause. "Then I must be talking to an angel, or perhaps a ghost," the voice suggested. "If there's no one around, I don't usually get an answer."

Livia rolled her eyes. A smart-ass. "I meant, there's no one to serve you. I'm busy."

"Too busy to pour a glass of limoncello for a thirsty soldier?"

"Too busy even for that," she said. "You can help yourself, and put your money on the counter. It's what everyone else does."

Another pause. "What if I'm not honest, and don't leave the full amount?"

"Then I will curse you, and something very unpleasant will happen. I wouldn't risk it if I were you."

She heard the sound of a bottle being uncorked, and the sound of her father's lemon spirit being generously poured into a glass. Then a young man in a soldier's uniform appeared in the kitchen. He was holding a full glass in one hand and some coins in the other. "It occurred to me," he said, "that if I left my money on the counter and some other rogue came along later and stole it, you would think that it was me who was the dishonest one, and something unpleasant would happen to me after all, and that would be a terrible thing. So I thought I'd bring you the money myself."

She pointed with her elbow at the dresser. "You can put it over there."

He was, she noticed, quite extraordinarily handsome. The black, tailored uniform recently redesigned by Mussolini showed off his lean hips and broad shoulders, and his dark eyes grinned at her from beneath a soldier's cap that was set at a jaunty angle on the back of a mass of curls. Caramel skin, very white teeth and an expression of confident mischief completed the picture. A pappagallo, she thought dismissively, a parrot–the local expression for young men who spent their time trying to look handsome and flirting with girls.

"What are you doing in here?" he asked, leaning back against the dresser and watching her. "I thought everyone was outside."

"I shall pray to Santa Lucia for you," she said.

"Why's that?" he said, surprised.

"Because you are clearly afflicted by blindness. Either that, or you're a cretin. What does it look like I'm doing?"

This sort of remark was usually enough to deter unwelcome visitors to her kitchen, but the young soldier didn't seem at all put out. "You look like you're cooking," he remarked.

"Brilliant," she said sarcastically. "The saint has performed another miracle. You can go now; you're completely cured."

"You know," he said, crossing his legs at the ankle and taking a swig from his glass, "you're much prettier than any of those girls in the beauty contest."

She ignored the compliment. "So that's why you're here. I should have guessed. You came to stare at the girls."

"Actually, I came because my friend Aldo wanted to come, and there's not much else to do around here. I'm stationed in the garrison at Torre del Greco."

"So you're a fascist?" she said disapprovingly.

He shook his head. "Just a soldier. I want to see the world. All my life I've lived in Naples, and I'm bored with it."

"Well," she said, "you can start by seeing the world outside that door. I don't have time to chat to you." As she spoke she was putting balls of burrata inside the asphodel leaves, weaving the leaves through each other so that they formed a natural basket for the cheese.

The handsome soldier was unperturbed. "You're very rude," he said conversationally.

"No, just very busy."

"But you can be busy and talk to me at the same time," he objected. "Look, you've done a dozen of those already. And I can take away the plates you've filled and bring you new ones." He fitted his actions to his words. "See? I'm making myself useful."

"Actually, you're in the way. And those plates need to go on the other table."

"I'll tell you what," he said. "I'll go away if you give me a kiss."

She glared at him. "Quanne piscia 'a gallina,* cazzo. Not in a million years, dickhead. Now get out of here."

"But my intentions are completely honorable," he assured her. "You see, I've fallen in love with you. And what's wrong with kissing someone you're in love with?"

She couldn't help it. She smiled slightly, then put her stern expression back on. "Don't be ridiculous. We don't know each other from Adam."

"Well, that obstacle is easily removed. I'm Enzo. And you are–?"

"Busy," she snapped.

"I'm very pleased to meet you, Busy. Would you like to kiss me now?"

"No." She had finished the antipasto, and began to chop lemons to accompany the friarielli, a kind of bitter broccoli.

"Then I shall just have to use my imagination instead." He leant back and closed his eyes. A smile played across his face. "Mmmm," he said thoughtfully. "Do you know, Busy, you're a very good kisser. Mmmmmm . . . Let's do that again."

"I hope that hurt," she said pointedly.


"I just imagined kneeing you in the coglioni."

Enzo clutched his privates and fell to the floor. "Ow! Ow! What have you done? Now we'll never have those twenty adorable bambini I was planning."

"Get up," she said, laughing. "And get out of the way. I have to drain this pasta."

He jumped up. "Tell me one thing, Busy. Do you have a boyfriend? Am I wasting my time here?"

"The answer to one of those questions is no," she said, "and to the other one, yes."

For a moment his brow furrowed as he worked it out. "Impossible," he said firmly. "Anyway, one good answer is sufficient to be going on with. Aaargh!" He leapt back. "What in God's name is that?"

Hearing an unfamiliar voice in the kitchen, Pupetta had put her head through the window to see what was going on. Her head was rather large, and was topped by two massive horns, backswept like bicycle handlebars. The horns were considerably wider than the window, but she had long ago worked out how to ease one in before the other. It was this horn which had just claimed Enzo's hat. The soldier turned and regarded the beast with horror.

"That's Pupetta," Livia said, reaching across to give the buffalo's massive forehead a friendly scratch, retrieving the hat at the same time. "Haven't you seen a buffalo before?"

Enzo shook his head. "Not this close. I'm from Naples, remember? We don't have buffalo in the city." He took the hat and arranged it on Pupetta's head, where it looked almost comically small, then saluted the animal ironically.

"Then we certainly couldn't get married and have those twenty bambini you wanted. I could never leave Pupetta."

"Hmm." Enzo scratched his head. "In that case," he said to Pupetta, "you'd better be the first buffalo to come and live in Naples."

Suddenly serious, Livia said, "Anyway, we shouldn't be talking like this. You're a soldier, you're going to go off and see the world."

"Only for a little while. Then I'll come back and have bambini. And bufale, of course," he added quickly.

"What if you have to fight?"

"Oh, we never fight," he said casually. "We just march around and look fierce."

There was the sound of a clock striking, and Livia rushed over to the stove. "Now look what you've done. It's almost lunchtime, and I've stopped cooking. My father will kill me."

"You still haven't kissed me," he pointed out.

"And I'm not going to," she said, pulling saucepans out of the cupboard. "But if you like, you can come back later, and we'll have a coffee together."

He snapped his fingers with delight. "I knew it!"

"And don't get any funny ideas," she warned him, "or I really will knee you in the coglioni. I've had plenty of practice."

"Of course. What do you take me for?" He finished his drink and set the glass down by the sink. "It's excellent limoncello, by the way."

"Of course it is. Everything is good here."

"I can see that," he said. He kissed his fingertips and blew the kiss at her as he walked backward out of the door. After a moment she noticed that Pupetta was still wearing his hat.

Soon after midday Don Bernardo and her father broke off from their separate deliberations, and a great crowd of people surged across the dusty piazza toward the osteria. Within moments every place was filled, and Livia began to serve the food.

Most of the ingredients she cooked with came from the tiny farm immediately behind the restaurant. It was so small that the Pertinis could shout from one end of it to another, but the richness of the soil meant that it supported a wealth of vegetables, including tomatoes, zucchini, black cabbage, eggplant and several species that were unique to the region, including bitter friarielli and fragrant asfodelo. There was also a small black boar called Garibaldi, who despite his diminutive size impregnated his harem of four larger wives with extraordinary diligence; an ancient olive tree through which a couple of vines meandered; a chicken or two; and the Pertinis' pride and joy, Priscilla and Pupetta, the two water buffalo, who grazed on a patch of terraced pasture no bigger than a tennis court. The milk they produced was porcelain white, and after hours of work each day it produced just two or three mozzarelle, each one weighing around two pounds–but what mozzarelle: soft and faintly grassy, like the sweet steamy breath of the bufale themselves.

As well as mozzarella, the buffalo milk was crafted into various other specialities. Ciliegine were small cherry-shaped balls for salads, while bocconcini were droplet-shaped, for wrapping in slices of soft prosciutto ham. Trecce, tresses, were woven into plaits, served with Amalfi lemons and tender sprouting broccoli. Mozzarella affumicata was lightly smoked and brown in color, while scamorza was smoked over a smoldering layer of pecan shells until it was as dark and rich as a cup of strong espresso. When there was surplus milk they even made a hard cheese, ricotta salata di bufala, which was salted and slightly fruity, perfect for grating over roasted vegetables. But the cheese the Pertinis were best known for was their burrata, a tiny sack of the finest, freshest mozzarella, filled with thick buffalo cream and wrapped in asphodel leaves. People came all the way from Naples just to experience its unique taste. Sometimes they would even buy a few to take back to the city but, as Nino always told them, it was a futile exercise: By the time the asfodelo started to turn brown, which was after just a few hours, the cheese was already starting to lose its flavor.

Business was always good, not least because of the prodigious appetites of the Pertinis' neighbors. Visitors from the city might come and go, but the mainstay of the osteria's business was the villagers themselves. At noon each day every last one of them, from Don Bernardo the priest to the widow Esmeralda, the village prostitute, stopped work and strolled over to the Pertinis' vine-shaded terrace, where for two hours they ate like royalty and drank wine made from the same grapes which ripened above their heads.

It was sometimes said of the Vesuviani that, laboring as they did under the ever-present threat of annihilation, all their appetites were gargantuan–whether for wine, for food or for love. They were also much more superstitious than other Neapolitans, which was to say, extremely superstitious indeed. Every lunch began with a dual offering: a grace offered up to heaven by the priest, and a small libation of wine poured onto the earth by Ernesto, the oldest laborer in the village, a tacit recognition of the fact that here on Vesuvius the ground beneath their feet was considerably more threatening, and closer to their thoughts, than heaven. Like every other village on the volcano, Fiscino was protected by a little circle of shrines, some containing statues of the Virgin, others little effigies of San Sebastiano, who had been protecting them for as long as there had been people on the mountain. Other Neapolitans might object that he had not been doing a very good job, since there had been a catastrophic eruption as recently as 1923, but to the Vesuviani the very fact that eruptions were not more frequent was proof of his remarkable efficacy. However, they were not above hedging their bets, just in case, and many of these protective shrines also bore a little mark depicting a horn, a symbol already old when Christianity came to these parts.

From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpted from The Wedding Officer by Anthony Capella Copyright © 2007 by Anthony Capella. Excerpted by permission of Bantam Discovery, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

From the Publisher:

1. What aspects of Livia’s personality are illustrated in the novel’s opening scenes? What parts of her identity fade after Enzo leaves, and what aspects are intensified when she is on her own?
2. Discuss the different types of hunger described in The Wedding Officer. Which ones are the most powerful—the hunger for companionship, food, or sex? In what way do James’s and Livia’s appetites change throughout the novel?
3. Why did James’s superiors believe it was necessary to regulate the marriages between servicemen and their Italian girlfriends? What did the interview questions indicate about the gulf between reality and pretense during this episode in history?
4. Chapter twenty-one ends with Livia feeling furious because of James’s apparent lack of interest. What do their different approaches to courtship say about their cultures?
5. Initially, James says that he doesn’t have much authority. What power does he really have? What does his experience indicate about a person’s ability to make change, regardless of what the official limitations are?
6. Discuss the issue of language as it plays out in the novel. How does it help and hinder the characters to have limitations in their ability to communicate? In what ways is food a universal language? What did James’s “food language,” which forbade things like garlic and emphasized potatoes over pasta, say about his personality?
7. Livia highlights the sensual pleasures of food when she serves the officers snails and peas, all still in their shells. What other ways does she have of using food to seduce?
8. How familiar were you with Italy’s experience with the war, and the rise of Mussolini? What aspects of history and culture in The Wedding Officer surprised you?
9. How did the economics of war become a sort of weapon as well? Was James right to try to eliminate the black market? How does corruption become defined under these circumstances? Beyond the issue of nutrition, what does it do to a community to deprive them of their national cuisine?
10. In chapter thirty, James is exasperated to discover that Livia doesn’t measure any of her ingredients. What turning points does this scene capture? What do they eventually teach each other about intuition and rules?
11. Livia deeply resents the Allies. What does her story demonstrate about the role of liberators in a foreign land?
12. Would you have given in to Alberto’s demands if you had been in Livia’s position? Was the survival of her family always the top priority in her life?
13. Livia tells James she is adamant in her support of communism. What aspects of history are captured in this conversation? What makes communism so appealing to her? What is her understanding of its promise?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

Behind the Book (from the publisher):

Why I write about Italian food…

by Anthony Capella

The air is warm and sluggish, as thick as honey, perfumed with wild lemons, myrtle, and the scent of the rosemary bushes that surround the restaurant’s terrace, their leaves turned to pot-pourri by the sun. Above you, vine leaves provide a shady arbour for the uneven wooden tables that spill into what the locals euphemistically call the piazza, but which actually resembles a dusty car park. On one side of the square is the church, on the other this osteria, a tiny restaurant-bar, as sparse as the building opposite is baroque. Gilt belongs to God: here the sensual treasures are all on the plate, or in the view which stretches for miles over the sun-filled valley below. And while the church might be visited once a week, many villagers patronise the osteria almost every day. Come noon, farmers drive from their absurdly tiny fields on their absurdly tiny tractors; their wives collect the children from school and stroll chattering down to the piazza; the priest closes up his confessional and strides across the square; the electrician and the architect arrive together in the architect’s Fiat. Even the attractive young widow reputed to be the village prostitute pulls a shawl around her shoulders and makes her elegant way to her usual table.

To begin with there is antipasto. Sweet peppers filled with capers, olives, breadcrumbs and basil. Mozzarella, made this morning from the milk of the two buffalo which graze the tennis-court-sized pasture below the restaurant; so fresh it oozes tears of pungent whey. Curiously-shaped tomatoes the size of grapefruit from the owner’s garden; bread so full of holes it resembles Swiss cheese; a bowl of fat green olives. Wine arrives, then pasta tossed in a creamy sauce scented with lemon leaves—the same lemons, and the same leaves, that hang from the trees dotted around the terrace. For many, that is enough, but the working men and farmers also tuck into costata, veal cooked with garlic and oregano. The children eat ice creams; the priest and the electrician both order a grappa. Others finish their meal with a peach, sliced into the remains of their wine, or bolt a thimble of coffee. Then, unless you are unfortunate enough to be a schoolchild, a prostitute or a tourist, it is time to go home for a siesta… Tomorrow they will all return to the same place for a different variation on the theme: the same local ingredients, endlessly re-arranged in different combinations.

What is it about an Italian meal like this one that satisfies me so deeply? Why do I enjoy even the thought of it so much that I have set, not one but two novels in Italian kitchens? In part, of course, it may be because I have an idealised, outsider’s view of what these little communities are like, when the truth is that humanity’s vices exist in Italian villages just as much as anywhere else. But there is something else, too, something about Italian culture that speaks to a deep-seated desire in all of us to celebrate the everyday, sensual pleasures of the table.

Italians have a wonderful word, campanilismo. Literally, it means an unthinking, almost belligerent loyalty to your own bell-tower—in other words, to the patch of soil from whence you come. It is a particularly Italian phenomenon—even today, someone from Alba might identify themselves as being an Albesi first, then a Piedmontese, and only tangentially as Italian. In part, this was because Italy was still not a nation some twenty years after America became the United States (there are one or two unconquered hilltop outposts, such as tiny San Marino, which cling to their status as republics even now.) This, in turn, was a result of Italy’s topography. One of the most mountainous countries in Europe, it was for many centuries a real struggle to get from one valley to the next. Thus what became important was what was under your own feet—your family, your village, your fields. It is in many ways the opposite of the American dream, with its culture of celebrating movement, motion, empty spaces and open roads.

One of the things, therefore, that draws me to writing about Italian food is its sheer regional diversity. Take pork, for example. Of course, pigs are reared everywhere. But in the Langhirano valley, near Parma, the pigs are fed on the whey left over from making the local parmigiano-reggiano cheese, and the hams are exposed to salty breezes from the Adriatic as they cure. (Some farmers even hang them outside when the weather is mild, taking them in again at night, like washing.) The result is a meat so creamy it can be spread with a knife, which in turn becomes the basis of rich local dishes such as trippa alla parmigiana. But just sixty miles away, in the warmer valleys around Florence, pork is more likely to be served as finnocchiona sbriciolona, a salame flavoured with fennel seeds. These more rustic, rural meats are best enjoyed with pane toscano, rough Tuscan bread, and a glass of cherry-flavoured Montalcino wine—which just happen to be exactly the condiments to hand. Or, on the other side of the mountains in Le Marche, it will come as porchetta, suckling pig stuffed with juniper berries and myrtle leaves from the densely wooded hillsides.

Or take Italian wine. Not for the Italians the dull reliance on four or five standard grape varieties, from cabernet to chardonnay and back again. Italy has an astonishing 2,000 indigenous grapes, most of them only found in one tiny pocket of land. Often they are further modified by geology: the name Greco di Tufo, for example, describes not only the white grape of the village of Tufo in Campania, but the sulphuric stone from which the houses themselves are made. The stone lends its mineral flavour to the wine—you can literally taste the place in every mouthful.

In one of my favourite restaurants, Trattoria della Posta near the pretty hilltop town of Monforte D’Alba, there is nothing on the menu that would not be familiar to a local time-travelling in from a hundred years ago—yet almost nothing that you would find on a menu in nearby Venice or Milan. Peppers stuffed with rabbit, tajarin pasta with chestnuts, cardoons dipped in a hot pepper sauce, mushrooms, smoked bread, wild boar—this is food of the northern mountains, hearty and strong, most of it caught, dug or picked from the forest rather than the field.

A totally different culinary destination is to be found fifty miles south, in the valley of the Po river. Here there are no forests, but the farm reigns supreme. These people discovered the philosophy of the production line a thousand years before Henry Ford, but in a uniquely Italian way. Each village or town specialises in a different ingredient. San Giovanni in Persiceto is famous for its melons; Ferrara, a few kilometres on, for its truffles. Neighbouring Altedo is known for its asparagus, while Budrio is renowned for its potatoes. In Medicina you pass endless fields of onions, while in Bazzano the road snakes through mile after mile of cherry trees. From chestnuts to carrots, peaches to honey, there is nowhere here that has not identified and nurtured its own little pocket of excellence.

The Wedding Officer is set in Naples, in Italy’s deep south, and this is a different cuisine again. The type of cooking here was once known as cucina povera, peasant food, but it is also rich and gutsy, the volcanic soil making the flavours of vegetables and fruits particularly full. This is a countryside where asparagus grows wild, and where olive trees often support a vine and a tomato plant as well. Buffalo mozzarella comes from the only cows hardy enough to graze the salty, malaria-infested marshes that once bordered the coast, while ingredients such as tomatoes and even pasta were brought here by wave after wave of sea-borne invaders.

To write about food is always to write a fairy-tale—there is a reason why so many of our oldest stories are about magic cauldrons, poisoned apples, gingerbread castles and the like: these are the staples of life. But to write about Italian food is to write about something even more fundamental. It is a way of telling stories that tap in to our oldest human instincts: the desire to nurture, to succour, to wrest sensual pleasure from the harshest conditions; to celebrate life, in all its endless bounty and variety. “One becomes fluent in a cuisine as in a language, steeping oneself in its idioms, getting its accents right,” said the great Italian food writer Marcella Hazan. For a writer, that ancient language is an even richer medium for storytelling than words.

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
  "The Wedding Officer"by ocreader (see profile) 04/30/10

Some of us loved it, others couldn't get into it.

  "Wow! a sumptuous novel in food and romance"by mcdotreader (see profile) 04/23/10

descriptions of food are fabulous. the love story is great, too.

  "Food and love during WWII"by PattyPP (see profile) 01/15/09

Please eat a full meal before reading this book, otherwise you will feel very HUNGRY! The food in this book sounds so scrumptious, and the author make even a simple chicken broth sound so d... (read more)

  "A Light Romance"by donnadeleon (see profile) 10/19/08

Enjoyable light read.

  "Delicious blend of characters, food, and history."by swarner87 (see profile) 07/15/08

  "Great Summer read"by pennyslager (see profile) 06/28/08

War romance. has some ties to actual events. Delicious descriptions of Italian food.

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