My parents set me up with unrealistic expectations of romance.
Don’t get me wrong, Vincent and Angela Festino are wonderful genitori. I miei filled my childhood with hugs, Nutella and Totò Cutugno sing-a-longs in the car. My parents’ love for me knows no limits, and their love for each other is truly the stuff Lifetime holiday movies are made of.
Their soul-mating began with an unexpected meeting at a bus depot, was almost crushed by a plot twist you never saw coming, and journeyed across the Atlantic Ocean to Italia and back again, before finally reaching its happy ending in Boston.
It’s a beautiful, true love story that I promise to share soon.
In the meantime, you just have to take my word for it: my parents’ saga has left me somewhat ill-prepared for the realities of the dating world. While their whirlwind romance not only leaves you feeling warm and gooey inside—come un cornetto con cioccolato—it unfortunately also establishes completely skewed ideas about fate, kindred spirits and l’amore.
It was early on a Sunday morning two years ago that I was telling a recent tale of woe and heartbreak to my mother. She was making gravy and the comforting smell of onions and olive oil filled the house.
“Non ti preoccupare, Daniela. You are trying too hard. When you least expect it, your special star will come. That’s what happened with me and your dad. Be patient — there are plenty of fish in the sea.”
“But I only catch guppies! And besides, I don’t even like seafood!”
My mother chuckled quietly. “It doesn’t sound like you had much in common with this guy anyway. When was the last time you dated an Italian man?”
“I honestly don’t remember. Do you think I should try?”
“I don’t know–can’t hurt. It might be fun. And at the very least, you can tell him about your plan to sneak Simmenthal back into the US.”
She had a point.
After a month-long sabbatical, I took my mom’s advice and got back into the online dating scene. Whenever I told people this news in person, they almost all said “Good for you!” as if I was on a new diet, learning sign language, or finally watching Parks and Recreation.
It turns out that online dating is a sort of litmus test these days. If you are single, and you are not managing your personal brand — “winking” at folks and setting up coffee dates — well then, you just don’t want it bad enough. And by “it”, I mean “love”. Or something.
In any case, I decided that I wanted what my parents have and was willing to broadcast it online in order to get it.
So I was back in the game and going to meet Antonio* for dinner. Unfortunately, I wasn’t having the best day.
Upon waking up that morning, I realized too late I was out of coffee. Un-caffeinated and out of sorts, I smeared deodorant on my shirt (but didn’t find out until I was already on the bus). Of course, I forgot my umbrella and got caught in an afternoon spring shower, thus causing my hair to transform from glossy and bouncy to frizzy and sad. By the time I walked into the Liberty Hotel to meet my date that evening, I was convinced he was going to turn out to be a serial killer.
I was the first to arrive, so I sat at a table and tried not to fidget. I’m pretty sure the waiter noticed I was nervous. And I’m pretty sure I noticed the waiter was cute.
After 30 minutes of fidgeting, compulsively checking my phone, and flirting with the waiter, Antonio walked into the restaurant. Well, a heavier, balder, older version of the Antonio I was expecting walked into the restaurant, leading me to the conclusion that the pictures I had seen online were from 1998.
My date did not exactly apologize for being late, but rather explained that as an attorney he was often getting stuck at work and this tardiness was an authentic “Antonio experience” and I should “get used to it” if we were going to be together. My jaw hit the ground and I had no words. All I could do was cock my head and stare — unintentionally imitating a cabbage.
After a few awkward moments, Antonio suggested we order drinks. I managed to shake myself out of my stupor and look at the cocktail menu in time for him to ask, “What are you going to get, shorty?”
“Ahhh… I’m going to get a glass of the pinot grigio. How about you?”
“Well, I like sweet drinks. And this drink here,” he motioned to a listing on the menu, “says it has amaro in it. I’m pretty sure that amaro means ‘love’ in Italian… so I’m guessing this drink is sweet, just like me.” He winked; I suppressed a shudder.
“Actually, I think amaro means bitter. You might want to try something else.” I tried to say this as amiably as possible, but I’m certain a bit of surly crept into my voice.
“No, Danielle, it means ‘love’,” his tone was clipped and left no room for argument, “and that is what I’m going to get to mark our first date. Case closed.”
We went on to make small talk and eventually our drinks came. Antonio sent his back while I suppressed a chuckle. I was counting the minutes until I could make a respectable exit, cab it home, change into sweatpants, and curl up with my book. Little did I know that my boredom was about to be punched in the face by a plot twist. Our entrees were served, and things were about to get very interesting.
Antonio cut into his steak, took a bite, chomped for few seconds and then stopped suddenly—mid nosh—without swallowing.
Using his forefinger and thumb, he reached into his mouth and removed the piece of chewed meat. He carefully brought it up to his eyes to examine. He then shrugged and gingerly placed the wad of beef down on his small bread plate off to the side. Without saying a word, he picked up his knife and resumed cutting.
Is this happening? I looked at the meat, and then panned back to Antonio’s face. And then slowly back again to the bread plate.
“Is there something…wrong…with the rib-eye, Antonio?”
“Oh no, it is just a little veiny, you know?”
Frankly, I didn’t know, but I nodded anyway. Maybe he was raised in an orphanage? Or by wolves? Or by hamsters? Must be hamsters…they store chewed food in their cheeks, right?
While I imagined an animated Disney scene where cute, anthropomorphized woodland animals sang to a young Antonio about the importance of rationing, we ate in silence. Well, to be clear: I ate, while Antonio practiced some odd form of hamster bulimia. I watched with eyes wide as my date took four more bites, and consequentially removed FOUR MORE chunks of chewed steak from him mouth, and then moved them to his bread plate. I stared at his plate of masticated meat, and realized I had to say something.
I put my fork down, crossed my fingers and cleared my throat, indicating that I meant business.
“Antonio, clearly there is something wrong with your steak. Let’s call the waiter, we need to send that back.”
He looked at me like I was overreacting. He shook his head, “No, no… I told you already… there is nothing wrong with the steak, it is just a little veiny.”
“By veiny, do you mean fatty?”
“No. By veiny I mean veiny.”
“By veiny, do you mean marbleized?”
“No, Danielle, I mean veiny,” he said through clenched teeth, “I just couldn’t swallow those pieces. Doesn’t this happen to you all the time?”
I leaned in. “No, this does NOT happen to me all the time. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I spit out food like that.”
“Point of clarification, Ms. Festino, I did not SPIT it out. I politely used my fingers. And furthermore, I don’t believe you–there must have been a time you couldn’t chew your meat. What would you do in my place?”
“IF I really and truly couldn’t swallow the steak, I would discreetly use my napkin to remove the food from my mouth. Or, or…I would excuse myself to the ladies room. The very last thing I would do is remove it with my fingers and display the gnawed meat for my company! I wouldn’t do that in front of my dog. I wouldn’t even do it I were alone!”
I was getting worked up. And so was he.
Our eyes were locked. We were in a total faceoff — high noon, John Wayne style. I thought I saw some tumbleweed blow by, but it was just the cute waiter.
“You think it’s so easy, Danielle? Well I double-dog-dare you to eat the rest of this meat without spitting out a single bite.”
I stabbed his remaining rib-eye with my fork and brought it to my plate without hesitation. Now, I’ll admit that out of stubbornness I would have swallowed that meat even if it tasted like feet. Lucky for me, there was not one thing wrong with the steak. It was a delicious cut–juicy and flavorful–and cooked to medium-rare perfection. It was the easiest double-dog victory in the history of dares. I made slow work of salting, cutting and chewing the meat. I put on quite a show; smiling, savoring, licking my lips. I finished the meat, flashed a demented, Cheshire Cat grin, and threw up some spirit fingers for good measure. I almost said, “ta-dah”, but thought better of it and bit my tongue.
Antonio didn’t say much during my show, which was fine by me. While paying the bill, however, he asked me if I would like to go out again. Without hesitation, I said no. It took me a few moments to realize that he looked sincerely surprised and hurt.
“But… we have so much in common, and I feel like we have real chemistry.”
“Point of Clarification, Counselor, the only thing we have in common is that our last names end in vowels. Furthermore, I have more chemistry with the waiter.”
In the cab ride home, I replayed the evening over in my mind from start to finish. Not only had I just lost two hours of my life to a man raised by hamsters, but I had a horrible stomach-ache from eating both his meal and mine. It seemed like a lot of effort, and I was starting to think that, as always, my mother was right. Not about dating Italian guys per se; while a shared culture can often provide a strong foundation for a relationship, having Italian roots doesn’t automatically make you bachelor of the year.
Rather, perhaps my mom was right that when you least expect it, you’ll find love. Maybe I was trying too hard. Maybe if I spent less time looking for romance, and focused instead on filling my day with what makes me happy, I would find myself surrounded by love.
As soon as I got home, I deactivated my online dating account and made a new to-do list that included: mastering my mom’s Bolognese recipe, spending more time with my friends and family, learning how to change a tire, catching up on old episodes of “Ti Lascio una Canzone,” and of course, making sure that I always have time to stop and savor the meat in front of me—every last mouthwatering bite.
*Names have been changed to protect those raised by hamsters.