A light summer breeze drifted into the small store that doubled as Graziella Marchesi’s home. The smell of flour and freshly-grated cheese filled the kitchen as a radio station spit out rapid-fire Italian. To Graziella’s seven-year-old ears, only a few words made sense, but she gathered that it concerned the Vatican, the city her mother had mentioned visiting so many times.
As if called by Graziella’s thoughts, her mother waded into the kitchen, giving Graziella a chastising look as the young tyke failed at kneading the pasta dough. She switched the radio to a different station, and, as the music of Benjamino Gigli filled the small room, Graziella’s mother ordered her to fix the pasta with a quick bark of Italian while starting to fold the tortellini.
The two worked diligently, briefly interrupted by customers coming to the front of the store and purchasing bags of handmade pasta for dinner. They were greeted with bright smiles, a hearty “buona giornata,” and, in the case of Pasquale, the sixteen year old who worked as the gelato vendor, a shriek of excitement from Graziella.
The two worked until the sun set behind the cathedral. After eating pasta and mixed vegetables, just the two of them at the small kitchen table that was continuously covered in flour, Graziella ran to get her favorite book, one of only two she owned: The Adventures of Pinocchio.
The spine was frayed and many of the pages ripped, but she loved it nonetheless. She read along with her mother, sat comfortably on her small bed and feeling the warm Italian night air brush through the windows. The two stared at the stars through the window, watching them twinkle over the Modena Cathedral, reciting the words to nursery rhymes, and listening to the sounds of the city at night.
Graziella fell asleep to the light buzzing of mosquitos, the faint opera flooding in from the scratchy radio in the kitchen, and the feeling of an era about to change.
Antonina Marchesi is five when the war ends. She feels something snap in the air, watches as the town welcomes home the soldiers that are still alive and holds memorials for those who passed. The loss reverberates through the entire city of Modena, but Antonina and her mother Graziella run the shop now more than ever.
With the war over, the supply of flour and cheese flourishes again in Modena, and their tiny pasta-making store begins to thrive. They work day and night, interrupted by the faces of their city, some smiling brightly and others with that smile stolen from them, and though Antonina is young enough that she can really only bring her mother ingredients, she knows exactly what has happened when she finds her mother crying over the picture of a young man, just sixteen, and reminiscing on gelato.
In the mornings, they make dough together and Graziella quizzes Antonina on the right ingredients and their amounts. They listen to the birds chirping outside their window, sneak zuccotto for breakfast, and sing along to “Carmela” as they work.
Almost every afternoon, after the lunchtime rush and before the dinner rush, at around three p.m. when the sun beats down on the village plaza, they walk towards the Palazzo Ducale. Antonina meets her best friend, Calimero Napolitano, who is two full years older than her and always ruffles her brown hair. They play by the river and on the bridge, weaving in and out of people’s legs as they pass by.
They play hand games, sing songs, and compare eye colors. Antonina’s are like the deep earth, they decide, and Calimero’s as blue as the water they’re perched next to. When Graziella calls Antonina back to the palace, the two children partake in a complicated handshake and punch each other lightly in the shoulder before running back to their respective mothers.
After the dinner rush, Antonina and Graziella sit down for dinner before Graziella starts preparing ingredients for tomorrow. Antonina sits in front of the radio, listening to radio plays that she barely understands.
Once the sun fully sets and the stars and moon solely light up the sky, Antonina falls into her small bed and calls for her mother. Together, they read from a beaten up copy of The Adventures of Pinocchio, missing pages and sporting crayon marks. It doesn’t matter; Graziella has it all memorized.
Antonina falls asleep to the smell of flour on her mother’s hands and the feeling of her mother’s kisses on her forehead, and dreams of the end of war.
In 1989, it feels as though the world crumbles and comes together again, simultaneously.
Luisa Marchesi-Napolitano returns home after three years east of the wall in Berlin, caring for the sixty-seven year old Graziella during the tail end of the Cold War. With limited communication for the past one thousand days, she doesn’t know what to expect.
When she walks back into the small pasta shop in Modena, nearly unchanged since the 1920s, she takes a full minute to take the store in. The front counters sport a light dusting of flour, and the near-empty shelves smell never-endingly like dough. The store’s front windows are brand new, after the shop was broken into a month ago, and sparkle under the moonlight.
Cars pass by in the street behind her, and Luisa stands staring at the relic with the front door open for what feels like an eternity.
Something shifts in the kitchen, and soon enough Antonina Napolitano places herself in the door frame. Her deep earth eyes meet Luisa’s ocean blue ones, brimming with tears. Tears for a husband lost to violence, a daughter separated for years, a world beginning to recover from forty years of anxiety.
The next morning Luisa makes pasta for the first time in three years. The shop opens at nine a.m., but the two women of the house are up well before the sun rises kneading and shaping dough. Together they fit like puzzle pieces in the small kitchen, and when Luisa talks of expanding the shop and updating the equipment, Antonina sighs.
They make and sell pasta all morning, singing along to Madonna and Francesco Salvi on the radio and rejoicing with the city that the long war has ended. At three, Antonina halts in her work, wipes her hands on her apron, and pulls it over her head. She lets her hair loose from the tight bun and heads out the door after pulling on a heavy coat. Luisa, confused and interested, follows along.
They head down familiar streets, pass their favorite gelato vendor whose small shop is padlocked for the winter, and come to the Palazzo Ducale. Antonina stands on the bridge outside the palace, clutching the wrought iron with white knuckles and staring into the depths of the river.
Luisa looks in the opposite direction, toward the glittering palace and the small city of Modena. She feels a pull toward the city center, but watches the town with an affected glance, as though she has seen much better and longs to return to her idyllic past.
The city presents her with only ghosts of those who had lived before and since passed on. She can’t go anywhere without seeing them, and without feeling their suffocating presence around her. She is outside on a bridge in the city of Modena but she feels trapped in a cage.
When they return to the pasta shop, there is a group of people outside, waiting to buy the legendary homemade pasta. The two apologize for their tardiness and set to work packaging the good.
That night, after Luisa returns from dinner with friends she hadn’t seen in so long, she finds Antonina sitting in the living room, flipping through a scrapbook of pictures. Watching over her shoulder, Luisa notices that nearly all of them take place in Modena, and in the store itself.
There is a young girl holding The Adventures of Pinocchio that Luisa recognizes as her grandmother Graziella. There is one that Antonina lingers on, of two young children dancing together in the square outside Palazzo Ducale, where Luisa was not five hours ago.
There is one of Graziella and Antonina, when the latter was only five years old, sitting together in the kitchen of the shop. Luisa looks into the room now, its counters and cabinets exactly the same, and begins to map out the timeline of the store.
She continues as she tries to fall asleep, watching the frost collect on the window and seeing only ghosts.
Aurelia Marchesi-Napolitano is seven years old before she sees the streets of Modena in person. Her Italian is rudimentary, and her accent completely American. Initially, she hates it there; she’d rather be at home, playing on her computer and not feeling as though she didn’t fit in.
However, her mother Luisa drags her through the streets of Modena, exuding an air of anxiousness and excitement. They pass the Palazzo Ducale and Luisa pauses for a second on the bridge, looking once toward the city center and then toward the river. She shakes her head and drags Aurelia along again, toward a building that looks as old as the city itself.
They enter the pasta shop and Aurelia perks up; she knows exactly where she is standing. She has seen it in so many photos, heard so many stories about it, dreamed about it once or twice. Luisa walks up to the counter, ringing a small bell and looking around anxiously.
The first to emerge from the back kitchen is an old-woman with ghost white hair and veins that look like rivers running through her skin, situated in a wheelchair and smiling widely.
Luisa greets her with “Buona sera, grande nonna” and they converse lightly in Italian while Aurelia watches as another old woman, maybe in her seventies, walks out of the kitchen with a cane. She has a stern expression on her face that she directs at Aurelia’s mother, and Aurelia is ready to hide again.
The conversation between Luisa and Antonina is tense, and, understanding the clear awkwardness between mother and daughter, Graziella brings them all into the living room and pulls out a box of photos and keepsakes. She sorts through them, putting photos aside and reaching for the rattiest copy of The Adventures of Pinocchio that ever existed. She holds it out toward Aurelia, who immediately recognizes the book as it matches her very own copy back at home in their American apartment.
She pulls the book close to her chest, like a prized possession should be held, as her mother and grandmother begin to bicker in Italian. Aurelia misses most of it, but makes out that it must be about living in America.
Graziella beckons Aurelia closer, pointing out the small bedroom where she can change into her pajamas and read in peace. The youngest Marchesi slips away into the bedroom and stares at the window. She watches the stars twinkle in the sky, feeling so very far away from her house but oddly at home.
The next morning, Antonina rises early as usual and continues business in the shop. When Luisa comes in to join her, carting Aurelia along, she is surprised by the newest technology sitting on the counters. Luisa falls into line, folding and kneading dough and asking Aurelia to bring the right ingredients. Graziella joins them in the kitchen, and all four work on pasta and hum along to “Carmela” as the bright Modena sun beats in through the windows.
Right before lunch, Luisa turns to Aurelia and asks her, in English, what she would think about moving to Modena. They have a wonderful school, and great food, she says, and there will be plenty of friends to make. Aurelia’s seven-year-old mind can think of no reason that she would be unhappy in Modena, and she nods her head yes and relaxes into the kitchen counter, feeling comforted by the building.
Luisa just smiles, and fetches her camera from her bag. She herds the group together, setting the camera on the tripod and telling everyone to smile. From left to right, all four generations of Marchesis yell “formaggio” as the vintage-looking pseudo-Polaroid emits a bright light. Luisa hurries to grab the photo as it prints, and after showing it to a very excited Aurelia, places it snug into the box of photos, on top of shots of Graziella hugging Pasquale, Antonina and Graziella making pasta, Antonina and Calimero dancing in the street, and Luisa and Antonina reading Pinocchio.
Luisa steps back, staring at the photos and sinking into the feeling of the little pasta shop that meant everything to her, and whispered, “Perfetto.”
Bonus Epilogue: Generation Five
Graziella passes away not long after Luisa and Aurelia move to Modena. Nearly eighteen years later, Antonina passes as well. Just the day before, the fifth generation of Marchesi-Napolitano is born in the small hospital outside of Modena. Aurelia fondly names her Graziella Antonina Marchesi-Napolitano, and laughs at how much of a mouthful the name is, but the memories of her great-grandmother and grandmother are sweet nevertheless. Together with her mother Luisa and her dear husband Serafino, they return home from Antonina’s funeral.
Aurelia pulls her child close to her, standing in the center of the kitchen of the pasta shop in Modena, the center of her very universe, and, looking down into her child’s deep earth eyes, she whispers, “Perfetto.”