Tying the Knot in Italy: What’s an Italian Wedding Like?

It seems Americans have lately developed a love affair with Italian weddings. I have a number of American acquaintances (and I’ve heard of a number of others) who have added an Italian wedding as the centerpiece to a trip to Italy.

These nuptial events can range from the weddings of Italian friends of friends, to weddings of suddenly found long lost relatives, to weddings stumbled into while dazed from heatstroke under the Tuscan sun.

Whatever the connection, the Italian wedding is the thing, the hot holiday happening, another best excuse for visiting this inexhaustibly enchanting land.

The attraction is understandable. You’ve seen, of course, the international broadcasts of royal weddings: all the pomp and display and crowds. And lots of food. Well, even the most parochial of Italian weddings has something of the flavor of a royal event. With at least double the food – good food. You’ve heard, perhaps, how long it takes to get an Italian divorce: three years. It can take even longer to get an Italian wedding. I have a friend who was engaged for ten years. Okay, her case tends towards the extreme. But it’s no exaggeration to say that when the wedding of the youngest daughter of the third cousin of your grand uncle’s brother-in-law finally arrives at the altar, you better be there!

Sure, weddings are weddings all over the world, but what’s all this fuss about Italian weddings? It’s not just the rigorous adherence to traditions that hail from feudal times. A number of American weddings I’ve been to have attempted some semblance of these rules: precise placement of the relatives at the ceremony, timing of the entrance of the bride, which part of whose family makes what arrangements, when and where to dress in what. And rules governing every detail of the wedding rings. And rules about the flowers. And rules about all the documents required to prove you’re who you are – which in Italy requires anywhere from five to thirteen separate pieces of paperwork depending on how serious you are about this whole thing. And then there’s the two week wait while these documents are made public outside the local town hall in what’s called <em>La Dichiarazione Pubblica del’Intenzione dei Futuri Sposi di Contrarre il Matrimonio</em> or to put it in as little English as possible: The Public Declaration of the Intention of the Future Spouses to Contract Matrimony.

Now, don’t YOU feel like Prince Charles!

As you can see, this is no Las Vegas affair. For those two weeks, all your enemies and the friends of your enemies have a great chance to figure out some way to destroy your nuptial raptures. They go to the town square, they read your Declaration, they go to the bar, there’s lots of talk, there’s lots of wine, they all go read your Declaration again, they go home, there’s more wine. And there’s still another thirteen days to go!

So what’s all this fuss about Italian weddings? It’s not the fact that you can get married here in a medieval castle or a Greek theatre. On a gondola in Venice. The Ponte Vecchio in Florence. A tram in Milan. Even the Italian state railway has arrived with their own wedding special – a four carriage train for 170 guests dubbed the Arlecchino. (You better just hope there’s no train strike that day.)

But look: there’s plenty of places in America to choose from for your special day. Heck, you’ve got the Grand Canyon. What’s so special about a bunch of crumbling old piles of Italian stone in comparison to the Grand Canyon?

So what’s all this fuss? Well, let me ask you this:

Fine. So you’ve flown in all your guests to the Grand Canyon. Everything’s ready, it’s dawn, the sun rises, everybody oohs and ahs, the vows are vowed, the solemn is solemnified, and then lots of clapping, kissing, hugging and so forth and so on.

But so NOW what do you do?

You better find a really good burrito stand – especially if there are any Italians present.

Because for an Italian wedding to be a success, you need to put the bulk of your energy – we’re talking at least 95% – not into the choice of dress or place you get married but into where all your 450 relatives are going to eat. Because – and I say this in all seriousness – you can get truly ostracized for dishing up less than satisfactory grub at your wedding gala.

Believe me, they won’t feel sorry if later you get a divorce after you’ve served them a measly three courses and a tiramisu.

You better have a few different antipasti, at least three or four first courses, the same number of second courses, countless side dishes, fruit, cheese, coffee, a big huge cake, and a new bottle of wine every fifteen minutes or so. The whole thing should take around six hours to consume from first bite to last belch. And it better be real good. Maybe it’s okay to fudge a little on the antipasti. Your guests will survive if the anchovy paste comes out of a tube or the prosciutto is only second-grade (although keep in mind that second-grade prosciutto here means triple-A, top quality import in the U.S.) There’ll be a little pause while they count the number of morsels the waiter has set upon their dishes; there’ll be a few shrugs as they look at their neighbors’ plates, a few glances that mean “Okay, so this is what we get, we can get by with this for now. It’s just the antipasti, after all.”

Because the big moment is when the first pasta dish arrives. Your chef had better have stirred a good portion of his or her own soul into that sauce, and the noodles had better be fresh and of an excellent color and with just the right bite. It had better be better, or at least as good, as what nonna dishes up everyday at home. If not, you’re in for it. The grumbling will start. Your worst aunt will say loudly to her neighbor “Cesino, you want my tagliatelle?” Cesino will shrug a clear refusal. People will be trying to identify the problem with the ragu. Conversations will build, and everybody will have their input.

You can count the celebratory part of your celebration as over. It’s all a dismal downhill slide from there, with another five hours of descent yet to go.

On the other hand, if you serve them well, if you give them what they came for and a little more, then in the end your guests will all say, “It was a GOOOOD wedding.” They’ll go home, the neighbors will ask, “So, how was the wedding?” And they’ll say, “It was a GOOOOD wedding.” The neighbor will knowingly nod, “Oh, good food, eh?” And your guests will say, “You betcha – it was GOOOOD food.” And maybe later, after a deep and lengthy discussion detailing just how good the food was, they’ll make a mention of the bride’s dress or the big castle or the sea of fancy flowers.

But first things first:

“How was the wedding?”

“It was a GOOOOD wedding.”

So, clearly then, it’s the food that distinguishes an Italian wedding from any other wedding . . . .

Well, okay, so I’m being a little disingenuous here. It’s not just the food but the combination of all the elements: the traditions, the place, the color and the ceremony, and all the things I haven’t mentioned like the little baskets of candy* that the newlyweds hand each guest at the end and the envelopes containing money in bills of large denomination that the newlyweds receive in exchange (there are typically no other “wedding gifts”). It’s all these things that come together in one great, fun festivity which everybody you know and their family comes to, where all 450 of your relatives regather as they have at least 450 times before to celebrate the joining of families so that now you have 900 relatives in all, where a whole town turns out to watch you descend the steps of the church, a big crowd that does the same thing a couple dozen times a year as another local couple ties the knot.

It’s this that makes an Italian wedding so special – this community of people with their ties to the past and their hopes for the future.

And their love of really GOOOOD food.

*The baskets, which come in all sorts of fanciful shapes, are called bomboniere, and the candies inside — five white, sugar-coated almonds — are called confetti.