No one ever told me that you could fall in love over a plate of cheesy fries. Italian love stories are supposed to start with a bottle of Chianti and a midnight kiss over the Ponte Vecchio, or after a windswept afternoon riding on the back of a Vespa through the hills of Tuscany. But then I moved to Italy and discovered, in fact, that Italians like their fair share of fried things–potatoes, polenta, frog legs… you name it, they’ll fry it. It’s probably why I fit in so well here (I am American, after all).
Anyway, I met Francesco in typical study abroad fashion–late one night at a bar, after indulging in one too many bottles of red wine. As a newly arrived student, I had spent the day wandering the city with my roommates, chattering excitedly about the incredible summer we were about to embark on and trying to navigate the tiny back streets of Santa Croce without getting lost. By late evening, we had polished off a few bottles of vino and were now bar-hopping along Via dei Benci, looking for a good time and some good men.
The first bar we stopped at was packed with a mix of Americans and Italians (or so I thought–looking back, they were most likely Albanians & Romanians come to prey on unsuspecting Americanini like me), with people singing along to the Karaoke machine, drunk dancing next to the DJ booth, or watching the latest soccer game in the restaurant next door. After pushing our way through the crowded bar, my friends and I grabbed the nearest table and sat down, ordering a big greasy plate of cheesy fries and a few beers from the friendly guy standing behind the bar.
Doodling a mustache on my finger to pass the time until I could inhale my way into fast-food heaven, I looked up to see the same tall, dark-haired waiter watching our table. Holding up my mustachioed finger to my lip, I gave him a nod and he laughed, walking over to our table with the biggest plate of cheesy French fries I have ever seen. Now, obviously this was the best way to get in my good books, because let’s be honest–I’ve never met a potato I didn’t like. Never. I’m pretty sure I was Irish in a previous life–either that or Ronald McDonald himself. Anyways, french fries are kind of like crack cocaine to me. One taste and I just can’t stop until there’s none left and I’m searching the table for more crack….i mean, fries.
While my memory of that first night is slightly impaired due to copious amounts of alcohol, I do remember introducing myself at some point to our waiter in between bites of huge gobs of cheese. His name was Francesco, a half British, half Italian guy whose father had previously owned the bar we were in. He stood and chatted with us for a little while before leaving us to our mountain of fries. For his own safety, I’d bet, because we were attacking that plate like our lives depended on it.
After hoovering up the entire plate of fries, my friends and I downed our drinks, paid & left to continue our pub crawl. By the next bar, my aching feet and empty wallet were begging me to call it a night, so I corralled my two roommates on the dance floor and we began the long walk back to our apartment. Just as we reached the corner to our street, I heard an unfamiliar voice call out in our direction, and turned to see Francesco and a few of his friends walking up behind us. “Hey,” he said, a big grin spreading across his face. “Are you stalking me already?”
I glared at him for a minute, trying to remember exactly who this weirdo with an English accent was. “You wish,” I blurted out, only just before realizing that this god of a man had just served me the most delicious meal of my drunk life. “HEY WAIT!” I yelled. “You’re the french fry guy! That shit was sooo gooood,” I said, while his friends behind him laughed at my description of him.
Francesco smiled with a slightly embarrased look on his face. “Yeah I guess that’s me,” he replied. “Listen, my friends and I were just going up the road to grab one last drink. Do you want to come?”
I glanced at my friends, who nodded excitedly as he grabbed my hand and began striding up the road, weaving around throngs of people gathered on the sidewalks and smoking outside bars. We ducked into a packed club, squeezing our way to the bar amidst the masses of people dancing along to the pounding house music. Ordering two beers, he passed me a bottle and I took a sip, grateful for the cool liquid quenching my dry mouth. He looked down at me and with a straight face, bowed and held out his hand to me. I laughed and placed my hand in his, and he pulled me onto the dance floor and into his arms.
After 5 years in Florence, Francesco and I have weathered many of the ups and downs that come along with navigating a multi-cultural and cross-continental romance. From living in his family’s apartment to figuring out how to Skype across 9 hour time zone differences, today our relationship is as strong as those bonds of sticky processed cheese that brought us together in the first place. What’s next for us? Only time will tell. But if falling in love in Italy has taught me anything, it’s that cheesy fries are always, always a good idea.