The bride looks beautiful as she enters the church basement for her wedding reception. The nonnas, decked out in blue silk desses and wearing feathery hats,  follow the wedding party into the hall. They stand on the side watching the bride and groom dance their  first dance as Mr. and Mrs. to a 78 recording of Frank Sinatra singing “Always.”

Next, it is the turn of the father of the bride to lead his daughter onto the floor and foxtrot to “Star Dust” blaring from a scratchy Artie Shaw recording.

As the granddaughter’s dance ends,  the nonnas wipe their eyes, sobbing (not as much, though, as they would at a funeral for a brother-in-law).

And the dance? It signals the end of the romantic portion of the reception and the beginning of the frantic.

The nonnas  are  first in line;  the other guests follow them; they all head in the same direction–to a table in the front of the room. The table overflows with waxed-paper-wrapped sandwiches, plates of celery, olives, olive salad, cheese, gallon bottles of red wine, pitchers of beer, bottles and bottles of cream, grape, lemon-lime, and orange local soda, towering pyramids of cream puffs, and cellophane-covered trays of cookies. In the center of the table stands a three-tier wedding cake. Atop the cake stand a mini-bride and a mini-groom under a  canopy of a wire heart covered with artificial flowers. Surrounding the base of the cake are tulle-wrapped bunches of Jordan almonds.

As those in front make their way to the table, they hear an occasional shout from a guest at the end of the line: “Toss me a salami.” A  nonna  in the front carefully examines a sandwich or two until one turns up filled with salami, and tosses the sandwich to the guest who requested it– a traditional  food-distribution system at a football wedding.

As the reception progresses, the nonnas dance with their toddler grandchildren hanging onto their necks. Then the moment arrives when someone slips a version of  a tarantella on the turntable. Now, after a lively discussion of whether this is the Neapolitan, the  Calabrese, or the Abruzzese version, each nonna shows her stuff. Linking arms, hands around waists, or waving napkins over their heads, they dance.

Those brave enough –and there are many–disengage from the group and begin to dance in the center of the circle that has formed around them. All the guests clap and stamp their feet in time to the music. The circle is broken when the bride and groom join in the center and all the nonnas make way for them. The  dance ends, and as the revelers are about to leave the dance floor, they hear a song.

The crowd remains assembled on the dance floor as a nonna at one of the tables, her voice as loud as that of a feast singer, shouts out  “Oh Mama.”  The  song  describes a woman’s dastardly fate if she marries a baker or a musician or a butcher or anyone else the audience can name. Her voice triumphs over all the whistling, the clapping,  and the suggestions for verses – the most bawdy in Italian, the most family-friendly in English.

In a calm-down moment, the bride and groom cut the cake. The nonnas and the rest approach the table to take a piece and to pick up a small bouquet of  Jordan almonds, kiss the happy couple, and slip a cash-filled envelope into the bride’s lace-trimmed satin purse.

When they finish eating their cake, and cream puffs, and cookies, the nonnas  return to the celebration table. There, they carefully remove many-times folded shopping bags from their own purses. Quietly, very quietly, each goes about stashing leftover sandwiches, cookies, and candy into her shopping bag.

When they step outside the hall,  each nonna examines the shopping bags of the others. “I’ll  give you two salami sandwiches for one prosciutto,” one says.  “But only if you give me a few cookies.” And the trading begins.

Olive salad

Serves six

  • 1 pound mixed pitted, cracked olives, including Sicilian, nicoise, kalamata, and oil cured
  • 2 stalks celery, diced
  • 2 scallions  or green onions, diced
  • 1 carrot peeled and shredded
  • 1 red bell pepper, diced
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • sea salt, coarsely ground black pepper, and red pepper flakes to taste
  1. Combine all ingredients.
  2. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

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