When Gail Reitano and her partner, Nick Bogle, want Italian food, they descend on San Francisco’s North Beach. Closer to home, which is in Bolinas, their favorite restaurants are Marin Joe’s and San Anselmo’s Insalata.
If Reitano could have her favorite Italian dish, she’d have the vongole pasta in a white sauce, with fresh clams, that her father made long ago, and that she still remembers as though it were yesterday.
Pasta, polenta and risotto aficionados can enjoy a taste of authentic Italian food and culture and the Italian language in Reitano’s new novel, Italian Love Cake (Bordighera Press; $20), which features feisty Marie Genovese, who has two wild and crazy brothers and a lover trapped in a marriage with a woman he doesn’t love.
With the title Italian Love Cake, don’t be surprised to find that the novel is a confection which has just enough tartness to counterbalance the sweetness. Marie learns that there’s a world of difference between being alone and being lonely, and that there’s a lot to be said for solitude and dialoguing with one’s own thoughts.
Set in the same New Jersey territory that Philip Roth carves out in many of his novels, including The Plot Against America, Reitano’s narrative takes place in the late 1930s, when some Italians supported the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.
Italian Love Cake is published by Bordighera Press, which is based in New York and offers a “refereed book series dedicated to the culture of Italians and Italian Americans.”
Reitano’s heroine, Marie Genovese, makes delicious pastries that her friends, who are Jewish, WASPY and Italian, are ready to die for. Page after page, the characters feel, look and sound authentic. That’s not surprising, since the author conducted research before she wrote the novel, her first. She also drew on the memories of her 92-year-old mother who has “a mind like a steel trap,” Reitano says.
Marie Genovese goes to the local movie theater to watch Bette Davis on the silver screen. At home, she listens to Stella Dallas and Orson Welles’s now-legendary spoof, War of the Worlds, about a Martian invasion of the earth, on the radio.
Reitano’s territory is much closer to what The New Yorker’s famed cartoonist, James Thurber, called “the battle of the sexes” than it is to extraterrestrials. Marie Genovese tangles with her belligerent brothers and teaches her lover, Joseph Ashworth, that he can’t force her to do anything she doesn’t want to do—like have an abortion.
Italian Love Cake moves deftly from the last days of the Depression, through FDR’s fireside chats, to the brink of World War II. Words and phrases like “tryst,” “gee haws” and “ice box” help provide an authentic sense of a time and place when kids went to the local soda fountain to hang, and when cooks used a mortar and pestle to grind fresh herbs.
It doesn’t matter that there was probably never a woman as liberated as Marie Genovese in New Jersey in the late 1930s. What does matter is that Marie comes alive as an indelible character who could comfortably share screen time with Bette Davis, or stake out a leading role as a sexy, savvy working class gal in a screwball comedy directed by Frank Capra or Howard Hawks.
Italian Love Cake sends kisses to couples, lonely hearts and families that break apart and come together at the dinner table for soup, salad and sweets.
Jonah Raskin is the author of the forthcoming novel “Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.”