I’m sitting in a tiny restaurant on a side street in Venice. It is late for lunch, nearly 3:30 p.m., and the restaurant is empty. The chipped brick walls curve up into the cracked white ceiling and the creamy tablecloths have little flowers printed on them. I order pasta alle vongole, or pasta with clams.
I am eight, nine, ten years old. I set the dinner table with tan placemats and my nana’s old cloth napkins, the red and green and yellow plaid ones with the fringe. My mom sets down a bowl of pasta with clams — linguine that curls together soaked in clams, garlic and Italian parsley. She’s put in extra clams just for me. I am 14, and our tan placemats are replaced with an orangey-red that I think is kind of ugly, unless we’re eating hamburgers with watermelon under a summer sky. I have two little sisters so my mom makes more pasta with more clams, enough for leftovers for tomorrow and the day after that. The bowls change, but the ingredients stay the same.
I am 19 years old, have just moved into my first apartment and am determined to cook the perfect first dinner for my roommates. I picked something simple: pasta with clams. It takes me three grocery stores to find the right ingredients. I mince the garlic into slivers, just how my mom taught me, and drizzle some olive oil in the pan to heat up. I chop the parsley up, then grab the bottle of clam juice. It is not a twist top as I had anticipated. I call my roommates in a panic and let them inspect. Our time is limited — the garlic is on the stove, and I can’t let the garlic brown, or else the dish will be ruined. This is of the utmost importance, my mom always told me. Admittedly, this is only the first step. It would be fairly simple to start over or to turn the burner off until we can open the bottle, but at this point, I’m committed. After some inspection, one of my roommates managed to open the bottle with a spoon, sending the cap shooting into the air. I suspect that very cap is still behind the refrigerator, its bent metal edges gathering dust and rusting from the breath of the greasy kitchen.
It’s at this moment that we realize we don’t have a can opener for the two cans of clams. The pasta sauce simmers on the stove as my roommates and I frantically google how to open cans sans can opener, and we resort to stabbing the cans repeatedly with a knife. Soon, we all had dish towels draped over our chests as makeshift aprons, and each of my roommates tackled a can while I cooked. They stab the cans vigorously, clam juice splattering the walls and the ceiling — hence the aprons. I almost burned the garlic bread. I realize we don’t have a pot big enough to boil the pasta in. We open one can of clams but continue to struggle with the other. What was intended to be a simple meal leaves stains on the wall that we will never quite remove. The kitchen smells like clams for months following.
Today, I am twenty-one years old. I’ve lived in Italy for three months now. Every coastal city I visit offers a different regional pasta alle vongole, and I order it every time. Alongside a Caprese salad and a glass of white wine, I deftly scrape the clams out of their shells — something I’m still getting used to, as I’d never had fresh clams before a few months ago. The shells pile up on the side of my bowl the way seashells do on the shoreline, gathering in neat little piles where they’ve been pushed to the water’s edge by the waves. I sit in Venice with its blown glass shops and streets that grow narrower with each turn, with its yellow and white buildings that stretch up towards the sky, with its green shuttered windows cracked open even in the winter. Clotheslines hang from one building to the next, tiny t-shirts and mismatched socks swaying back and forth in the gentle sea breeze. I sit in the corner of a restaurant I had to get lost to find and stare at a dish wholly familiar but also strange and new. I eat.
Molly Green is a junior from Orange County, Calif. studying Writing Seminars. Her column centers around beautiful moments and things in her life.