I have no idea why I thought this was a good idea: watching England's first game at Dusal's, an Italian restaurant run by a bunch of guys from Naples.
Perhaps I hoped that the Napolitano distrust of northern Italian prejudice—and by extension, "Italy" as a concept—might make them sympathetic to a Brit 3,000 miles from home. Didn't Maradona ask Napolitanos to back Argentina in their 1990 World Cup semi-final against Italy? And how did that work out for him?
From behind his pizza counter, Giovanni Nilli shouts "Man Chest Hair!" as I arrive. He barely looks up because he is on the phone with a customer—he's almost always on the phone with a customer—but he never misses a chance to shout a warm greeting, in a broad Napolitano accent, to this Man-Chest-Hair United fan. And so it is tonight, even before this crucial England-Italy game. Notably—and worryingly for someone hoping for sympathy—a large Italian flag has been draped across the front of the counter.
Dusal's is set back from busy Route 27 in a bland stretch of central New Jersey called Kendall Park. The building—a block of squat concrete, in taupe—is searingly unattractive, making it the kind of place you drive past for a year. Which is what I did, until noticing the parking lot was always packed, I decided to give the place a go. What I found was that despite its looks, Dusal's serves spectacular pizza. The secret is the San Marzano tomato base, made miraculous by the addition of an unspecified amount of Bontá tomatoes, plus a secret basil-oregano-salt-pepper-water combo.
Nilli, the proud owner of this concoction, came to the States when he was 14, spoke no English, and worked in Dusal's basement cleaning pots. His Italian home, Monte di Procida—a pretty town clinging to the edge of the Phlegraean peninsula, 30 kilometers southwest of Naples—was a difficult, distant memory. Nilli and his cousin, Antonio Assante, who accompanied Nilli to New Jersey, lived for Sunday mornings and Serie A games on a balky TV in the back of the kitchens. (Antonio, for reasons unknown still, is an A.C. Milan fan. When pressed on this at the start of the England-Italy game, he giggles and suddenly finds a pizza that needs to be cut into slices.) Nilli had grown up watching Maradona play for Napoli, and lives for Gli Azzurri. Aside from that weekly soccer game on TV, though, for the cousins from Monte di Procida, life was "work, work, work."
This June night, as England toil in the sweaty heat of Manaus and Italy's Andrea Pirlo wanders about like a man with something else on his mind besides football, the cousins work, work, work still. The phone never stops ringing, so much so that when Balotelli has a good chance in the first half, they don't even notice. The cousins pause only to scream when Marchisio buries his shot from 25-yards—Antonio brandishes his pizza paddle in joy, pushing it back and forth like he's keeping at bay an angry crowd. Two minutes later, I beg Antonio to pass me the paddle, and I mimic him in celebration after a notably slick Sterling-Rooney-Sturridge goal. Just before half-time, Balotelli chips Joe Hart, and as Phil Jagielka clears off the line, Giovanni, in frustration, notices that his apron isn't straight, unties it, makes it perfectly perpendicular to his shoes, re-ties it, and goes about his work once again. The phone rings, and he says, "'allo-Dusal's-pick-up-or-delivery?" as though it's all one word.
At halftime, wine is produced and we toast each other. I have brought Bass Ale, hoping that I can make them drink it to celebrate an England victory, but the beer will remain unopened, of course. I chat to Antonio, praising his pizza, and he says only, "It's dirty work." Antonio looks sad, briefly, but then his work continues, as will the game, and soon he is smiling broadly once again.
As the match resumes, customers come out from the restaurant proper to ask the cousins who's winning. I tell them that these guys are not even Italian, and Giovanni agrees, saying he's actually Chinese. Nilli's a natural: a warm person, a comic, a man who has spent his life serving sustenance to strangers, an immigrant with no English who moved from pots and pans and missing home to here: running a thriving Italian restaurant more than 3,000 miles from Monte di Procida.
Well before his elevation to owner, though, Giovanni Nilli returned to Italy in his early twenties for a visit, and the brief trip home coincided with a letter from the Italian government. He spent one compulsory year in the army, serving as a bartender, perfecting cappuccinos; he also happened to meet a beautiful 18-year-old girl. Once back in the States, Nilli called the girl, Theresa, every day. Her father wasn't happy. The young man and the young woman didn't see each other—not at all—for five full years. In Nilli's words, though, "I never looked at another woman! No go-go clubs, nothing!" Eventually, Giovanni went back to Monte di Procida, married Theresa, and she moved with him to live in New Jersey.
Now, Giovanni and Theresa have two young boys and he says she's as beautiful as the day he met her. He has a thriving restaurant business, too, so much so that when the phone rings at the 50-minute mark of the game, Nilli is secure enough to say, "Please 'old," so that he can run about his little kitchen picking up Antonio and screaming and putting Antonio down again and punching the air and screaming and one more time picking up Antonio: Balotelli has scored to put Italy up 2-1. For all his love of Napoli and the Italian south—he thinks nothing of flying to Naples to see a game, just for the weekend, and is scathing about some northern Italian soccer fans' views of Naples and the south—he is an Italy fan. (Maradona was never forgiven for asking Napolitanos to cheer for Argentina, by the way.)
Back in Monte di Procida on those visits, Nilli sees his mother and his father, but never his father-in-law—there had been no forgiveness for taking away Theresa. Here in New Jersey, on a warm July night in 2014, Italy see out the victory, as we all knew they would. Giovanni Nilli and Antonio Assante forgive me for supporting England, make me a pizza to go, and Nilli shouts "Buona sera, Man Chest Hair!" as behind him, the phone to Dusal's rings on and on and on and on and on.