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Muslims' Slice of Italy's Life

He's Egyptian, she's Tunisian and their kids are Roman. The family pizzeria comes before religious rites, but tradition still has a pull.

October 28, 2005|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ROME — With the precision of a master chef, Magdy el Shahidy quickly sprinkles mushrooms and mozzarella on thin dough and slides the pizza into a stainless steel oven.

Customers, so many the line spills out into the street, inch their way toward the counter, where Shahidy's eldest son is filling the orders. With a flick of the wrist, a swipe of the knife, 25-year-old Sobhi cuts the hot pizza into squares under a plaque quoting the Koran. Prosciutto. Zucchini. Rossa ("red," for tomato sauce).

"Ciao, Magdy!" "Ciao, bella!" Everyone seems to know everyone on this quiet street in working-class Rome.

Egyptian-born Shahidy and his Tunisian-born wife, Sabrina, have owned and operated Pizzeria Le Rondini for more than a decade, the product of their 30 years in Italy, the adopted country where they met, married and had three children.

For them, the immigrant experience means no going back.

They have made assimilation such a priority that they speak Italian even among themselves (the parents with accents, the children without), only occasionally lapsing into a kind of Italarab, their version of Spanglish.

"We met here, we married here, our children were born here and schooled here. Everything is here," says Sabrina, whose name is actually Heddi -- Sabrina is easier for Italians to pronounce.

They identify themselves as Muslims, but rarely go to the mosque. Practicing their faith, they say, is made difficult by the demands of work and school on a West European timetable. It is Ramadan, for example, and Magdy and Sabrina say they are fasting during the holy month, but Sobhi is not, and 16-year-old daughter Manel tries but doesn't always make it.

And they can't have a proper iftar, the evening breaking of the fast, as it would mean interrupting the operation of the pizzeria.

Still, the family feels the tugs of tradition.

None of the children, no matter how old, will be allowed to move out of the parental home until they are married, Magdy says, following customs more typical of the Middle East than of Western Europe.

And Magdy wants his children to find good Muslim spouses, which is to say, produce good Muslim grandchildren. This is especially true for Manel, the only female child. He sends her back to Egypt for summer-long vacations every year, and she speaks the best Arabic among the children.

It is difficult to say how far the pretty girl with a dimpled smile and black curls cascading around her face will break from old-world tradition. She appears to be close to her parents, and spends a lot of her free time at home or at the pizzeria. Yet she also lives in her Italian world. She takes theater at school and dresses like all European girls her age, with low-rise jeans and black spandex tops.

Would she ever use a head scarf or veil? "No way!" she says (an opinion shared, not coincidentally, by her mother). She respects her parents but doesn't hesitate to challenge them in dinner-table conversation.

Her father came to Italy in 1976, when he was 21, to escape military service in Egypt. In those days, Italy was the easiest place in Western Europe for which to get a visa. Sabrina came from Tunisia a year later to join an uncle, with the idea of staying only briefly to earn a little money. The two met at the home of mutual friends (another Egyptian-Tunisian couple) and within months decided to marry.

At first, Magdy washed dishes in a restaurant. He hated it, and would have quit and returned to Egypt if not for a sudden turn of luck: The cook walked off the job one day, and the boss put Magdy in his place. "I didn't even speak Italian," he says. "I had to look up [recipes] in books."

He worked hard, honed his skills and now makes what he calls a damn good pizza. Sabrina worked with him in the restaurant; by 1992 they felt confident enough to open their own place.

"I wanted to have my own business but didn't want to make it too big and risk too much," Magdy says.

"We work a lot," Sabrina says. "Too much."

The Shahidys live in a comfortable house on the eastern outskirts of Rome, a tree-lined patch of suburbia where Magdy can see the stars at night from the rooftop terrace. The living room is decorated with miniature sculptures of Queen Nefertiti, Sphinx-like cats and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. There are Koranic verses on some walls, a poster of A.C. Milan, Italy's top soccer team, on a door to one of the kids' bedrooms.

In her room, Manel has dozens of framed photographs of her many Italian friends, as well as cousins from Tunisia and Egypt, lined up on her dresser. A lot of the friends are striking goofy poses. One of the cousins is covered.

Sobhi, tall and thin with close-cropped hair, has a huge graffiti tag spelling his name on an entire wall of his room. The other son, Ashraf, 21, with the hulking build of the rugby player he is, has decorated his room with dozens of baseball caps.

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