The first thought in Nino Germano's mind when he woke up yesterday was not the homemade pasta or savory sauces he would cook up in his Little Italy restaurant. It was soccer.
"First thing I did, I put on my lucky jersey," Germano said, flaunting the blue shirt that he's worn for all of Italy's World Cup soccer matches. "I'm not washing it until it's over."
Native Italians and soccer fanatics crowded around the TV in Germano's La Scala restaurant to bite their nails, jump out of their chairs and thump each other on the back as the Italian team trounced Ukraine and advanced to the World Cup semifinals.
"It's a matter of life or death!" said Guido DeFranco, who left his restaurant, Caesar's Den, to watch the game with Germano and other friends. "It's like the Super Bowl, but it only happens every four years."
"We can't go to Highlandtown," Germano said. "All those Ukrainians are going to kill us."
"They're in the Ukrainian church praying right now," DeFranco said.
A few blocks away at Velleggia's restaurant, friends Germano Fabani, a native Italian, and Heinz Georg, a native German, watched the game together, in the same seats where they saw Germany take on Argentina earlier in the day.
"I held his hand then, and he's going to hold my hand now," Fabani said.
Georg said that his wife had called from Germany earlier to make sure that he had taken his blood pressure medicine after watching his country beat Argentina in overtime.
As the friends realized that their home countries would face each other in the semifinals, a rivalry deepened between them.
Fabani launched into rhapsodies after Andrea Pirlo scored a goal. "The way he touches the ball is like a Michelangelo painting," he said, tracing a curve in the air with his hand.
"Maybe he should leave soccer and take up art," cracked Georg.
Eating pizza at a nearby table were Bruno and Noel Tarquinii, who toted their two young daughters from Germantown to Velleggia's to watch the game among Italians.
Noel explained that she developed two new passions while stationed in Italy with the Navy: her husband, a native Italian, and soccer.
"I hated it in high school, but like everything Italian, it just grows on you," Noel Tarquinii said, sporting a blue and white Italia jersey and red, white and green soccer shoes.
"I told my family, `Don't call me because I'm watching the game,'" Tarquinii said, explaining that her family doesn't understand her obsession with the game.
After the Italians scored their first goal, Bruno Tarquinni was already making plans for Tuesday's semifinal game against Germany. "We can't go out and watch the fireworks," he said to his wife. "We got to stay home and watch the game."
At La Scala, after a round of back-slapping and excited exclamations in Italian about the Azzurri, the blue team, the crowds' thoughts were also on Tuesday's game, which will coincide with Fourth of July celebrations.
"Salute! Forza Italia!" - "To your health and to the Italian force!"--the men at La Scala yelled, knocking together glasses of Campari and throwing back the bittersweet liquor.
Then they gripped each others' hands, planted quick kisses on both cheeks, dashed out the door and back to work.
"See you on the Fourth of July!" DeFranco called to Germano.