July 28, 2003 12:00 PM

Italians have a word for it: affiatati—the unspoken affection between two people in love. A couple of weeks ago at the Caffé Trieste in Ovada, Italy, there was lots of affiatati American-style, as Mr. and Mrs. Danny Moder of Venice, Calif., lazed away a Saturday afternoon with a group of friends. “Always she kissed him and he kissed her,” says Fausto Parodi, whose family owns the 96-year-old cafe. “They looked like a couple in love.”

Fausto must not be reading the tabloids. In the year since Mrs. Moder—a.k.a. Julia Roberts—wed cameraman Danny in a midnight ceremony at her ranch in Taos, N.Mex., the state of their union has kept the rumor mill working overtime: She stormed out! She’s jealous! She’s pregnant! They’re on the verge of breaking up! (Only in Julia’s world does the traditional first-anniversary gift, paper, arrive in tabloid form.) Throughout, the Moders have issued denials or simply kept silent. “They know the truth, so most of the time it doesn’t affect them,” says a source close to the couple. The truth? “They are a very happy, peaceful and private couple.” Adds Moder’s father, Michael: “They’re doing fine.”

That doesn’t mean the marriage has been problem-free. A source close to Moder confirms there has been tension between Roberts and Moder’s family stemming from Danny’s divorce from Vera Steimberg, to whom he was still married when he began dating Roberts. Yet there are signs of a thaw. In March Roberts and Moder joined his family for a reunion in Las Vegas, and in June they celebrated Father’s Day together. Says a source close to the family: “I think things may be on the mend between Julia and the Moders.”

Fans, meanwhile, should be forgiven for wondering where their movie star went. In the year since she declared, “I was born to be the wife of this man,” Mrs. Moder (her offscreen name of choice) has practically sent Glamorous Julia into hiding. The 2001 Best Actress winner’s sole glitzy appearance this year, at the Oscars in March, sparked yet more rumors when she turned up sans Danny. Otherwise Roberts has been AWOL from awards shows, fancy public parties and generally all that glitters. “She has her movie-star life and her everyday life,” says an acquaintance. “With Danny, her realness comes through. Danny’s given her peace with herself.”

The Moders have been missing from the red carpet, but they’ve rarely been apart, shuttling among their homes in Venice, Calif., Taos and New York City, accompanied by Louie, the black Lab Danny gave Julia for her 35th birthday last year. This month they took an extended trip to Italy, where they attended a friend’s wedding in Ovada, spent a few nights near Florence and hit the pool at designer Giorgio Armani’s luxury villa on the remote isle of Pantelleria (see box). In Ovada, the pair bunked at the Villa Schella, where they occupied a simple $90-per-night room decorated with pink roses. “Italian countryside living is the good life!” Moder wrote in the inn’s guest book. “Thank you for your hospitality and spirit. It will be remembered and makes us look forward to returning. All the best, peace & ciao. Danny and Julia.”

For Roberts, who famously endured a number of passionate romances that later fizzled, the relationship with Moder is a welcome bedrock. “He complements her,” says the Roberts acquaintance. “She is a fun, easygoing gal, and he is that kind of guy. He’s in love with her, but he’s his own person.” Or, as Roberts told Diane Sawyer last year, “He is a man among men, and he stands by the choices that he’s made.”

In September and January the two joined forces in Wellesley, Mass., and New York City while filming Mona Lisa Smile, a drama starring Roberts as a free-spirited teacher at Wellesley College in the early 1950s. Moder worked as a cameraman. At one point “she gave him a quick kiss on the lips,” says Jennifer Clark, an extra on the film. “He was up high on the camera stand, so she stood on her tiptoes to reach him.”

Off duty the couple indulged in some karaoke fun—but not before Roberts was carded as she tried to enter the Shipwreck Lounge, a hotel bar in Falmouth, Mass., with Moder and several pals. “My wife is 35,” Moder told innkeeper Sandra DiGiovanni, who promptly recognized her and escorted the group inside. After a round of Jack Daniel’s and ginger ale, the Moders sang “Wild Thing.” “She stood behind her husband at first,” says DiGiovanni. “Then they were hugging.” Before leaving at 1:15 a.m., Roberts approached DiGiovanni’s husband, Jerry, with Moder in tow. “She was very attentive to her husband and very proud,” recalls Jerry. “Every time she introduced him, she said, ‘This is my husband, Danny.’ ”

The pair are equally lovey-dovey around Roberts’s 82-acre ranch in Taos. This spring they turned up at Cid’s, a local grocer, laughing and looking “totally cool and relaxed,” says a source. Other favorite Taos haunts include Abe’s, a cantina where Roberts drops by for “a breakfast burrito, cigarettes, and to say hello,” says a waitress, and the Taos Pilates Studio.

The living is low-key in Venice, too, where Roberts and Moder share a three-bedroom home one mile from the beach. Dining with another couple earlier this year at Primitivo, a trendy local tapas bar, the Moders “were hugging and kissing all the time,” says waitress Rosie Tos. Locals dismiss reports that Roberts and Moder annoyed residents with their ongoing construction work. “They’re very nice people,” says a neighbor. “There’s no anger here.” Adds a Moder pal: “They’re bohemians. It’s an eclectic neighborhood, and no one will bug them.”

But if these days the newlyweds’ life is all lightness and joy, well, it hasn’t always been that way. When Roberts met Moder on the set of The Mexican in 2000, he was three years into a marriage with makeup artist Steimberg, 30; Roberts, meanwhile, was in the midst of a nearly four-year relationship with actor Benjamin Bratt and had two major splits behind her: a broken engagement from Kiefer Sutherland in 1991 and a two-year marriage to Lyle Lovett that ended in 1995. The following year, Moder comforted Roberts during her breakup with Bratt, and in October of 2001 Moder filed for divorce. “Their marriage had problems before Julia,” says a Moder family friend.

Yet the friend says that an incident in which Roberts was photographed in a cryptic T-shirt reading “A Low Vera” bothered Danny’s dad, film producer Michael Moder (Beverly Hills Cop, Crimson Tide). “Mike is a principled guy, and he likes Vera,” says the friend. Steimberg remains “friendly” with the Moder family, including Michael, 67, says the pal. (Moder’s mom, Patti, died in 2001.) Roberts, meanwhile, has struck up a friendship with Moder’s sister Jane, even visiting Jane’s daughter Olivia’s second-grade classroom last year and chatting with the students.

Roberts also has been devoting a great deal of time to her production company, whose name she changed from Shoelace to Red Om (“Moder” backward). The company is producing Mona Lisa Smile, which is set for release Dec. 19 and is Roberts’s first major leading role since she won the Best Actress Oscar for Erin Brockovich in ’01. Since then she has appeared in supporting roles in one big hit (’01’s ensemble Ocean’s Eleven), one minor hit (’01’s The Mexican) and two art-house duds (Full Frontal and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, both in 2002). But her career is still going strong: Recently the trailer for Mona Lisa Smile has been generating good buzz, and Roberts continues to reign as Hollywood’s premiere leading lady, commanding up to $20 million per film and sometimes receiving as many as 20 scripts in one day. In April she caused shock waves in the industry when she jumped from ICM, the talent agency that has represented her for 10 years, to rival CAA. “If anyone has a script with a big woman’s part, she gets it first,” says L.A. Times entertainment columnist Patrick Goldstein. “When you compare her [choices] to those of Bruce Willis or Eddie Murphy, she’s done a good job.” Of her recent screen hiatus, says an industry source, “look at her career. She has always taken time off. She has never subscribed to the belief that more is more. Maybe that’s why she has lasted so long.”

Friends say it’s the easygoing side of Roberts’s personality7 that has blossomed since she married Moder. During the Mona Lisa shoot in Wellesley, Roberts bunked with her husband and the rest of the crew at the nearby Westin hotel, rather than the tonier Four Seasons. “Her husband was a part of the crew, so she didn’t want to be treated any differently,” says Robin Dawson, head of the Massachusetts Film Bureau.

Not that she doesn’t get the VIP treatment from Moder. For her 35th birthday in October, Moder told his wife they had tickets for the Broadway production of Chicago. But when the pair first popped into a party held at the Player’s Club, near Roberts’s New York City duplex, a crowd of 100 pals—including James Gandolfini and Bruce Willis—were waiting to shout “Surprise!” “Julia was so grateful,” says April Newton, manager of the jazz quintet Noel Friedline, a Roberts fave that Moder had lined up for the fete. “You could tell Danny adored her.”

Roberts and Moder hope to start a family “in due course,” she said last year. “It’ll be great.” Meanwhile, they have dealt with the speculation on that front like the rest of the tidal wave of newsprint: no comment. Friends call the rumor machine unfair. “It’s not easy being in love with everyone watching,” says an acquaintance. “She’s got a real marriage. They are happy together.”

Michelle Tauber

Elizabeth McNeil and Joanne Fowler in New York City, Lorenzo Benet in L.A., Alexis Chiu in Venice, Anne Driscoll in Wellesley, Tom Collins in Taos and Kelly Carter in Ovada and Pantelleria

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