Growing Up Italian - My Experiences And Observations
Now - I wasn't born in Italy but both my parents were and my siblings and I were raised in what I consider an Italian Household. We all spoke Italian when we were younger (lost it as we got older) and still understand most (well - some) of it now. I don't think that growing up in an Italian home is much different that growing up in any other (bascially).
This story starts many years before my birth (I am now 41), in a small (and I do mean small) Italian village called Cantalupo. This is where both my parents were born and raised prior to their arrival in the United States. They lived in the same village but didn't know each other. My father did know my uncles (mom's brothers) but she went unnoticed. It might have had to do with their age difference. Eight years doesn't mean much now but what teenager wants to hang out with a child? So, never did their paths cross in Italy. They immigrated to the United States, years apart from each other, settled in different states, yet ended up in the same town in New York and hooked up. I like to consider this "Fate". They've been married 42 years this month. Rock on Mom & Dad!
They started on their family pretty quickly. Still don't know if I was the "planned" honeymoon baby or a "surprise". Personally, I like to think that I was a surprise. I was very eager to see the world outside, so I decided to make my appearance a tad early (almost 2 months). Had I known what lay ahead of me, I might have waited a little while longer. I really don't think that would have made a difference anyway. I am who I am.
There is an annual meteor shower that takes place each year on the day of my birth. I like to think of it as a sign from above. An omen? Good or bad? Opinions are split ;-)
Within three years, I had two other siblings. My brother came 18 months after me and then my sister arrived 15 months after that. I still don't know how she did it. Props to Mom! None of us made it easy on her; I came early (she didn't even know she was in labor), my brother was born on Valentine's Day in a blizzard (car got stuck on the way to hospital) and my sister was a breech birth (came out feet first).
Here are some observations I have made over the years (for humorous purposes only), based on experiences I've had in my youth - the good, the bad (not really) and the ugly. Enjoy!
As a girl in an Italian home, it is mandatory that you learn to make your first tomato sauce while still in grade school. I knew how to make sauce (among other things) by the age of 10. I looked just like my Nonna (grandmother), standing in front of the stove, on a stool (my nonna was only 4 feet 9 inches), wearing an apron and stirring a big pot of sauce with a wooden spoon. That was the beginning of my love/hate relationship with cooking. Did not appreciate the lessons learned then but I am very grateful now. I'm not a good baker (hate it). Aside from that, give me any recipe and there isn't anything I can't make. I'm a damn good cook and proud of it. Thanks Mom!
You too can teach your young daughter how to make a sauce - even if you're not Italian.
The Italian Garden
Any Italian worth a lick of salt has a vegetable garden. There we grow all our fresh herbs (parsley, basil, oregano, etc.), vegetables (eggplant, zucchini, peppers, string beans, cucumbers, etc. and don't forget the tomatoes). You will also find grape vines (many Italians love to make their own homemade wine) and of course, the fig tree. You gotta have a fig tree! We even transplanted ours from one home to another - 40 years and still goin strong.
Why Not Grow Your Own?
Elderly Italian Men
For some odd reason, elderly Italian men never wear sneakers, only shoes. I have no idea why and it's frustrated me to this day. Even my dad is like that. I bought him a pair of kick ass, expensive sneakers for Christmas one year and he never wore them. He ended up giving them to someone else. I've tried to form a hypothesis over the years but I am still stumped. They almost always wear button down shirts with those wife beater t-shirts underneath. In the summer, it's just the t-shirts (either v neck or wife beater). Some will even wear a cute little cap to complete their ensemble.
After any good meal you will usually find them fast asleep on the couch, possibly wearing a sweater (who needs heat? if you're cold, just add an extra layer) and snoring loudly. Feel free to talk above the snoring without fear of waking him. Italians are loud people and he will just sleep through the yapping.
Elserly Italian Women
You've seen or heard about the typical stereotype - gray/white hair in a bun, black dress with black stocking and shoes, clutching a rosary in their hand. Well, this is exactly what I saw growing up. Both my grandmothers lived in Corona, NY (when it was mostly Italian) and they looked just like this. Their friends did too. They lived two blocks from each other and when I went to visit them, I always thought that they were related to the other women they hung out. Why? Because they all looked and dressed the same. "Was this going to happen to me when I get old? Will I have to dress like this and go to church all the time?" I'd often wondered. Ahhh - foolish child I was.
They are very religious and their homes are filled to the brim with images of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary (more so than even the church). Every shelf, bookcase, wall, table, desk, armoire, and cabinet has some religious icon on it or in it. My grandmother had about 5 or so rosary beads hanging from each doorknob in her home. They attend church on an insanely regular basis. Some even go every day. They know each and every priest/pastor. Every member of the church knows them or knows of them. Though they are devout Catholics, you had better not piss them off or make them really mad, as they can put one mean curse on you. Watch out for that evil eye! They can also remove curses as well. My Aunt removes curses from people all the time. It works - I've seen it with my own two eyes. She's also known to carry around Holy Water with her wherever she goes. Hey, it never hurts to be prepared.
The Italian Home
Every Italian home I had been in during my youth had a finished basement, equipped with a working kitchen (table, oven, refrigerator and all) and some type of recreation area with a television and couch or chairs. This is where you entertain family and spend most of your time. Kids were NEVER allowed to play upstairs. "Upstairs" was for sleeping. Only the really good friends got to hang out upstairs. It's usually an "adult" only thing and the kids are never around.
The rest of the home ("upstairs" as I always called it) was just like any other - almost. There was a kitchen, dining room, living room, and several bedrooms. However, most of the furniture is covered in plastic. You know - the kind that's freezing to the touch in the winter and then will stick to your skin in the summer. Serves no other purpose than keeping the furniture looking clean and new. And believe me, it was clean and kept that way! Also, somewhere in the home, either in the kitchen, living room or dining room hangs a painting of the "Last Supper".
I don't know if it's because they did without it when they were young and just got used to it, but Italians do not believe in turning up the heat in the winter or air conditioner in the summer. If it's cold - put on a sweater (and don't sit on the plastic covered furniture). If it's hot (and you're already in shorts and a tank top), get something cold to drink, or don't move around so much, maybe turn on the fan (and don't sit on the plastic covered furniture). My kids are always asking me why their grandparents are wearing their heavy sweaters in doors while sitting on the couch. And before you go thinking, "Hey, times are tough now, we're in a depression" you need to know that this has been going on for years and years. It's not a recent thing. I've seen it all over.
The Wooden Spoon
A staple in any Italian household. Must have more than one on hand at any given time. Not just used in cooking. It is a form of discipline as well. Now don't get me wrong - it's not like my parents beat us with the thing (although, my nonna did chase us around the house with that thing in her hand sometimes). All it really took was one good swat on the butt (maybe more than one sometimes). I'll bet that my mom went through about 50 of them. Although "multi-purpose", they're not very sturdy and can break easily. Stopped being useful as a disciplinary method when we all became teenagers. We no longer feared the dreaded "wooden spoon".
Pasta And MORE Pasta
What Italian doesn't love pasta? Well - I don't. Now before you start telling me I'm not a real Italian, hear me out.
Does anyone remember that commercial: "Wednesday is Prince Spaghetti Day"? Well, it wasn't just a cute commercial. It was true! Twice a week (Wednesday and Sunday), for at least 30 years, I was made to eat some kind of pasta. I've had it every which way you can think of. There isn't any kind of vegetable or bean that I haven't had mixed with some kind of pasta (penne, rigatoni, linguini, etc.). I can't take it anymore! My husband can't understand how he married an Italian woman that doesn't cook Italian food. I'll cook any other type of food (Chinese, Mexican, Thai, etc.) but sorry dude, on the unlikely chance that I am craving Italian food, I'll order out. My mother doesn't even invite me over for dinner on the days she makes pasta and I appreciate that! However, she does invite my kids over for dinner (we only live 2 blocks away and my daughter loves pasta) and I appreciate that even more!
Yes, Italians are loud talkers. And we talk with our hands as well. The accents and broken English don't help either. Any time a significant other would come to a family dinner for the first time, they always left wondering if we were either deaf or nuts. Always the same questions: Are your parents hard of hearing? Are you guys using sign language? Why are you all shouting at each other? My husband's family was always quiet and composed at dinnertime. He was quite taken aback at his first meal with us. We all speak at the same time, over each other, while using our hands to make our various points. My children are always asking me why I am yelling. I explain to them that I'm only talking loud and that when I decide to yell - they'll know the difference.
Mangia - Eat, Eat!!!
There's no way of avoiding it. If you come, they will feed you! Italians are known for feeding people. They are always prepared for any visitor that might show up unexpectedly. Within 15 minutes of entering the home, some type of food and/or beverage will be placed in front of you. Whether it be assorted nuts, wine, cheeses, olives, beer or fruit - you will never leave hungry. Even if you're not hungry - you will eat. They won't jam it down your throat or anything like that but they will keep offering you something until you cave in and accept.
Finally, you will not be allowed to leave the home until you've at least had some coffee. It's usually espresso and may be served with either Anisette or Sambuca (added to the coffee). No sugar, no milk, very strong. Served along with that may be either Italian pastries/cookies or those good old Stella D'Oro cookies (a staple in any Italian household).
You know those little things that remind you of your childhood and automatically bring you back to a certain place in time when you see, hear or smell them?
Well - these are the ones that do it for me...
Shake N Bake
Let's play a word association game. You say beach and I say Shake 'n Bake? I know - you're probably thinking, "What the hell is she talking about?" I probably should have said sand or ocean but when I hear the word "beach" I automatically associate it with "Shake 'n Bake". You know - It's that flavored coating that is used on chicken (and sometimes pork).
Here's why: My siblings and I always knew when we were going to the beach the next day because that night, on the kitchen counter, would be a large package of chicken legs and a box of Shake 'n Bake. We'd see that and be like - "Wooo Hoo! We're goin to the beach tomorrow". For some odd reason, it was always a must to take along shake 'n bake chicken legs, that and a whole bunch of other food. Till this day, when any one of us sees a box of Shake 'n Bake, we think of the beach and start reminiscing about those good old days. And those days were good.
We'd all get up really early, dress in our bathing suits (all of us) pack the car up with chairs, blankets, food, and toys and head out to the beach. We'd be there by 9am and stay all day. We'd bury my Dad in the sand, play with other kids, splash Mom when she was in the water, look for shells, wade out real far when the tide was out, eat, drink and just be merry. At about 4pm or so, it would be time to leave. It would take us about an hour to get home (traffic on the LIE on a Sunday is killer - even now!) and all the kids (including me) would be asleep by the time we got there.
I haven't had it in years. I don't really know why but every time I see it on the shelf in the supermarket, a smile comes to my face and I think of the beach. My husband always notices (he knows the whole story) and smiles at me. No - he's not thinking of the beach too - he's thinking, "My wife is weird, but I love her anyway."
Please tell me you have heard of a game called Pokeno. Just in case you're not as old as I am or just haven't heard of it, it's a game played with special cards, called Pokeno Game Boards, and chips, called Pokeno Chips. They say that it offers the thrill of Poker and the suspense of Keno.
Now, what do I associate this game with you ask - New Year's Eve! As a child, on New Year's Eve, my siblings and I would be allowed to stay up late to watch Dick Clark (that man is timeless) and the ball drop (not that we'd actually make it to midnight). After dinner, after the dishes had been cleared, we'd all sit down and play Pokeno. We rarely played they game the rest of the year but it always came out every New Year's Eve.
As we got older (and older) we graduated to playing Poker. I think we should have kept playing Pokeno. I've lost way too much money over the years. I haven't played it in over 25 years. I think I just might go pick up the game and start a new tradition with my kids.
The Deli Counter at The Supermarket
Now, you're gonna think I have issues, but really, I've sort of gotten over it. That's only because I'm older, louder, stand up for myself and don't take crap from anyone (anymore). Yet, I wasn't always like that.
Starting at the age of six, while food shopping with my mother, it was my responsibility to get the cold cuts at the deli counter while she did the rest of her shopping. I wasn't a tall child. I was actually quite petite. I wasn't a loud child. I was timid and shy. Now - what I'm about to tell you didn't happen just once, but on a somewhat regular basis.
Here I am, a tiny, timid 6 year old, waiting on line at a deli counter that I can't even see over, with a numbered ticket in my hand (Mom got it before she walked off and left me there - Gee - some residual resentment) waiting to be called. Let's just say that my number is 36. I'd hear the man behind the counter call my number. I'd raise my arm, jump up and down, waive the ticket around and say, "Here! Here!" Then I'd hear him say my number again. I would repeat the process, this time jumping a little higher and speaking a little louder. Not one person waiting there would even point out my existence to the deli man. They just stood there looking at me! Then, I would hear him shout "Number 37". At this point, my eyes are now filled with tears as I go to find my mother, ticket still clutched in my hand.
This is the best part, I find my mother, explain what happened (I'm still crying). She now drags me back to the deli counter. She takes the ticket out of my hand, walks right up to the counter, waives the ticket around and with a heavy Italian accent starts shouting at the men behind the counter (she didn't know which one it was so they all suffered her wrath), "Hey, didn't any of you see my daughter standing here? You went right past her number? Don't you people look around? She was trying to get your attention!" Everyone would stare at her, then me, then at the men behind the counter. One man would apologize, grab the ticket from her, then would ask if he could help her.
The icing on the cake: She would then look at me, tell me to order the cold cuts and walk away to resume her shopping. The deli man would look at me while I tried to pronounce the name of the Italian cold cuts I wanted to order. Sometimes he would understand what I was trying to say. Other times - not so much. Eventually (not soon enough for me) my mother would take on the task of going to the deli counter.
"What about now?" you ask. NO - I do not go to the deli counter when I am in the supermarket! I make my husband go! Believe me - if I went now, they would definitely hear me and not pass me over. That was then and this is now. But, just walking past it while shopping causes me to have flashbacks.
What is "American Bread" you ask? Well - to most people it would be called regular sliced white bread (like Wonder Bread) but I had only known it as "American Bread". I don't know if it was the same in other Italian households, but I thought this deserved mention.
In my house there were only two kinds of bread - Italian or American. Italian could be that long loaf (with sesame seeds or without) or that round bread that's hard and crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. Had to be fresh baked. American Bread was only used for our school lunches and to put in the toaster. That was it.
I remember the first time I told my husband to pick up some "American Bread". He looked at me and asked, "What the hell is American Bread?" I explained to him what it was and then had to endure 15 minutes of laughter and jokes about how weird my family was before he finally went to the store (still laughing). After 14 years of marriage, it's still makes him laugh and YES, I still call it American Bread.
Are there any others out there that call it "American Bread" or is it just my family that's weird?
Deal Me In
Italian Card Games
In our house, when we were young, family game night never really included a board game. When we wanted to play a game, out came the deck of cards. No we weren't playing Go Fish, Old Maid or even Poker. We played either Briscola or Scopa and these were played with an Italian deck of cards. I would love to describe how the games are played but it's too complicated for me (at least) to put into words so I have included links below for you to reference.
We would play in teams of 2 with one of us sitting out that round. I was always paired with my Dad when it was my turn. We made a great team (and we still do). We still take out the deck and play a game or two when we're all together. My kids haven't quite gotten the hang of it yet my niece and nephew are getting pretty damn good.
Briscola is a trick taking game - that is, the objective of the game is to take cards which gives you (or your team) a high score. ...
In addition to the points mentioned above, you also win a point for each sweep ( Italian scopa). You score a sweep when you play a card which captures the ...
LOL - Someone sent me this joke and I couldn't resist putting it up. Don't ever underestimate an Italian :-)
An Italian workman wants a job, but the foreman won't hire him until he
passes a little math test. "Here's your first question," the foreman
"Without using numbers, represent the number 9."
"Withouta numbers?" the Italian says, "Datsa easy." and he proceeds to
draw three trees.
"What's this?" the boss asks.
"Ave you gotta no brain? Tree and tree and tree makes a nine," says the
"Fair enough," says the boss. "Here's your second question. Use the same
rules, but this time the number is 99."
The Italian stares into space for a while, then picks up the picture
that he has just drawn and makes a smudge on each tree .. "Ere you go."
The boss scratches his head and says, "How on earth do you get that to
"Eacha of DA trees is a dirty now. So, it's dirty tree, and dirty tree,
and dirty tree. Datsa a 99."
The boss is getting worried that he's going to actually have to hire
this Italian, so he says, "All right, last question. Same rules again, but
represent the number 100."
The Italian stares into space some more, then he picks up the picture
again and makes a little mark at the base of each tree and says, "Ere you
The boss looks at the attempt. "You must be nuts if you think that
represents a hundred!"
(You're going to love this one!!!)
The Italian leans forward and points to the marks at the base of each
tree and says, "A little doga come along and shita by eacha tree. So now
yougota dirty tree and a turd, dirty tree and a turd, and dirty tree and a
turd,data makea one hundred. So, whenna I start?
This is my take on the things I've seen while growing up in an Italian household. That was a generation ago (remember, I'm 42 now).
Hey - Paisan (It's a word that's used with Italians or Italian Americans when informally, but friendly, addressing one another), drop me a comment and share some of your experiences and observations.