The Godfather, The Sopranos, The Green Book – all great shows that portray life in an Italian family. For the most part, they were spot on. Italians have a distinct way of life that’s almost impossible to mistaken for any other nationality. If you’ve truly lived it, like I did in South Philly, or spent time in the homes of your Italian friends, you’ll might recognize some of the following food and family ‘traditions’.
Whether our home or my grandparents’, no one understood the concept of ‘being full’. Basically we ate when we were hungry and, because there was enough food to feed an army, we were forced to continue eating. If you stopped and pushed back from the table, the guilt remark was made – “Remember there are starving children…” in whatever country they chose at that time. So we ate. I believe there is no Italian translation for the word ‘calorie’.
Every Sunday after church my Mom and me made 2 stops – the corner grocery store to pick up cold cuts, ordered in specific amounts like a third of a lb. minus 2 slices of mild Genoa salami – sliced thin. The second stop was the bakery where the scent of freshly baked cinnamon buns with nuts, raisins and gooey caramel added 5 lbs. to your hips without touching your mouth. Besides the cinnamon buns, a dozen fresh, warm Italian rolls were always on the list. White, wheat, rye or whatever bread was sold in the supermarket never compared. My Mom always carried a small container of butter and a butter knife so we could indulge in a buttered fresh, warm roll on the bus-ride home.
Sunday dinners were spent with family at my grandmother’s. Dinners consisted of pasta, meatballs, sausage, roasted chicken, vegetables, salad and, of course, three or four desserts. There was so much food, you were full until the middle of the following week. Best of all, everyone went home with enough leftovers to last until the next Sunday dinner.
Back yard lawns – no bigger than the depth and width of two cemetery plots were the pride of every man in the neighborhood. They were the captains of their lawns in charge of raising tomatoes, zucchini, green beans, basil, parsley, broccoli rabe and watermelons. Competition started at the first planting and ended when the last vine died. The winner? Every neighbor who shared in the abundance of crops all season long.
As for family…you probably haven’t met all of your cousins. And the cousins you have met are your 1st, 2nd and, 3rd maybe even a 4th. Of these most were named Tony, Joe, Frankie, Rose and Maria. Conversations went something like – “So I was talking to cousin Frankie. No the other Frankie. Not tall Frankie. Short Frankie. You know the one with the one blue eye.”
If you were single, your relatives were always asking when were you going to meet a ‘nice Italian boy or girl?’ Even if you were married to someone who wasn’t Italian, they always asked when were you going to meet a ‘nice Italian boy or girl.’ Ma don!
Finally, the two most consistent and recognizable Italian traits – our volume dial had only loud and louder settings – no low. As for our hands, they had a mind of their own.
Growing up Italian – more a blessing than a curse!