h1

The Italian in Me

October 2, 2016

Though many are likely not aware of it, October is National Italian American Heritage Month. No doubt quite a few jokes have been made at the expense of this commemorative designation, but in spite of many widespread negative images and stereotypes of Italian Americans, there is much to be proud of.

Almost 6% of the population of our country, some 15.7 million people, are of Italian heritage. Though most of the original immigrants started their journey in the United States low on the totem pole, the successive generations have made their mark in virtually every area of endeavor. Best known, of course, are those who achieved prominence in music, film, and sports (and yes, unfortunately, crime), names familiar to all: Frank Sinatra, Robert De Niro, Joe DiMaggio, Al Capone. However, others, though perhaps not household names, have excelled in politics, jurisprudence, the sciences, and the arts.

But most have not achieved fame. They are policemen, firemen, mechanics, nurses, teachers, and office workers, the ordinary people in all walks of life, each bringing some degree of their Italian background to their American lives. I believe the American culture has been enriched by their contributions as well.

My Italian-American mom Ida.

My Italian American mom Ida.

I happen to be half Italian, that half coming from my mother. She was named Aida after the opera, though everyone knew her as Ida. Her family was 100% Italian. During my entire childhood, we would make weekly Sunday visits to the Brooklyn home of Sal and Mary Laporte, my grandparents, where I learned about my Italian heritage. Most of what I know about the food, language, and customs came from that small second-floor railroad apartment on Bay Ridge Avenue.

My mother had not only married a non-Italian, but someone from New Jersey, for heaven’s sake. I suppose these Sunday family visits were a necessary part of the deal for my father, not that he minded once he sat down at my grandma’s dinner table. That alone was worth the drive.

My grandpa would “reserve” a parking space right out in front of the building by placing his beat-up garbage cans in the street and then standing guard on his stoop so no interloper could sneak in. When we’d pull up, he’d greet us, cigar jutting out from his big smile showing his single front tooth. Grandma would be upstairs cooking, and as we were ushered up the steps, she’d come down the hall to deliver her smothering hugs with her apron on and a wooden spoon in her hand.

My cousin Bobby (taken in by my grandma as a boy after his mother died) would pop in from his daily duty of hanging around the neighborhood and sometimes pull me aside into his tiny room to show me some teenage treasure of his (a switch blade, a Cadillac hubcap he’d “found”) or tell some story of his latest adventures. A few years older than me and a whole lot more street smart, I learned most of the curse words I knew from these sessions. Soon my Uncle Mike and Aunt Josie who lived downstairs would come up with cousins Mike and Gerry.

the backyard at Bay Ridge Ave.-- Bobby and grandpa (with ever-present stogie)

the backyard at Bay Ridge Ave. with a young Bobby and grandpa (with ever-present stogie)

Of course the reason for the trip was to see family, but the main event was the food. As my grandmother, mother, and Aunt Josie finished up in the kitchen, we would all congregate in the dining room in eager anticipation.

The eating would begin around noon and continue on and off until coffee and desert time around seven. In between, plentiful courses were served in the warmth of the old-fashioned dining room, foods that resonated with the sound of Italy: braciole, prosciutto, provolone, pasta e fagioli, rigatoni. These courses would be separated by adult conversation and kids going off to play or nap to return again for the next round.

First came the antipasto, a table full of all kinds of delectable finger foods, cheeses and olives and crusty bread. Then the part I loved best, the pasta with steam rising off the huge platter along with extra gravy bowls full of red, rich, aromatic tomato sauce. My taste expectations for pasta were set here, seldom to be met elsewhere until I got married; my mother-in-law’s gravy turned out to be almost an exact match! Then there would be meat dishes accompanied by vegetables and followed by salad. Grandpa presided over the whole operation, wine bottle by his side. These meals were legendary, and we would all stuff ourselves to the point of near exploding amidst the loud and animated conversations liberally peppered with Italian curses swirling about the table and the unmistakable feel of family bonds.

As the day drew to a close, coats were retrieved and goodbyes were said, and we headed back through the dusk to my other world on the Jersey side. I would often nod off in the back seat, dreams fueled by the tastes of my forefathers. Those Sundays in Brooklyn captured that irreplaceable time in my life when the connections to family roots were so strong. I cherish the memories, and I am thankful that I can look back and see where I came from and recognize those parts of me that are indebted to Sal and Mary and pasta that was nothing short of paradise.

My adult life received a second infusion when I married an Italian American girl. My address book took on many additions to the LaPortes and Rizzos with Vendittis, Bertuccis, and Butricos joining the list. Her parents, Mary and Tony, provided continuity in the fueling of the Italian in me.

The Christmases of most of my adult life that I enjoyed so much involved sitting around the table in the dining room at my in-laws. On Christmas Eve we held the traditional dinner of seven fishes. Then on Christmas day once again, the food — oh, the food! First the plates of capocol, pepperoni, salami, prosciutto, and tangy chunks of provolone, the bowls of olives and peperoncini, home-roasted red peppers in garlic and olive oil, crunchy celery and fennel, tuna fish and crusty Italian bread, and highlighted by Mary’s specialty, stuffed mushrooms, all enough for a meal by itself. A time for more wine and lively conversation, and then the arrival of Mary’s piece d’ resistance, lasagna, a massive platter of pasta layers filled with ricotta and tiny meatballs and topped with melted mozzarella and her incomparable red gravy. My mouth waters merely thinking about it.

After Mary could no longer manage all the preparation, the tradition carried forth at our house for Christmas Eve and then at my brother-in-law Anthony’s for Christmas. Though the gathering may have grown smaller in number over the years, it has remained great in spirit.

Christmas Eve seven fishes, now at our house

Christmas Eve with the seven fishes, now at our house.

Since the influx of Italians into America, our society has been influenced by and in turn has influenced those who stem from that southern boot of Europe. This unique blend of Italian-American-ness has manifest itself in both positive and sometimes not so positive ways. I choose to celebrate the positive and revel in the warmth, passion, friendliness, and generosity so typical of this heritage which has become an integral part of the American fabric. So to all my connazionali out there, full-blooded or otherwise, I wish you buona salute, lunga vita, and felicita, and may we keep the best of ourselves flourishing.

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: