It’s always all or nothing in Ischia, a small island off the coast of Naples that is the home of my ancestors and husband. In August, it’s all… all tourists, all sunshine (at least when God cooperates), all beach, and all feasts.
We love our saints around here, so we honor them with unique celebrations. When the rest of Italy goes to sleep in August, Ischia throws some pretty big parties. There’s the pageantry of Sant’ Anna in early August that has parade floats traveling in the sea toward Castello Aragonese. There are the more subdued but equally important religious feasts for the patron saints of various towns, including the Festa di San Rocco in Barano and the Festa di San Giovan Giuseppe in Ischia Ponte.
Then, there’s the Festa di Sant’ Alessandro, which took place Aug. 26, with a parade that starts in Ischia Ponte and arrives in Ischia Porto. Since Alessandro is a royal name, the feast celebrates royalty and features Ischitani dressed as the people who long ago lived on the island (after conquering it). In a parade that is part fashion show and part history lesson, you can see how Ischia evolved through the ages.
It begins with the Greeks, who first settled the island as Pithecusa. Through the years, royals from Spain and even the Arab world came to what is now known as Ischia. The garb of these different distinct cultures and time periods is depicted throughout the parade. Animals get in on the act, too, with horses that dance or carry carriages and for the first time this year a falcon and owl. Flag throwers and marching bands are also part of the pomp and circumstance. You can see a parade past on YouTube. In case you’re interested in seeing more of those stunning costumes from the 2015 event, here are a few choice pictures:
Fresh eggs – straight from the chicken – are one of the perks of staying on the island of Ischia, which is off the coast of Naples in Italy. The eggs in the supermarket aren’t much different than the fresh eggs in the photos above. None of them are refrigerated, which takes some getting used to for me, l’Americana. I read somewhere that Americans must refrigerate pasteurized eggs because they wash off all the shell’s natural protection. I have no idea if that’s accurate, but I know Italian eggs are sold off the shelf and kept in a bowl on the table in people’s kitchens and American eggs are not.
I must admit that, unless I’m planning on using the eggs that same day, I still put mine in the fridge. It’s the American in me. Italians are also fanatics about the soft boiled egg. When I write soft, I mean soft. They basically hold the egg in boiling water for a minute and then gently tap off the top of the shell before digging into what seems like raw egg. They love this stuff so much, in fact, that they offer it up to children as young as 6 months old. They would only do this with the freshest of eggs.
While I can’t bring myself to swallow liquid yolk, I still get giddy when one of my chicken-keeping relatives – usually my cousin – brings over a batch of these babies. They tend to have more acid, so they are great for whipping egg whites (say for waffles or meringue) and they make for fluffier, tastier eggs. My son’s favorite way for me to cook them is semi-poached, when you lightly boil them in chicken broth with just a splash of vinegar to keep the whites together (see center photo). Grab a hunk of crusty Italian bread and dip into that creamy yolk and you’ll be one bite away from Heaven.
And for a moment I contemplate getting a chicken coup for my place in New Jersey. Then, I think of the feathers, the many, many feathers…and the noise…and the pecking…and the poop…and I decide ultra pasteurized American eggs straight from the fridge ain’t so bad either.
The island of Ischia, off the coast of Naples in Italy, hibernates in the winter. The inhabitants take off for their second lives in other cities – sometimes in other countries – starting in November. Most of them don’t return until Easter. Of course, there are those with children in school, who live on the island year round, and experience the closed stores, depressing rain, empty streets, and silence of winter. While the island starts to wake up in the spring, it is the summer that brings it back to life. It becomes an entirely different place full of people and happenings. Finally, there is someone to admire Ischia’s beauty and behold its gifts.
August, when just about all of Italy and much of Europe goes on holiday, is the pinnacle of excitement on the island. The population doubles or sometimes triples with tourists. And all the natives put on their Sunday best to give the tourists the time of their lives. Truly, it’s a feast for the senses. I’ve already described the scents of Ischia. Now it is time for the sounds you’ll hear as you walk down the cobblestone paths and head toward the beach.
As you pass by one of the many espresso bars, you’ll hear the clinking of cup to saucer as hurried patrons – in their straw fedora hats, skimpy bathing suits, and linen cover ups – down their espresso before walking toward the shore. If you are standing by the bar, you’ll also hear the fainter tapping of the silver demitasse spoons against the delicate, ceramic cups.
In the background, you’ll hear honking horns as a line of cars driven by people in formal attire passes by. That means someone just got married. If you run outside the bar, you might catch a glimpse of the bride and groom heading off to one of Ischia’s beautiful views for a photo session.
Once you’re back on the street, you’ll become nostalgic for your youth as you take in the chorus of giggles from the children on the street. They will all be wearing bathing suit bottoms and no tops, even the little girls, and you might also notice the pop of plastic as it breaks away from sweaty skin. That’s the result of the water wings, a must have at an Italian beach, snugly wound around their chubby, little arms. One of the kids might be slurping what’s left of a melting ice pop, while another creates song by dribbling a soccer ball along the sidewalk.
The native adults will be hard at work. The whizzing of their motorinos – along with a pile of smoke – will assault your senses. The trucks – little by American standards but enormous on an island – will be delivering supplies to stores, hotels, and supermarkets that suddenly have turnover on their shelves. Every lift of the truck’s gate will produce a hard thump as it gets thrown open. You’ll hear the applause of shopkeepers trying to keep up with demand.
Although tourists come from all over, including Germany, Russia, and even the United States, the nearby Neapolitans swarm the place. Everything about them is louder – their clothes, their antics (like their lawless driving), and especially their voices. The colorful Napolitano dialect – often satirized in other parts of Italy – will become the anthem of your summer. You will hear Naninell’ shouting to Giuan, “C’a ggia’ fa? C’a ggia’ fa? U sol e’ trupp fort–” (Translation: “What can I do? What can I do? The sun is too strong.”) An occasional “va fa Napoli” or its cruder cousin (c’mon you know what phrase I’m talking about) might slip out, too. The crackling voices amped up to maximum volume will be your radio on the beach.
Still, you won’t mind. After all, the swoosh of rubbing your feet in the sand and the crash of waves on the shore will make everything else sound like a symphony.
Lucky for me my husband is good friends with Chef Girolamo at Luigi a Mare, a restaurant that sits right on the beach in Ischia Porto, the island of Ischia’s capital. He’s graciously been handing over cannoli like the ones in the photo above to me just about once a week since I arrived. And even though I may be the size of a truck on the way back to America, I’m relishing every bite
As an island, off the coast of Naples in Italy, Ischia is not known for cannoli. That’s a Sicilian treat. My niece once brought the real deal cannolis to us straight from Palermo and I couldn’t speak for a day afterward because they were so good. There are lots of Americans reading this thinking, “Oh, yes, I love cannoli. I get them every time I stop into the local Italian bakery here in the United States. Who cares about these Italian ones?” Oh, ladies and gents, you don’t know what you’re missing. These treats have ruined the American cannoli for me. Ruined them.
Sicilians don’t use traditional ricotta. Instead, they use ricotta made with goat’s or sheep’s milk. The difference in taste is remarkable. While the American cannoli (or even standard Italian ones that do not include the other ricotta) have a heavy, dense cream filling, the Sicilian ones are smooth, light, and fluffy. There’s an extra sweetness to the ricotta that makes the cream all the more luscious. Add a crispy, fried, tube shell, and you’ve got yourself a cannoli worth marrying. There are no chocolate chips or other distractions in these babies either. They don’t need them. Like most Italian food, their beauty is in their simplicity.
Thanks to the Internet, the chef can order Sicilian ricotta and make the real deal right on the beach in Ischia. If Italy had contests like the ones we do in America, this cannoli would take home the gold, an A+, five stars, and more. You get the idea. Luigi a Mare offers delicious food, including raw and cooked shellfish, exquisite pasta dishes, and baked fresh fish like you’ve never tasted before. Just read the reviews on Trip Advisor. But I’d keep returning just for the cannoli. Yes, my weekly fix is probably slowly killing me, but it’s an oh-so-sweet death.
As much as I hate to admit it, I come from a gorgeous place. Sure, there are no opportunities for work, and some would argue that the tourism industry has destroyed the culture, not to mention the environment, in Ischia, a small island off the coast of Naples that is the home of my ancestors and husband. And I’d never want to live here. Never. But to vacation here is bliss.
One look at those views (the one above being of Castello Aragonese from Zi Nannina a Mare’s restaurant) and you’re breathless. You pretty much forget everything else, and calm washes over you. Then, you eat the food – rabbit, mussels, clams, the fruits and veggies fresh from the thermal earth, and all the spaghetti, pizza, and gelato you can fit into your belly – and you’re certain you’ve died and gone to Heaven. Amen.
If you’ve been wondering where I’ve been since I haven’t posted in such a long while, well, I’ve been here in paradise. In between working – writing for all my various editors in the States about things like applying to business school, moving, and getting married – I have been going to the beach and eating as much as I humanly can. (To be honest, sometimes more!) Anyway, I’m doing this all for you, dear reader. This way, I can report back. Expect more posts in the coming days replete with food porn pics and some scoop on Italian life and that dolce vita I keep promising you.
NOTE FROM ITALIAN MAMMA- My paternal Nonno Giovanni Di Meglio – who we referred to in Neapolitan dialect as Unonn – has been dead more than 20 years now. But I can easily imagine the kind of advice he’d give to this year’s graduates (or graduates from any era really). So, I decided to channel him and write the commencement speech I think he would have given after forcing one of his famous noogie farts on me. Remember that this isn’t necessarily a reflection of my opinions but what I think he would say. Granted, he would have said it in Neapolitan dialect, which is decidedly more colorful than standard English (and with a few four-letter words thrown in for good measure.) He also would have had a glass of wine at the ready while giving the speech. Forgive us those sins and read on.
Until now, your life has been sugarcoated. You probably won an award for everything – raising your hand, coming to class every day, wiping yourself properly, breathing. That’s never going to happen again. In my opinion, it shouldn’t have happened in the first place. I had to climb mountains – literally – on a daily basis as a boy and there was never a certificate or medal. Talking about wiping yourself – I sometimes had to do it with a leaf in the woods. Now that deserved an award, but I never got one. My parents never showered me with praise. You know why? It was my duty to go up that mountain and tend to vegetable gardens and grapevines that we planted, grew, and sold to support ourselves. Actually, sometimes they told me I didn’t climb fast enough. And they definitely would have kicked my ass if I didn’t do it at all.
That’s the problem you’re going to have. That’s why life wasn’t “real” before this moment. No one has kicked your dainty little ass. Out there, beyond these walls and your parent’s loving arms – you’re going to get your ass kicked. It will happen on a regular basis. Your ass will be as red as the tomatoes in my garden in August. It will swell. It will be that simple. Your perpetual standing ovation is over and out. In this real world, you might work 100 hours per week, and increase sales, but if the bottom line doesn’t show better-than-expected results, somebody is going to kick your ass. If you don’t end up getting that bonus that you and your family were counting on, your spouse is going to kick your ass. Your kids – if you decide to have them – won’t necessarily kick your ass, but every time they want or need something – a family vacation, toys, books for school, some medical procedure, clothes, shelter, food – and you can’t afford it, you will feel a punch in the gut. So, ultimately, I guess they kick your ass, too.
Now that you’re bruised and battered and wondering how you can return to the womb that has been your high school or university, man and woman up. I’m about to teach you how to live with the ass whoopings – and perhaps even thrive despite them.
1. Make money and save it. Lots of people probably told you to follow your heart and worry about making money later. That’s bad advice. Ask any immigrant. When is later? You needed to worry about it from birth. If you had good parents, they worried for you. If not, then at least you should have started thinking about it when you started planning for the future of your education and a career. Sure, you might find happiness helping people and doing volunteer work. I guess I can see that. But if you don’t have enough money for food, clothes, and shelter, you’re never going to be happy or at least that’s the case for the majority of us, barring a couple of priests I know. I had 9 children and 7 survived to adulthood. I needed to feed them all, not to mention my wife and me. Sure, maybe, picking grapes for wine making for free would have put a smile on my face, but that wasn’t going to put pasta in their bellies. Capisce? Find something you like, but make sure it’s going to pay the bills. Then, save your money. Don’t waste it on frivolous junk like a chadrool.
2. Eat well and on time. Food is fuel. You’re never going to be able to produce without eating. We southern Italians make our meals a top priority. Our dishes are made with the utmost care, usually by our mammas but even us men get in on the act sometimes. Almost everything is homemade, and most of us grow our own fruits and vegetables. We care for our gardens as though they are our second or third jobs. You can call us the original organics. Eat and drink well – I never had dinner without a glass of homemade wine – and you’ll be setting yourself up for a good life. You need routine and discipline to succeed, so make sure to also eat on time everyday. My family will tell you that I would erupt like Vesuvius whenever they had me wait even a few minutes for Sunday lunch. God be merciful on those who had the antipasto on the table at 1:05 in the afternoon. Since your boss will probably feel the same way about your meetings, get a watch and be on time starting now.
3. Wake up early. The only reasons a person should wake up after 6 a.m. are if they are dying, they worked the night shift, or they are lazy bums. I’m proud to say my children – who are in their sixties, seventies, and eighties now – are already dressed, ready for the day, and calling each other to say good morning by 6 a.m. Sometimes, they even show up at each other’s houses bearing fruits and vegetables from said gardens by then. Why? Because early risers rule the world.
4. Work hard. Those constant kudos and plastic trophies are gone forever. What is going to get you through the world successfully is working hard every day. If you are willing to get your hands dirty and put in the hours, then you just might get ahead. You have to fill your days with work. You have to be so tired at the end of the day that you fall asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow. Believe me, hard workers don’t have time to waste on worry. We knew nothing of stress in my day because we were zappatori, the guys who used shovels to grow the land. We sweat until our clothes were as wet as they are in the washing machine. We were in boot camp all day long moving our legs and arms until they felt like rubber. Stress is a problem for the rich and those lazy bums who can navel gaze. Get the job done. Always. Work until you die. A lack of work – sitting around with nothing to do – is the real killer of men. You, be alive!
Don’t let the headline fool you. I would never profess to be the best mother in the world. I’m the furthest thing from it. Let me explain. I’m not neglectful or abusive. And I’m full of love. Actually, I’m oozing the gooey, mushy stuff most of the time. But I make one mistake after another (unable to keep him in time out, giving in when he wants a cheese cracker instead of kale, never knowing what to do when he has a tantrum, worrying about balancing time with him and my work, and the list goes on). To sum up, I’m never quite sure I’m doing the right thing despite my best intentions. Still, I’m fairly certain that every mother the world over feels the same at one time or another. That makes us all the best moms. After all, that feeling – a mix between guilt, disappointment, and so much love you believe your heart is about to burst into flames like a car in a Die Hard movie – is a terrific motivator to try and do better. So, we march on. And we try. And we do better at least half the time. The good news is that the other half the time we’re building character in our kids. Or at least that’s how I like to look at it late at night when I can’t sleep because I’m wondering if I’m ruining his life.
While I think we’re all the best moms we can be, I am most familiar with one breed – Italian mammas. They are my people. They raised me, and I am the mother I am because of them. That’s why I recently wrote down the reasons I love ’em and think of them as the best mammas out there for an Our Paesani column on ItaliansRus.com. No one else should take offense. These ladies are just the best for me. I know your kind of mamma is the best for you. And you are indeed the best for your kid. Happy Mother’s Day to all!