I’ve been in Ischia, the island off the coast of Naples, Italy that is home to my ancestors, for a month now, and all I’ve been eating is fish. From mussels and clams to cod and tuna, my belly can’t seem to get enough. Most recently, my brother-in-law has been going fishing with his family. Every time he does, he comes home with buckets full of fish for us to eat. The photo above features his first bucket. My mother-in-law fried and roasted these bad boys. After fishing last week, my brother-in-law marinated the fish, grilled it, and we all ate it outside. I have to admit, however, that the “spine” in these fish are getting on my nerves. You feel like you’re choking and then you have to fish out the tiny bones before swallowing. I guess that’s why mussels, clams, and shrimp remain my favorites. In the spirit of this food-inspired blog, check out my recent Newlyweds commentary on cooking for date night and my ItaliansRus article on Italians and their wine.
Italians like to eat. But few of the ones I know in Ischia, a small island off the coast of Naples that is home to my husband and my ancestors, are adventurous when it comes to food. I’ve had them try Chinese food; most of them hated it. I’ve had them try Mexican; most of them complain it’s just too spicy. I’ve had them try sushi; most of them find it disgusting (I’m actually not a big fan myself, so I can’t gripe much about that one). My in-laws and my husband, however, are willing to try my American fare — and a few of the desserts they rather like. In the past, apple pie and chocolate chip muffins have been big winners with them.
This year, I decided to bring a Duncan Heinz lemon cupcake mix (from a box, which is sacrilege among southern Italians, who cook and bake everything from scratch). Well, my niece and I made the cupcakes and handed them over. After one bite, we earned a standing ovation for the cupcake’s moistness and the flavorful lemony zing. Friends, who visited the house, tasted the cupcakes and said they tasted better than some other Italian treats on hand. All the while, these gourmet Italians, who believe in only homemade goodness, had no idea what they were eating came out of a box, and I just had my niece add eggs, oil, and water and mix. Who knew entertaining could be so easy? Gotta love it!
There is an art to setting the table. Different cultures have different ways of doing it. The Japanese, for instance, might have you sit on cushions on the floor. Americans put forks and spoons on the left and knives on the right, and our drinking glasses are way bigger than others. Everyone wants to make a statement with his table when hosting a dinner party at home. But Italians simply do it better.
Entertaining is as natural to southern Italians as breathing. Their lives revolve around food and family, and their homes, much like their hearts, are always open. Recently, my cousin Fausto set a table for his parents, our Australian cousin Vanessa, and me, at his family’s home in Ischia, Italy, the island where I’m staying for the next month or so. (For photos, visit “Fausto’s Tablescape” photo album.) Here are some tips I picked up by observing Fausto’s tablescape -
1. Make the most of nature. Fausto used pink flowers from his parent’s garden to spruce up the table, which was set outdoors on a patio. He used these flowers to surround two candles on either end of the oblong table. He also wrapped coral tea roses, also from the garden, in large green leaves and left one at the seat of each of the women in attendance.
2. Keep things simple for a casual night with family. Rather than pull out expensive, fancy china and silverware, Fausto used his mom’s everyday dishes and glasses and paper napkins.
3. Food is as much apart of the tablescape as anything else. Fausto and his parents were sure to beautifully plate our various courses. For instance he put a chunk of grilled bread smothered in calamari with red sauce on the center of one plate and sprinkled chopped fresh parsley on top. The food (as you’ll see in the photo album) looked like another piece of art on the table. It also happened to be delicious, a bonus.
4. Your guests are the most important part of the dinner party. Fausto and family were entertaining, too. They always are gracious, and keep the conversation moving. Of course, they like to have fun. Fausto put additional flowers in our hair — and his own — so we could take funny pictures to send to our relatives around the world (in the United States, France, and Australia).
Last night, episode two of MTV’s reality series Jersey Shore aired. While everyone is tuning into see what Snooki and the Situation will do next, I’m thinking about my Jersey people, specifically the girls. Most of my Jersey girls are in the photo above, and they will never grow into a JWow. Yes, they are strong and they can fist pump on the dance floor with the best of them. But they are respectable ladies, who already speak more eloquently than anyone on the Jersey Shore. They will use their words before their fists (except occassionally with their own siblings, which they are working on) to resolve conflicts.
They are Italian Americans with a great sense of pride, and they probably don’t even know the meaning of the term guido. But they do know how good Nonna’s pasta sauce is on Sunday and how to say, “Buona notte,” to their elders. When they go down the shore, they play on the beach, build a sand castle, visit the acquarium, and go on the Boardwalk rides. My Jersey girls, even if all of them are 12 and under, already have brains that are bigger than Snooki’s hair poof. And I’m certain they are going to do more with their lives than become a reality star. That is truly Jersey of them.