Italian Mamma has been away for a bit. My apologies. But I was busy ghostwriting and working for others. In the meantime, I also had many exciting experiences, including staying at a luxurious resort in my family’s native Ischia, Italy, visiting LEGOLAND Discovery Center Westchester, celebrating my 40th birthday at Alstede Farms, and discovering Eataly in Manhattan. Finally, I’m ready to share it all with you my dear readers.
Also, I’m in the process of beefing up my offerings, becoming more accessible on social media (even Instagram – yes, I’m a late bloomer!), and just making the site way cooler. Hope you stick with me for this ride. A dopo!
Moms do everything for everyone. We pack the lunches, wash the floor, stay up with sick kids, walk the dog, and check email. That is just in the first hour we are awake.
Whether we work in the home or outside, we usually sacrifice parts of ourselves for the greater good of the family (not to mention society). Then, we rarely get the credit we deserve. It’s maddening. Sometimes, we give up so much that we wake up one morning and don’t recognize the person in the mirror. This self-neglect can have grave consequences.
Many publications have told me to get 5 minutes for myself every day. Hello! I need more than 5 minutes just to take a few deep breaths. Just about everyone – even super moms – can grab 30 minutes per day. You might have to wake up early or go to bed later. But it’s so worth it. Take a bath or watch a TV show you like. Or read. Yes, you could actually read a book, even one that has no pictures and does not end with the mommy elephant kissing the baby elephant.
These moments for mom are a treasure. They keep us sane. I have read The New York Times, baked cookies, and written in this here blog with my 30 minutes. By the way, those times, when you feel the need to lock yourself in the bathroom and dip into your secret chocolate stash, do not count.
Focus on Health and Hygiene
Let me explain. You probably don’t smell. And you might even exercise regularly and take vitamins. But many moms I know – myself included – spend more time worrying about the kids and their spouse getting to the doctor for regular check ups. Mom is the one who ensures all the children regularly take baths, brush their teeth, and cut their fingernails. No one stresses more than mom, and stress can be a killer, literally.
As a result of focusing on these other folks, mom puts off her own check ups and hygiene. My nails often get cut after they start breaking. I put off dental exams because it was expensive and my son’s teeth took precedent. And I schedule my check ups last, which means I don’t always go when I am supposed to do. It was kind of a big deal that I put off a mammogram recently, and I’ve vowed to never do it again.
After all, if something happens to mom, the whole place will fall apart. Taking care of your own health is taking care of your kids, too. Trust me. So, make your doctor’s appointments and care a priority. It should be right up there on the list with everyone else’s health and hygiene.
Remember Your Dreams
Ambition is a dirty word, at least when it’s used to describe women. But moms need to embrace the term. Be ambitious. Go back to school. Push for the promotion. Or just chase your passions. I used to drift off to sleep dreaming about certain achievements – writing that book, studying my family history more profoundly, winning accolades for my cooking. Now, I drift off to sleep thinking about tomorrow’s to-do list. It’s not nearly as much fun.
My goal now is to remember what I used to aim to do. Thanks to my Instant Pot, I managed to make spectacular mushroom risotto over the holidays, so cooking #squadgoals (my husband is into that one, too) are coming along. While I’ve published a book and worked on a couple of others, they were not personal, nor the kind I had planned in my dreams. Working on this blog, however, is a step toward that goal.
No one is a greater keeper of our family history and traditions than I am, so that work will continue. And I hope new dreams come to me in place of the reminders about buying a gallon of milk and helping my son study for his spelling test. My greatest wish for you in 2019 is that you visit dreamland and your deepest longings every now and then, too. You deserve it, mom.
Island life is fine for me in small doses. It took a long time for me to come to this realization. When I was in my 20s, I thought I wanted to give up the hustle and bustle of working in New York City, move to an island, and write while my feet were planted in the sand on the beach. It would be a simpler life but a better one.
Of course, if a handsome islander wanted to sweep me off my feet, I was fine with that, too. That’s what actually happened. While I was in my family’s native Ischia, an island off the coast of Naples in Italy, I met Antonio, who is now my husband of nearly 10 years. Basically, we live in two worlds. We often travel back to Ischia, especially in the summer. At one point, we spent nine months on the island with our then toddler son.
After being able to experience island life – and not a mere vacation – I was no longer as enamored with the idea of sequestering myself on an island. That’s the thing about taking up island life. Your beloved vacation destination becomes where you live and work. Therefore, it can’t possibly live up to the dream it once was.
While on vacation in Ischia, I would visit family I hadn’t seen in years. We would eat the best, freshest food and relish time together. I would go to the beach and the thermal spas. When we were dating, my husband and I would gather with friends until the wee hours of the morning. We would hang out at luxury hotels, owned by friends and family, and partake in gourmet meals by the best chefs on the island. It was like I was an eternal tourist even as a became part of the community.
In those days, I would always work from home and keep American hours. But I was young and hungry, full of energy. Then, we got married and started thinking about having a family. Things started to change dramatically. I found myself preferring sleep to talking and eating well into the early morning. Reading and writing on the beach made my hands sweaty and my eyes squinty even with sunglasses. Hello wrinkles! The sand falling into every crevice wasn’t making it any better. Those bright-eyed, bushy-tailed vacationers were no longer me and my people. Instead, they were annoying tourists sucking up all the air of the place. Who needs ’em?
Well, the island and its islanders do. So, I have to come to grips with the reality of living in a tourist’s paradise. Over the years, I’ve come up with a robust list of pros and cons:
Benefits of Living on an Island
Within Walking Distance of Natural Wonders
The beach is so close to where I live when I’m in Ischia that I can smell the sea air when I close the front door behind me. When you turn the corner, you may see a glorious sunset or the lush green hills in the distance. Pastel-colored homes dotting the countryside and a sea of stars with the bright full moon hang like a painting above the actual sea at night. The scenery is breathtaking and inspirational. While I love the views of New York City back home in Jersey, they are just not the same as Mother Nature.
Slower Pace of Living
There’s something about the heat and beauty that breeds a bit of laziness but not in a bad way. It’s a good thing. People are never in a rush. In Ischia, anyway, they still take a siesta every afternoon. It sometimes gets on my nerves, but it’s better for your health – physical and mental.
Doing More With Less
Smaller places make for smaller lives, but not in the way you might imagine. In New York, everyone is fighting to be top dog. You want to have a bigger house than the Joneses. On an island, people seem to be satisfied with having a decent place to live, good food on the table, and an abundance of family and friends. There is no rat race or naked ambition.
Drawbacks to Living on an Island
Higher Cost of Living
Everything costs triple. Goods are expensive because delivery to an island is more difficult. It requires extra travel on a boat. And the expiration dates on food and drink are often shorter, especially in Italy, where there are strict laws about preservatives and additives. Sometimes, in the hot summer, the milk or cream is bad within a day of purchase. Around here, the clothes are always expensive. Because Ischia attracts luxury travelers, there are mostly designer stores, which aren’t exactly budget friendly for the island’s families.
Sorry Access to Health Care
If you have the flu or a simple cold on the island, you’ll be more than fine. Your nonna (real or adopted) will dote on you and feed you and you’ll be back to good in no time. But if you have a serious illness or disease (or you have a serious injury), you might have a problem. I lost all circulation in my leg after a knee injury when I was a mere tourist in Ischia in 2004. I nearly lost my foot (I didn’t, thank God), but it would have been better to be in a city. There is no MRI on the island (or at least there wasn’t then), for example. Usually, specialists for diseases, such as cancer, are found in Naples, Rome, Milan, and so on. As a result, the islanders, even at their most vulnerable, have to move to get care. When you’re in a weakened state, this is a disastrous proposition.
Opportunities for Work Are Slim
Young people living on the island often leave if they have greater ambitions. The island provides some opportunities to work in tourism. But it’s limited to six months out of the year when the weather is good. Most people have no option to work year round. New laws have made it harder to get unemployment during the other six months. The slower pace and indifference to outdoing your neighbors with your finances are results of this economic reality. But a young person, who wants to have a family or who dreams of doing something more with his or her life, will find the island prohibitive. So, many of them fly away and leave their nest – even if just for the six months of winter when Ischia slumbers.
Saturnino is a small restaurant in Forio, a town on the Neapolitan island of Ischia in Italy. It is run by Chef Ciro Mattera and his wife Stefania Coletta. Families in Ischia have always gone organic; it’s in their DNA. They did farm-to-table meals before we put a label on it in the United States. And Mattera is a firm believer in the island’s greatest culinary traditions. They serve as the cornerstone of his work.
Way Ahead of Their Time
At Saturnino, Mattera uses locally sourced fish and vegetables to create works of art with food. He and his wife are friends, and I don’t always pay for the dishes they serve me. So, for full disclosure, I’m totally bias. But I can tell you I’ve never had a dish of his that I didn’t enjoy. And the warm and inviting atmosphere of the restaurant, which looks out onto the street and sea, will surely draw you in.
In Ischia, I was struck by the vibe of the restaurant, which is at once upscale and warm. The fact that it is small makes it cozy. Looking out the window onto the view, you may catch a glimpse of kids and their parents dipping their toes in the sea or lovers holding hands and making tracks in the sand. A couple on a Vespa will undoubtedly pass while the gentle sea breeze caresses your skin. It gives the feel of a paradise, where people eat, drink, and love life, which is just how Ischia prefers to present itself. Whether it’s true or not is debatable, but at lunch at Saturnino you can be a believer.
Saturnino Serves Up Respite
Of course, that ambiance set the right mood for a sophisticated lunch with friends and family. Throughout the meal, I could not help but stare out the window for the people watching and feel of being on vacation. This was all despite the interruption brought on by an already scheduled conference call for work. With paradise in my face, the call hardly was a chore. Because I failed to take copious notes on each dish, I will let the food speak for itself.
Even our 6-year-old’s specially made kids meal of nuggets and roasted potatoes was presented impressively with a sparkle of homemade barbecue-type sauce.
Each appetizer was small but gratifying. And the presentation remained larger than life.
Chefs in the know make use of food’s natural colors to create beauty in each dish. This one, which includes a paper-thin, purple potato chip and bright green peppers, is a perfect example of this treatment.
You can not go to a restaurant of this caliber in Ischia and pass up the chance at tasting the chef’s take on a pasta dish. The orange zest is an homage to the island’s citrus riches and provides beautiful color and a refreshing taste with the included fish.
A refreshing palette cleanser between the meal and dessert was a special treat because it was a far cry from the bowl of store-bought sorbet that most of us are used to eating.
This dessert was almost too pretty to eat. Almost!
There’s something magical about the World Cup international soccer tournament. It brings together people of all kinds. What Americans tend to find so annoying – the lack of high scores – is precisely what makes soccer the beautiful game. Every goal is a little, unexpected miracle. Even if it is your opponent scoring, you have to admit the preciousness of it. That’s why soccer is a means of holding onto hope for a better tomorrow. You never know when you’re going to finally score. And the joy in your heart in that moment – even if you’re just a fan – is utterly pure.
Spectacular Even without My Teams
Both the United States and Italy, my birthplace and ancestral homeland respectively, failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup currently taking place in Russia. Truly, the results were crushing. Initially, I imagined I would not even pay attention to the tournament. But soccer is a bond in my family. My father launched our interest, but it is one of the few things that truly unifies my brother, sister, and me. We could not be more different in all the rest, but we agree that penalty kicks are the worst way to win or lose. All three of us are certain French and Brazilian soccer is the stuff of the devil. And we see nothing wrong with crying – real, hard tears – over something like Roberto Baggio sending the ball over the goalpost in the Greek tragedy that was the final game of the 1994 World Cup in the United States.
Family Keeps Me in the Game
Then, there are my cousins who are in mixed marriages or from different regions of the world. They have married people of different teams, such as Croatia and Argentina, or they live in, dare I admit it, France. (Blah, Les Bleu!) As soon as the games began, the text messages started flying among these different wings of the family. And I was drawn in. “How dare you expect me to root for Croatia? Blasphemy!” In the end, I have been cheering on the Croatians. My son was brainwashed by my cousin’s husband, so he wants the checkered team to win. Pun intended. Frankly, I’m impressed at how far it has gotten. In fact, tonight, Croatia has a chance of snagging a seat at the final, when it faces off against England.
Even I must admit France, especially after its valiant showing against Belgium last night, has wowed legions of soccer fans. It just might bring home the cup. Don’t expect me to be happy about it, French cousins. But I still love you. Indeed, soccer is love. Like other professional sports, soccer moves you. Fans become emotionally connected to the players and also each other. Aside from anarchists and hooligans, the overwhelming majority of soccer fans take great pleasure ribbing each other if they are on opposing sides. It forges a community, friendships, and laughter. Like all sports and entertainment, it’s a distraction from the tremendous weights of life most of us have on our shoulders. Sure, it can get political at times just like any sport. But mostly it’s just fun.
Living and Breathing Soccer
For a long while, I wore a “Soccer is Life” T-shirt. Back then, in many ways, soccer really was life. It was my hobby to follow favorite players, watch tons of games, and debate strategies of the world’s best teams. In fact, keeping up with Italian soccer’s Serie A is what drove me to become fluent in Italian. That’s significant because I probably never would have ended up marrying my husband if I didn’t speak universal Italian. I remember many a night spent translating Italian sports stories from that unforgettable pink newspaper, La Gazzetta dello Sport and intently watching RAI International.
Just as all great loves do, soccer disappointed me. Doping, gambling, and bribing scandals in Italy were a big turn off. Then, FIFA, the world governing body of soccer, turned out to be a fraud. It was criminal, even if fans like me already had their suspicions. Now, we know we were right all along. Also, I became a working mom, which continues to eat up my free time. So, soccer is not as central to my world as it once was. But every four years, it pulls me in again.
I can’t help but realize “soccer is life.” Really and truly. The players on the field must learn to work together or suffer defeat. All sorts of challenges come their way – blood, sweat, tears, a hooligan tossing a molotov cocktail onto the field, what have you. A surly teammate might delude you and end up with a red card while he’s at it. No matter. His teammates have to charge forward all the same. Those who work hard and concentrate will eventually prevail. The question is when. It might not be when you expect. On any given game day, the underdog may manage a win. Sometimes, all it takes is one of those little miracles. Then, you recognize life truly is beautiful.
Being a mother is a struggle. Most of the time I feel like I’m drowning. Once in a while I get my head above the water. No sooner than I manage to take a breath when another tidal wave comes straight at me. When my son was a baby, everyone would tell me that life would get easier as he aged. After all, he would sleep through the night and go potty in the bathroom. That’s all true. My son still gets up at night once in a while but it’s nothing like that first year.
What they forget to add is that the actual parenting gets harder. Now, at 6, he’s finding his voice–and using it against me. He wants to watch videos of kids playing with toys he will never have or already has. I say, “No!” He says, “I hate you.” He would rather play with his cousin Alex after school than do his homework. I say, “No!” He says, “I wish you weren’t my mom.” Even though I know these words are merely growing pains, they still break my heart just a little bit every time.
What Comes Next
My boy is growing up. He is testing me, trying to figure out his limits and mine. Mostly, he’s trying to gain some independence. I’ll admit I’m loathe to give it to him. I find such comfort in holding him close and keeping him little. Everything is still new to him. His eyes glisten. And those dimples turn up with every ear-to-ear smile. While the world outside is unjust and darkness is closing in on us, he brings in the sunshine. Our place is filled with light. This love I hold for my baby in my heart is my salvation. He is literally my everything.
Therefore, when he dishes up an “I like papa better than mamma,” line, I lose my temper. I yell or cry or both. Sometimes, I put myself in time out behind the locked bathroom door. Or I take a walk in the garden. In these quiet moments away from my child, I think about the long arc of justice. I too must have made my mother cry. It is only now that I recognize how deeply and profoundly she loved me. Now, I realize how much I took for granted those moments with her from childhood. And I see how mean I might have been. Surely, I told her I hated her. I always took it back. But once the words escape your mouth, your mother knows what is lurking in your mind. She knows the raw emotion. There’s no turning back really. My only option is to roast myself in my own guilt about how I treated my own mom, about how things are going with my son. For the moment, I hate myself.
How to Move Forward
In the silence, I hear my heart. I take a deep breath. Then, I envelope myself in the nostalgia of having a newborn, who needs you for everything. I relish the memories that dance in my mind – my son breathing, deep in sleep on my chest. Or what about that first smile? How about when he finally began to speak to us? He had delayed speech and didn’t start talking until he was about 4. Should I even be allowed to get angry at a child with delayed speech who is verbally attacking me? Probably not. This is all my fault, I think. I convince myself I’m too hard on him. Why can’t I be the one handing out chocolate Kinder eggs and playing Mario Kart with him? Why does my husband get that job? Guilt continues to wash over me like muslin rolling over a body in a coffin.
Before long, I miss my boy. It’s only been a few minutes, yet I feel like we are so far apart. The distance weighs on me like a hot iron pressing on my chest. What the hell am I going to do when he’s off to college? Now, I can’t resist.
So, I return to him. Tears are rolling down his cheeks. He is red in the face. “I want you mamma. I didn’t mean it,” he says. And I can’t help myself. I can’t stay angry or even sad. “You’re the love of my life,” I say as I lift him up to me. As I rub my cheek against his, my stomach settles, the world stops. For that second, everything is truly all right. I wish to the depths of my soul that I could hold this pose forever.
The truth is my son and I will be repeating this pattern of give and take, war and peace for years to come. Our arguments will evolve. As my grandmother used to say, “Little kids, little problems; big kids, big problems; married kids, impossible problems.” My boy will have to seize his independence. And I’ll have to give it to him, even if reluctantly. Guilt and nostalgia will come and go, but they can’t stop me from raising him to be a good person. Still, they will torture me along the way. That is motherhood. That is for what I’ve signed up, for what every mother has signed up. Our reward is a full heart and a light spirit despite a heavy mind.
Thanks to MTV’s Jersey Shore: Family Vacation, the world does not know the true value of Italian America.
Mine are the peasant people, who came to the United States in search of a better life. They broke their backs – literally – to become truly American. They laid pavement and built bridges, literally and metaphorically. Some of them picked crops or drove busses. Others cut hair or sewed clothes. Many of them still landscape lawns or construct some of the country’s nicest homes and buildings. A great number of them Americanized nonna’s recipes and served up their home cooking with love. They earned degrees and learned English. They didn’t even let their children speak Italian.
A few of them captured the hearts of Americans with their talents. Think Frank Sinatra and Jon Bon Jovi. In sport, there was Joe Di Maggio, Vince Lombardi, Mario Andretti, and Rocky Marciano to name a few. But it is the leaders in business and government, who really stand out for their contributions. Nancy Pelosi was the first woman speaker of the house. Fiorello Laguardia was the 99th mayor of New York City and a legend among Italian immigrants, who often turned to him for help. Mario Cuomo was the governor of New York, who captivated the public with the story of his immigrant family. His children carry on his legacy with son Andrew also serving as governor of New York. Amadeo Giannini launched what became Bank of America, which is now the largest bank in the United States.
How Jersey Shore: Family Values Undoes Everything Good
Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when The Sopranos aired on HBO, I quarreled with Italian American organizations. They protested the airing of the show. Some tried to keep the Italian American actors from the show from participating in various events. But The Sopranos, I argued, was art. It was fiction. While the show was realistic and shared the ugly underbelly of Italian America, it was not real. James Gandolfini was an accomplished actor, who had great achievements and talent worth recognizing. So, I did not go along with the protest. In fact, I was a fan of the show.
The problem with Jersey Shore is it is billed as reality. Now, I don’t doubt that some of the antics are planned out and either fabricated or exaggerated to make the show more dramatic. But people really believe this is an accurate depiction of Italian America. I don’t begrudge the cast members, who are obviously laughing all the way to the bank. Frankly, they have usurped the term, “guido,” which was once considered a pejorative term. What did they have to do to afford lovely homes and inordinate amounts of plastic surgery (some of them look like different people)? Well, they simply had to act as hedonists on the constant hunt for a tan and a piece of a–.
Sending the Wrong Messages
This debauchery and disrespect was bad enough when these guys were in their twenties in the first incarnation of the show. But now that they are nearing 40 with spouses and kids, the show is difficult to watch. Who wants their mom to pass out drunk in the middle of the street? Or their mom to have someone else’s privates rubbed on her face for the world to see? What if your dad cheated on your pregnant mom on television? It’s actually tragic. I was hoping the new version of the show would have the cast members knowing better and turning into my guilty pleasure. Instead, it made me sick for their kids, who will eventually see this if they haven’t already.
Now, there are moments of truth about Italian America embedded into the show. A few of the authentically Italian American people have had moments to which I can relate. In many episodes, the cast breaks bread in the fashion my people do on Sundays. There’s pasta sauce and people cleaning their plate with bread. Of this I know.
Incidentally, Vinny is the reason I wanted my son to be Enzo and not Vincenzo, which would have made him Vinny from Jersey. Nevertheless, Vinny from Jersey Shore is the genuine article. His family clearly is stuck in its Italian roots. The proof is in his mother, who lives down the street, does his laundry, and worries that his butt is getting too skinny. These are my people. I enjoy them and their family dinners, of which we get a glimpse.
In fact, the entire premise that the cast members have grown to be chosen family is typical of Italians in southern Italy and Italian Americans. That is heartwarming. Their protection of one another in the midst of fame is applaudable. Recently, Ronnie had a well-publicized argument with the mother of his newborn daughter. When the hosts of ABC’s The View asked his fellow cast members what happened, Pauly D respectfully announced they all support one another and would not stick their nose in his business. Pauly’s desire to keep Ronnie from cheating and Snooki and the girls from fighting showed some signs of maturity, too.
Mostly the Worst of the Worst
Also, revelations about Jenny’s miscarriage move me. I too experienced a miscarriage, and I think women are too silent about them. Then, when it happens to you, it’s like a sucker punch to the stomach because no one ever tells you this is how pregnancy can end. It puts you into a darkness that is hard to overcome. I feel for her. While I can appreciate those moments of humanity, I find it hard to juxtaposition them with casual sex, foul language, and a whole lot of superficiality.
What are we saying about Italian America in this depiction? What does it say about our morals and what we think of ourselves if we allow this to be how we’re seen? We have elevated the cast members and given them opportunities of which others can only dream. Take a look at the homes in which they live. Remember, they were all sent to Italy for a long vacation. Now, they were given the chance to vacation in Miami in a luxurious home replete with pool and furniture I could sell to send my kid to one semester of college. For what did they get this? For being irresponsible screw ups on TV.
If we’re financing this with our fandom, what does that say about us? It’s hard to look in the mirror and accept this. A real Italian mamma would shut off the TV. Then, she would give those cast members a hug and tell them that they should look within for redemption and ask God for forgiveness. If they truly loved themselves, they wouldn’t act like this. Then, she’d serve them some lasagna or a few meatballs and send them back to their families. Before they left, she would warn them that she’d kick their skinny a– if they keep up the bad behavior. She’d be watching. Oh, she’d be watching.