Anyone who knows me (or reads this site) realizes that my family and I don’t have an ounce of Irish in us. A few of my relatives married Irish people, but that’s about it. Still, we’re Italian, so we’re into celebrations – any excuse to eat and drink. In that spirit, I hosted a St. Patty’s Day dinner for my son and his two cousins last night. We reveled in the fact that St. Patrick is an Italian. (It’s a fact you can read about in this story I wrote for ItaliansRus.com.) Our Italian St. Patrick’s Day feast involved homemade pizza with a slice of bell pepper to look like a shamrock, green and white tortellini, and green apple juice. I would have turned the wine green, but I think my father would have disowned me.
Nonno – otherwise known as my father – loves to give his grandchildren a loaf of Italian bread each. He gets a kick out of how the two boys chew on it like it’s the greatest thing since, well, sliced bread. I know. I know. This is anti-everything healthy. But it’s so very Italian of us to hand our kids Italian bread as a snack. And ain’t nobody stoppin’ Nonno, although I’d love to see one of the moms in the Kale Chip Gestapo try. Now that would be a match for the ages!
Once these little guys are talking in complete sentences, their complaints about belly aches post bread will be very Italian, too. This week’s installment of Our Paesani on ItaliansRus will have you laughing out loud with its assessment of indigestion among Italians. It’s a cultural phenomenon, akin to Topo Gigio, that rarely gets the attention it deserves. So, grab your belly and hang on ’cause it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
“Blame the mother,” is what most of us usually hear when discussing our own wacky behavior. Well, children of Italians might be among the most loved in the world by their parents. But they probably turn out the craziest. I can attest to this. First, I’m the child of wild but wonderful Italians and now I’m a crazy Italian mamma myself. As such, you can bet that Baby Boy didn’t get to sit in those clothes he is sporting (in the photo) and that he wet in the snow for more than 10 seconds. He didn’t stay outside for more than a few minutes. After all, the wet clothes and the colpa d’aria might have damaged him forever. It could have killed him, don’t you know? You got it; my son doesn’t have a chance. His father is a native Italian to boot, so he may as well define himself as the weird kid who brings salami sandwiches to school now. In other words, he will one day relate – and relate well – to my latest Our Paesani column, “10 Reasons Children of Italians Need a Support Group.” You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll realize your parents are not alone in their lunacy (and neither are you).
Di Meglio is the author of Fun with the Family New Jersey (Globe Pequot Press Travel) and the Newlyweds Expert for About.com.
Sometimes, dinner in Italy seems like an afterthought. I mentioned yesterday how lunch is the star of Italian meals. As a result, sometimes people are so full that they barely even think about what to eat for dinner. Unlike those of us in the United States who eat dinner around 6 or 7 in the evening, Italians won’t even consider sitting down for a bite before 8 or 9 at night. Those young folks, who go out to restaurants for dinner, might not even make it there until 10 o’clock. I, an American, never did get used to this schedule. I still find myself starving at 7, unable to wait that other hour, for the nightly meal. Back when I was dating my husband and we’d go out to eat in Ischia, I would be falling asleep over my mussels in white wine sauce.
Now, the photo above features bruschetta, which is toasted Italian bread with olive oil (and sometimes cut garlic has been swiped across the toast for flavor) and is topped with toppings, most commonly tomatoes with basil, salt, and olive oil. This is basically the same thing as tomatoes and bread (just swap toasted bread for fresh), which I’ve mentioned my people, who work the land, eat for breakfast often. Well, Italians also eat this for dinner. The reason is that it’s light and refreshing. And the bread makes it filling. They might pair it with some fresh mozzarella or prosciutto di Parma. Or they will have a panini – a pressed sandwich – and a light salad for their meal. Still, there’s always bread.
If you haven’t noticed, Italians are carb-a-holics. Bread is always on the table. If you didn’t have pasta as your primo at lunch, you’ll probably have a dish of some sort of pasta for dinner. It’s usually something simple to make and a little lighter than what you would eat at lunch. You’ll skip the secondo, unless you’re going out to eat or it’s a holiday of some sort. Another favorite at dinner is pizza. In Ischia, right outside of Naples, which is pizza’s birthplace, you can get individual pies that have been cooked in a wood-burning stove that taste nothing like you’ve ever had before. Each bite of that thin, crunchy, perfectly charred crust is pure Paradiso. Pizza is the one meal that Italians believe calls for beer or Coca-Cola instead of wine, by the way. So, whip out the Peroni or Nastro Azzurro (depending on your preference) and chow down. Buon appetito!
Lunch in southern Italy is nothing short of a revelation. Unlike those of us in America, most Italians in the south get three hours off for lunch and it is an event everyday. School closes in time for the kids to go home and eat with their families. Stores close, even the supermarket. They won’t be open again until 5 or 6 in the evening. Everyone has to spend quality time with their family, take a rest (people even nap from 3 to 5), and mangia, mangia. As an American, I’m still shocked to see the locks on all the stores starting at 1 in the afternoon.
While I’m used to scarfing down a sandwich while sitting at my computer working during the lunch hour (how very American of me), the meal in Italy often consists of a “primo” and a “secondo,” which refers to a first and second plate. The primo is either soup, risotto, or more likely pasta of some sort. The second is either a fish or meat with a couple of side dishes (often a mixed, green salad and another vegetable). Many Italians finish off their meal with a piece of fruit that they chase with an espresso.
For special occasions, such as holidays, you’ll have antipasto (appetizers) before the primo and a dessert after the secondo. Recently, my husband, Baby Boy, and I went out to eat at Ischia Porto’s Baia del Clipper restaurant. There, we had antipasto of smoked swordfish and salmon, shrimp in a light lemon sauce, octopus salad (my favorite), and seaweed zeppoles. Then, we had linguine with mussels and clams. Our secondo was the baked fish in acqua pazza that you see above. Yes, it does translate to crazy water. And, yes, even the names of food are cool in the Boot.
Of course, we intended to stop there. But we passed by Bar de Maio, and its fior di latte gelato was calling our name. So, we picked up some fior di latte, vanilla, and Kinder cereal ice cream for the whole family – all 13 in-laws back home – and called it a day. Well, not until after we finished off that kilo of ice cream with the help of our loved ones, of course.
There is a limited number of acceptable breakfast foods in Italy. Italians don’t eat much first thing in the morning. One thing they never miss is their espresso. They might take a shot of it in a cup of warm milk (as in the photo above) or straight. Either way, they’re using the strong stuff to wake themselves up. Some of them dip day-old Italian bread in their espresso. Or they pick up one of those crunchy biscotti we’ve all come to know and love. Now, my family – contadini, who worked the land from the wee hours of the morning, – serve tomatoes and bread (with olive oil, salt, and basil) for breakfast regularly. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that either. I indulge more than I care to admit. My father, who is now an American, has taught us to live on the stuff.
The younger generation of Ischitani, who are much less likely to be turning over soil at 5 a.m., eat more traditional breakfast foods. For a treat, they head to their local bakery/bar (bars are for coffee, not alcohol, in Italy). There, they will have a favorite pastry and some of that espresso or even a warm cup of milk. During the holiday break, my husband and I walked over to Gran Caffe Vittoria in Ischia Porto for le trecce (the braids) in the photo above. Flaky, braided pastry is topped with cream and sugar. It certainly is a sweet way to start the day.
Today is l’Epifania (known as the Epiphany to English speakers), which means that good little boys and girls in Italy were visited by La Befana, the Italian Christmas witch, last night. Back when Jesus was born, the three wise men knocked on the door of a little old lady looking for directions. She was cleaning and didn’t make much time for them, but when she was done, she felt badly and decided to look for them with her broom still in hand. She brought small gifts for Baby Jesus, but she never did catch up to the kings, so she dropped the gifts into the shoes of other children in the hopes that one of them would be the baby. Every year on January 5, she keeps up her search for the savior bambino and keeps the little trinkets coming.
Unlike Santa (known as Babbo Natale to Italians), she does not have much money, and is therefore similar to the families in southern Italy, who are the ones who really keep up the tradition. And she brings smaller presents of chocolate or a few little toys stuffed into stockings or shoes. If you’re naughty, she leaves you coal (real coal). Hope Befana left you some of the good stuff instead. My little guy got some Kinder chocolate and also a couple of little toys (see below). Guess, La Befana thought he was good this year. My husband and I must have been good, too, because we’re about to eat a splendid Italian meal in homage to the witch. Buon La Befana!
If you’re in Italy and you forgot to pick up a gift for a friend or relative, you can run to your local supermarket and improvise – even if it’s Christmas Eve. I’ve already mentioned how much of an education it is to walk around a foreign supermarket. Well, it was a joy to do so during the holiday season. Ischia’s supermarkets are full of even more treasures this time of year. On a few of our recent trips, I brought a camera, so I could share the experience with you. Here is what those last-minute shoppers in Ischia might be picking up today:
One of my relatives posted a new interpretation of V.I.P., Very Italian Person, on Facebook recently. There was no further explanation, so I thought I’d fill in the blanks. And I should know. I think I might be a V.I.P., and I am definitely the daughter of one and wife to another. That makes me a V.I.P. expert. So, here are the 10 (or un poco di piu) signs you are a V.I.P.
9. Your mamma is the best in all of history, second only to the Virgin Mary.
8. When asked what the most popular dessert in the world is, you respond, “Tiramisu.” (An Italian family on “Family Feud” recently demonstrated this one.)
7. You’ve dipped Italian bread in espresso for breakfast and/or have had tomatoes and bread before 10 a.m.
7a. You’re not at all shocked that there are so many signs of your V.I.P. status that are related to food.
7b. On that note, your calendar has “La Conserva” as the title for August and “Vendemmia” as the title for September.
6. The women in your family would be gold medalists if ironing was an Olympic sport.
5. For years, you thought your cousins were your siblings. If you didn’t live in the same house, you might as well have. And you certainly loved and hated like brothers and sisters.
4. Most of the men in your family are as pretty, if not prettier, than the women.
3. You are not speaking to one or more of your relatives because of a fight stemming from property in Italy.
2. Your F word is not fu.. It’s fan…o! And it’s often preceded by “va” I don’t have to spell it out. You know what it is.
And the No. 1 reason you are a V.I.P. is
1. Hand gestures mean as much, if not more, than any word, even Fan…o.
My family is new to Thanksgiving. Having moved from Ischia, Italy in the 1960s, they didn’t always know of this holiday. The first time they made turkey they cooked it with the plastic-covered giblets still in the cavity of the bird. They’ve gotten to know turkey – and how to cook it – since then. But it’s always been more of a side dish than the star of the meal. Lasagna or baked pasta or manicotti has always overshadowed the bird on our table. So, what Italian dishes show up on your Thanksgiving table? Let us know by taking the poll to the right of this entry. Can’t wait to see the results. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it.