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.
Halloween is another one of those cultural exchanges that I’ve been having with family and friends as I continue to pass my time living in Ischia, an island off the coast of Naples in Italy. Italy knows not of Halloween. Its people think they know Halloween because nowadays one or two stores have a pumpkin in the window, they cook with pumpkin here, and a few shopkeepers hand out candy to the kids on the 31st. C’mon. That’s barely one-tenth of an American Halloween celebration. Rather than just miss one of my favorite holidays or stew in my jealousy over all my American Facebook friends and their pumpkin-picking, costume-wearing, party-throwing Halloween amazingness, I decided to force the holiday – the real holiday – on my Italian peeps.
Part 1 in this quest required I make all sorts of crafts with the help of 2-year-old Baby Boy. He’s gotten pretty good with the ol’ Elmer’s Glue if I do say so myself. This is a Halloween party for my toddler son, so the decorations are not scary. We had my mom ship us some Halloween paper plates and cups with a friendly ghost, black cat, bat, and spider on it, so we used that as the inspiration for our projects.
First up were the tissue paper spiders, like the one in the photo above. Everyone from Martha Stewart to your local PTA mom makes those tissue paper pom-poms or flowers for parties these days. I buy tissue in bulk from the dollar store and never leave the States without it. I’ve used them the traditional way hanging from a ceiling, as flowers in a vase, and last Halloween I turned them into Monsters by attaching giant googly eyes. Thinking back on that stroke of genius, I decided to turn them into spiders this year, by attaching pipe cleaner legs (by running them through the rubber band at the center of the “flower” and then securing them with the orange ribbon that also serves to hang them) in addition to the eyes.
I cut eyes out of a black and green spider from a set of foam shapes my mom had sent us from the States. I then attached a couple of googly eyes to each spider. Then, I tied an elastic string from one end to another and voila. I did the same for the black and orange cats in that same set. See below.
Second, I had to get Baby Boy even more involved than helping me drop a little glue where needed. So, I pulled out his paint set and some paper. I painted his hands black and had him make his prints on white paper so that his palms and thumbs overlapped and his fingers were printed in opposite directions. This created the look of a spider, which he thought needed a few fingerprints of orange, too. And we glued on more of those googly eyes. Mamma made a spider web and the words Boo using orange and black construction paper and there you have it. I won’t take credit for this project because similar versions of this one are all over the Internet, which is where I got the idea. My sister-in-law also has done the ghosts using her kids’ footprints in white. Very cute as well!
By the way, Baby Boy also made that pumpkin you spy underneath his hand-print spider, reports the proud Mamma. Of course, with 13 relatives expected to be on hand for the party I’m throwing on the 31st, two Halloween-inspired shades are not enough. I made the masks below using a template from a make-your-own mask kit that my mother had sent us. I just traced the mask from the kit onto foam sheets and cut them out and then added the witch’s hats, which were in that same set of foam shapes as the others.
And finally I used another one of the shapes in that set to make a pumpkin mask. All I did was cut out the eyes and nose and add eyebrows and candy corn fangs.
Coming up on Friday – Italy Meet Halloween Part 2, where you’ll see our party for yourself and discover if the Italians bought into the Halloween hype.
Today is the feast of Saint Francis (San Francesco in Italy). Those of us named Francesco and Francesca celebrate our name day (onomastico in Italian) today. This is a religious celebration, and you might have heard about the Pope (who took Francis/Francesco as his Pope name) marking the occasion with a trip to his namesake’s birthplace, Assisi. Back on the home front, we have secular celebrations akin to birthday parties. As the one celebrating, my job is to provide friends and family with sweets. Many people bring their colleagues pastries on the morning of their name day. I baked peanut butter cookies for my in-laws because my niece shares my name and those are her favorite. We ate pizzette (tiny pizzas) and French fries. Of course, that was dinner and at lunch we had a pasta dish with ham and a creamy sauce, followed by mozzarella in carrozza (Italian grilled cheese) and eggplant parmigiana. Obviously, there was no thought to cholesterol; it was a party, after all. Like everything else in Italy, name days are all about the food. Those closest to you sometimes give you small gifts. And my husband really surprised me this morning. He left a beautifully wrapped present in the bathroom for me to find when I awoke (and he was already off to work). The contents of said gift are in the photo above. What meant the most was the saying on the placeholder in the frame. Eternamente insieme! Together Forever! I hope so.
Recently, Baby Boy dressed like a pizza chef for his pizza-themed birthday party in Ischia, Italy. (More to come on that in a future blog post.) The only thing he’s missing is the mustache, which I had placed on straws, as part of photo booth props, and as chocolate lollipops, but he would not oblige. Nonetheless, he was adorable, and it got me thinking about other Italian-centric Halloween costumes. Take the poll to the right on this page and let us know which Italian-themed Halloween costume most appeals to you.
Imagine an 83-year-old great grandma babysitting for her three young great-grandchildren? I couldn’t imagine it either, until I read that she was Italian. Then, I understood. And I knew exactly where the story would go from there, especially the parts about unwanted opinions on child rearing. In “The Real Cost of My Grandma’s Babysitting,” blogger Nicole Caccavo Kear, tells the story of her helpful grandma and all her opinions on raising kids. It takes a village to raise a child and the Italian village has its matriarchs who are always right, and Kear gets it 100 percent accurate with her depiction. You must really read this blog, especially if you have nonne in your life.
Been there, done that, many times. Of course, the nonne in my life aren’t all my nonna. Some are zie. Some are cugine. Some are amiche. What unites them is that they all know better than I do. And that’s fine. They’re veteran Italian women, so I was expecting all the “suggestions” the minute I saw the positive sign on the pregnancy test. Every now and then I want the “suggestions,” even if they are criticisms disguised as advice. It is all doled out with love and a meatball, which makes it better than okay. Someday, I’ll be one of those nonne, zie, cugine, and amiche, and my “suggestions,” along with my lasagne, will be just as welcome – or at least that’s how I’d like to imagine it.
In the meantime, as you can tell from the photo above, I am raising the Energizer Bunny. From the day he was born, he has been set for maximum speed, volume, and power. His batteries never get old or tired. And there is no off button, or at least we haven’t found one yet. Get me a nonna stat!
After nearly five months in Italy, it has finally happened. I have officially turned into an Italian mamma or nonna or zia. Take your pick because the transformation for all of the above is the same. The first sign you are an Italian mamma or nonna or zia is the scent of your hands, which constantly smell of garlic and bleach. Sometimes, lemon gets in there, too. I first recognized this as the “perfume” of the Italian women in my family when I was a kid. No matter the time of day or the event (even at black-tie weddings), when my nonna or zie squeezed me hard, I caught a whiff of that garlic and bleach. At first, it made me gag, especially first thing in the morning. But now I associate the scent of garlic and bleach with admiration, strength, and most of all love.
Yesterday, in the shower, I noticed that I could not scrub enough. The garlic and bleach sticking to my skin wasn’t budging. The transformation is almost complete. Here are the other signs I’ve turned into an Italian mamma (or nonna or zia):
1. I wash my dishes with scalding hot water (by hand) every day. This one isn’t really my choice. We have no dishwasher in Italy. Still, I have a history of this behavior. One of my college roommates used to call me Teta (referencing her own grandmother) back when I was performing this trick at university. Listen, they just wouldn’t be clean without the suds and nearly boiling water. If my hands get red and the heat makes the garlic/bleach perfume stick, so be it. I also often wash clothes by hand, and this goes back to my college days and early 20s as well. I like pretty things, and they need to be cleaned, and sometimes the washing machine is your enemy. Oooh, did I just say that? Despite this, I will be kissing my dryer when I get home to the States because I HATE hanging clothes outside to dry and taking them inside to fold and folding them. (This and the fact that I don’t really iron might be a setback to the transformation.)
2. I cook everything from scratch. Again, this isn’t my choice. Here in Ischia, there are few shortcuts. There are no already-made pie crusts or Pillsbury biscuits that pop out of a carton and into the oven. And they don’t have the boxed cake mixes that I’ve often relied on in the States. So, I’m left with doing my cooking and baking the old-fashioned way. The good news is that everything tastes better, way better. Some things ended up being easier than I imagined. Chocolate and vanilla icing had always intimidated me and now I’ve made both with great success. I’ve had some failures, too, including my first attempt at cinnamon buns. But they became challenges that I worked hard to overcome. Eventually, I had success. Score for the Italian mamma!
3. While doing all this cleaning and cooking, I’ve worn a headscarf – close to a babushka – to keep my hair back, the sweat off my face, and as a preventative measure for headaches (my zia told me it would work, so there!). I think this says it all. I wore it with no shame and I really believe it prevents headaches, even though medical science repeatedly tells me that’s hogwash. Wait, this might be two signs I’ve entered Italian mamma-dom.
4. I have pope towels. Ok, this one also goes back some time. What are pope towels you ask? They are the kind of towels you reserve for when the pope is coming for a visit or that you use just for decoration and not for actual use. You don’t use these fancy towels for your average Giuseppe. I also have pope sheets, pope glasses, and pope espresso cups. I’m sure my collection of pope pieces will only grow over the years. When the collection is full, my transformation will be 100 percent complete. I wonder if some Italian nonna will then present me with a diploma that I could put on my resume.
Just about every Italian (at least the ones in Ischia) I have ever known has told me he hates cinnamon. “Non mangio cannella,” they say as I add cinnamon to all sorts of stuff I eat. I tell them most Americans love cinnamon. Haven’t they heard of the saying, “American as apple pie?” Well, cinnamon is a main ingredient in our national dessert, people. Since I’ve been in Italy for nearly five months now I have been starting to have cinnamon withdrawal. You can get cinnamon here – in tiny little packets similar to Sweet’N Low. I started to deal with my symptoms by eating whole wheat cinnamon toast with my son for breakfast. But it wasn’t enough. I decided to pull out the big guns and make cinnamon buns. The first time I made them was a disaster. I overheated the milk and water before adding the yeast, and the dough came hard and heavy. The next time, I nuked the milk and water for 30 seconds, rather than heating it on the stove (a tip from my mamma), before adding the yeast. And what I got was cinnamon perfection (as you can see in the photo above). For those who are interested, I used the Food Network Magazine’s recent recipe for cinnamon buns.
But I digress. Pretty much all my Italian family members, especially my husband, claim that they hate cinnamon. It makes them sick. They hate the smell. It’s disgusting. Yet, my husband couldn’t get enough cinnamon buns. He ate three in one sitting. Hellooooo, cinnamon is the star of cinnamon buns. The name gives it away. How can you hate the stuff and then eat three buns? These are also the same people who ask me to make apple pie every Thanksgiving. Yes, they know of and want to celebrate Thanksgiving, where cinnamon often makes numerous appearances. All this leads me to believe that Italians don’t hate cinnamon as much as they think they do. I think it’s high time giant Costco canisters of ground cinnamon become available in Italy. Bring it on.
Everyone deserves to have an Italian Mamma, even if she’s a virtual one. So, this is my call to adopt you. From now on, you can follow me on Twitter @ItalianMamma10. You can expect all sorts of advice, links to relevant stories about Italia, and virtual hugs from your Italian Mamma from Italy, New Jersey, or wherever I am in the world. My hope is to sometimes make you cry, sometimes make you laugh, and always make you think. To launch my new Twitter account, I wrote an “Our Paesani” column for ItaliansRus and Las Vegas’ La Voce about the 5 lessons you can learn from Italian Mammas. We certainly think we have a lot to teach you, so why not let us?
The summer heat always brings out the Latin lover in us all. So, it’s the perfect time for the release of my latest Our Paesani column on ItaliansRus.com. This one is about the facts of dating in Italy. Before you book a ticket to the Boot in the hopes of meeting Mr. Right, get your facts straight about dating customs and real Italian men. Trust me, there’s more to them than those firm bodies and bedroom eyes. As my zio tells my single sister, “Don’t trust the wooden nickel.” Ok, so I don’t really know what that means, but I know that you should be cautious about trusting Italian men, who I’m assuming are like wooden nickels. Good guess, right?
I never know what time it is when I’m in Ischia. I have six clocks on my kitchen wall here and none of them work. Not one of them. I don’t own an alarm clock in Ischia because I keep American hours for work, which means starting the day at 2 in the afternoon, and I’d never sleep that late. Never. So, if I don’t have my computer booted or my cell phone on and in front of my face, I have no idea what hour of the day it is. I know it’s time to start work once lunch is over. My in-laws with whom I live are in charge of lunch, so when we’re all done, I run to the computer, start the day, and know what time it is until about midnight when I shut down. I never know the time on holidays or weekends.
While my friends were staying with us in May, they kept asking, “What time is it?” None of us ever seemed to know. In addition, everyone in Ischia – maybe the whole of Italy, I’m not sure – keeps weird hours. We eat lunch between 1 and 2 p.m. Then, everyone (except me because I’m working and an American who knows nothing of the siesta) sleeps from 3 to 5 p.m. Yes, they sleep, sometimes to the point of snoring. It’s like night time all over again. Shutters and doors are drawn and barely a soul – except for a tourist or two – walks the streets. You are expected to refrain from calling people, out of respect, in the middle of the afternoon. Then, at 5 p.m., people with traditional full-time jobs return to work, where they stay until about 8 p.m. And no one starts eating dinner until 9 or even 10 p.m. That’s crazy time if you ask me.
So, when my friends saw the above ad in one of the storefront windows, they snapped a photo just for me. They realized that this goes beyond the hours the Ischitani keep, too. Ischia time really is crazy time. “Ischia dove si mangia, si beve, e si fischia,” which means “Ischia, where you eat, drink, and whistle” is a popular saying on the island. It’s what makes this place perfect for a luxurious vacation and not so hot for a normal life.
Most of the time when you’re on the island, especially if you know the natives, you’re doped up on heavy, delicious southern Italian fare, including tomatoes and bread, fresh peaches, and every pasta you could imagine, all cooked like mamma made it (because she usually did). This food high clouds your judgment. In the summer, the heat smothers you and you wanna lightly swing in a hammock as the sea breeze caresses your skin. In the winter, you are cold to your bones and you want to curl up in front of a fire and under an enormous blanket filled with feathers or rather the entire goose because you’re that frozen. There are really only two seasons here – summer and winter – and both are extreme.
All this breeds laziness. It’s the kind of place that makes you want to give up all ambition and bum on the beach or make heat with a sultry islander (there are a few of those here as well and I should know because I married one and that’s how I ended up on crazy time). The next thing you know, you’re eating, you’re drinking, and you’re whistling. That mortgage you have? Don’t worry about it. That high-power career you were developing? Forget about it. Family and friends back home? Who remembers them? Move in with the islander, lounge in the sand, invest in a hammock. This is all sounding very appealing to you. You’re about to jump in head first. After that last bite of homemade gnocchi, you gotta say yes to giving it all up to live on a small island…that never appears on a map…where everyone will know your name and your business…where dreams go to swim in the ocean. Then, you wake up and realize that Ischia time is indeed crazy time. And you just want to quit the gnocchi cold turkey and go home. Still, you might put a hammock in your living room.