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.
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.
Ischia’s pinete or pine tree forests are truly a child’s dream, at least a nature-loving child’s dream. My kid swims in dirt (literally and even in his Sunday best) whenever he can, so he loves them. There are walking and running paths, benches for taking in the fresh air, lizards and all sorts of insects, playgrounds, and pine trees as far as the eye can see. These early days in November are a little crisper when you first wake up but nice and toasty by mid- to late-morning, so we’ve been heading to the various pinete near our home. I thought you’d like to join us in Ischia, so I’m taking you on a tour:
Over the weekend my in-laws were itchin’ to try the Chinese food from New Jersey, which I always mention, mostly because I’m always craving it myself. Purists, don’t bother writing to tell me that what I like is American versions of somewhat Chinese food, etc., etc. I don’t care. It reminds me of home, and I love it. Of course, on Ischia, a small Italian island, there simply is no P.F. Chang’s or Panda Express, nor can you easily replicate your own Chinese food at home. With soy sauce and ginger (which are available on the island nowadays) and a few other ingredients, I was able to make Tyler Florence’s egg drop soup, and an Italian version (it includes soy sauce and balsamic vinegar) of Chinese chicken wings from Giada de Laurentiis. To top it off, I tried my hand at making fortune cookies for the first time. It was the most fun I’ve had in months and not at all as difficult as I’d imagined. Plus, the cookies tasted better, especially when I had the brilliant idea of serving them alongside pineapple chunks and Nutella for dipping everything. Definitely try dipping your fortune cookies in Nutella the next time you order take out. You won’t be disappointed.
I translated some popular Confucius quotes from English to Italian for the fortunes. Here are a few of my favorites:
“Chi butta l’orologio nel whiskey, perde tempo.” = “He who drop watch in whiskey, wastes time.”
“Ascolto, dimentico. Vedo, ricordo. Faccio, capisco.” = “I hear and forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”
“La vita e’ facile ma noi la facciamo complicata.” = “Life is simple but we make it complicated.”
The only warning I have about these fortune cookies is that with the high humidity in Ischia, they were already pretty stale the next day. I should have put them in a sealed container or Ziploc bag. Also, some of the fortunes got stuck to the cookie, which was a major bummer. Going to try thicker paper next time. Still, the in-laws were impressed and actually got a little taste of Chinese take out all the way in Ischia. Can you imagine? (More photos below)
Strawberries are one of my favorite fruits. Every year for my birthday in October, I celebrate with a strawberry shortcake. In Ischia, strawberries are hard to come by when they’re not in season (which is how things probably should be). So, I settled for a yellow cake with chocolate frosting (see photo below) that I made myself and a Napoleon cake that my mother-in-law got for me. My husband wanted to give me strawberries, so a few weeks after my birthday he was able to special order a couple of small boxes of strawberries. It wasn’t enough for shortcake, so I decided to cover them in chocolate instead. As I was dipping the tiniest of strawberries into the sweet stuff, I came across these mutants. There were miniscule green leaves coming out of the body of the berry. I had never seen such a strawberry, so I had to share it. If anyone knows what causes this, please clue me in. Otherwise, just behold the image. It’s like a train wreck. Can’t stop lookin’ can you?
I’ve given in and forgiven Ischia, Italy for all its flaws. In the spirit of the holiday season, I’m giving the beautiful island a second chance at my love. Granted, I am not nearly as naive as I once was and my eyes are wide open at 35. I don’t think we’ll ever reach the level of passion I had for the place when I was a twentysomething, but our relationship can evolve. There’s no way I want to live there. Ever. But I owe the place a lot, since it’s the home of my ancestors and my husband with whom I have my most precious gift, our son. You can read all about why I was on the outs with Ischia and why we’re making up in the “Gift of Second Chances” for the ItaliansRus.comOur Paesani column. Besides, how could I resist those gorgeous sandy beaches come summer time or the yummy food year round?
Either Ischia, Italy heeded my call for a festive and traditional Halloween celebration or the country is just becoming totally Americanized. When I walked onto Ischia’s main street on Oct. 31, there were kids dressed up and shouting “scherzetti o dolcetti” (Italian for “trick or treat”) all around me. So, some of the costumes were just orange T-shirts. So what? There was still free candy. And I spotted a devil, a couple of witches, and moms sporting alien antennas and cat’s ears. Granted, it wasn’t nearly as epic as American Halloween and there were no school parades of kids in costume or grand, Halloween-themed parties (except for ours). But it was way more than I expected. Italy surprised me.
I was thrilled to have found the spirit of Halloween in the most unexpected of places. My father knew nothing of Halloween when he moved to the United States in 1960 and until recently the holiday had no meaning here. The kids dressed up and ate what we would call funnel cake for Carnevale (Fat Tuesday) in February or March. Now, Halloween – thanks to popular American movies and TV shows – has arrived in Italy. My nieces dressed like vampires and my son was a dragon who fit right in celebrating his holiday abroad. The smaller world means we have fewer differences between us but that also means we have fewer differences. It could take away from the unique experiences one has when she goes abroad. And if everyone becomes American, how much fun would that be? Not much, in my opinion. But I was more than willing to overlook this yesterday. I was just grateful to have fellow trick or treaters helping to build the excitement for my little guy — and keep him from ripping off his costume, which is what he was doing for about 30 minutes until I bribed him with exactly four M&Ms. Yes, you can judge me now. In my defense, he actually ate no other candy the entire day or evening. Honest.
Of course, I still had to force my Halloween traditions on the in-laws, so we had to have a party. Take note of all the DIY decorations. I haven’t used so many markers and construction paper since the first grade. Baby Boy helped. Here’s how the festa went:
I’m a big fan of Halloween games. My mom sent Baby Boy a witch’s hat ring toss game, which he enjoyed while the adults ate dinner. For years, in the States, my cousins and I played the Mummy Game, where you break up into teams. Each team dresses one of its players like a mummy using toilet paper. The fastest team to create a live mummy wins. Yes, yes, I forced my adult relatives to oblige.
My husband and his nephew – the mummies – would not let me post their silly pictures online. But they were hilarious and you could tell how much fun they had from the looks on their faces (you could see through the TP, trust me). Yes, they are major party poopers Still, Baby Boy stuck with tradition, too, by jumping around and throwing the TP after the game was over. He got things started by de-mummifying his father.
I cooked everything for the party myself. The menu consisted of butternut squash soup (we had to special order the butternut squash and it’s green on the outside and bright orange on the inside but shaped like its American namesake), sausage and peppers, and Caesar salad. To top the soup, I cut pumpkins out of white sandwich bread, brushed olive oil on them, and sprinkled them with Parmigiano cheese before toasting them in the oven. Cupcakes, of course, made for the perfect dessert for this kid-friendly party. And I also made popcorn (a favorite with my nieces and nephew) and homemade honey roasted peanuts again. Delish!
Yes, the cupcakes are 100 percent from scratch, and I drew spider webs on the vanilla ones. Mamma had fun on Halloween, too.
When I handed an authentic Halloween treat – M&Ms and a lollipop dressed up like a ghost to name a couple – to my friend, whose family owns Trattoria Il Focolare in Ischia, Italy, he brought me two pumpkin-focused appetizers. In the spirit of friendship and the season, I had to give them a try. It was a delicious obligation. The pumpkin croquettes had a slight tang to them thanks to the pumpkin sauce on top of them. And the savory baba’ with more of Ischia’s seasonal mushrooms were nicely complimented by more pumpkin sauce. Yum!
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.
You can’t have Halloween without costumes. Since the Italians won’t have any, I decided to supply them with simple DIY get ups that can also serve as photo booth props…
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.
T-Shirt Translation – Every mother makes beautiful children but mine really exaggerated. Even though Baby Boy is wiping tears because he didn’t want to be photographed, the saying on the T-shirt, which was a gift but is available at the greatest souvenir shop in all of Ischia, Souvenirs di Ferrandino Michele, couldn’t be truer, in this mamma’s opinion. My son’s a handsome little guy and definitely represents my best work. Of course, his father contributed, but I don’t mind getting all the credit. Thank you, T-shirt. It’s clever. It’s in Italian. It’s my favorite souvenir in the history of the world. Good news adults, you too can get one in your size (in English or Italian). I’m sure the shirt rings true for you – and your mamma – too, no?