Southern Italy has this way of bringing visitors to a different time and place. That is never truer than on Carnevale, also known as Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras. When Americans with Italian roots go home to the Boot, they experience a transportation of sorts. It’s like they step into their parent’s or grandparent’s or great-grandparent’s shoes but for a moment. The tower in the piazza that has stood in place for thousands of years, the way everyone knows everyone else’s name and business, old school traditions, and making everything from scratch are out of place in what we Americans see as modernity.
Carnevale Is a Kaleidoscope of Wonders
To go back to Italy for Carnevale is to both go back in time and shake things up. Up is down, down is up, and you can’t remember how you ever got to this place. I don’t mean to say you will get drunk. You might, but I never have. But even those who don’t imbibe, get tipsy on the joy of the day. People dress up in costume and indulge in decadent foods. When I was there a few years back, I felt as though I was thrown into a kaleidoscope that someone just kept turning to change the image. It was magical and a stark difference from the cold sense of suffering everyone experiences a day later on Ash Wednesday, when Lent officially begins.
Even though the dressing up is mostly for kids at school, who parade much like American ones do on Halloween, adults get in on the act. When my husband worked as a bartender, he would sport a costume. Sometimes, he was a pirate. Sometimes, he was Mickey Mouse (bought the hands in Orlando’s Disney World, in fact). I think he went as a mummy or something another year. The point is that in small towns and villages where everyone knows everyone, it’s exciting to think you might be mistaken about the person behind the mask. As you walk through the piazza and see the regulars dressed like someone or something else, the air of mystery sets the tone for what lies ahead.
Of course, a celebration in Italy would be incomplete without a special menu. This holiday has its staples. Discover what you might find on the table today:
Spread of Antipasto – The works. Think prosciutto di Parma, an assortment of cheeses, other deli meats, marinated goodies such as artichokes or eggplants, and prepared appetizers, such as stuffed mushrooms or something more exotic and of the imagination of the chef in charge
Lasagna – This is a must in my house, and it must be traditional and stuffed with ooey gooey ricotta and mozzarella cheese and smothered in Nonno’s Sunday Funday sauce
Meatballs – Nonno’s meatballs are also must haves for Carnevale. In many ways, this feast is just Sunday on steroids. Some nonnas make the meatballs full of surprises, including pignoli (pine nuts) and raisins, but my family has simpler tastes, so we don’t go that route
Desserts – My father favors migliaccio (a citrus ricotta pie), but many families (especially for the kids) go with cioffe (pronounced chohffee), fried dough strips
Like any Italian holiday, the true beauty of it lies in the time spent with family and friends. Still, what makes this one unique is the fact that you’re certain to see a different side of those you know best. You simply don’t know who will show up. That’s part of the fun. Well, that and the meatballs. Happy Carnevale!
Recently, Chef Ciro Mattera of Ischia, an island off the coast of Naples in Italy, which is home to my ancestors, offered a taste of the dolce vita to Americans in New Jersey. Ischia is virtually untouched by American standards. There, you’ll still find people clinging to tradition, living off the land, and making everything from scratch. If food is love, then Ischia is the epicenter of adoration. And Mattera is constantly paying homage to its traditions.
The cuisine, much like the island itself, is full of delicious contradictions. Ischia is the mountains, including its highest point Epomeo, and the sea, including its many beaches. That dichotomy is reflected in the island’s food through its most famous dishes – fresh seafood and coniglio (rabbit). Recently, Mattera, whose restaurant Ristorante Saturnino in Forio, Ischia earned him recognition in the Michelin Guide, served a tasting menu he created with my brother, who is the director of Food and Beverage at Galloping Hill Golf Course’s Red Knot restaurant in Kenilworth, N.J. Discover the beautifully presented food and what went into each course:
Tuna, lightly marinated in a citrus sauce, with a fork of pasta with kumquat served as the introduction to the meal. The lemon and kumquat were refreshing. The simplicity set the right tone for the rest of the evening. I’m not a wine drinker, but my brother chose the pairings for the meal. Much like the wine, the food was intended to build on the flavors as we moved along. This palette cleansing, light bite was the perfect starter. Mattera made bread with rosemary from scratch for la scarpetta, so guests could savor every last drop.
This delectable bite of red snapper wrapped in zucchini and sitting on a bed of more vegetables, such as eggplant, and an onion puree was the perfect segue to the rest of the meal. With the onion and medley of veggies, there were more flavors to compliment the fish than with the tuna. The homemade breadstick with rosemary was a surprise bonus. Its crunchiness was a nice foil for the soft fish.
Of course, this would not be a proper Italian meal without some sort of take on pasta. For the first course, known in Italy as the primo or primo piatto, Mattera turned to his roots in Ischia. He made homemade ravioli stuffed with coniglio Ischitano (rabbit typical of Ischia) and topped with red sauce. The chef admitted to rather enjoying using the Kitchen Aid pasta and pasta cutter attachment to pull off these beauties. And the guests found the taste divine. For those of us at the meal, who come from Ischia and regularly eat rabbit, each bite was like tasting home.
This beef shoulder cooked slowly overnight for that melt-your-mouth effect. Topped with a red wine sauce and paired with a bit of frisee salad, this dish offered the welcome contradiction of sweet and bitter. Mattera presented the scallop potatoes, standing on their side with layers of cream, which paired well with the red wine sauce and looked unique. A few of the guests felt this was the best dish of the meal.
The finale featured two desserts – a poached pear sliced and wrapped around a ricotta stuffing and sitting on a bed of chocolate sauce. Pistachios and strawberries topped the dessert, and a lace cookie leaned against it. Ricotta cookies – one with chocolate chips and one with pistachios – were a happy surprise for guests, who didn’t expect two desserts. The light ricotta and pear were a great match for the vibrant chocolate. And those cookies were soft in the center and crispy at the edge, providing yet another delicious contradiction.
When my father wakes up in the morning, he creaks like an old house. He has literally worn out his shoulders from carrying the weight of his world, a leaf blower or fully grown tree, on his back year after year. His legs are shot from walking from one lawn to another and mowing or bending down to plant flowers. His head is weary with the reflection, nostalgia, and angst of old age. Perhaps, it is his hands that tell the entire story. His hands are like leather replete with cracks and creases. The nail beds are forever gray no matter how much soap and scrubbing. Yet, he works still. At 70, in fact, he says he needs to work, not for the money but for the glory.
Americans are expecting thousands of immigrants – documented and undocumented – to go on strike today to show leaders, not to mention the rest of the world, what the country would be like without them. The hashtag popping up on social media is #ADayWithoutImmigrants. Our dirty little secret, according to the protesters, is that we need them to survive economically and culturally. Some of them think we couldn’t go on without them, in fact. Some even say our country would be a wasteland without them. Well, guess what? They’re right.
My own day without immigrants would be a bleak one indeed for I would cease to exist. My family would vanish. I am the daughter of immigrants, the granddaughter of immigrants, the wife of an immigrant, and the mother of a dual citizen. I am literally nothing and no one without immigrants. My Nonno Giovanni (in the photo above) sacrificed the only life he ever knew and moved his entire family to the United States beginning in 1960. He never did learn English, nor did he ever have the kinds of friends he had back in Italy, who played cards with him and delivered his children, and got tipsy with him. In America, he worked and so did his children.
Those dirty hands of my father paid for me to go to college without debt. They continue to help countless customers maintain their property, enjoy the luxuries of ponds and fancy walls in their yards, and do their part for the environment (with tree plantings, vegetable gardens, and manicured lawns that keep rodents and insects at bay naturally). Along with my mother, a native born American who is the child of immigrants herself, he raised three children to contribute to society. Those dirty hands held mine and those of my brother and sister. They lifted us up when times were hard and put us down when we tried to climb on our pedestals.
Without those hands, we’d be worse off. Without those hands, you’d be worse off. Today, I salute immigrants and the immigrant experience. It’s not just my father, who has brought this light to my life. I am a better person because of my Indian friends who showed me the joy of Diwali, my Jewish friends who still pray with me, my Greek and Mexican friends who have become family, my Korean friends who grew up with me, my Muslim friends who taught me about the real beliefs of their people and not the caricature on TV, my Japanese friends who taught me the wonders of Girl’s Day, my African friends whose devotion to raising the village is like my own, and the list goes on and on.
Today, as immigrants take to the streets to prove their worth to us, a worth that should be obvious to all, I can’t help but think of the words of the mighty Mario Cuomo:
Some Americans believed that we should think of these newcomers to our land as being dropped into a ‘melting pot’ that could boil away their distinguishing cultures, homogenizing them into a new multiethnic America. I have always believed that the better analogy for America would be the mosaic, like those in many church windows, each a different size, shape, and color, harmoniously arranged to form beautiful patterns. It would be tragic if our country were to sacrifice the immigrants’ gifts in favor of some kind of bland uniformity.
The Tombola season, which roughly begins the week of Christmas and ends on the Epiphany Jan. 6, will soon be ending. But you still have time to break out the board and pump up the volume on Nonno Dante’s hearing aid, so he can hear the numbers.
For those who don’t know, Tombola is Italian bingo. As with most things Italian, this game is far more colorful than the one Americans play. Each number on the board is equivalent to a symbol, and the images could not be more contradictory in nature. Alongside Sant’ Antonio (No. 13), you’ll find “il culo” (No. 16, and yes that’s a woman’s bare bottom depicted) among other nicer and naughtier images.
Italians have the board memorized and the numbers and symbols go hand in hand. Italia is numero uno, for example. Flashing the one pointer finger is often a way to communicate “Italy.” You get the idea of the cultural significance here. Capeesh?
Put yourself in charge of the game and be the one who calls out the numbers. Recognize that with great power comes great responsibility. Oh yes, we’re getting real here.
Gather your guests around a table and randomly dole out individual Tombola cards. Make sure to shuffle the deck and hand them out turned over, images face down. Why? Well, because Zia Rosina is definitely going to accuse you of cheating by purposely handing winning cards over to Zio Nunzio. This will be your defense.
Make sure all the wooden number chips are in the jug and give the jug a few good shakes in front of the group of players.
Decide if you’re playing for money or beans or plain ol’ fun. To be honest, most Italian families I know play for change and wouldn’t have it any other way. They want to pick winners and pick on losers, so playing for fun is out of the question.
Remind Cousin Leo that the game is played with his clothes on before he starts taking off his pants. This ain’t strip poker or strip Tombola. There’s always one in the group. Always.
Don’t lose your mind when Nonna Agnese asks you to repeat Diciassette Disgrazia for the hundredth time and still hears Diciannove Risata (which she actually has on her Tombola card as opposed to the latter).
Pass around the vino and snacks while you’re playing. Italians don’t do any kind of celebrating without vino and snacks. If you don’t hand over the goods, your guests will talk badly about you. Truth. As my cousin says, “We bring the prosciutto.” Indeed, we better bring the prosciutto or else there are consequences.
Keep your eye on Zio Felice, who is notorious for winning at all costs. Make sure he doesn’t turn off Nonno’s hearing aid or throw Zia’s winning numbers under the table when she’s not looking. These crimes have taken place under my watchful eye, and it’s not pretty when people catch on. Trust me. Yet, if I had videotaped it and published the dang thing on YouTube, I’d probably be a zillionaire by now. Sigh.
Every so often look at the players’ cards to see if anyone has unwittingly won the game. Remind them to shout, “Tombola,” if they have completed a full row – horizontally, vertically, or diagonally.
It’s your job to keep the peace when the arguments about who really won breaks out. In the old days, I would have turned on the likes of Mike Bongiorno or Pippo Baudo as a way of distracting the restless natives. Nowadays, I just get out of the way and let them duke it out. At least, I get a show out of it.
So, you thought the gift giving was over and done after Dec. 25, did you? Well, in Italy children get gifts again on Jan. 6, the Epiphany, from La Befana, the Italian Christmas witch. Some Italian Americans (myself included) keep up the tradition despite being first-generation immigrants to the United States and other countries. The good news is that La Befana is poor, especially compared to Santa, known as Babbo Natale to Italian children. Usually, her gifts are few, small, and inexpensive.
Back in the day and back in Ischia, Italy, my father would put out his sister’s stockings (actual stockings) and La Befana would fill them with tangerines, walnuts, a piece of chocolate, and pencils. Since we’ve been in the United States, Befana has gotten a little bit more generous. One gift that is always a winner, for any holiday, is a good book. Over the years, I’ve been collecting some Italian and Italy-inspired children’s books for my now 5-year-old son. Here is a roundup of a few that would make winning gifts for the Epiphany or any day:
Clearly, Old Befana by Tomie dePaola is an appropriate option because it teaches children the legend behind the celebration of the Epiphany and the tradition of La Befana in Italy. Tomie dePaola is an award-winning children’s author, who has often infused his work with his Italian heritage. Other titles of his, in fact, make this list. This book, in particular, is educational and can help parents instill the idea of Italian traditions, and the illustrations are beautiful and typical of dePaola’s books. Seriously, my son and his cousins can’t get enough of Old Befana or the Strega Nona series, also by dePaola. (Ages 6 to 9)
All the Way to America: The Story of a Big Italian Family and a Little Shovel by Dan Yaccarino is the story of every American. It is a reminder that all of us come from somewhere else. And it shows children how hard immigrants had to work to pave the way for their children and grandchildren. In this book, you’ll learn how one man – and his shovel, which he passed down through the generations of his family – lived the American dream. The writer/illustrator credits his immigrant family and shows its evolution to explain how he came to have such a successful and prosperous life. The colorful images and easy-to-understand language capture the attention of little ones. (Ages 5 to 9)
Drawn to C is for Ciao: An Italy Alphabet by the late Governor Mario M. Cuomo’s participation in writing it, I am so glad I picked it up for my son. Truth is that I’m enjoying it more than he is. Cuomo wrote the book with Elissa D. Grodin and the illustrations are courtesy of Marco Ventura. Each letter of the alphabet gets a word related to Italy, Italians, and their contributions to the world. There’s a singsongy poem for each letter that is short and sweet, which is what I read to my 5-year-old son. But there’s also a longer explanation of the word and its history to the side of the side of each page. There’s so much history, so much to learn. It’s really breathtaking to consider what our people have accomplished. The introductory message from Cuomo really moves me. “I see America as a magnificent new nation of people who have come here bringing with them reflections of their own distinct cultures, joining with the people and traditions already here,” writes Cuomo. “Our beauty is in the harmonizing-not the homogenizing-of our people.” (Ages 6 to 9)
Tomie dePaola makes the list twice because he’s awesome. My own mother read the Strega Nona books to my brother, sister, and me. Now, I read them to my son and niece and nephew. Strega Nona, which means grandma witch in Italian, is part magician, part housekeeper and cook, and part lovable grandma. She teaches lessons about life and family, and Italian America wouldn’t be as well off without her. While I invested in the treasury, you could just get a copy of the original Strega Nona, which is more affordable and just as lovely a gift. In the original story, Strega Nona leaves her helper Big Anthony in charge while she’s away, and he ends up flooding the village with pasta. The kids will laugh out loud. Mine does every. single. time. (Ages 5 to 8)
Color & Learn: Easy Italian Phrases for Kids by Roz Fulcher is interactive because it is a coloring book, too. As kids douse the pages in Crayola red and green, they can also learn simple words and phrases in the mother tongue, Italian. The novelty of having an activity, such as coloring, encourages learning. And the images are as cute as the one on the cover. Some of the others include kids cooking and eating meals, celebrating holidays, and experiencing weather phenomena. While no one will become fluent with this little book, it is a great foundation for beginning to teach the Italian language. (Ages 4 to 8)
For Italians, Christmas is still all about spending time with the family and the birth of Jesus. The gift giving frenzy is nothing like it is in the United States. In fact, most families exchange only with those closest to them. Often, one family will give another a basket of food – a few indulgences and some home baked goods. Little kids get a surprise from Babbo Natale (Santa Claus) on Dec. 25 and a little something from La Befana (the Italian Christmas witch) on Jan. 6, Epifania. Still, make no mistake about it, Christmas is huge in Italy.
While the tree with gifts under it isn’t as big of a deal, you’ll still find them. But they might seem minuscule when compared to the presepio or nativity scene. Many of these scenes, especially in and around Naples, Italy, take up entire rooms, might include lights and music, replicas of villages and traditions, running water and fountains, and live plants. (Whenever I’m in Ischia, which is an island of Naples, for the holidays, I tour the presepi of the island.) Of course, many towns and neighborhoods also host a live presepio with real humans and animals – the ones said to have been in Bethlehem when Jesus was born – in the days leading up to Christmas. And the townspeople go door to door on Christmas with a large baby Jesus statue for everyone to kiss as a blessing.
Even though my father moved to the United States from Ischia in 1960, when he was just 13 years old, he has never forgotten the Italian Christmas celebration. Every year, he builds a presepio that takes up an entire room in our house, features live plants and trees, fountains, music, reminders of both his homes in Ischia and New Jersey and some of our travels, and statues of the nativity that my maternal grandmother made for him in a pottery class many moons ago. Over the years, the presepio has grown along with my father’s imagination and all the pieces that various family members and friends have added to it.
What’s most beautiful about this tradition is how it attracts our relatives like magnets. It’s part of their Christmas journey to come and see how my father has changed it from the year before. It’s always unique. And he offers a hyperbolic tale about who is in the scene and what is happening. When my cousins are over, the family of dogs represents them and they might be on the lookout for Nonno, who is represented by a drunk old man figure that came straight from Naples. The story changes every year and every minute really. It all depends who’s with him at the time.
Now, I’m sure you’re itching to have a nativity scene of your own. Don’t be alarmed. You don’t have to go all out and make an expensive or gigantic presepio. The type As among us are welcome to try. But you can also just make a simple DIY presepio. Have the kids pitch in. My son is a devout presepio maker; he practices all year long and uses his superhero and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles figurines to create a scene that is truly all his own.
Here’s how to make a presepio:
Find the perfect spot. Determine where in your home you can put your presepio. Before you can plan, you need to know how much space is at your disposal. Remember, you can put a little presepio under your tree or a great big one on your lawn. Don’t feel limited to the mantel or dining room table.
Choose your materials. Gather the figurines, decorative items, and anything else you’d like to give character to your scene. Many Italian Americans I know have Christmas village houses or larger ornaments that fit in nicely. Remember, Italians don’t just necessarily include Jesus’ birth. That’s the centerpiece, but they also feature figurines from popular culture, replicas of their everyday life, such as a statue of someone swigging wine from a bottle or playing Italian cards, and reminders of their work (woodworkers and landscapers), and anything else that their imagination can conjure.
Plot the scene. Think of this as you would a story. Where does each item need to go to share the Christmas story as you see fit? Decide and plan accordingly.
Work within your limits. Even if you have little to no space in your home and few materials, you can still make a presepio. I’m selling a shadow box with a customized paper presepio inside it. The adorable figures are made of card stock and feature details, such as the gem. While I used a Cricut to cut out each figure, you can do it manually. A framed beauty like this is perfect for anyone in a small apartment or tiny house.
It’s not what you think. This is not a political story, nor is this the story of a child of the DREAM Act frightened about today’s United States. Actually, this story should inspire anyone of any group – both Democrats and Republicans – who reads it. It is a reminder for me of whence I came. This is my favorite story of the American dream, the one about my peasant people and how they got here and how I came to be an American, born and raised. It’s how I’m choosing to celebrate Thanksgiving.
Once upon a time in a land shaped like a boot, far, far away from my beloved New Jersey, there lived my ancestors on both sides of the family. We come from the island of Ischia, a province of Naples in Italy. While the two families were friends back in the old neighborhood, they couldn’t have imagined that two of their children would meet and marry years later and make them all family. But before any of that could happen, there would be great suffering, the kind that changes the course of history and the lives of individuals. Fascism rose in Europe and around the world. World War II happened. And my people were hungry, literally hungry, for a better life that included steady work and food on the table. They scattered. Some people went to Argentina, others to Canada. Some went to France, others to Algeria. Some went as far as Australia, others went to the United States of America.
My maternal grandfather Rocco Di Costanzo went to France first. But America e’ sempre America, America is always America. And he wanted a slice of that good life he had been hearing so much about. His mother wrote a note to Giovanni Luciano, my maternal grandmother’s father, asking if would be willing to marry off one of his daughters to her youngest son, so he could get a green card and work in the U.S. Luciano had moved to the United States from Ischia years earlier and indeed his wife was a U.S. citizen and his children were all American born. One of his daughters was already pretty much taken, and the other – my grandmother Concetta – was deep into a crush but still very much single. So, my great-grandfather packed up my grandmother, who was 19 at the time, and headed home to Ischia. My grandmother will tell you with tears in her eyes – tears for all she lost and all she gained on that trip – how she sat at a table with my grandfather’s entire family. My grandfather’s mother turned to her and said, “Well, are you going to marry my son or not?” At 19, she looked around and saw no allies, not even her own father. She didn’t want this. But she says she was too embarrassed to say no, so she said yes.
Within a week, she was walking through the streets of Ischia with all her long-lost relatives and their neighbors throwing confetti at her feet and a string of children – some as young as 3 – sitting on the altar. We’re pretty sure my father – who would eventually marry their daughter – was among the kids as his in-laws, who barely knew each other, wed. While marrying an American is still a legal gateway into the nation, there are conditions. To begin, as it was then and now, couples must prove their union is for real, to create a life together and not just to get a visa. The system tries to root out sham marriages.
This was a sham if ever there was one. My grandmother felt forced into the union, and my grandfather, just barely 20, continued to write to his beloved in Italy and even promised he’d eventually go back to her. My grandparents didn’t even honeymoon together. My grandmother, her father, and another woman who married someone from Ischia went to Venice together. And my grandfather had to go spend some significant time in Canada before he could enter the United States with papers. Proving your marriage is real is something with which I’m familiar because I went through it with my husband. It took two years, and we needed to show shared bills, joint tax returns, family photos of our extended families together, our son’s birth certificate, and get grilled in interviews with immigration agents. Twice my husband was put in immigration jail at the airport (it’s a real thing), and ours was a union built on love. We had two friggin’ weddings for goodness sake. Who would pay that kind of money for a fake marriage? Things weren’t as strict back in my grandparent’s day, pre 9-11, but you still weren’t supposed to marry for citizenship. But I digress.
Of course, my grandparents never did part ways. They were married for nearly 60 years and had six kids before my grandfather passed away in 2015. Love certainly grew. My grandfather lost touch with his beloved in Italy long, long ago. In the technical sense, they might have been considered illegals. If that’s not illegal enough to satisfy you based on what I promised in the headline, then look at my father’s side of the family. They fit the bill. We were WOPs, without papers. My Zio Michele, my father’s oldest brother and classmate to my maternal grandfather, was 18 years older than my father and grew disgusted with work in Ischia.
The family had been selling wine to distributors when, in the night, someone stole the barrel and dumped half of it on the ground. It takes a year to make a barrel of wine. That meant that a year’s worth of work was now worthless. My grandfather cursed those who did it, and indeed they ended up dying ugly deaths. (I’m not supporting this, but man that evil eye seems to work, so be warned.) And Zio Michele had had enough. My grandfather gave him his blessing and found him a spot as a stowaway on a ship headed to the United States. Ironically, he was with a cousin of my mother’s and they hid in a closet. An ally keeping their secret would bring them food.
Toward the end of the trip, someone found silverware that fell through a vent near where they had been hiding. They were swiftly put into a jail. Shady police officers (sorry, but it’s true) ushered them out of the jail, hid them under blankets on the floor of a car as they left the parking lot, and delivered them to relatives already in the United States. My maternal great grandfather wouldn’t help his cousin. He feared for his own American citizenship, so he sent him back to Ischia. Zio Michele, however, had uncles in New York, who hid him on a farm. For a year, he tended to the farm and mostly stayed in a loft bedroom. He kept a ladder that could be thrown out the window near his bed, so he could run from the authorities if anyone came looking to deport him.
After a year, friends from Ischia, who were living in New Jersey, dressed him like an American soldier, brought him to church, and told him to pick a wife among the parishioners. He chose my aunt, an Italian American, whose family came from Calabria but who was born in the United States. At first, she turned him down. She assumed he had another family in Italy and this was all a ploy. But my uncle was persistent, and she changed her mind. Indeed, marriage would also make him legal. They were married more than 50 years and had four children together. Again, whether it started as a sham or not, it was real in the end. In 1960, 10 years after becoming legal, Zio Michele brought my paternal grandparents, two of my aunts, and my father, who was 13 at the time, to the United States.
The rest of us – we owe our lives, our Americanness – to my grandparents and uncle. Without their willingness to sacrifice everything and take on the fear of the unknown, we would not even exist, let alone have the chance to thrive. It’s humbles me every time I think about it.
My father, his sisters, and grandparents had tickets to American and even made friends on board the ship that brought them over. They watched movies and speculated about what their new life would be like. They had more hope than those who came before them. In many ways, my father would become the most American of the bunch. He was the only one to go to school in the United States, and he graduated from a New Jersey high school. He is the only one who married an American – my mom, whose family comes from Ischia but who had been born, raised, and educated in the United States. Yet, in many ways, he was also the one who stayed the most Italian. He travels back to Italy often, maintains all the traditions (winemaking, building a large presepio or nativity scene every Christmas, speaking the dialect of his hometown), and still keeps in touch with friends and family in the Old Country. And I, his daughter, married a native of Ischia, which keeps us all the more connected. Perhaps, it was because as the baby of the family, he was protected from the hard times, the suffering, the famine. He was born after World War II. Perhaps, it was because in Italy he had a sacred childhood filled with playing soccer in the piazza and getting comforted by his mother. He often says he has only love for Italy.
Still, America is always America. My father credits the country with educating him and allowing him to build a business and have a family with some financial security, something he realizes was not quite possible – or at least not in the same way – in Ischia. Now, the United States, of course, is home. That’s something for which to be more than thankful. God bless America!
You probably think boiling water and putting pasta in the pot is easy peasy. You think I’m crazy for even writing about something so basic that even the worst of cooks can handle it. That’s what I thought, too…until I met my in-laws, who live in southern Italy. Actually, even boiling the pasta is an art over there. None of us – even the best trained Italian Americans among us – know what we’re talking about. Here’s what I have learned:
1. FILL THE POT
Fill the pot with water, leaving at least two inches clear at the top of the pot. Put the pot on the stove and turn up the gas (or electric) to the highest setting. On my LG stove, it’s “SuperBoil.” Make sure you are using a big enough pot for the amount and type of pasta you are boiling. For instance, long pasta, such as linguine or spaghetti, need a wide pot, so you can get the whole pasta into the pot at the same time. When you use a tall, narrow pot for spaghetti, the top of the spaghetti might not get into the pot at the same time, and it will be harder than the other half. Or you’ll end up breaking the pasta into smaller pieces, which defeats the purpose of serving spaghetti over, say, shorter penne. Of course, if you’re boiling an entire pound of pasta, you need a big enough pot, so the pasta doesn’t all clump together and fail to cook evenly. But you know this stuff already, right?
2. THROW SALT
Do NOT put salt in the water at the start. Be patient. See, already the Italians are getting tricky. When the water begins to boil, generously add salt. Italians tend to use a thick sea salt And they are still pretty generous. My husband insists on bringing salt (both fine and doppio) from Italy to use in our American kitchen. He says American salt is never enough, nor does it provide any taste. I don’t know about all that. I often use plain, ol’ American-purchased salt with similar results to his, but this is how seriously he and his people take the process.
3. STIR THE POT
That’s right, Italians encourage people to stir the pot (usually both literally and figuratively). They’re that kind of people. That’s what we love about them. Every so often, you must stir the pot, so the pasta doesn’t get sticky or attach itself to the pot’s bottom.
4. COOK UNTIL AL DENTE
Italians will laugh at you if you overcook the pasta. And 99.9 percent of the time when Americans boil pasta, they overcook it. There should still be a little bite to it. Pasta should never be soft, nor should it break in half when stabbed by a fork. You want it to be al dente. It should be cooked but still somewhat firm. Don’t throw it against a wall to check. Just take a bite. If it’s a tubular pasta, make sure the boiling water is not sitting in the tube before you bite into it. Otherwise, you will burn your tongue. Trust me, I know. Fresh pasta or gnocchi is a little different; in that case, you boil the pasta until it rises to the surface of the water.
5. STRAIN THE PASTA THE RIGHT WAY
That’s right, there’s a right way and a wrong way to strain pasta. Most Americans throw the pasta and water in a colander and let all that starchy goodness slip down the drain of the kitchen sink. Italians will stand by and cry foul if they ever witness this atrocity. Trust me, I know this, too. Use a slotted or colander spoon to move the pasta from the pot of water to the pot of sauce, which should be on top of a low flame. Then, you should take a regular spoon and add between 1/4 cup and 1/2 cup of starchy pasta water into the pot with the sauce and pasta. This will thin out the sauce and coat the pasta, so the sauce better adheres to it. Now, you’re ready to serve it. Bet you learned a thing or two, right?
I’ve become one of those people. You know, the kind who is always waxing nostalgic. I’m my grandparents now. Every sentence seems to begin, “Back in the old days…” And so it begins. In 10 days, I’m going to turn 38 years old. It’s not 40. But it’s closer to 40 than 30 was. Suddenly, I’m clinging to whatever time I have left with older relatives, recognizing my parent’s age, and feeling, well, old – or at least much older. It has me thinking about the past – a lot.
Rather than bore you with details of how I had it better back then in that time and galaxy far, far away, I thought I’d share some pictures. These are my keepsakes from Ischia in 2005, when I visited my then boyfriend (now husband) in his home and met his family for the first time. It was an age of innocence. It was also a time when Ischia was not a second home but still a dream vacation for me. It’s funny what a difference living in a place – seeing all its warts up close – makes in your perception of it. Anyway, here’s what I’ve been looking at, staring at, and wondering whatever happened to:
I couldn’t help but snap this shot while waiting in a car for someone’s arrival. Who? I can’t remember. But I do remember seeing these seniors sitting out there and fondly thinking about my grandfathers, both of whom were born and raised in Ischia. They always had close friends from the island, and whenever they got together, there would be intense conversation and rounds of Italian cards. They also all owned one of those hats.
This photo always spoke to me. I believe I took it from Villa Arbusto, a museum in Ischia, where my husband and I would return to take wedding pictures. For one, the photo provides a beautiful look at the residences of the island. For two, it seems like a metaphor for life with its peaks and valleys.
Ischia has quite a few naturally formed rocks that jut out of the ocean and are in the shape of something. This one, called il Fungo or the Mushroom, is the most famous and it is the symbol of the town of Lacco Ameno. From above, you can’t miss it.
This is near my father’s hometown of Buonopane in Ischia. My husband was showing me around, and we spotted this goat on someone’s property, on top of a roof of sorts. I had to take his picture, but there was nowhere to park. So, I just took it from the car. It came out pretty well. And I always wonder what that goat was doing up there. Somebody was missing their milk or dinner with him hiding out up there.
There was a refreshing quiet about the sea on this day in spring 2005. The docked boats – waiting for summer’s return – spoke for all the Ischitani natives anxious to get back to work. Most of them are in tourism, which is a seasonal industry lasting only about six months out of the year.
In early spring, there are few tourists hanging around the beach in Ischia. But a few more weeks after this picture was taken and the place would see wall-to-wall people from sand to shore and in the sea. Taking a stroll on the sand with my then new love – hand in hand – with no one else around was a kind of peace I haven’t experienced in a long time, and for which we all long.