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.
My mom confession (for today anyway) is that I sometimes go to my son’s closet to pull out his baby blankies. I put the soft fleece up to my face, so I can feel it brush against mine. I take a whiff and clutch it to my heart when no one else is around. Once in a while, I have a good cry over it, replete with real tears.
I love my son – the now 5-year-old boy, who still plays with my hair when he’s tired, doesn’t like to walk into a room alone, and is part web-slinging Spider-Man and nunchuck swinging mutant turtle at any given moment. I love when he sings the Popcorn song to me and dances with his toy robot and proudly displays his ability to write his name and draw a minion. But I’m sick with grief about not having a tiny hand to hold. I long for a baby’s breath on my shoulder. I wish for the gurgles and coos of yesteryear. I always thought I’d have more than one kid. I don’t feel done. And I never say never, so maybe things will change. God has plans for me, I’m certain. I just don’t know what they are exactly.
Still, when I quit daydreaming and start living in reality, I understand that we are three – and it probably will stay that way. I’m almost 38 years old, and I have polycystic ovaries. It’s not easy to get pregnant, and the miscarriage I had before my son enveloped me in a darkness that still lives within. I don’t know if I’m capable of allowing that pain to boil to the surface. When I take a good look in the mirror and get honest with myself, I just don’t know if I’m strong enough to do what it takes to even try to get pregnant again. That’s just a bit of what the decision to go for No. 2 would entail. There are finances, work-life balance issues, child care, and my husband’s feelings first and foremost. You know how it is.
Regardless, no matter what happens down the road, for now, my son is an only child. Coming from big Italian families, my husband and I are committed to giving him the feeling of family and belonging even if he does not have a brother or sister. One of the saving graces of Italian families is the tradition of treating cousins as siblings and nieces and nephews as your own children. It is everything to me. I’m living with an indescribable guilt for not being able to provide him with a sibling. My brother and sister probably don’t know this, but I consider them among my best friends. I know I can count on them when my world crumbles. In the dark of night, I lie sleepless in bed staring at the ceiling imagining a day when my husband and I are not here and my son stands alone. All alone. The scene is enough to make me quiver.
To say I’m grateful for my 4-year-old nephew and 6-year-old niece, who my son refers to as his brother and sister, is an understatement. They are with us almost everyday. We do homework together. We ride bikes together. We play games together. We laugh together. We cry together. My son gets into mischief with them, and they all end up in time out. I catch them wrestling each other. I catch my niece bossing around the boys like I did as a child. I catch her reading to them. I catch the boys acting out scenes from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies and fighting over who gets to be Leonardo. Yes, I hide in the bathroom from all three of them sometimes. Grateful but still human.
But are these two built-in best friends for life enough? I wonder. I don’t know. So, on his birthday for the last two years, I have made a family reunion for my son. When we were in Italy, we gathered his aunts and their husbands and children and his Nonna in the kitchen for a big themed dinner – once a pizza party, replete with mustache straws and chef hats, and once a Mickey Mouse party, replete with ears for everyone. Now that we’re back in the United States, we have packed up to 70 people into our driveway and backyard for a homemade buffet – once a Toy Story-themed bash with target game like the one at Disney World and the other a robot-themed bash with a giant Enzo-Bot that my son and I made out of everyday items, such as paper boxes, duct tape, and packing material. Themes don’t matter much. I do that to get him excited and make the area festive. I don’t even always get him a gift. When I do, it’s something small. This year it was Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots to play with everyone at the party. And we make all the food ourselves and serve it buffet style on plastic dishes. Fancy is not the point.
I want him to know all the cousins I knew as my brothers and sisters when I was growing up and their children. I want him to know his great aunts and uncles and great grandma. I even want him to know the angels who watch over us, so we visit the cemetery and kiss their photos on the mausoleum walls. I want him to have what I had. The days of passing every Sunday together over a bowl of pasta and running from Nonna with her “bastone” after we got in her way as she cleaned the garden are behind us. Nonna and Nonno are our angels now. Grandpa is my angel now. Some people have moved away from us. But for the most part we still rely on each other.
We still remember all those little moments from childhood that bound us to one another for life – the games we played, the mischief we made (mud pies, mud pools, climbing on the big landscaping trucks), the stories we told, the secrets we still keep for one another, having each other’s back (with bullies on the playground, cheating mates, backstabbing co-workers), supporting each other in the worst of times (relatives with cancer, losses of the people we love, broken hearts, tattered dreams). And I want him to have people who share in life’s joys (milestones, good food, dancing). I want my son to know that even though he doesn’t have siblings, he has lots and lots of love. I want him to have people to whom he can turn in his hours of need. I don’t want him to be standing alone. Not ever.
For as long as I can for holidays and birthdays, I want to give him the gift of family. I want to gather our brood in our nest. I want to eat great food together and talk about what our lives once were and what they could be. I want him to joke and laugh and love. I want him to recognize what makes us all unique and what makes us all the same. I want him to realize that even if he never gets another plastic toy or another cent to put in the bank, he will forever be rich in family.
For anyone just waking up to the phenomenon that is Gomorrah in Italy, here’s a quick rundown. The book Gomorrah, which was an investigative, first-hand look at Naples’ Camorra mafia, became a movie and the movie became a TV show. The book, movie, and TV show are hugely popular in Italy. People simply can’t get enough of this view of the intense, violent, and despicable life of those in the Italian mob. Now, SundanceTV is sharing the series with viewers in the United States every Wednesday night at 10 p.m. ET. The first season is well underway, and you can get recaps to catch up on what happened in the first six episodes and episodes 7 and 8 right here on Italian Mamma. Without further ado, here’s what happened on the Sept. 21 showing:
Episodes 9 and 10
For me, these were the most difficult episodes to watch, so far. The characters are so evil and their actions so gruesome that I begin to lose all faith in humanity and certainly in my Neapolitan roots, which normally draw great pride. As I saw it, these two episodes gave viewers insight into how decent young kids get lured into this life of crime and how predictable and tragic their end will be. There is no doubt, once you are in the mob, you are only getting out by death (usually heinous) or prison. And most of the people never get to taste power or riches. It’s a sad and lonely existence without love or joy. It’s an ugly and scary world in which they must live. Frankly, that’s not the Italy – or even the Napoli – I know, thank God. But it’s real. What makes Gomorrah more important than your usual gangster entertainment is that it holds up a mirror to the devastating reality being lived out in southern Italy, and it forces people like me to see the side of this place they never see. It hurts, but it’s the only way to bring about change, and it’s a new kind of journalism that actually fictionalizes news stories, so the public pays more attention to them and better understands what’s happening. In fact, the story is so real that the young man, who portrayed Daniele in these episodes, was chosen because his family did have connections to the Camorra. In a sad turn of events, shortly after his appearance in the show, the real actor, Vincenzo Esposito, ended up in jail for a violent mob attack that saw a man get stabbed 10 times, according to the Daily Mail.
Now, exactly how did these episodes make such statements? Well, it all begins with Daniele, the teenage boy Ciro had recruited in the last episode. We quickly learn that Daniele has a girlfriend Manu with whom he is in love. She’s a disciplined young woman, who works in a hair salon and lives by her father’s rules. She’s on the straight and narrow and isn’t the type to hang out with any Camorristi. Daniele never tells her what he has gotten involved in, but he does give her a rose gold ring with a fake diamond (after he makes a little bit of money from Ciro) and asks her to marry him. She replies, “Yes.” Aah, young love! But, of course, fate will get in the way of the romance.
Ciro is using Daniele (surprise! surprise!) to push Gennaro, who has quickly devolved into Ciro’s arch enemy, into a war with a rival gang, run by Salvatore Conte (from the previous episode when Imma sent Ciro to Spain to kill or be killed). He tells Daniele to kill Tonino Russo, one of Conte’s senior consiglieri, who was getting chummy with Gennaro, who had promised the two clans would work together and show loyalty. But Ciro doesn’t tell the young Daniele who he was killing. He just says Gennaro wants the man dead because of a debt he owes and that he’s a “nobody.” We learn that Daniele’s mother is worried about her older son, who is gone for months at a time. It turns out he is the driver for Conte, who Ciro had encountered in Spain, too. So, you start to connect the dots.
Well, Daniele kills all the people in the warehouse, including Tonino Russo and is in a bit of shock. He doesn’t go home as Ciro advised. Instead, he sneaks away with Manu for some loving. That’s when he gives her the ring. Then, the two go to a bar, where Ciro sees the news and learns who he has killed and the fact that this death is likely to ignite a gang war. Furious, he calls Ciro and demands to know why he didn’t say who it was. Ciro tells him to get home. He leaves Manu at the bar stranded but promises to get his friend Bruno, a good kid, who works in a fish market, to pick her up. When Daniele returns home, he finds mobsters outside his door talking about how they are going to lure him to kill him. He escapes and goes into hiding. Meanwhile, Manu is getting concerned no one is picking her up. Ciro has seen her picture and rolls up. He picks her up and takes her to an empty lot, where he tortures her in the hopes she’ll break and tell him where Daniele is. She, however, honestly doesn’t know. In the end, Ciro violently burns Manu and the car they were in. All that remains is the ring, which the authorities try to use to identify her when reporting the crime to the public. Ciro then shows up at the factory where Daniele’s mother works and puts pressure on her to call him if she hears from Daniele. Ciro has no choice but to tell Gennaro that Daniele made the hit and therefore it has the Savastano clan name on it. Gennaro is outraged and tells Ciro to find the boy. Genny tries to clear up matters by visiting Russo’s wife at the house after the funeral and insisting that his family did not do this and that he’s truly sorry for her loss. She doesn’t buy it but remains completely silent.
Daniele’s brother is chauffeuring Conte from Spain to Italy because he wants to find out who killed one of his top men. He believes it was Gennaro, but he can’t be sure what’s happening. Early in the trip, the driver gets a call from his mother concerned about where his little brother, Daniele, is because he never returned home. The elder son thinks she is overreacting. Then, he gets a call from his brother, who he keeps brushing off because he doesn’t want to upset Conte. When they finally talk, the brother can’t believe Daniele’s part in these murders. His response is to try and kill Conte, who fights back and gets the brother to spill the beans on what happened. It’s important to note that Conte is a man of faith despite or perhaps because of his criminality. He brought this up to Ciro in the first episode he was in, and viewers watch him say the Rosary and pray for strength in a gang war at church in this one. Conte tells the driver he understands his brother committed the murder under orders and didn’t know what he was initiating. He promises to help them both and put them in hiding with their mother as long as the brother takes him to Daniele, who is holed up in an abandoned factory where their father had once worked. When Conte and the driver arrive, Conte tells the brother to thank God for putting him in the Conte car because he’s going to save them. He gets out of the car. At first, Daniele is concerned and has his hand on his gun. Conte promises him that everything is going to be okay, that he can trust him. He gets closer to him and promises that the worst is over. He asks Daniele to come in for a hug to get his forgiveness. At first he hugs the young boy hard, and you wonder if maybe he really is going to help them. But then he grabs the gun from Daniele’s pocket and blows his head off. His brother in the car is next, but he takes off. It’s unclear if he got hit or not. Conte stands alone. End scene. End episode but not before you get a view of the young Daniele’s lifeless body amid his own blood and gravel.
Italy is beautiful year round. But fall is the sweet spot for tourists if you ask me. Climate, cost, and crowd control come together to create the perfect trifecta. In fact, I like it so much that I got married in Italy in October 2008. Especially for those who have never been to the Boot, the fall provides the perfect setting to take in the magnificent history, eat up the divine cuisine, and live that dolce vita uninterrupted and without all those (other) annoying tourists around. I know you’re not one of those.
In southern Italy, where I tend to be, the autumn afternoons are hot enough for the beach and the mornings and evenings are crisp enough for a lovely stroll and eating al fresco (with a jacket and scarf). Gelato stands are still up and running. It is, in a word, delightful. You get to experience two seasons in one. What’s lovely about the fall is the vendemmia, the time of year when the grapes are harvested and wine making begins. Of course, Tuscany is famous for its vineyards, but even in the south, in places, such as my family’s native Ischia, an island off the coast of Naples, people celebrate the vendemmia. Often, you’ll find feasts in the piazza. Sometimes, the food, which could include anything from baked pasta dishes to grilled sausage, and the wine are free. You read that right. If you are lucky enough to have a friend who has grape vines, you may be invited to their home to help harvest the grapes (yes, they’ll put you to work if you’re able bodied) and enjoy a homemade meal afterward. In Ischia, the elementary school kids even go to the wine museum and get to kick it old-school and crush grapes with their feet.
Whatever you end up doing – lounging on the beach, strolling the streets with gelato in hand, or picking grapes (even if it’s just an excuse to sample the vino) – bring sunblock and a hat. The sun is strong during the day, and I’ve gotten burned even when there was a slight chill in the air. Also, pack that jacket and scarf because you will probably need it in the evening. If you visit the islands, this is especially important because the beach breeze and the dampness can chill you to your bone even if it’s 80 degrees F in the early afternoon. This mix of hot and cold – and some rain – brings with it an abundance of porcini mushrooms in a number of places. The natives usually know where to find them (and can tell if they’re the real deal or poison) and how to prepare them. You can try them at local restaurants in pasta, pizza, or even raw in a salad. Foodies won’t be able to resist.
What draws many adults – and even some families – to Italy in the fall is the economic advantage. I’ve traveled at the height of the summer and in the fall, and I’ll take fall every time. Airfare usually costs between $500 and more than $1,000 less than it does in the summer. While I never have to stay in a hotel (I stay with relatives), I know that these prices are lower, too. A scan of Travelocity or Expedia will reveal this as will all those relatives and friends of mine, who work in Italian hotels. Some families could never afford a trip to Europe, and these price differences can make the journey more budget friendly, no doubt.
Finally, with fewer people around, you can really enjoy what you’re seeing without the claustrophobia of the August crowds. You have to understand that many Western schools are off in July and August and just about all the natives (barring those with jobs in tourism) are off, too. Many Italians get at least half the month of August, if not the whole month, off for vacation. They swarm to the same tourist hot spots that us foreigners do. Populations of these popular places doubles or triples. It triples in Ischia, where we are. There’s actual people traffic on the road from where I stay to the beach. It’s wild. With kids back in school and the August siesta on steroids done, foreigners and natives alike are back to their routines and not going to be bothering you. That about sums up why an Italian vacation in the fall is truly a bit of paradiso on Earth.
For anyone just waking up to the phenomenon that is Gomorrah in Italy, here’s a quick rundown. The book Gomorrah, which was an investigative, first-hand look at Naples’ Camorra mafia, became a movie and the movie became a TV show. The book, movie, and TV show are hugely popular in Italy. People simply can’t get enough of this view of the intense, violent, and despicable life of those in the Italian mob. Now, SundanceTV is sharing the series with viewers in the United States every Wednesday night at 10 p.m. ET. The first season is well underway, and you can get recaps to catch up on what happened in the first six episodes right here on Italian Mamma. Without further ado, here’s what happened on the Sept. 14 showing:
Episodes 7 and 8
The real basket of deplorables are the characters in the TV series Gomorrah. First, Imma sent her son Gennaro to Honduras to kill or be killed and Ciro, her husband’s beloved henchman, to get lost in Spain. Both defied the odds and returned to Naples and Imma. Ciro, grateful to be alive, was keen on getting back his place in the top of the family, alongside Gennaro. But Imma had other ideas. She stepped on Ciro and had him running the new post for selling drugs, a job usually reserved for young boys. Gennaro, known as Genny to friends, returns a new man, more like a monster. This is a testament to the impeccable acting on this show. Sporting a new mohawk, the kid who vomited at the sight of someone else committing murder, walked in his mother’s house and killed her new dog, who had bitten him. When his mother got up to see what happened, he told her he should have killed her, too. Even his eyes were those of a murderer. It was terrifying.
Back at the shop, an apartment complex and park, replete with the Virgin Mary statue, the junkies are making too much noise and upsetting Ciro. His anxiety and disappointment is evident when he punches one of these guys and knocks him to the ground. The competition gets wind of this family taking over on their turf and begins to fight back. They burn a car. They chop off the head of the Virgin Mary statue. Imma replaces the statue and has it blessed by a priest in a ceremony that disrupts Ciro’s drug sales. This all began because Imma wanted a new cop-free zone to sell drugs. So, she scouts locations and finds a great spot but needs people to let her into their apartments, so she has a view of the park below. A lesbian, who dressed like a man most of the time and called herself Luca (a male name in Italian), approaches Imma and explains that her father’s bridal shop owed this guy $70,000, so her father had killed himself and now she was stuck with the debt. In exchange for Imma’s help with this guy (Imma kills him when he doesn’t rid of the debt), Luca lets Imma’s men sit on her porch. Then, the girl kills for Imma. She shoots two guys while they are watching a children’s soccer game. The people run away and leave the two men dead on the bleachers. Luca, while trying on a wedding dress in her father’s shop, is met by two men with rifles, who chase her into the butcher shop and murder her. The blood spills all over the white dress.
Now, the men – Ciro and company – want to retaliate and it’s looking more and more like a mafia war is coming. Many say that this would not be happening if Don Pietro wasn’t in jail. Imma silences them all. She tells Ciro he is going to do what she says, period. Then, she has them arrange a meeting with these competitors – anywhere they want to meet even on their turf – and she goes. Imma tells the men that her son, with his work in Honduras, is responsible for getting them good products at low costs and they are going to have to accept this family is in control now. And she tells them they are mistaken if they think because she’s a woman, she won’t kill. That’s the end of that problem.
In the meantime, Gennaro is a completely different person now. Why shouldn’t he be? He was holed up in a shack and forced to kill a person by chopping him up. He didn’t know if he’d live or die. Back in Napoli, he is downright cruel to Ciro, once his best friend and confidant. He has it out with his mother, who says she abandoned him in Honduras to make him stronger and turn him into the boss. He accepts and the two become partners in crime (literally) by the show’s end. The men have a meeting with Gennaro and without Imma at a restaurant. It was supposed to be his homecoming of sorts. The waiter knows Gennaro from school and is a little loud. He tells the story of how he used to call Genny the red pepper because he would turn red and was a little chubby. And he asked about getting another job because waiting tables since he’s been out of jail has been tough. Genny says they’ll talk later. After a few moments, Genny gets up and the men hear gunfire. He shot and killed the waiter. Then, he tells Ciro he has to clean up the mess and get rid of the body. At one point, he tells Ciro, it’s my turn now. My father is gone, and I’m the boss. Gennaro also gets his buddy who we’ve seen partying with him in the club and is a City Council member, to run agains the mayor. Note that Gennaro declines to snort cocaine, which is an indication that he is more serious about business Now, the current mayor is a friend of Gennaro’s father and has always been on the family’s side. But Gennaro wants to show who’s in charge now. He gets all the guys to help him rig the ballot box on Election Day. And he uses force to sway voters. He even goes so far as to break the glass table of the current mayor.
Most disturbingly, he starts a romantic relationship with the daughter of a doctor, who is on the city council and doesn’t want to give his votes to this new opposition to the mayor and wants no part of the mafia. He has sex with her on numerous occasions, and she seems to really be interested in him. He strong-arms the doctor and agrees to quit dating his daughter if he hands over the votes, which he does, of course. Gennaro holds his end of the bargain but not before sleeping with her and telling her father in great detail about it. Disgusting. Disgraceful. Deplorable.
There were a couple of things worth noting in the episode. When preparing the park for selling drugs, the men are polite to the tenants of the apartment complex and help the elderly and women with children to cross the street and get through the construction zone. At another point in the episode, one of the henchmen tells Gennaro that, yes, they have to make money but everyone in town has to eat. You get the sense that some of them think they are doing good for their community by being these kinds of criminals. That might be why Italy has had such a hard time getting rid of these gangsters.
Also, I took note of how the drug dealers often hid behind saints while running from the competition or cops. The symbolism of Italy hiding behind its religion, and the Virgin Mary getting beheaded was not lost on me. The whole insight into the corrupt political system combined with these other messages are difficult to watch. The truth really does hurt.
We eat bunnies. There, I said it. When I would tell people this fact about my family 20 years ago, they would shriek in horror. Bunnies are pets in the United States. The fluffy fur balls are meant for cuddling and not chewing. I get it. I do. But my people from the island of Ischia, off the coast of Naples in Italy, find the fluffy fur balls absolutely delicious. They used to have a lot of them running around the island, so they were available to hunters. It was a time when people didn’t have supermarkets stocked with food. It was a time when the people did everything – including the killing of dinner – for themselves. When they could catch a bunny, they were going to have a decent meal.
Frankly, they’re not wrong about the deliciousness. This is not to say that it took a while for me – an American with access to fully-stocked store shelves and packages of meat that arrived as if by magic – to get used to the idea of eating bunny. My parents weren’t very honest about the whole thing either. There are famous pictures of my brother and me holding a precious, white bunny, who we believed would be our pet from then on. We each held the little guy in our arms. We were so happy in those photos. The next day was Sunday. My father told us the bunny had run away from home to join the circus. Seriously, that’s what he told us. Then, he served us said bunny for lunch. We didn’t even question it. We ate our pet and never put two and two together. In our defense, we were really little and liked the idea of our fluffy bunny out in the world pursuing his dream of stardom.
When we got a little older, we started to understand what was going on (and what we were eating). I remember being in Ischia with my parents and siblings one time, when I was about 11 years old. A relative showed up at our house with a paper bag that was moving as if something was inside. Sure enough, she pulled out a rabbit by his ears. She asked for a sharp knife and scissors. Then, she went onto the patio to kill and skin the rabbit on our porch. The point of bringing the undead rabbit to us was to prove this was fresh, a great gift to welcome us home. I would live to be an unwilling witness to these kills many more times in my life. Most recently, about a year ago, my cousins killed two rabbits on their porch while I was sipping tea in their kitchen in Ischia. It’s part of life there.
Many of my relatives now live in the United States. When I was a kid, a bunch of them raised rabbits for killing. Nowadays, we go to livestock farms, where you can either have workers there kill the rabbit of your choosing or you can bring the baby home alive. Every now and then, you can find a rabbit in the supermarket or specialty food store clean and wrapped in plastic just as you find a steak.
About a decade ago, my brother and sister were both living in Florida, when my parents were visiting them. My brother and father wanted to get a rabbit and had found a place to pick one up. You had to take the rabbit home alive. My sister, a zookeeper, was sitting in the car with the frolicking bunny trapped in a paper bag near her. My brother and father began discussing how and where they would kill dinner. My sister began crying with tears streaming down her face, so my mom asked them to stop talking. My father felt so badly that he pulled over and set the bunny free in the woods near the highway. We now joke that it was the day my father spent $12 to liberate a bunny. They had chicken from the grocery store for dinner instead.
In any event, on many a Sunday, we have coniglio Ischitano (rabbit of Ischia) on the table, and we eat pasta with rabbit sauce, too. If you’re interested in eating bunny (or are just curious about my family’s recipe), then here is the one Nonno Giovanni handed down to my father:
Recipe: Nonno Giovanni’s Rabbit (As Remembered by Pasquale Di Meglio)
Head of garlic + a few cloves
1 Rabbit (cut in pieces)
Glass of white wine + some for your drinking pleasure (Nonno was that kind of guy)
Salt to taste
1 Tbsp of conserve or tomato paste
1 Can or bottle (if you’re in Italy) of crushed or pureed tomatoes
Heat some olive oil to coat a pan. (Ischitani and Nonno used a tian, a clay pot with a protector that you place on the burner to keep it from cracking, but you can also use a Dutch oven or stainless steel pot if that’s all you have.) Brown, but don’t burn, one head of garlic and a couple of chopped garlic cloves in the oil. Generously season the rabbit with salt. Then, add the rabbit pieces to the pot and brown them on both sides. Next, add half a glass of white wine. Let the alcohol cook off. Add the conserve and crushed or pureed tomatoes. Add the oregano and basil if you have it. In Ischia, Nonno would only use basil when he had the fresh stuff growing in his garden. Cook on low for one hour. Nonno would never use a cover, only a screen to protect from making a mess. Take the rabbit out, put the sauce on boiled pasta (linguine and bucatini are preferred). And eat the rabbit as “secondo piatto” after the pasta.
Gomorrah, the Italian television series based on the 2006 non-fiction book and 2008 movie of the same name, is captivating the United States. The most popular TV show in Italy since its debut in 2012 (and arguably ever), Gomorrah shows the seedy underbelly of Italy’s Napoli and the reality of mob life. The story is important because it shows the ugliness of greed and arrogance, the utter destruction and brutal violence, and the devastation crime syndicates like this can have on neighborhoods and even an entire nation. It is gripping because the characters are so fleshed out and human and flawed. Despite the fact that you find yourself despising their lack of empathy and ability to kill anyone who gets in the way of their dishonest money-making schemes, you want to know what’s going to happen to them.
While many in the United States are drawing comparisons to HBO’s wildly popular Sopranos, there is one major difference. The Sopranos were entirely fictional. Yes, there was research done, and it drew on a reality that still exists to some extent in New Jersey today. But Gomorrah is indeed truth. The book’s author, Roberto Saviano, infiltrated the Camorra (spelled Gomorrah in Neapolitan dialect), the ruling mafia in modern Italy, which has decimated Naples and Campania, its surrounding region. An investigative journalist, Saviano took jobs, such as waiting tables at a Camorra wedding, that brought him close to his subjects. “Gomorrah is a bold and important work of investigative writing that holds global significance, one heroic young man’s impassioned story of a place under the rule of a murderous organization,” according to the Amazon synopsis.
In fact, many of my relatives and friends in Ischia, which is a Neapolitan island, say the book and the show are all too real. Since the book’s release Saviano remains in hiding for obvious reasons. That’s why I feel like it’s an obligation to get to know this content – the book, the movie, the show – because we’re giving away bella, calda Napoli, which raised my family with generous, loving hearts and not this violent destruction decimating the city today. Saviano seems to want to save his beloved home, and so do the good people of Napoli, who still exist. Saviano indeed may have given up his life to save it, in fact. What I find reassuring about the Sopranos and Gomorrah is that both show how unglamorous, depressing, and heartbreaking choosing this criminal life is. There’s absolutely nothing nice about it, and these people are destroying their own home. If you’re familiar with the Italian culture, you will hear Pino Daniele’s “Napul e'” ringing in your head while you watch. You can’t help it. Naples is as much a character as the people.
Without further ado, here’s what’s happened in the first two showings on SundanceTV (which amount to four episodes in Italy):
Episodes 1 and 2: You are first introduced to Ciro (Marco D’Amore), a young up-and-coming gangster, who sees Attilio a veteran henchman, who follows all the rules and seems to be more old-school, as a father. Attilio gets killed by the end of the episode in a shootout with a rival gang and Ciro is visibly shaken. While the head of the mob family makes sure Attilio’s family gets taken care of financially, his widow is devastated to hear that her husband can’t be buried in the church because he was found dead with a gun in his hand. Ciro and Gennaro (Salvatore Esposito), the don’s son, watch the scene from a building across the street because the police are everywhere and they can’t be seen there.
In the meantime, you also meet Don Pietro Savastano (Fortunato Cerlino) and his wife Imma (Maria Pia Calzone). They are fretting about Gennaro’s immaturity and spoiled attitude, which was admittedly of their own making. But Pietro also has a sense that Gennaro is next in line to head the family, and does not have it in him to kill or make the kinds of decisions necessary to keep the crime syndicate going. This is particularly troublesome for Pietro who feels the police closing in on him. There’s a couch in the family’s posh villa, which stands in stark contrast to the dingy apartments that house the henchman, that we later learn Pietro thinks is bugged and so he gives it to Ciro. Imma replaces the couch and her husband and her go back and forth about whether it is comfortable until he finally decides this one is probably bugged, too. Imma consoles her husband and tries to convince him that he’s safe from jail, but he doesn’t think so. We learn that his father spent his senior years in hiding from the police, and Pietro fears such a life.
His paranoia is plastered on the episode. Pietro kills his loyal bookie, who failed to show up to a hit, because he thought the don was making poor decisions. Pietro mistakenly thought he was an informant to the police. On his way out of the bookie’s apartment, he cleans himself up, steps over the body, and puts on the henchman’s jacket. While leaving the scene he learns Gennaro was in a motorcycle crash. Don Pietro bought the motorcycle for his son after he had Ciro take him to make his first hit. Gennaro had fired the first shot, but he couldn’t go on, so Ciro finished the job. But the two agreed to tell Pietro that Gennaro did it himself. After Pietro gives the gift of the motorcycle, he learns of the deception. He makes Ciro drink a glass of champagne and his piss to prove that he can take over should he end up in jail or dead and that he must continue to take Gennaro under his wing. When Pietro learns of Gennaro’s accident, he starts speeding to the hospital. The police stop him and in the bookie’s jacket, they find drugs. They also find a bag full of money in his trunk. He’s going to jail. Imma, meanwhile, ponders whether Gennaro ran the red light on purpose because he wanted to die after his first encounter with murder. Before Gennaro gets on the motorcycle, he visits the scene of the crime, where friends of the deceased have placed a cross and some photos. He seems remorseful and sickened when he jumps on his motorcycle, so you’re wondering, too. Gennaro’s life hangs in the balance at the end of the episode.
Episodes 3 and 4: You quickly learn that Gennaro has survived and is recovering. Pietro is making his way through prison and the guards warn him there’s no special treatment for mobsters like there was in the old days. But the inmates greet him like he’s a god. They follow his every lead. He takes a liking to a young kid, Pasqualino, who I think reminds him of Gennaro but with greater gumption. Still, he’s a junkie, who botched a jewelry heist and faces sentencing. Pasqualino is down about it, and Pietro gives him his expensive button-down shirt to wear in court. He still gets 10 years. Pietro feels terrible for him and suggests that they pursue home incarceration and rehab. Pasqualino sees no way out and uses the shirt to hang himself despite Pietro’s efforts to save him.
Ciro starts to show Gennaro some of the pleasures of being on top of the crime family. He helps him organize a private concert for some of his friends and win the heart of a girl, Noemi, he had been admiring from afar. Pietro is relying on Rino, a corrupt cop on the inside, to continue to conduct business. He brings him a phone, and he sets up a meeting with a possible other network to carry out a drug route in his absence. Then, African immigrants, who have set up their own mob for selling drugs, tire of offering Pietro such a high percentage of their earnings. So, they send one of their best men into jail to cut a new deal. Pietro is angry they are doing this, and goes on a racist tirade, which leads to violence. People are getting stabbed, and the warden is often putting Pietro in solitary confinement. He has Rino transferred to another jail.
Pietro loses contact with the outside and starts relaying messages through his wife, who visits him. Pietro has the inmates cause lots of trouble to the warden’s chagrin. Meanwhile, Pietro decides to feign a deal with the African inmate, and together they start a prison riot, replete with burning mattresses. The warden allows him to believe he has won, and Rino returns. Ciro gives him a gift of money to thank him and a phone to smuggle into the jail. Pietro uses it to call Ciro and tell him to shoot up the African neighborhood to show them who’s boss. The scene was horrific. Gennaro is with Ciro and is supposed to stay in the car with the motor running. He leaves and looks at the carnage. Ciro is furious with him, but they get out alive and before the police arrive. They burn the car they used and take off. Gennaro gets home and can’t stop vomiting. His mother tells him he has to toughen up as word of the innocent Africans murdered in the street plays on the news in the background.
Turns out the new phone from Rino was bugged. The police hear Pietro telling Ciro about the hit on the Africans. All hope of getting transferred to an easier prison or getting out any time soon goes out the window. Pietro is headed to a maximum security prison and possibly solitary confinement, which Pietro says will be the end of him.
UPDATE ON 9/8/2016 – Episodes 5 and 6: We learn more about Pietro’s financial adviser, who is far away from Napoli in Milan. Last week Ciro told Gennaro that his family and him owned this guy and everything he had. Now, we really get to see this for ourselves. Pietro sends the word that Gennaro and Imma need access to cash. But in Pietro’s absence, the financial adviser, invests in a company believing he can make some cash for himself. He has nothing to give them, and he recognizes the anger on the part of Donna Imma. So, he tries to sell his share of the business quickly for cash. But the potential buyer finds a problem in the audit and the deal falls through. Next, he tracks down the auditor and tries to bribe him. He wants no part of it, so he threatens him and his family. That guy calls the police, and the financial adviser ends up in jail, too. Imma explains to Gennaro how awful this guy is because he took their money (which they, of course, had taken illegally from so many others) and now he got himself arrested besides. She would have to send Pietro’s lawyer to help him, too.
Once they get him out of jail, Imma breaks bread with him. It’s intense. She’s eating linguine con le vongole and he is blubbering. It is unclear what she has asked him to do exactly. But he says he’s done wrong and can try to fix it. She says he can’t and her way is better. Then, Imma tells him to puts all the accounts in his wife’s name, so the funds can be unblocked and she can get Pietro’s money back before the government sequesters it. He continues crying, and Imma tells him to pull himself together and do this for his family, which includes a baby on the way, because it’s the only way they can live in peace. She also promises that they will never be in want of anything; she’ll be sure of it. Do you believe her? Anyway, the financial adviser goes to this warehouse, where everyone is celebrating his step-daughter’s 18th birthday (which is like a sweet 16 in Italy but both males and females celebrate them). It’s a posh affair, and he apologizes to his wife and step-daughter for being late. They sing happy birthday and he slips away to a balcony, where he jumps off and commits suicide. I couldn’t watch.
In the meantime, Ciro and Imma are fighting for Gennaro’s ear. Gennaro doesn’t really notice at first because he’s head over heels in love with Noemi, the girl he had Ciro help him win over. He puts her up in a small apartment he calls their love shack. They spend a lot of time together, and in one scene it appears they are doing cocaine. There are many scenes showing how Gennaro is a bit spoiled and immature. He’s fully clothed and jumping into pools with his friends. He is singing Italian rap songs with them. And he’s trying to live large, but he’s not really interested in doing anything being asked of him. Gennaro does, however, blow up at Ciro saying that both him and his mother keep telling him he’s the boss now that his father is in jail, but then they try to tell him what to do. It’s an a-ha moment for Ciro, who is beginning to realize he’s in a power struggle with Donna Imma even though Pietro asked him to call the shots in his absence. Imma does not like Noemi and thinks her son lacks the maturity and strength to run a business, even if it’s criminal activity.
Things just get crazy after this. Gennaro in his anger and delusion sends Ciro to drive his mother to the prison to see Pietro, who can only have one visitor at a time in the maximum security prison. This was a big deal. Gennaro refusing to go was his way of saying, “I want the glory, but I don’t really want to be involved with this work.” It angered Ciro, who recognized that Gennaro was giving his mother the power. In the meeting at jail, Ciro reminds Imma that Gennaro and Ciro are in charge and to keep it that way. They have to be subtle and mysterious in how they discuss this because there’s a guard with them the whole time. Imma’s response to this is outrageous and unexpected. She divides Ciro and Gennaro, who seem to have made peace.
Imma sends Ciro to Spain to make peace with a dealer of hashish, whose mother’s house Ciro had burned in Episode 1. Then, she sends her own son, Gennaro, to Honduras to basically take over another drug business. Without actually saying it, both men think they are being sent to their deaths. As a viewer, you’re kind of wondering, too. Just like that, there’s a Godmother in town. Gennaro doesn’t leave for Honduras until the end of the episode, and he is unable to explain where he is going or what he is doing to anyone. Noemi is devastated, and the two have a terrible argument. Gennaro tries to make up without telling her the truth, but she is disappointed that his mother seems to rule his every move. As they are about to kiss and make-up, Noemi suggests he leave her something – his seed – to keep her waiting for him while he’s gone. Just like that Gennaro proves he is not as stupid as we think. That’s it, he’s done with Noemi. Buh-bye, I’m not going to be your baby daddy. After squeezing his mother and admitting he will miss her terribly, he heads off to the airport with his friends, who drop him off. His mother seems less sad or concerned about his departure. Strange for an Italian mamma.
For now, Ciro is facing much more serious danger. From the moment he arrives in Spain, it is clear that he is in enemy territory. The dealer puts him up in a hotel that he owns. He asks for a different room, but it doesn’t change the fact that they lock him in and cut off the phone lines. He sleeps on the floor by the door with a gun in his hand. He strong arms the driver, who finally picks him up, into bringing him directly to the dealer, Don Salvatore. He brings him on a boat and takes him into the middle of the ocean. He puts a knife to Ciro’s throat and threatens him for what he did to his mamma. Instead of slashing his throat, he throws Ciro overboard and leaves him there. You’re convinced Ciro is gonna die. Instead, others come to save him and hand him a phone with Don Salvatore on the other side saying he’s ready to talk now. You think the worst is behind him. But oh no. At the nightclub, also owned by Salvatore, Ciro suggests making peace and getting back in business together again. Salvatore gets up to go to the bathroom, and another mobster follows him in. Ciro, who misses nothing, alerts Salvatore’s people of what’s happening. They all go to the bathroom and find the unknown mobster trying to rough up Salvatore on behalf of a Russian mob family, who wants in on the business, too. Salvatore pees on this Russian henchmen. Back at the house, gunfire rains on Salvatore, one of his guys, and Ciro. Ciro and Salvatore are shot but not fatally.
You’re wondering when Ciro’s nine lives are going to run out. He is, too. Salvatore agrees to a deal if Ciro cuts a deal with the Russians, even though he’s never met with him and he has nothing to do with them. Salvatore tells Ciro straight out that he’s sending him because he can’t risk losing one of his own men. Again, Ciro is not sure if he’s going to survive. Sure enough, at the meeting with the Russian, the head of this family makes Ciro play Russian roulette. Literally, he had to put a gun to his head and fire and see if he lived. If he survived, the deal would go through. If not, oh well. Lucky for him (and viewers), the show goes on because Ciro is alive. He jumps into the ocean with all his clothes before returning to Naples. Salvatore asks him if he wants to change families and work for him instead of Pietro, but Ciro declined and added he was “happy in his house.” Salvatore says I hope it stays that way for you. When Ciro gets home, he learns Gennaro is in Honduras and he asks to be brought directly to Pietro’s house. We’ll have to wait to find out what happens next.
UPDATE 7:35 a.m. ET Aug. 28, 2016 – Over the weekend, Italians designated Saturday as a day of mourning and began having funerals for the victims of the devastating earthquake that struck central Italy Aug. 24. The death toll continues to rise as emergency responders and townspeople continue to dig out of the rubble. It is now up to 291 lives lost. Aftershocks continue, and the search is becoming more of a recovery operation and less of a rescue mission, according to CNN. The workers are trying to clear roads, which had been obstructed, making it difficult for emergency vehicles and equipment to get to the disaster area. And more bodies have been found this morning, according to CNN.
Now is also a time of reflection about what went wrong and how these deaths could have been prevented. The New York Times published a telling story about the cultural and political influences that are preventing Italians from better equipping their homes and businesses to stand up to such natural disasters. Concerns about the country’s economic woes and the rebuilding of these communities – two of which have been practically decimated – are top of mind with everyday citizens and the government’s leaders alike.
UPDATE 8:41 a.m. ET Aug. 26, 2016 – Aftershocks continue to rock the area in Italy where the earthquake first hit two days ago. The shaky ground is hampering rescue and recovery efforts during the crucial 72 hours after the quake, when there is still hope to find people alive. This morning tweeters and Italian news agencies reported, according to CNN, that the bridges in and out of Amatrice, one of the hardest hit towns, were no longer viable. So, emergency responders had to make building some sort of sound infrastructure a priority. There has been lots of celebration over a young girl, who was pulled from the rubble alive 17 hours after being buried. She has undergone surgery and is recovering now, according to Italian news agencies. Her parents were also saved, but her 10-year-old sister, who was lying next to her was sadly killed. At least 267 people perished as a result of the earthquake, according to NBC News. Below you’ll find links to sites that allow you to donate to charities serving the victims of the earthquake. The Italians, who are mostly Catholic, are a faithful people, and they ask that we all keep praying.
UPDATE 8:17 a.m. ET Aug. 25, 2016 – I just read in article posted by WKBN27 in Ohio that AT&T is waiving fees for calls from the United States to Italy through Friday, so that Americans can check in with their loved ones back home. You can learn more on the AT&T Website. The National Italian American Foundation is also accepting donations for quake victims. You can learn more on the NIAF Website. The death toll has been revised to 241 because some of the bodies were counted twice, according to CNN.
UPDATE 8 a.m. ET Aug. 25, 2016 – A day after a major earthquake rocked central Italy, the emergency responders continue to remove rubble to search for survivors. Unfortunately, the death toll keeps rising (now at 252). However, there was a spark of hope when a young girl was found alive and lifted from the debris. News outlets have been sharing the film, but I’ve seen Italian reports that the girl is named Giulia and is 5 years old, whereas CNN is reporting in English that her name is Giorgia and she’s 10. Regardless, she’s alive. That gave people the energy to keep looking for other survivors. You can read more about what’s happening and the experiences in the towns most effected by the quake on CNN’s Web site, which has videos, explanations and an updated, comprehensive report. One of our readers also shared information on our Facebook page about how restaurant owners in Italy are donating to the quake victims based on sales of Pasta all’ Amatriciana, which originated in the town of Amatrice, one of the hardest hit by the quake.
UPDATE 2:05 p.m. ET in New Jersey – Emergency responders continue working to dig people out of the rubble following the earthquake that hit in the early hours of the morning, while most were sleeping, Aug. 24. Prime Minister Renzi continues to point out Italy’s ability to pull together in times of crisis and refused to say how many more victims could be under the rubble. He reminded reporters that during the summer months, the populations of these towns in the mountains can double or triple with the number of tourists who visit and family members who return home. The rescue and recovery efforts are going to take a long time, and the people fear being forgotten. Many are sleeping on the street tonight either because their home has been destroyed or out of fear of aftershocks. World leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, have offered sympathy and assistance through their state departments. CNN is reporting that you can make donations to the Italian Red Cross.
UPDATE 9 a.m. ET in New Jersey – Italians are facing a blood shortage in the region most affected by the earthquake. All major hospitals in Rome are open and accepting blood donations.
7 a.m. ET in New Jersey – Some of our people are literally feeling the weight of their world on their shoulders at this very moment. What appears to be an older woman lies under piles of concrete and rubble with just enough space to breath, see daylight, and speak with a neighbor and a cameraman who promise help is on the way while blood dries on the woman’s visible limbs. A husband, awoken by the shaking ground, is just in time to push his wife off the bed as the wall violently falls onto it. The roof of a church collapses and crashes to the ground as the walls collapse around it. The whole thing is caught on tape. Two babies have been saved. A young girl carried out of the rubble elsewhere was not so lucky. She has lost her life. We have lost her.
A 6.2 magnitude earthquake struck near Rieti, north of Rome, where the shaking was felt by many, in the wee hours of the morning while most were sleeping in their beds. Some towns, including Pescara del Tronto and Amatrice have been practically leveled. The quake is being compared to the deadly Aquila earthquake of 2009. Those medical professionals who were away on vacation – it’s August, which means the country is in ferie (on holiday) – are being asked to return to help. “Italy cries,” says Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who also thanks all those who are volunteering to help and save as many lives as possible. “In moments of difficulty, Italy knows what to do,” he added before calling everyone back to work to pull people out of the rubble and provide some hope for the survivors. (CNN is providing live updates in English and I’ll be updating this post as more information becomes available for those who are interested.)
It’s too early to tell how many people have perished, how many are missing, or what kind of recovery the country is facing. What we can say is that the toll on the people and the places is grave. As I write this, I watch the Italian news (TG3 and other TV news direct from Italy), and I see townspeople and emergency workers trying to move bricks, builders, and rubble with their bare hands to get people out from under their homes. At press time there was no access to roads for heavy equipment that could help move the boulders more easily. The emergency responders want to work much faster than the work allows. They are yelling at those under the rubble to hang in there, to stay awake, to cling to life. Those who made it out of their homes, are visibly shaken or in shock and sitting in the street with hospital blankets.
The scene is familiar to my people in Ischia, who remember the 1980 earthquake that hit southern Italy, including nearby Naples. My relatives felt the shaking and ran out of their homes. Aftershocks came, and many people spent up to a week sleeping in the street for fear of the homes falling on them. Every time an earthquake hits, it stirs these ugly memories. Southern Italy is the poorest part of the country, and recovery from this kind of devastation is always a big challenge.
Much like the flooding that recently hit Louisiana in the United States, these natural disasters often touch the lives of the most vulnerable, the most in need, the least prepared financially. Right now, Italy is facing an economic crisis, and that’s been the focus of Renzi and others in the European Union in the wake of Brexit, Great Britain’s decision to leave the EU. Now, he’ll have to juggle economic recovery, a post-Brexit EU plan, and the clean up of this devastating earthquake. The emotional scars will last a lifetime for some of the survivors.
But the strength of the Italians is their commitment to family. Everything revolves around family, and family includes your neighbors and friends in the community. People stick by each other and they are generous with their time, affection, and food and drink. It is what draws people around the world to Italy. And it is what will get them through this latest tragedy.