All Aboard! Part II of “Be Italian,” A Time Travel Adventure on Papa’s Wonderful, Whimsical Train of Life!

All Aboooooooooooooooard!

Welcome back, dear ones! We gave you quite a bit of time on the train with that last intermission- it has been two years since our last post! We apologize for the extended delay, but we hope you enjoyed the glorious panoramica and had some grand adventures of your own as life rolled on between stations.

When last we were together, we shared in an amazing journey in “Be Italian- Part I,” from the ancient beginnings of “Italia” through to some of the more modern experiences our ancestors had as immigrants. If you did not have a chance to make the journey with us, please feel free to go back and take it all in – we promise we’ll wait for you!

If you did join us for the first part of the trip, then, as promised, we are now moving from the Pheonicians and the French Revolution onward to Fellini and Far Niente, and to our next stops on Papa’s wonderful, whimsical train of life.

Please take your seats, because we are about to depart for our next destination – “Sophia Loren Station,” and a trip back in time- to learn how being Italian in America went from challenging to charming!

Loren Station SignSOPHIA FOOD

Whether you are a fan of Italian food, culture, music, cinema, art, epic landscapes, monumental cities, or all of the above, how could anyone possibly resist all that Italy has to offer the world, right? Right! But alas, the love of everything Italian in America was not instantly irresistable. As with the introduction of most foreigners during times of immigration, and our unfamiliar traditions and cultures, it was a very slow evolution. Well, more of a revolution when you consider what everyone’s ancestors had to withstand and endure in order to be acknowledged, accepted and respected. The often skeptical, negative attitude that existed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was not solely the property of American citizens toward Italian immigrants – each immigrant ethnic group also faced discrimination from other ethnic groups, ranging from minor ethnocentrism to rivalries to full-on wars. The rise of gangs was common in New York, and gangs were formed to win political elections, gain power, and better compete for and protect scarce resources, family and freedom. Martin Scorcese’s 2003 movie, “Gangs of New York” offers us a cinematic version of that late 19th century on Manhattan Island. His film primarily focused on the Irish neighborhood of the “Five Points” – but this trailer provides one view into what life was like for people in some of the rougher neighborhoods at the time.

A number of reviewers and fans criticized Scorcese and his team for exaggerating the elements of chaos and violence, but according to National Geographic News, Scorceses’s set designers reportedly took pride in their efforts to capture the “look and feel of that time in New York.”

“Holding camphor-soaked kerchiefs to their noses to ward off the stench, middle-class tourists would go “slumming” in Five Points—escorted by police—to see if the lurid tales given by reporters and missionaries were true.

‘Five Points,’ wrote one Methodist reformer, had become ‘the synonym for ignorance the most entire, for misery the most abject, for crime of the darkest dye, for degradation so deep that human nature cannot sink below it.’”

But consider the possibility that the voyeuristic perception of those “well-to-do” American tourists was just an antiquated reality show that resulted in an inaccurate, biased portrait of the actual reality. The insensitive snoops merely wanted to see firsthand if what Charles Dickens referred to as “a world of vice and misery” was true- and they then spread their biased perception freely and not always with the purest of intentions. According to the National Geographic article:

“‘Much of what was written in newspapers, tracts, and books,’ says archaeologist Rebecca Yamin, ‘was colored by religious zeal, a desire to sell papers, or plain-old fear. Middle-class outsiders then looked at this neighborhood that was teeming with activity and street people selling food, and it was frightening. They just looked from the outside and assumed it was all very bad.’”

There Was Nothin’ Romantic About Bein’ Italian

Papa told a few stories about being witness to neighborhood violence, but more often spoke freely about his experiences of being discriminated against in the Bronx. Even as a child, non-Italians would refer to him as a “dego,” a “guinea,” a “wop,” or even a “greasy Italian.” “Back den, there was nothin’ romantic about bein’ Italian.” He would say with a very serious face. He remembered his classes in grade school being filled with all different kinds of children, and he said that he had friends from different ethnic groups – some of his earliest classrooms were integrated with, in his words, “Italians, Irish, Jews and Hungarians.”

Papas Classroom

(Oliverio Archive Collection – Papa is second from left!)

Some of Papa’s best friends were Irish, Jewish, and “even Sicilians,” who were a completely separate part of the “Italian” section. (Papa went on to marry Catherine who was part Sicilian)

Papa Pyramid

Oliverio Family Archives Original – Ed Schwartz, Abe Pinowitz, Neil Oliviero, Bernie and Harry Solomon, Norman Green, Freddy Zellis

Papa had these classmates and friends, but their relationships were not always accepted by their families. Papa said there were a number of times that they were prohibited from visiting each others’ homes or neighborhoods and either had to meet on school property or on “neutral turf,” which was not so easy to find. Papa told a story of the time he finished building a bicycle he had been working on for about a year – he couldn’t afford to buy an entire a bike, so he had been finding parts, piece by piece, and it was finally complete. He brought it to visit his Irish friends in their neighborhood, and the boys were all standing around the bicycle, admiring it. Papa said an Irish police officer came by and and asked them whose bike it was. When Papa said it belonged to all of them, the officer didn’t ask any more questions. He told the friends to get home, took Papa and his bike back to the Italian neighborhood, and then took the bike! When Papa asked the officer why he had to take away the bicycle, the officer told Papa that there was no way a, “Dego kid could build a bike” and accused him of stealing it. (Apparently the officer had not yet heard of the Italian nack for mechanical engineering, design and construction!) Papa sought his revenge by eventually going on to rebuild bikes, musical instruments, sewing machines, cars, houses, and eventually entire ships at the Brooklyn shipyard.

Papa told another story of discrimination, this one more personal as it related to his first love, Ray. He referred to her with a faraway gaze as a “beautiful, strong, Polish Jewish farmgirl.” He was totally smitten and was planning on asking Ray to marry him when she told him they could no longer see each other. When he asked why they could not be together, she said her father told her it was because Papa was not Jewish. Papa was heartbroken and perplexed, and both emotions remained with him for a lifetime as he retold the story often and kept a photo of the two of them taped casually, but securely, onto his desk.

Papa’s experiences of being discriminated against stayed with him through his entire life, however he was determined not to allow them to shape his future path. He spoke of the experiences and his battles with them in the introduction to one of his poems, “Tuetego:”

“This is an angry poem. I have suffered discrimination, not as an individual, but merely for my ethnicity…I have traveled a difficult road but have overcome. Many times I think it is these very suppressions and exclusions that drove me to achieve success as a vengeance. Had I been accepted into some coveted Camelot, I might not have had the full, and in retrospect, beautifully rich, adventurous life I have had. The more arduous the task the more gratifying the success.”

The poem itself goes on to appeal to people so see the true self in another and not be clouded by prejudgment based on skin color or nation of birth:

“…Try to see what’s deep within
For there is where true souls begin
I could be less than I conceive
And yet much more than you perceive

…With true appraisal let each reflect
We are mortals we bear defect
We can together cohabitate
With love and tolerance, and not with hate

…If you are swayed by external measure
Then your judgment do not treasure
In final test, please try to see
How you would feel if you were me.”

I often reflect on Papa’s immigrant stories, experiences, and his poem as I read today’s headlines about the new waves of immigrants. And every time I do, I can’t help but recall the words that are chiseled into the Statue of Liberty at Ellis Island in New York:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
~ Emma Lazarus

I can only hope that we who receive this new millenium of “huddled masses” stop to consider our own roots- because at some point within the history of time, every single one of us reading these words descended from DNA that had migrated from a different part of the planet (or even from a different part of the infinite universe*) than the one from which we were born.

*(Universal Origins Footnote: Some theoretical physicists, natural scientists and cosmologists subscribe to the theory that life on Earth originated from microscopic organisms deposited on our planet when meteors, asteroids and other carriers from other planets crashed onto Earth billions of years ago.(1) According to believers, over hundreds of millions of years these objects continued to collide with this planet and deposited their tiny inhabitants on the earth, and the organisms grew and thrived in Earth’s climate. The near-invisible creatures eventually evolved from simple, single-celled organisms such as bacteria into the complex array of flora and fauna we see around us today. All dramatically different, on the surface at least, and all descendants of immigrants.)

Moving On

Papa said that over time, many well-defined ethnic New York neighborhoods began to disperse and diversify. Some left the ethnic boroughs because they feared reprisals from the government. They “downplayed” or even hid their heritage, trying to blend into other neighborhoods, making every effort to “Be American” out of a fear of being forced to return to their homeland. Some families relocated because they learned of better or different work opportunities in other cities, states or different parts of the country, and some moved because their financial situation had improved or worsened.

As different ethnic families gained and lost resources and support, entire groups began to move away from New York. Even the Irish enclave of the Five Points eventually gave way to members of the Italian and Chinese ethnic groups, creating the areas known today as Chinatown and Little Italy. The vintage images that follow give an idea of what Little Italy looked like from the end of the late 19th century to the early 20th century: (all images are public access from the U.S. Congress print collection.)

IMAGE Bronx in Little Italy US Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division IMAGE Little Italy IMAGE in Little Italy2 US Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division IMAGE Festa in Little Italy

Chef Boy-Ar-Dee Leads the Way!

Papa and his family, neighbors and friends were subjected to the same discrimination as other immigrants, but they also took a special pride in “being Italian.” Other cultures took pride in their heritage as well, demonstrating and sharing traditions, foods, and holidays. But Italian was somehow different. Somewhere along the way, “being Italian” became contagious– suddenly even non-Italians wanted to do everything Italian style!

It seems like the food came first. From as early as the 1950’s, people outside of the Italian culture began eating and cooking Italian food. What American family doesn’t remember Chef Boy-ar-dee spaghetti dinners?

ChefBoyardee

Here is a great, nostalgic Chef Boy-ar-dee commercial from 1953 that espouses the ease with which one could cook Italian for the whole family at only “15 cents a serving!”

Chef Boyardee

(Italian Food Sidenote: Not many know that Chef Boyardee was a real chef. His name was Hector Boiardi and he was born in Italy in 1897, and came to the United States in 1914. He joined his brother who was already working in the Plaza Hotel in New York City, and Hector quickly worked his way to head chef. He eventually moved to Ohio to open his own restaurant in Cleveland, and his food was so popular that he decided to open a factory in Milton, Pennsylvania in 1928 and sell his creations to the general public across the nation. He called it “Chef Boy-Ar-Dee” so that his non-Italian customers would be sure to pronounce it correctly)

(Chef Boyardee Fan Footnote: here is an interesting video short on how Chef Boyardee Ravioli is made today!)

With that helpful nostalgic prompt you may remember Chef Boy-ar-dee, and you may even eat it now as an adult (it’s ok, you can admit it, even the most Italian of us have resorted to opening a can of cold ravioli or spaghetti-o’s in our hungry past- most likely around the same time we stocked up on Ramen noodles!) But what about Franco American spaghetti? This was one of the first companies to try and convince Americans that they could easily, simply and cheaply cook Italian food right in their own homes:

iMAGE Franco American Sphagetti

Franco American claimed in this 1955 commerical that is was “America’s favorite spaghetti.”

Breaking Down Pasta Barriers

These companies made cooking and eating Italian food accessible, easy, and eventually familiar.

How many people can remember cutting their spaghetti into pieces so as not to slurp and make a mess? Do you remember the hotly-debated spaghetti etiquette dilemma “To spoon or not to spoon?” Forks with handles and spinning, rotating tines anyone? How many people wore a napkin or paper towel bib to dinner to try and prevent the inevitable red sauce splatter when trying to slurp up the strands? And who out there intentionally wore red on spaghetti night to prevent sacrificing yet another good shirt to the pomodoro gods? To Italians, Chef Boy-ar-dee and Franco American were not, of course, real Italian food, but to many Americans, real Italian food was still new, unfamiliar and often messy. As time moved on, however, the rise of the popularity of real Italian food was facilitated by widespread exposure of all kinds of celebrities and beautiful people- not eating American-made canned and boxed Italian dinners, but instead voraciously and enthusiastically slurping up those big, awkward, unwieldy strands of sauce-laden spaghetti.

One of the first to break down the walls of social discomfort and demonstrate the appeal of the “slurp” was Sophia Loren (whose still image alone did more for the Italian reputation than all the best spaghetti and meatballs ever served!):

iMAGE- Sophia Spagheti

And of course once Sophia Loren dug in, every lovely lady wanted to be seen slurping spaghetti!

IMAGEeating-spaghetti3 IMAGEEating Spaghetti image- sPAGHETTI lADIES

The entire country soon followed suit, as we can see from these paparazzi photos from the mid 20th century:

From Sean Connery and T.S. Elliott

iMAGE- San Connery iMAGE- TS Elliott

To The Beatles and Babies

iMAGE- Beatles image- sPAGHETTI baby

Even entire Neighborhoods embraced the pasta mania!

neighborhoodpastamania

And spaghetti began surfacing in popular culture too – everyone remembers the scene from the movie Lady and the Tramp. When I was a child and saw the movie I didn’t realize how many funny Italian references there were in it!

Before you knew it, it was not enough to just eat Italian, families across America wanted Italian cooking in their homes and Italian cookbooks began to abound. Do you remember any of these laying around the house?

Italian Talisman iMAGE COOKBOOK2 iMAGE COOKBOOK

Soon everyone was Italian food crazy. Even beer companies saw it as an opportunity to unite American and Italians:

image- sPAGHETTI BUD

The epitome of American acceptance of Italian food had to be at the end of this scene from the Gene Roddenberry movie Star Trek- Captain Kirk even gets Spock to declare he loves Italian food!


Now That’s Italian!

As we all know, Italian food ultimately became wildly popular all over the world. According to the National Restaurant Association, Italian food is one is one of the top three ethnic cuisines in the United States. They report that 9 out of 10 Americans can recognize Italian dishes as Italian! For your drooling pleasure, here is a list of just a few of the more popular Italian specialties. Some of these began in Italy, some were adapted when Italians came to America, and some were actually created in America by Italian immigrants. How many of these do you remember? How many of these did your family cook when you were a child? How many of these do you eat now? (Pavlovian Involuntary Drooling Sidenote: Reading this list will, without question, make you hungry. If you are gluten, dairy or sugar-free, fasting, dieting or vegan, or do not have immediate access to some type of food, you may want to skip over this particular part until a later time. Consider yourself warned!)

  • Baked ziti – Ziti pasta, originally from Sicily, tube-shaped pasta similar to penne but longer, mixed with a tomato sauce, covered in cheese, and then baked in the oven.
  • Lasagna– layers of flat, wide lasagna noodles, layered with ricotta, red sauce and mozzarella cheese, and then baked in the oven. Sometimes it was called “Lasagna Bolognese” if there was meat sauce involved. In hindsight, did that dish require any description at all?
  • Polenta – A mash made of Cornmeal, in varying degrees of thicknesses, served with everything from butter to alfredo sauce to red sauce.
  • Spaghetti with meatballs – I will not make the same mistake here that I made with lasagna, especially since we just had a 13 photograph tutorial on spaghetti. I will say the sauce is sometimes prepared with a number of meats like beef bones, Italian sausage or stuffed beef rolls called braciole.
  •  Eggplant parmesan – with layers of baked or fried eggplant, mozzarella cheese and red sauce.
  • Sausage and Peppers – Italian sausage and red and green peppers, often with onions, baked until brown and sizzling in the oven.
  • Chicken (or Veal) Parmesan – fried breaded chicken or veal cutlets covered in sauce and cheese, served with pasta.
  • Alfredo sauce – An extra creamy, parmesan-drenched white sauce (made famous by a Roman chef named Alfredo di Lelio) and poured over Fettuccini.
  • Marinara sauce – a thin, red sauce with only tomatoes, no meat.
  • Bolognese sauce – a tomato-based sauce made with ground meat.
  • “Sauce” or “Gravy” – a red sauce made with tomato paste and many different kinds of meat. Usually made for holiday or other special meals and cooked forever. To this day, families still argue over whether it is called “Sauce” or “Gravy.”
  • Cioppino – a fish stew originating in America, mixed with tomatoes and wine.
  • Wedding soup – A chicken broth base with tiny meatballs and little bits of pasta.
  • Pasta e fagioli – we called this “pasta fazool” – a thick soup with white cannelloni beans and small pieces of pasta in a broth with a little bit of tomato paste.
  • Calzone – I am convinced every country has this in varying shapes and sizes. Spanish call it empanada, Indians call it Samosa, the Cornish call it Pasty, Eastern Europeans call it Knish, Brazilians call it Salgado, the Polish call it Pierogi, but wherever it’s made it’s a circle of dough, stuffed with something or everything, then folded into a half moon shape. In Italy, it’s cheese, red sauce and possibly some type of meat, or greens like rappini or escarole.
  • Stromboli – a round piece of dough, covered in red sauce, provolone or mozzarella cheese, a few slices of optional pepperoni, and then rolled into a “pinwheel.”
  • Pizza – see my explanations for “lasagna” and “spaghetti.” Of note, however, is that there are many kinds of pizza that have evolved, from thin crust to pan pizza, from New York style (based on the original Neapolitan pizza) to Chicago deep dish to Sicilian square, thick crust pizza.
  • Muffuletta – a very large, round sandwich, on a special bread that is flattened and crispy on the outside but very soft on the inside. It is filled with cheeses and deli meats, including, but not limited to, salami, ham and mortadella, and topped with an olive salad made from celery, olives, and carrot (the same mix that is in those jars of “Giardiniera” that seemed to be in the kitchen cabinet for decades) and drowned in olive oil mixed with garlic and oregano. The Italian Market on Decatur Street in New Orleans claims they made the first one in 1906. This is hotly debated. Still.
  • Italian beef sandwich—thinly sliced beef, marinated in spices and cooked so that the juices drip out. The meat is placed on a long grinder or hoagie roll, and the eater can dip the sandwich in the cup of its own juices. Native to Chicago, the sandwich may have been the result of Italian “cucina povera” (poor kitchen) cooking in which the hard-to-find beef was sliced extra thin and covered with juice to make it go further.

And of course what would Italian dinner be without Italian dessert? Here are some of the more popular sweets and treats we have all come to know and love:

  • Tiramisu – A multi-layered cake made with lady fingers and mascarpone cream, drenched in espresso.
  • Cannoli – a sweet ricotta filling in a fried pastry roll shell. Sometimes mixed with chocolate chips, sometimes covered with pistachios, always delicious, never enough.
  • Struffoli– long rolls of dough, cut into small squares, then deep fried and covered with honey, powdered sugar and possibly those teeny, crunchy, round rainbow sprinkles. Usually found at the Christmas dessert table, and impossible to eat without getting sticky honey everywhere!
  • Sfogliatelle – This dessert I described in the book on more than a few occasions: “Hearty, clam-shaped pastries filled with sweet ricotta cheese.” They are made from flaky philo dough and, as with many other Italian pastries, result in pastry flakes everywhere.
  • Biscotti – long cookies, almost as hard as rocks, typically flavored with almond or anisette, and used to dip in coffee or wine.

Now if that list didn’t leave you hungry it is only because you a) have an iron will and a heart of coal; 2) stopped to order pizza delivery midway through the list; or 3) ran out the door while reading, headed to your nearest Italian restaurant, and are now enjoying a nice lasagna while I carry on on your smart phone. Before you take that next bite, did we miss anything my dear? Did we leave anything out? What famous Italian dishes were the most famous around your family’s table?

Wine, Women and Song

One Italian delicacy that almost everyone thinks of when they think of Italian food is not actually the food but the wine! Almost never excluded from the traditional Italian family table, it was usually a jug or large carafe of red table wine, and it was served at both lunch and dinner, but rarely to excess. And by “rarely to excess” I mean only occasionally on holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year. And perhaps Easter. And probably anniversaries and birthdays. Oh, and weddings, yes of course weddings. And now that I think of it, Sundays, as well as some Friday and Saturday nights. Ok, so sometimes wine was overserved and imbibed to excess. But even the bambinos and little ones were accustomed to drinking it, theirs diluted with ample amounts of water, of course. Italian wines have since grown very popular in the United States, with many people having heard of “a nice Chianti” (with Anthony Hopkins, some liver and fava beans, of course,) a San Giovese, a basic red vino da tavola (red table wine) or maybe a “Super Tuscan.” And Italian wines don’t even need to be imports any more, as Italian- American wineries have become very popular in the world market. Vineyards such as Ferrari-Carano, Ernest & Julio Gallo (go EJG!), Louis M. Martini, Robert Mondavi, Corrado Parducci, Rubicon Estate Winery (also known as Francis Ford Coppola,) Sebastiani Vineyards, Trinchero and numerous others have become incredibly popular.

La Dolce Vita!

Once Italian food and wine took hold and captivated the American public’s palette and stomach, then the fun really began. Along with the food and American’s waistlines, over the decades Italy as a country and a culture grew and grew in popularity in American’s minds and hearts. Of course this growth was encouraged by America’s exposure to all things Italian appearing in popular culture. We saw Italy in the early movies and on television, and eagerly listened to Italian music and Italian-American musicians.

Beginning with the movies, everyone immediately fell in love with Sophia Loren, the voluptuous Italian actress. Between 1964 and 1977 she won four Golden Globe awards for “World Film Favorite – Female.” These next two Youtube tribute videos remind us why Sophia is so deserving of our adoration. The first, from Musica Disegno has the perfect soundtrack, “You want to be American” (“Tu vuò fà l’americano” by Renato Carosone.) and features some of the greatest actors of all time. (Check out Marlon Brando, Cary Grant, Clark Gable, John Wayne, Peter Sellers, Paul Newman, Gregory Peck, and others, “back in the day!”)

(Catchy Song Sidenote: The song, “Tu vuo fa l’americano,” originally done by Renato Carosone, was written in the Neapolitan dialect and translates into “You try to act the American.” It’s a satire about an Italian that tries to behave like an American, smoking American cigarettes, playing baseball, dancing to rock and roll, all the while still living off of his Italian Mama and Papa. It has been remade several times and appeared in a number of films, including the “Talented Mr. Ripley” in which a very young Matt Damon joins a just as young Jude Law and Italian actor/ comedian Rosario Fiorello on stage to sing their rendition.)

Another noteworthy Sophia Loren tribute, this one from AstroLab, features the Rosemary Clooney hit “Mambo Italiano,” a must listen at every Italian cooking session and impromptu dance party!

Even the world’s movie sweetheart of the time, Audrey Hepburn, who was born in Belgium, by the way, loved Italy. Well, Rome at the very least, as she starred as a runaway princess in Roman Holiday with the dashing Gregory Peck. If you have not seen it yet, I strongly recommend watching with a bottle of vino and a big plate of Italian formaggio.

Here is the trailer, entertaining in and of its nostalgic, vintage self!

(More Audrey Hepburn Please Sidenote: If you are hungry for more, here is a wonderful Roman Holiday YouTube Tribute from “val,” featuring amazing Italian scenery and set to Dean Martin’s iconic song “On An Evening in Roma.”

Movies didn’t hold the monopoly on Italy mania, though. Italy showed up in early television too. Lucille Ball had an entire “Lucy Goes to Italy” movie, with a very famous and very funny “Lucy grape stomping scene.”

Do you remember seeing it in those “I Love Lucy” reruns? If not, you might remember it from the Julia Roberts movie, Pretty Woman!

It wasn’t long before Italian cinema made it on the American scene as directors like Giuseppe di Santis, Bernardo Bertolucci, Federico Fellini, Roberto Rosselini, Francis Ford Coppola and others captivated audience’s and critic’s eyes and emotions. Here is a clip from Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, one of the most famous scenes in film history – Anita Ekberg as Sylivia, and Marcello Mastroianni as Marcello wade into the Trevi Fountain in Rome:

As you can see from these film and television examples, Italian and Italian-inspired music played a key role in the world’s crush on everything Italian. Musical artists like Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, Connie Francis, Tony Bennet and many others wrote, recorded and performed music that we all know, love and still listen to today. For a list of my and Papa’s favorite old time Italian and Italian-American tunes, check out our past blog, “Aniello Agostino Oliviero’s Infinity Symphony in G Major” and scroll to the bottom of the post to the “Musical Recipe of the Month.”

These examples of early popular culture are historical and show how the public embraced Italy back then, but even now Italian references show up in Moden popular movie and music culture – Two of my favorites are the song “Be Italian” by Fergie from the movie 9 (This video is from director Rob Marshall, and features Fergie as the Italian Prostitute, “Saragina:”)

And this modern musical rendition of one of my all-time favorite Italian songs, this version by the Gypsy Kings:

I think that last song sums up this part of our journey beautifully, don’t you my dear? Here is the chorus of “L’Italiano” in both Italian and English:

Lasciatemi cantare
con la chitarra in mano
lasciatemi cantare
una canzone piano piano
lasciatemi cantare
perché ne sono fiero
sono un italiano
un italiano vero

and in English:

Let me sing
with a guitar in hand
Let me sing
a song, slowly, slowly
Let me sing
because I am proud
I am an Italian
A true Italian.

The Italian immigrants, like so many immigrants of past and present, walked a very long road to become accepted in their new country. And in doing so they not only managed to hold onto their pride, traditions, customs and beliefs, they graciously shared them with others as well. Being Italian in America may have initiallly been incredibly challenging, but, as Papa predicted, it wasn’t too long before the whole world became charmed by the culture, people and place. Being Italian in America may not have always seemed romantic on the outside, but those with the romance inside their hearts and minds managed to keep it alive and well for the rest of us.

Andiamo!

If this post left you longing for a piece of Italy, don’t worry! Papa’s train is ready to depart Sophia Loren station for our next and final stop on this particular tour, “Be Italian!” station, where we will give you all kinds of ways you can satisfy your Italian cravings, from making a great Italian meal and watching a favorite Italian film, to learning the Italian language, visiting Italy or even moving there! And you will meet three wonderful Italian-Americans, Leila, Lisa Marie and Jill, who will introduce you to their Nonnos and Nonnas and reminisce over their best memories of being part of an Italian-American family in America.

Grazie mille, my friend, for spending the time with us on today’s adventure. Until the next time we meet, enjoy the food, the wine, the love and life! It’s the Italian way. Ce vediamo prossimo mese! See you next month!

Recipe of the Month- A Special Dedication to the Earthquake Victims

AMAtriciana

As I was writing this post from Calitri, Italy, my neighbors in the central Italian villages of Amatrice, Norcia, Accumuli, Arquata and Pescara del Tronto were being devastated by a series of earthquakes, the first of which occurred on August 24th. The earthquakes took place only a few days before the town of Amatrice was to celebrate its 50th annual food festival, “Sagra degli Spaghetti all’Amatriciana.”

The town of Amatrice is known worldwide for its famous dish, one that is offered on the regular menu in many Italian restaurants. In response to the events, food blogger Paolo Campana made a plea for some of the sales proceeds of those dishes to be donated to the villages. Over 600 restaurants in Italy alone participated. Others suggested that instead of eating out, families and friends might cook at home, and send the money they would have spent to disaster relief funds such as the Red Cross. The website “Divina Cucina” did a great job of respectfully providing information on the events and what we can all do to help, including a recipe for the original Spaghetti all’Amatriciana. Here, in honor of and reverence to those in the region that were impacted by the disaster, we humbly offer our version.

Vegetarian Pasta All’Amatriciana

Ingredients:

1 Pound of fresh spaghetti from the refrigerator section of your grocery store (some people like Bucatini, but the authentic recipe calls for spaghetti)

1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil

3 half moon cloves of garlic, chopped (the original recipe does not include garlic or onion, but we will add it here to add flavor since we are not including the “guanciale” pork.)

1 1/2 teaspoons of hot red pepper flakes

3 cups of finely chopped tomatoes

1/2 to 1 cup very small cubes of Pecorino cheese

1 cup grated Pecorino cheese

1 teaspoon of sea salt, extra set aside to taste

In a cooking pan, sautee the olive oil, garlic, red pepper flakes and salt on low heat. When garlic begins to lightly brown, add tomatoes and stir together. Partially cover with lid or screen lid, allowing moisture/ steam to escape. Cook on medium heat for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, then lower to low heat to simmer for 30 minutes. If the heat is too high and the sauce cooks down too much you can add a 1/4 cup of red wine to the sauce. Boil the pasta as directed. Strain to remove all water and quickly rinse with fresh water to prevent further cooking. Place into a large bowl and stir in 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil to prevent sticking. Throw the Pecorino cubes in the simmering tomato sauce and stir until thoroughly mixed. Pour sauce onto pasta and mix again. Top with the grated parmesan and additional salt as you wish. Enjoy. Grazie mille, Amatrice. Che Dio sia con Lei.

 

 

 

 

Footnotes:

1. For more details, read the Wikipedia entry for “Panspermia”

Papa’s Thoughts: On Gratitude, the Merits of Thorny Paths, and “Doity Hands” at the Table of Life

Thanksgiving, the holiday season and the New Year often bring with them reflections on gratitude. Even if not of our own doing, there is usually someone that looks around the room at some point and asks, “And what are you grateful for this year?”

We take for granted that we should hear thanks for “food,” and “family.” We hope to hear appreciation for “health,” “a job,” or “a home.” We may even be so blessed as to hear about a vast array of material possessions and opportunities to explore life and self.

We may have been lucky enough to have heard all of those things. But…have you ever heard someone say they were grateful for something other than those items listed in the traditional “good stuff” columns?  Have you ever heard someone say “I’m grateful I lost my job”? Or “I’m grateful I got sick”? Or, “I’m grateful the storm took away the house and everything in it”? Have you ever heard someone give thanks just for being “at the table,” regardless of what they were served?

Now, to be clear, this isn’t a lecture about counting your blessings or unanswered prayers. Papa wasn’t about seeing things that way. This isn’t a monologue about acknowledging that things could be much worse, children starving in Africa, or crying because I had no shoes until I met a man with no legs. These words are not about sermons, they are about choices. Specifically, about choosing whether to live your life or allow your life to live you.

 “Let go or be dragged.” ~American proverb

“This is your world, create it or someone else will.” ~Gary Lew

In How Do We Love?, in the chapter called, “The Finer Things in Life,” Papa faces one of his lowest points:

 “He admitted he’d had a ‘nervous breakdown,’ and considered for the first and almost the last time in his existence cashing in his chips, voluntarily taking, as he called it, ‘the big doit nap.’”

Papa only occasionally spoke aloud about some of the more negative events in his life, but there were many. His father died when he was 4, then his beloved stepfather. His mother left him and his sisters and he lived in the dining room of some generous relatives for a number of years. He had to work several jobs most of his adult life, lost all of his money at the age of 45, and then learned he had colon cancer not long after that.  He told me of those circumstances not to live in the past, or gain pity. He talked of them to teach me that even though we “may get dealt a doity hand” at some points in life, we still have choices in what we do with it.

Choices in what we do with it. Not necessarily a choice in the actual events, mind you, because at the great blackjack table of life, most of the cards Papa had to contend with were not of his own draw. They were dealer hands that he felt he had no say in, ones he could not control in a physical sense. But control them he eventually did. Ultimately he regained the upper hand at the table, and he even managed to become grateful as those “losing” hands helped him realize his most important lesson of all– that he was not a victim. That he was not at the mercy of the whip end of some ill-tempered universe. That he would not be dragged.  His control, my dear friends, lay not in controlling the actual events, but making the conscious choice to control his attitude and reactions to them. To make the decision to either lean in, collect himself, and “stagger forward, triumphantly”, or lean back and allow the world to stomp all over him.

“The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.” ~Viktor Frankl

One of the greatest practitioners and purveyors of this approach to dealing with life’s biggest challenges was Dr. Viktor Frankl. Dr. Frankl was the astonishing Austrian psychologist that lived during World War I and was taken as a prisoner, along with his entire family, to the Nazi concentration camps. His family was murdered, but Viktor Frankl survived and even thrived after he was released. He went on to remarry, have children, and pursue a prolific career as a psychologist, saving many lives and writing over 30 books, including the book, Man’s Search for Meaning.

Man’s Search for Meaning became one of history’s greatest literary testaments to the power of human will and determination. In it, Frankl told his story of the three years he spent in the camps and defined how his survival was possible– an act he attributed completely to the way he perceived himself and the horrific events around him. He found that the dirt of terrible, terrible things, when sifted through a colander of determination, self-meaning, service to others, and even humor, is mystically cleansed. The cleansing occurs because our perception filters out and even transforms the dirt, at least in our own eyes and hearts.  And the positive, affirming choices we make as we encounter each terrible thing transforms us. The transformation occurs because, at some point, we begin to realize that we do have choice. What was once a feeling of being completely out of control becomes a realization that we now have …control.

This approach does not suggest that the challenge will magically go away. Although it might.

This approach does not suggest that you will never again feel pain or sorrow or difficulty or stress. We all know how our opportunistic internal hobgoblins make efforts to rise up and be heard in the weakest of moments.

This approach does not suggest that the trouble, the trauma, the tears, the anger need to be suppressed. On the contrary, those emotions must be greeted and tended to- like unexpected visitors you would really rather not have but need to be kind to nonetheless, lest they ravage your house and make off with the fine china when you are not looking. Those emotions must be acknowledged and honored. We need to mourn, rage, or rant, and then embrace them, and, ultimately, release them. And keep releasing, for as long as it takes.

 “It made me reflect on the total unpredictability of existence. How the only certainty in life is that it will change. How we have choices to make about dealing with that change. We can persist in mourning the loss, the discomfort, the other-than-expected. Or we can choose to accept the difference, be grateful for all that we have, and then change and flow with it. Let bygones be bygones.” ~excerpt from How Do We Love?, The Only Certainty in Life

 The collective energy of our present times is fast paced, and often chaotic and unpredictable. I hear people using phrases such as, “It seems like every bad thing is hitting me all at once,” Or “Why is this happening to me?” Or “Is it ever going to get better?” If we hear ourselves saying these things, aloud or not, then it is the time when we must take action and make our choice.  It is at this exact point that we can allow ourselves to get flung around on the coattails of life, feeling victimized, refusing to loosen our grip. Or we can let go, pick ourselves up, lean in, and make the conscious decision that we don’t want that thing, that event, that issue, that person, to have that much power over our entire life. Whatever it is, whatever is so terrible, it is not us. It is only one small piece of what happens to be taking place in our huge, beautiful, elaborate lives at any given moment. When we fixate on the portrait of our woes, it may deceptively fill the lens, but if we pull away from behind the camera, the entire landscape and beyond comes into view.

“He said he would not change a thingthere existed much more personal growth on his bumpy, uneven road than on the ‘path less thorny,’ as he called it. He constantly reminded me of the importance of challenging events and decisions in shaping his life and who he had become.”~excerpt from How Do We Love?, The Finer Things in Life

Remember before, when I said this was not going to be a sermon about counting your blessings, unanswered prayers, acknowledging that things could be much worse, children starving in Africa, or crying because I had no shoes? Well, looking back at all of these words, I guess I lied a little. It is, kind of, about all those things. But that was not my intention. My intention was to remind us that, regardless of come what may, we do, indeed, always have a choice.

So what can we do? How can we do our best to go from victim to Viktor? How can we, in the words of Dr. Seuss, not cry because it’s over, but smile because it happened? Papa had realized, after many early wounds, that continuous applications of a salve of self-pity and a mask of suppressive bandages only keeps the skin and spirit frail, weak and on the verge of suffocation. He realized that even the deepest of cuts mend the best when exposed to an air of determination, selflessness, humor, and, eventually, gratitude. He witnessed time and again as he not only healed from this self-prescribed technique, but grew stronger and better as a result. And over time he came up with his own version of the steps he needed to take when he found himself with the cuts and contusions one gets from dancing on a thorny path. Here, I share my version of his version with you:

  • Step 1:  “Figure out what’s making ya unhappy– then figure out why it’s makin’ ya unhappy, and if there’s anything ya can do about it. If it’s somethin’ ya can change, then fah god’s sake, kid, get out there and change it. But If ya can’t change it, then, welp, whaddya gonna do? It is what it is.”
  • Step 2: “Go ahead and feel like hell for a little bit. Think about what its done to ya, to ya life. Let yahself curse it if ya want, cry if ya need to, feel a little bit sorry for yahself, admit that ya wish it nevah happened or could just go away.”
  • Step 3: “Make ya choice. Ya can sit in a puddle o’ ya own pity, or ya can pick ya head up, wipe off ya face, blow yah nose and tell them it’s time to go. That yah not havin’ any of it any more.”
  • Step 4: “Once ya let it go, stop lookin’ at it fah god’s sake. See through it. See past it to what else is theyah. Can I loin somethin’ from it? Did somethin’ good come from it?”
  • Step 5: “Keep choosin’. When it comes to visit, ‘cause it will visit, choose. As many times as ya need to, choose between leanin’ back and getting poked with a stick over and over, or leaning forward and takin’ the stick away.”
  • Step 6: “Say Thanks. Maybe not at foist, maybe not for a long time, but at some point, ya gotta shake its hand.”

Papa’s last step, to me, is the ultimate goal and the most important. Gratitude is the greatest, most powerful tool of transformation. Now, maybe we are not yet at the point where we can be grateful for whatever is going on. Maybe it’s too soon, maybe it’s too big, maybe it’s just more than we think we can bear to try to conjure up now- or ever.  But if we can’t yet be grateful for the things that are going wrong, perhaps we can recognize and be grateful for all that is going right: If we can’t yet be grateful for the looney co-worker that is teaching us much needed lessons in patience and ego, then let us be grateful that we have a job in which to encounter such a co-worker. If we can’t yet be grateful for our family member’s illness that is teaching us about selflessness and unconditional love, then let’s be grateful for that family member and all the beautiful facets that exist beyond and between their episodes of illness.  If we can’t yet be grateful for our disease and the lessons it is teaching us about slowing down, taking care of ourselves, and living life to the fullest, then let us be grateful for the parts of our lives that have nothing to do with symptoms or doctor visits or worry- even if those parts exist only in moments and seem few and far in-between.

If we can’t yet be grateful for the “doity hands we been dealt,” then let’s at least be grateful we are still at the table.

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Papa Recipe #2 – Fairy Food

“Papa sometimes talked about that time of scarcity, when they would have a meal with very little food—but they always managed to have something. Sustenance would show up and he knew never to ask where it came from, just to be grateful that it was there.”~excerpt from How Do We Love?, Real Life, Papa Style

In honor of the spirit of being grateful for whatever we have at the table, I’ve chosen a dish that represents “La Cucina Povera”- menu items from the Italian “poor kitchen,” or what some people call “peasant food.” These kinds of meals reflected the Italians’ (and other low income immigrants’) abilities to take whatever minimal ingredients or scraps they had available and turn them into delicious, filling feasts that could serve platoons of family members and friends.

It is important to note here that some people are offended by the use of these terms “La Cucina Povera” and “peasant food.” Many consider these traditional recipes to be merely what their ancestors happened to eat, using ingredients that they had on their land at the time. For our purposes, however, these are dishes that both Papa and Mama explained to me as being “peasant food” – dishes they made when they had little income and did not have many ingredients to work with. We still eat these dishes today, but now with more ingredients- as you will see with the “regular” and “Deluxe” versions of Fairy Food!

Some examples of “La Cucina Povera” meals that were common in Papa’s and Mama’s kitchens included:

  • Pasta y Fagioli: a soup made of water, salt, garlic, a few beans and pasta. In better times onions, greens, carrots, celery, tomato sauce, parmagiano cheese, chicken stock and even pancetta were added.
  • Pasta a olio: a pasta dish with pasta and a little bit of olive oil, garlic and salt. In better times a few more ingredients were added, like broccoli and parmesan cheese, but the original recipe is pretty tasty!
  • Fried Dough- a simple dough of flour, water and baker’s yeast, deep fried in any oil available, usually leftover grease which was stored in a bell jar under the sink. As times and money evolved, Papa and Mama used fresh olive oil and added sugar to the outside for a sweet treat, or cheese, anchovies and other savory ingredients for a filling snack.
  • Pizza- a basic dough with whatever ingredients they were able to scrape up from local markets or leftovers. Usually included over-ripe tomatoes made into sauce, some shredded cheese, and a little oregano. As budgets increased, pizzas got more cheese and even a meat layer – pepperoni was popular in the house, and when they were being really extravagant, spicy Italian pork sausage.
  • Fairy Food – Check out the simple recipe below!

Fairy Food

This recipe is in Papa’s cupboard, but it is originally Mama’s recipe. The first time she made it, the kids wanted nothing to do with the squash and refused to eat it – until she told them that the squash was the food of the fairies that lived around the house and garden. The tale continued that these fairies were always trying to help out, watch and protect the family, and they had generously given of their favorite meal, squash, for the family dinner. Mama advised the kids that the fairies would be very offended if they did not eat the meal made with the fairies’ squash. The kids ate it, loved it, and every time this meal was presented, the kids would say, “Yum! You made Fairy Food!”

Ingredients:

  • Sweet Onions
  • Yellow Squash or Zucchini ( The fairies donated yellow squash but this is just as good with zucchini…)
  • Garlic powder
  • Salt
  • Sautee the onions in a large saucepan with a little olive oil until the onions are mushy (not brown!)
  • Slice the squash into rounds or half rounds and throw in with the onions, add a little bit of water so they steam up together
  • Sprinkle garlic powder and salt over the mix and stir!
  • Fairy Food is done when onions and squash are thoroughly steamed and mushy

Fairy Food “Deluxe”

When they had more money, Grandma Rosina used to make a version with eggs and grated parmesan cheese. Mama says this one is more “festive looking.”

  • Scramble a few eggs, and mix in some parmesan cheese
  • Once the squash and onions are finished cooking, leave them in the saucepan and pour the egg/ cheese mixture right over the top of the onions and squash
  • Cover with saucepan lid until eggs are cooked
  • Lightly salt eggs and serve!

Enjoy this Oliviero family tradition! We hope it brings you as much gratitude as it does to all of us!

Ci vediamo la prossima mese! See you next month!