All Aboard! Welcome to “Be Italian Station!” Stop III on Papa’s Wonderful, Whimsical Train of Life

All Aboooooooard!

Welcome to “Be Italian!” Station!

Those of you that have been with us throughout the “Papa’s Italy” journey know that this is the blog for the website, “Papa’s Italy”( a continuation of the adventures of Aniello Agostino Oliviero, (aka, “Papa”) and his “grandawta” Danielle!

This entry is our third stop on Papa’s wonderful, whimsical train ride around the history of Italy and what it is like to be Italian-American in the U.S.A. We visited the tribes of ancient Italy, witnessed the immigration of Italians into America, and took a special tour through the challenges and charms of being Italian in modern America.

For this final installation, we want to share with you the different ways you can have more “Italy” in your every day life, and introduce you to some of our Italian-American friends and their favorite memories about growing up in an Italian family in America!

It’s a Great, Big, Italian World Out There

Why are so many aspects of the Italian culture so prevalent in the United States and around the world? You may be surprised to learn that while the majority of Italian citizens can be found in Italy, the majority of people reporting Italian heritage are not living in Italy.

Today, reports that of the 130 million Italians worldwide, 56 million Italian citizens live in Italy– the remaining 74 million people (about 5 million Italian citizens and the rest non-citizens of Italian heritage) are divided between other countries around the globe. The countries with the largest percentage of Italian citizens and national citizens with Italian heritage include:

 Italy        55,818,099[1]
 Brazil 23,047,494[2]
 Argentina 20,500,000[2]
 United States 17,250,211[3]
 Venezuela 1,736,766[4]
 France 1,530,563[2]
 Canada 1,488,425[5]
 Peru 1,400,000[6]
Uruguay 1,055,220[2]
 Australia 916,121[7]
 Germany 830,000[8]
  Switzerland 545,274[9]
 Belgium 451.825[10]
 Chile 184,997[2]
 United Kingdom 130,000[11]
 Mexico 85,000[12]
 South Africa 77,400[2]
 Spain 38,694[2]
 Austria 29.287[13]
 Albania 19,000[14]
 Croatia 17,807[15]
 Czech Republic 3,503[16]
 Romania 3,203[17]


Dat’s alotta Italian influence! And if we look for it, we can see it everywhere. In our past blogs we talked about the presence of Italian culture in movies, music and especially food. But what if its not enough? What if you want more Italy in your life? Here are some ways you can have more of that “La Dolce Vita,” the sweet life, in your life!

Mangia! Mangia!

blogravioli©Copyright 2016 Danielle Landis

The easiest way to have more Italy in your life is to eat, drink, and be merry, Italian style! This one can be as simple as heading out to your favorite local Italian restaurant for anything from a simple plate of linguini to a more elaborate kitchen preparation like a baked lasagna or a porcini risotto. gives us a list of the U.S. neighborhoods with the highest concentration of Italian restaurants (, but even if you don’t live in Boston, Hartford, New York, Chicago, Providence, St. Louis, or Philly, most neighborhoods have a huge selection of Italian restaurants offering a variety of Italian cuisines for all kinds of Italian budgets! (Ever tried Osteria Natalina in Tampa, Florida? T. Maccarones in Walla Walla, Washington? Sarducci’s in Montpelier, Vermont? Bocca Osteria in Cooperstown, New York?) Even in the smallest towns in America you can find a decent pizza somewhere, and if it’s just not decent, then no need to sacrifice, why not make your own Italian dinner at home? You can go from something as simple as Pasta Aglio e Olio (as easy but as delicious as it gets – pasta, olive oil, sauteed garlic, and grated parmesan) or “Lazy Lasagna” (a recipe Papa devised that had the Nonna’s rolling in their graves, but was the best “quick fix” for a last-minute lasagna craving! I’ve included the recipe at the end of this month’s blog, along with Mama’s “Easy Eggplant Parmagiana.” You will not be able to resist trying them!)

If you are feeling more ambitious, you can dig into one of the many traditional Italian cookbooks laying around the house or the internet and try your hand at an old-fashioned, real Italian recipe like those in Ada Buoni’s 1950 “Talisman Cookbook.” blogtalismancookbook

Even if you are not in the mood to conjure up some “Eels Genoa Style,” “Lamb Sweetbreads” (culinary hint: they are neither sweet nor made from bread), or “Ox Tounge in Rustic Sauce,” most of the recipes have less than 10 ingredients and taste just like they came out of Nonna’s 1975 kitchen (Try your hand at the “Tuscan Ministrone!)

While you are at it, if you want more Italian in your life, why stop at “just” cooking and eating? Why not plan an entire festa around your meal? Simply add a great soundtrack, a nice Italian wine, a quintessentially Italian movie, and you’ve got your very own Italian night! Here’s our recipe for one you can try at home:

The Meal: Make it easy on yourself and order in from your favorite, local Italian restaurant! Or,  want to make it yourself but don’t want to spend the entire day in the kitchen? Try Papa or Mama’s “Shhhhhh….Don’t Tell” easy recipes for Italian favorites lasagna and eggplant parmagiana… or, go ahead and get motivated and find the true Italian chef within- make an afternoon of it and try a recipe or two from the Talisman cookbook!

The Soundtrack: We have the perfect playlist! Start it when you start cooking and let it loop through to dessert- see our blog post “Aniello Oliviero’s Infinite Symphony” and scroll down to the end for a playlist of our all-time Italian favorites.

The Wine: Italy produces the largest volume of wine in the world (France is second.) Because of this fact you will probably have a large selection of Italian wines from which to choose.

blogwine©Copyright 2016 Danielle Landis

My advice? Start anywhere. And when I say anywhere, I mean start with a wine from any one of the recognized wine regions in Italy- there are 20, and I have listed them below using Wikipedia’s Italian wine map:blogitalianwine-regions

The regions are, roughly from Northwest to Southeast:

Another helpful Italian wine selection hint? Make sure the wrapper on the bottle neck is labeled, “Vini IGP,” “Vini DOC,” or “Vini DOCG.” These are Italian wine classifications that help ensure the wine you are drinking is actually from Italy, and not just a mix of grapes from somewhere in the European Union (not that an international mix is necessarily a bad thing, but we are going for authentic Italian wine on our Italian night!) (Note: this classification applies to your olive oil as well– there was a scandal a few years back when it was revealed that many olive oils claiming to be Italian were actually mixes of oils made from olives [and also oils from not olives!] from Turkey, Tunisia, Morocco, Spain and Greece. And when we use the word, “scandal,” trust that even though we are Italian, we are not exaggerating. You will be shocked [again, not exaggerating] at how common counterfeit Italian olive oil is, and how prevalent is its presence in the world market [].

If you desire olive oil from other countries of origin, that is great– I personally love trying new types of Spanish and Greek olives and olive oil- but if I believe I am buying olive oil from one country of origin, then I want the oil I buy to actually be from the country that is advertised on the front of the label– and I want it to be entirely made of olives! Pay special attention to the labels that say “Mediterranean Blend,” as these are usually a mix of the oil from several countries, and look for the “Country of Origin” listing on the back label, usually in very, very tiny print.)

Away from deceptive olive oil practices and back to authentic Italian wine, here, from Wikipedia, is a “cheat sheet” of basic Italian wine varietals to look for. First, your “Bianco,” your White Wines:

  • Arneis: A variety from Piedmont, which has been grown there since the 15th century.
  • Catarratto: Common in Sicily—this is the most widely planted white variety in Salaparuta.
  • Fiano: Grown on the southwest coast of Italy.
  • Friulano: A variety also known as Sauvignon Vert or Sauvignonasse, it yields one of the most typical wines of Friuli. The wine was previously known as Tocai but the name was changed by the EC to avoid confusion with the Tokay dessert wine from Hungary.
  • Garganega: The main grape variety for wines labeled Soave, this is a dry white wine from the Veneto wine region of Italy. It is popular in northeast Italy around the city of Verona. Currently, there are over 3,500 distinct producers of Soave.
  • Greco di Tufo: Grown on the southwest coast of Italy.
  • Malvasia bianca: A white variety that occurs throughout Italy with many clones and mutations.
  • Moscato blanc: Grown mainly in Piedmont, it is mainly used in the slightly-sparkling (frizzante), semi-sweet Moscato d’Asti. Not to be confused with Moscato Giallo and Moscato rosa, two Germanic varietals that are grown in Trentino Alto-Adige.
  • Nuragus: An ancient Sardinian variety found in southern Sardegna, producing light and tart wines consumed as an apertifs.
  • Passerina: mainly derives from Passerina grapes (it may even be produced purely with these), plus a minimum percentage of other white grapes and may be still, sparkling or passito. The still version has an acidic profile, which is typical of these grapes.
  • Pecorino: Native to Marche and Abruzzo, it is used in the Falerio dei Colli Ascolani and Offida DOC wines. It is low-yielding, but will ripen early and at high altitudes. Pecorino wines have a rich, aromatic character.
  • Pigato: An acidic variety from Liguria, the wines are vinified to pair with seafood.
  • Pinot grigio: A successful commercial grape (known as Pinot Gris in France), its wines are characterized by crispness and cleanness. The wine can range from mild to full-bodied.
  • Ribolla Gialla: A Greek variety introduced by the Venetians that now makes its home in Friuli.
  • Trebbiano: This is the most widely planted white varietal in Italy. It is grown throughout the country, with a special focus on the wines from Abruzzo and from Lazio, including Frascati. Trebbiano from producers such as Valentini have been known to age for 15+ years. It is known as Ugni blanc in France.
  • Verdicchio: This is grown in the areas of Castelli di Jesi and Matelica in the Marche region and gives its name to the varietal white wine made from it. The name comes from “verde” (green). In the last few year Verdicchio wines are considered to be the best white wines of Italy.[12]
  • Vermentino: This is widely planted in Sardinia and also found in Tuscan and Ligurian coastal districts. The wines are a popular accompaniment to seafood.

Other important whites include Carricante, Coda de Volpe, Cortese, Falanghina, Grechetto, Grillo, Inzolia, Picolit, Traminer, Verduzzo, and Vernaccia.

And here is a list of your “Rosso,” your Reds:

  • Aglianico del Vulture: Based on the Aglianico grape produced in the Vulture area of Basilicata. It was recognized as DOC in 1971 and DOCG in 2011.
  • Aglianico: Considered the “noble varietal of the south”, it is primarily grown in Basilicata and Campania. The name is probably derived from Hellenic, so it is considered a Greek transplant. The fruit is thick skinned and spicy fruit.
  • Barbera: The most widely grown red wine grape of Piedmont and Southern Lombardy, most cultivated around the towns of Asti, Alba, and Pavia. Barbera wines were once considered simply “what you drank while waiting for the Barolo to be ready”, but with a new generation of wine makers this is no longer the case. The wines are now meticulously vinified: in the Asti region Barbera grapes are used to make “Barbera d’Asti Superiore”, which may be aged in French barriques to become Nizza, a quality wine aimed at the international market. The vine has bright cherry-coloured fruit, and its wine is acidic with a dark color.
  • Corvina: Along with the varietals Rondinella and molinara, this is the principal grape which makes the famous wines of the Veneto: Valpolicella and Amarone. Valpolicella wine has dark cherry fruit and spice. After the grapes undergo passito (a drying process), the wine is now called Amarone, and is high in alcohol (16% and up) and characterized by raisin, prune, and syrupy fruits. Some Amarones can age for 40+ years and command spectacular prices. In December 2009, there was celebration when the acclaimed Amarone di Valpolicella was finally awarded its long-sought DOCG status. The same method used for Amarone is used for Recioto, the oldest wine produced in this area, but the difference is that Recioto is a sweet wine.[13]
  • Dolcetto: A grape that grows alongside Barbera and Nebbiolo in Piedmont, its name means “little sweet one”, referring not to the taste of the wine, but the ease in which it grows and makes good wines suitable for everyday drinking. Flavors of concord grape, wild blackberries, and herbs permeate the wine.
  • Malvasia nera: Red Malvasia varietal from Piedmont. A sweet and perfumed wine, sometimes elaborated in the passito style.
  • Montepulciano: Not to be confused with the Tuscan town of Montepulciano; it is most widely planted grape on the opposite coast in Abruzzo. Its wines develop silky plum-like fruit, friendly acidity, and light tannin. More recently, producers have been creating a rich, inky, extracted version of this wine, a sharp contrast to the many inferior bottles produced in the past.[14]
  • Nebbiolo: The most noble of Italy’s varieties. The name (meaning “little fog”) refers to the autumn fog that blankets most of Piedmont where Nebbiolo is chiefly grown, and where it achieves the most successful results. A difficult grape variety to cultivate, it produces the most renowned Barolo and Barbaresco, made in the province of Cuneo, along with the lesser-known Sforzato, Inferno and Sassella made in Valtellina, Ghemme and Gattinara, made in Vercelli’s province. Traditionally produced Barolo can age for fifty years-plus, and is regarded by many wine enthusiasts as the greatest wine of Italy.[15]
  • Negroamaro: The name literally means “black bitter”. A widely planted grape with its concentration in the region of Puglia, it is the backbone of the Salice Salentino.
  • Nero d’Avola: This once-obscure native varietal of Sicily is gaining attention for its fruit and sweet tannins. The quality of Nero d’Avola has surged in recent years.[16]
  • Primitivo: A red grape planted found in southern Italy, most notably in Apulia. Primitivo ripens early and thrives in warm climates, where it can achieve very high alcohol levels. It is known as Zinfandel in California.
  • Sagrantino: A native of Umbria, it is planted on only 250 hectares, but the wines produced from it (either blended with Sangiovese as Rosso di Montefalco or as a pure Sagrantino) are world-renowned. These wines can age for many years.
  • Sangiovese: Italy’s claim to fame, the pride of Tuscany. It produces Chianti (Classico), Rosso di Montalcino, Brunello di Montalcino, Rosso di Montepulciano, Montefalco Rosso, and many others. Sangiovese is also the backbone in many of the acclaimed, modern-styled “Super-Tuscans”, where it is blended with Bordeaux varietals (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc) and typically aged in French oak barrels, resulting in a wine primed for the international market in the style of a typical California cabernet: oaky, high-alcohol, and a ripe, fruit-forward profile.[17]

Other major red varieties are Cannonau, Ciliegolo, Gaglioppo, Lagrein, Lambrusco, Monica, Nerello Mascalese, Pignolo, Refosco, Schiava, Schiopettino, Teroldego, and Uva di Troia.

I try to support vineyards from the Southern region, since that is where Papa and Mama’s families are from, and amazing Southern wines are often overlooked in favor of the more famous Northern and Tuscan wines, like Barolo, Barbaresco, and Brunello di Montalcino (known by American eonophiles as the “Killer B’s” of Italian wine.) I like to drink “Greco di Tufo,” if I drink an Italian white wine, but reds are my favorite, and my favorite Italian reds right now are Aglianico, Aglianico del Vultura, or Negroamaro, all from the Southern regions. I also became a bit addicted to a rosé-style Aglianico, called Lacrimarosa Irpinia Rosato, from the Mastroberardino vineyard from Irpinia ( bloglacrimosa©Copyright 2016 Danielle Landis

The bottle art is lovely and the pink color is beautiful (not that you can see the shade, however, as I drank the bottle before it occurred to me to photograph it.) I was blessed to be able to try the rosato and quite a few “local”  Southern wines this summer during the famous “Sponzfest” ( in Calitri, Italy, a time when all of the wine caves and grottos open up to offer their family’s best labels.

Other than those vine-tastic hints from me and Wikipedia, you are on your own with the Italian night wine purchase! Have fun and make buying and drinking the bottle an experience in and of itself. Try to experiment with the different regions and varietals, and be comfortable deciding what you like and what you don’t. It’s all part of the adventure!

So, back to our “Italian Night”– you’ve got your soundtrack, you’ve got your food, you’ve got your wine. Now, for the evening’s entertainment, your “quintessentially Italian” movie.

The Quintessentially Italian Movie: Obviously this is a matter of taste and preference, and this list reflects my bias in both. Here are my favorites that I think will make for a great Italian theme night! We will begin with some classic Italian directors and films and work our way up to the more modern films that are less Italian and more “Italian themed.”

  1. Cinema Paradiso (1990 ) and Malena (2000; Directed by Giuseppe Tornatorre;
  2. Il Postino (The Postman) (1994 – Directed by Michael Redford;
  3. The Bicycle Thieves (1948 Directed by Vittorio De Sica
  4. Amarcord (1973 and La Dolce Vita (1960; Directed by Federico Fellini
  5. Pane y Tulipane (2000 Directed by Silvio Soldini;
  6. La Vita e bella (1997 Directed by Roberto Benigni;
  7. Pranzo di Ferragosto (2008 Directed by Gianni di Gregorio;
  8. Roman Holiday (1953 Directed by William Wyler
  9. To Rome with Love (2012 – Directed by Woody Allen
  10. The Big Night (1996 ) Directed by Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci

There are a few movies that, although they are not my favorites, if you like Italian-themed film and characters, these are stereotypically Italian and definitely worth a watch!

The Godfather starring Al Pacino and Marlon Brando;

Moonstruck starring Cher and Nicholas Cage;

My Cousin Vinny starring Marissa Tomei and Joe Pesci;

Raging Bull starring Robert DeNiro;

Rocky starring Sylvester Stallone;

Stealing Beauty starring Liv Tyler;

Tea with Mussolini starring Maggie Smith and Judy Dench;

The American starring George Clooney;

The Tourist starring Angelina Jolie and Johhny Depp;

When in Rome starring Kirsten Bell and Josh Duhammel;

Under the Tuscan Sun starring Diane Lane;

Only You starring Marissa Tomei and Robert Downey Jr.;

Eat, Pray, Love starring Julia Roberts;

The Talented Mr. Ripley starring Matt Damon and Jude Law;

Letters to Juliet starring Amanda Seyfried;

Italian for Beginners starring Anders Berthelsen.

While you are watching your classic Italian movie you can enjoy a classic Italian dessert, like Neapolitan ice cream, Cannoli or Tiramisu, followed by the customary after-dinner espresso to make sure you make it through the entire movie (Italian films are renowned for being long!) Be sure to finish it all with a “digestivo” like Fernet Branca, Amaro Lucano, Ramazotti, or Cynar, very important bitter herb liquor concoctions to help all of that wonderful food digest, and make sure you sleep like a bambino.

More, More, More!

So let’s say you’ve had your Italian theme night, or even a few of them, and all it has done is make you hungry, thirsty and craving even more Italian. Non te preoccupe, there are so many things you can do to bring more Italy into your life! Some examples:

Visit Italian-Themed YouTube Channels– Italian-American YouTubers can bring some fun and entertaining Italian culture into your life. Plus, you may learn a thing or three! A few that I like:

This segment from Marco in a Box is called “How to be Italian – 20 Rules Italians Never Break.” See if any of these ring familiar for you!

This one from Buzzfeed Yellow, “Signs you Grew Up Italian American”

And another from Buzzfeed, “Italian Grandmothers Try Olive Garden.” **Brooklyn Nonna Bad Language Warning: One of the Mamas has a bit of a dirty mouth on her, but the video was so cute I was compelled to include it anyway.


Read Italian Books – If you love reading, and you love Italy, be sure to look at this list from, ( that includes authors such as Umberto Eco (The Name of the Rose), Niccolò Machiavelli (The Prince), Dante Alighieri (The Divine Comedy) Giovanni Boccaccio (The Decameron), Paolo Giordano (The Solitude of Prime Numbers), Elena Ferrante (The Days of Abandonment), Mario Puzo (The Godfather) and many others. Oh, and while you are at it, don’t forget to read, “How Do We Love?” The soon-to-be classic non-fiction picture novel about the adventures of Aniello “Papa” Oliviero! (

Go to an Italian Heritage Festival- Annual Italian heritage festivals can be found all over the United States. Many of these events coincide with Italian American Heritage Month, which is in October. provides lists and links to all of the Italian festivals aross the country by state:

As does Order Sons of Italy in America, with over 361 festivals listed across the country!

And Martha Bakerjian from shares with us her favorites: (

Memphis Italian Festival May: Memphis Italian Festival is usually the last weekend of May in Memphis, Tennessee

Summer in Little Italy Festival Summer: New York’s Little Italy holds a festival every weekend during summer with sidewalk cafes and special events.

Venetian Night and Boat Parade July: Chicago’s Venetian Night and boat parade is modeled after boat parades in Venice, Italy.

Feast of the Assumption August: Feast of the Assumption, August 15, is a big holiday in Italy. Cleveland, Ohio.

San Gennaro Festival September: San Gennaro is a 10-day festival in New York City’s Little Italy.

Feast of San Gennaro September: Feast of San Gennaro is celebrated in Los Angeles with a weekend festival in late September.

Italian Heritage Parade October: San Francisco’s Italian Heritage Parade, held in North Beach on Columbus Day, has been going on since 1868 and is nation’s oldest Italian Heritage Parade.

Organize a Family Reunion– what better way to appreciate and reminisce about being an Italian American than with an Italian family reunion? It doesn’t have to be elaborate, just the act of having everyone together in the same place- whether it is Nonno’s living room, a park, the beach or a nice Italian restaurant- is what makes it amazing! And holding it around a special time of the year, like Thanksgiving or Independence Day or Mama’s 96th birthday makes it a no-brainer for every warm-hearted, holiday-loving Italian American. Imagine all the famiglia, the food, the photos, the wine, the music, the laughter, sharing old stories and memories and making new ones!

Join an Italian-American Society– Italian American clubs represent a way to preserve the Italian American culture, traditions, memories, language and relationships between Italian Americans in the United States. Plus, they usually hold all kinds of wonderful Italian-related events, from language classes to group travel to festivals and other social events. provides a list of the Italian American clubs and societies by state:

Go to Italy! Eighteenth century British author Samuel Johnson said, “A man who has not been in Italy, is always conscious of an inferiority, from his not having seen what it is expected a man should see.” The World Tourism Organization ranks Italy as the 5th most internationally visited country in the world, with 50.7 million international visitors in 2015, up from 48.6 million in 2014. And according to, Rome is the #1 family vacation spot in all of Europe. These statistics are not surprising, with all the beauty and diversity Italy has to offer. Who hasn’t wanted to visit the ancient Coliseum in Rome, walk through vast fields of Tuscan sunflowers, or overlook the rugged, jaw-dropping vistas on the Amalfi Coast? Airlines now offer inexpensive direct flights to Rome, Air BnB,, and make local living affordable and possible, and as of this writing the Euro is at an all time low. What are you waiting for? Italy is waiting for you!

Become a dual citizen- Thanks to the Italian government and some helpful non-governmental and for-profit services, it is now easier than ever for Americans with Italian heritage to get their dual Italian citizenship. Having dual citizenship will allow you to live, work and study in Italy and the E.U. without a visa, will allow you to stay in Italy beyond the 90-day visa waiver limit, and will also make buying property easier. You will need to know certain information, such as the birth dates and birthplaces of your Italian-born ancestors, and you will need to secure original birth and death certificates for them, you and everyone in-between (websites like can help with those activities at very reasonable rates.) There are costs associated with applying for dual Italian citizenship, and the status may also have tax implications, but if you are interested in the idea of having dual citizenship, then it is worth a look! Check out for more information.

Move to Italy- This is, of course, a big step, but if you are truly in love with Italy and all things Italian, you may want to consider a life there! If it’s good enough for celebrities like George Clooney, Sting, Hellen Mirram, Woody Allen, Richard Branson, George Lucas, Leonardo Dicaprio and others, maybe it’s worth a try for you? (

Wealthy movie stars and directors aside, more and more “regular, everyday” U.S. citizens are moving to or retiring to Italy in order to make their financial savings go further than it can in the U.S. Take, for example, my neighbors in Calitri, Italy, Barbara and John Highet. They bought and renovated a home in Calitri, Italy, sold everything in their hometown of Evergreen, Colorado, and now live in Italy full time. (See Barbara and John and their new Calitri home in their episode on International House Hunters If you catch the bug and want to learn more about moving to Italy, Emma Basile runs Porta D’Oriente agency in Calitri and has quite a bit of experience helping Americans (and UK’ers and EU’ers) become expats! (

Before you commit to a permanent move, you may want to consider a temporary, trial adventure for a few months- even if you don’t want to or are not able to apply for dual Italian citizenship, you can still apply for a “Permesso de Soggiorno” which will allow you to stay in Italy beyond the 90 day visa waiver limit. ( Once you have applied for the Permisso de Soggiorno for 5 years in a row, you can apply for permanent Italian residence. Don’t think you have the budget to live anywhere else for a few months? If you want to try out living in Italy, you can also try house or pet sitting. and are two well-established sites that offer opportunities for house and pet sitting around the world, including Italy!

Meet Some Paesan!

We hope these ideas have given you some inspiration for a multitude of ways to bring more Italy into your life. But one of the best and most Italian ways to bring more Italy into your life is to make new friends. If you thought you and your family were the only Italian-Americans out there, then meet a few new amici that have graciously shared with us their fondest memories of being Italian.

Meet Leila Martini!

Full Maiden Name:  Leila Martini

My dad’s side is from Northern Italy and immigrated into Canada. My mom’s side is from Sicily and immigrated into Florida.


Leila’s Mimi and Papa (Mimi wearing the fur shawl and Papa to her left)

Mimi and Papa’s parents came from Alessandria della Rocca  (  My mom said BOTH of mimi’s parents and BOTH of papa’s parents came from that town…very interesting!

blogleilasggLeila’s Great Grandparents

Both Mimi and Papa’s families came into Ybor City, Florida. The interesting thing about this is a lot of our traditions are a merged blend of Italian/Cuban because of the Ybor City Cuban influence…for instance…Mimi’s FANTASTIC “Cuban coffee” and the fact that Papa loved GUAVA pastries, which he called “wawa”…lol!

The thing I love most about being Italian is the warmth. There is a certain exuberance that comes along with being Italian…a zest for life!

The most memorable thing for me about being from an Italian family is everyone talking over each other and all at once. I took a communication class once and the professor noted that I start most of my sentences with “Listen…” and it occurred to me that that is because growing up no one did listen and you had to literally yell to be heard!

My favorite Italian comfort food? Oh my gosh! PASTA!!! And Mimi made it so many different ways. One of my favorite ways was this white sauce…made with chicken and peas and mushrooms…it was not creamy…sort of soupy, really and with big, thick, curly noodles…sort of like a lasagna noodle but 1/3 of the width. I think the food is the Italian tradition we carry on in my family. March 16th for instance, my mom has a get together of all the cousins to celebrate the March birthdays and she is making all of Mimi’s pastas…all the main ones…chicken/peas/mushroom white sauce, the red sauce, the clam sauce, the broccoli and pignoli nuts. 

We are definitely Italian and have that Italian vibe but truly it is so mixed in with Cuban that it is funny to me. Mimi spoke Spanish and I was shocked to discover this. She said it was from growing up in Ybor City. Her version of the Italian language was interesting….All her little old lady friends that she played bridge with would say “que beda” and “que duche”…so instead of BELLA it was BEDA. And “DOO CH AY.” So their pronunciations weren’t really formal Italian…maybe that is what Sicilian pronunciation is like. Also, there was a big, big difference between Mimi’s side Italian and Nonno and Nonna’s side (my dad’s side) Italian. Nonno and Nonna were northern Italian, what one would think of when thinking Italian…pasta made from scratch, old ladies mourning and wearing black…like old school… Mimi’s side was more joyful and warm and cohesive and I think that was part of the Cuban influence.

Meet Lisa Marie Farniacci!


Full Maiden Name: Lisamarie Sellitti (Lisa Marie is on the right)

My grandmother on my mother’s side was born in Bari, Italy and my grandfather was born in Tuscany, Italy. My grandmother on my father’s side was born in Naples, Italy and my grandfather was born in Tuscany, Italy. When they first came to the U.S., both grandparents came through Ellis Island, and they settled in Brooklyn, New York.


Top Image – Lisa Marie’s grandparents. Bottom Image, Lisa Marie’s grandmother

The thing I love most about being Italian American is of course the food, but also the stories and Italian rituals. My best memory of being from an Italian family has to be my grandmother cooking for weeks to get ready for the holidays. My favorite Italian comfort food was definitely eggplant parm! My grandmother also used to make homemade pizza, pasta and Easter pie. We just don’t do that anymore!!! 

There are a few Italian traditions from my childhood that I still carry on today. Saying grace before each meal is a big one, and so is making all the fish on Christmas eve, and on Christmas day, lasagna! Also, we still do christening celebrations, big birthday parties for the one-year-olds, and huge weddings where we invite everyone! 

Meet Jill Barone!

Full Maiden Name: Mary Jill Barone (I kept my maiden name when I got married….. that’s the way they do it in Italy too. The name you are born with is the one you die with!) Our family is Italian only on my dad’s side—my dad’s mom was born in a small town called Fossato Ionico in Reggio Calabria. My dad’s dad was born in the U.S., but his older sisters were both born in Modica, Sicily before the family came to the U.S.. Dad’s mom was born in Fossato Ionico, Reggio Calabria, Italy right at the tip of the boot and Dad’s father’s siblings and parents were born in Modica, Ragusa, Sicily.

My dad’s grandfather (Salvatore) and his brothers came to the U.S. several times—at least two trips for my dad’s grandfather in 1907 and 1910. In 1907 the brothers stayed in New York City (presumably for work), but when Salvatore came back with his family in 1910 they went to Ohio—first to Cincinnati (where my grandfather was born) and then to Cleveland where they stayed. Interestingly, one brother (Santo) came to the U.S. and had some kids here but when his wife died he went back to Sicily, remarried, and had some more kids. Later (around the late 1940’s) one of his U.S.-born sons sponsored him to re-immigrate to the U.S.. I got his Alien file from the National Archives and it had a TON of info in it. Also, the youngest brother, Giovanni, returned to Italy for good. I have cousins in Reggio Emilia that I have recently been in touch with who are descendants of that brother. There are a few other brothers that I just don’t have any additional info on. My grandmother’s family came to the U.S. in 1926 when she was 11. Her father (Carmelo) had come years before in 1902 and then again later (not sure the exact year) to become a citizen and begin the time tolling for the residency requirement. By this time it was getting more difficult for immigrants from the south of Europe to enter the U.S. freely so he had to become a citizen first. At that time, minor children were also naturalized at the same time as a parent so my grandmother was actually naturalized along with him. As with my dad’s dad, Carmelo first came to New York and then brought the family to Cleveland when they came in 1926.

What do I love the most about being Italian? What’s NOT to love about being Italian? In addition to the things that everyone loves about Italy (the food, the architecture, the culture, etc., etc.), I think the best part is the warmth and sense of family of the people. When I went to Italy in 2011, I contacted some potential relatives in Modica before I came. They didn’t know me at all, but when I got there, they treated me like a queen. I didn’t drive myself or pay for a meal the entire time I was with them. Just think about that for a minute—if you got a letter from a complete stranger who said “hey, I’m coming to your town” would you drop everything and welcome them like that? It totally blew me away and was so refreshing.

I don’t know that I have one single best memory of growing up Italian—it’s definitely a combination of things. I remember learning to cook with my grandmother, which I really liked since my mom didn’t want me to mess up the kitchen at her house (totally understandable.) We also had dinner with my grandparents every Sunday when they were in town (they were snowbirds.) My grandmother was a really funny lady too and a great storyteller. I probably asked her to tell me about coming to America like 100 times. Learning English wasn’t easy back then—they certainly didn’t have ESOL (English as a Second Language) classes for the kids. I remember her joking that she was the only kindergartener with boobs and would sometimes have to wear the dunce cap (which is pretty ironic, because she was incredibly smart….she just didn’t know English the second she stepped off the boat.)

What is my favorite Italian comfort food?  Oh, there are so many…. My grandmother’s meatballs were pretty awesome. She also made a dessert called ricotta pie that was one of my favorites. Her stuffed artichokes were stellar too. And there was always, always antipasti. I still cook a lot of the things that I learned from my grandmother, but unfortunately there aren’t a lot of other traditions that I’ve kept. I always used to set up my grandmother’s manger at Christmas but we don’t have it anymore which is sad. I’d like to get another one someday….maybe from Italy!

One more memory – the only time my grandparents ever spoke Italian was when they didn’t want the grandkids to know what they were saying. This is something that I’ve only just realized since I started taking Italian lessons. I remember that one of them would start screaming “stai zitto” to the other one and then whatever it was they were talking about. Now I know that “stai zitto” meant “shut up”….lol!

I really have to hand it to my grandparents—they pretty much lived the American dream. My grandfather’s father died in the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic when he was only 4 years old. His mother was left to raise 5 kids by herself (one of whom also later died of the flu). Despite such a rough start, my grandfather graduated from high school and went on to run a successful building supply business with his brother. He owned a home in Cleveland, put two sons through college and dental school, and was able to retire to Florida. I also have to hand it to him for being creative, too. Obviously, when he was a kid, money was tight…especially for leisure activities like the movies. Somehow he got his hands on a roll of movie tickets and was able to use them to go to the movies whenever he wanted! I definitely tip my hat to him whenever I come up with ways to “think outside the box” like that…it’s definitely genetic! Both of my grandparents were incredibly kind and generous people and I’m so glad that I had the opportunity to know them. I think part of why I have spent so much time researching my family history and going through the dual citizenship process is because I really miss this connection to my heritage. My grandparents both died in 2006 (in their 90’s) and I wish that I had done more during their lifetime to preserve all of their memories.

Leila, Lisa Marie, Jill, thank you so much for sharing with us your memories and your families – and the best parts of what it is like to grow up Italian-American! For this last stop on Papa’s train, we will close with a story from Leila Martini– and a memory of her beloved Mimi.

A Story of Mimi

I rang the doorbell, chimes echoing in various octaves, and pressed my face to the cold glass of the kitchen door. I could see the mist from my nose fogging up the door and the sweat from my palms leaving their impression.  The kitchen was bright and I could hear Mimi bustling around.

I stepped back as Mimi unlocked the kitchen door with a “thwack” sound. I will remember the sound of that door unlocking for the rest of my life…a sort of thick, solid, thwacking sound.

I entered the kitchen to a flood of sensations. The bright lights, the sound of crackling oil bubbling on the stove, the smell of garlic, the sound of Mimi’s greeting- a loudness level that was less than an actual yell but much more than a regular talking voice. We tend to talk loudly in my family.

I looked at the stove with its various pots and pans and contraptions all going at once. Mimi was cooking again for some friend or relative who had just come home from the hospital or lost a loved one or been diagnosed with something. Mimi was forever cooking for us and for others.

“Leeeela…” Mimi sort of drew out the “eeee” as she said my name and then snapped the “la” at the end….reminding me of the “ahhhh….ohhhh….ummmm” cadence one hears in yoga class.

“Leeela, you want some Cuban coffee?”

I sat down at the wooden kitchen table as Mimi added another pot to the fray. I could hear the suction of the refrigerator door as she opened it to get the milk from the shelf packed with all sorts of tasty treasures. At one point during my childhood there was a Styrofoam container in the fridge stocked with fresh eyeballs. I am not kidding. My grandfather was an ophthalmologist and would have eyeballs for use in corneal transplants.

Mimi poured the milk into a pan and filled a small pot with water and waited for them to boil. Her process for making Cuban coffee delights me still. The pot of water boiled and she dumped in a bunch of the strongest, richest smelling coffee from a brown paper bag, into the water and stirred. She drained it through this old strainer that looked like a piece of cone-shaped felt in a rickety, old tin container.

After the coffee making ritual she stood by the stove tending her many dishes and telling me about this or that friend or relative, with this or that tragedy, that she was in the process of cooking for.

At this last memory, my mind flashed back to the present moment. Back to the ornate church with stained glass windows all around me, to the hushed ceremonial grieving, to the priest in monotone, to the unbearable hole of sorrow that bored into my guts….a sort of hollow feeling…a wave of the most unfathomable pain at the loss. After the church we went to the graveyard to watch as my dear Mimi- in her purple dress, the one she had selected just for this day, the one that she wore when she was honored as “Tampa’s Best Dressed”- was buried by my dear papa.

Amidst my despair I heard all the stories…they sank in to my heart…the story of a woman who had taken her niece, the one with the poor parents, to lunch and then to buy her a confirmation dress…the story of the other poor family member for whom Mimi bought a Christmas dress every year…the stories of the families for whom she had cared and cooked…Mimi was thought of in the most selfless ways. The stories of the flowers, of the generosity, of the love… And I realized that even though Mimi was gone, she was in fact still alive and well in all of our hearts.

Thank you Leila. And thank you Mimi. It has been an honor to meet you both.

Well, that’s all for this month, dear ones! But before we go, as promised, here are Papa and Mama’s recipes for “Lazy Lasagna” and “Easy Eggplant Parmagiana.” We hope you enjoy them, guilt-free and with some music, laughter, family and friends around the table– Italian style!

The Curse Has Been Lifted!

Ok, so we were all raised with the understanding that it is Italian law that any food made and served at an authentic Italian dinner table can NOT come pre-made in a box or from a jar, right? Right. And that making said pre-made food (ESPECIALLY sauce or gravy) is an affront to Italian heritage and a direct insult to the entire lineage of ancestors, living or deceased, right? Right. Well… I hope to change all that. I figured that if the Cubs can remove the curse of the goat and win the 2016 World Series, then it is about time we also remove the curse of pre-made food and consider there are times when, in a pinch, a few shortcuts may be not only acceptable, but downright yummy! Papa and Mama seemed to think so, because they came up with these two recipes which I have tested on family members and received repeated toasts of approval! I took some serious liberty with the sauce, as Papa and Mama would not use a jar of pre-made sauce, which I have included here, but would instead whip up a “quick” gravy, throwing a can of diced tomatoes, a can of tomato paste, fresh garlic, salt, and olive oil in a sauce pan for about an hour. But they could work Italian magic that I just can’t, and so if I want something quick, then I have found a jar of sauce is just as good as anything I could make from scratch. I think you will like it just as much as your own sauce! (No, I am not suggesting in any way this will be anywhere as good as Nonno’s or Nonna’s.) And…who knows, you may end up having a lot more Italian food– and free time on your hands- as a result of trying it! Enjoy!

“Papa’s Lazy Lasagna”


1 box large, square ricotta cheese filled ravioli (or two boxes for a large rectangular pan)

1 12-ounce bag shredded mozzarella

1 jar pre-made spaghetti sauce like Beroli or Rao’s, although I use 365 Organic Classic


Boil and drain the ravioli per the instructions on the box

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Spread some sauce on the bottom of a square or rectangular baking dish

Place a layer of ravioli on the bottom of the pan

Spoon a thin layer of sauce over the ravioli

Pour a layer of shredded mozzarella over the sauce and ravioli

Place another layer of ravioli over the mozzarella

Spoon another layer of sauce over the ravioli

Spread another layer of mozzarella over the sauce

Cover with foil and bake for 20 minutes

Remove foil and broil cheese on top until browned and a little crispy

 “Mama’s Easy Eggplant Parmagiana”


1 box frozen, pre-made breaded eggplant (Domenix makes the kind Mama uses!) or 2 boxes if you are using a large rectangular baking dish

1 12-ounce bag shredded mozzarella

1 jar pre-made spaghetti sauce (see above for my preferences)


Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Spread some sauce on the bottom of a square or rectangular baking dish

Place a layer of frozen eggplant on the bottom of the pan (try to fill all the spaces with eggplant, even if you have to break some of the rounds apart to do it.)

Spoon a thin layer of sauce over the eggplant

Spread a layer of shredded mozzarella over the sauce and eggplant

Place another layer of eggplant over the mozzarella

Spoon another layer of sauce over the eggplant

Spread another layer of mozzarella over the sauce

Cover with foil and bake for 20 minutes

Remove foil and broil cheese on top until browned and a little crispy

There you have it! Shhhhhhh… you don’t have to tell anyone it’s not from scratch!

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!


Papa’s Great Granddaughter Sierra carries on the Italian pride!

“Be Italian!” – All Aboard the Time Travel Train, from Phoenecians and the French Revolution to Fellini and Far Niente! Part I

Papa loved being Italian. Partly because of the Italian culture– the traditions, the food, the music, the people– holy cannoli, what’s not to love? But he also loved being Italian because he considered his heritage an honor. He knew what his family had to go through to get to America. And not just to get to America, but then to survive, and thrive in the new country. He also knew of the many that tried but did not make the journey. Those who courageously sacrificed themselves to make life better for their families and themselves. To Papa, that alone made anyone that risked the trip worthy of at least some of his respect.

But over time, the concept of “Being Italian” has changed, and the meaning of the term “Italian” has come to mean more than just geography of origin. It is more than citizenship, ethnicity, or even culture. Being “Italian” has become a modern passion- and not just for those that have it in their blood. We see it represented in the world’s adoration and celebration of Italian food, choices for travel destinations, movies, music and even in the media. Just take a peek at the series of new Fiat commercials that celebrate that the “Italians are coming!”:

Without saying more than those four words, the ad makes it clear that being Italian brings with it excitement, spontaneity and sex appeal (and also a tiny army of very zippy cars!) And who are we to argue? Apparently the theme worked for Fiat as well– in 2013, after only a few short years on the U.S. market, the Fiat 500 ranked #56 in top US car sales, out of 152 different models sold in the US.1

So, ok, we get it, people love Italy and for very obvious reasons. But was it always this way? And what exactly about Italy and being Italian is so appealing? To help myself better understand the breadth (did someone say bread??) of the Italian phenomenon, I did some time-traveling from the earliest roots of Italy to modern day. I discovered so many things I never knew about my heritage- and about the events and people that made us all fall in love with the country and the culture. And you know me, once I find something great, all I want to do is share! So, dear friend, amico, paesan, whether you are Italian or honorary Italian, I invite you now to take the tour with me- we’ll be traveling first class on Papa’s “wonderful, whimsical train of life.” Those of you that read the book How Do We Love? have already been passengers!

“A tight chain of elegantly-rusted passenger cars approaches the station. Brakes screeching, the ancient machine rolls to a stop in front of me. The music fades calando to silent and everything becomes quiet. The only sound is a susurrus breeze trying to tell me some secret I used to know but now can’t yet understand. The window of the conductor compartment struggles to slide open, and when it does, Papa leans out. Not really Papa, but some vapor version of Papa all misty and sparkly and not-yet, wearing a collapsible top hat and World War II flying goggles. He’s eating a plate of something and it smells like an Italian restaurant and my favorite memories and home.”

Blog1 Train

cool train image from our friends at Free Software for Sharing

Whether you already have a ticket stub is of no concern here, mi amore– everyone is welcome on this train and the ride is free, so please climb aboard! For those of you that like to plan ahead, here is our breathtaking itinerary:

First stop? Italica Kingdom Station– we’ll travel far, far, so very far back in time to the homeland before it was the homeland– a mystical, ancient time of warring tribes and empires and invasions. While we are there, we’ll carefully, secretly, hike around the battlefields to peek in on the antics of Napolean to see just when and how Italy became Italy (it’s much more recent than you think!).

After safely surviving the centuries of incursions, we will climb back aboard for our next stop– Stazione di Difficolta e Speranza (Difficulty and Hope Station) in the time of the World Wars–when most of our beloved, brave ancestors decided that while they loved being Italian, maybe Italy wasn’t the best place to do it (talk about not just sitting around and accepting your fate!). We’ll see why coming to America wasn’t just a simple, giddy, gold-paved decision about wanting a better life– and involved much more than just buying a ticket, taking a boat trip and showing up at the next port.

Those two parts of the journey will leave us hungry for more– and, like every good Italian, just plain hungry! So we will have a brief siesta, to eat, to drink, to visit the family, maybe listen to some music and even take a nap. When we return we’ll be at our next stop- Sophia Loren Station. Here we’ll disembark once again and take a romantic, nostalgic “passegiata” (Italian stroll!) along the path of Italian culture popularity in the United States: Italian language, romance, foods, movies, music, and traditions. You’ll remember all the reasons we adore Italy (as if we could ever forget!)

And finally, our last stop will be a very special station– one in the future where you can have all the Italy you want in your life! We’ll guide you through a colorful, bustling marketplace and pause at quite a few stands- where you will meet a few genuine Italian-Americans and learn how to do everything Italian, on every budget- from having your very own Italian night at home, to learning the language, to living in Italy or even becoming an Italian citizen!

Ok, friends– did you hear that? It’s the station whistle– are ya in? Then all aboard, this car is about to depart. Hop on and I promise that by the time we get you back home, you will remember why the world adores everything Italian!

 Stop 1- Italica Kingdom Station

Blog2 Italica Station

Blog3 Italica Bridge Photo

Photograph by Paolo de Faveri

Ancient Tribal Italy

Stepping down off the train, we see a beautiful, forested landscape. When we think of Italy and the time of great-grandparents, we may think of the small towns and cities they came from. But what about their grandparents? And the grandparents before that? Did you know that many of our ancient ancestors came from tribes? Have you ever considered to which tribe your family belongs?

“Modern” humans, our most ancient ancestors, appeared on the peninsula we now know as Italy about 40,000 years ago. Those were either the Indo-European hunter-gatherer-wanders, called “Italics” (tribes like the Umbrian, Roman, Volsci, Samnites, Celts, or  Ligures) OR what many refer to as the actual indigenous peoples of Italy- tribes such as the Etruscans, Elymians, Sicani or prehistoric Sardinians! Shortly after those tribes came the Greeks, Carthaginians and Phoenicians. Take a look at the map and find your ancestors’ homeland- and then see if you can get a better idea of the tribe from which you may have originated. It looks like Papa’s ancestors, located in the interior land below Naples, may have been the original Italics or possibly Greek!:

Blog4Tribal Map


As time moved on, other tribes moved in- tribes like the Gauls (descended largely from Vikings) and Greeks, but also tribes of German heritage from German occupation near the Black Sea (tribes called Ostrogoths, Goths and Visigoths). Sicily had Ostrogoth, Byzantine, Arab and Berber tribes, and when Sicily was conquered by Normans between the 11th and 12th centuries she had tribes that were a mix of all the cultures!

It wasn’t until 31 BC, when a Roman emperor named Octavian created a formal “administrative region” from all the different pieces of land and called it, “Italia.” But even with the lovely name, government, rules and laws, everything within Italia was still a messy mishmosh of kingdoms, principalities, republics, duchys and marquisates that stretched all the way from Sicily up to to the Alps. Everyone wanted a piece of this rich, fertile, beautiful land and its peoples.

Between 31 BC and 1796, “Italia” continued to be a mixing pot for a dense, dirty soup of powerful leaders and invading armies battling for territory.  The next three maps show just a glimpse into how Italy changed over those centuries, from 1000 AD to 1796 AD:


Source: Map from, Wikimedia Commons Free Use Image


Source: Map from, Wikimedia Commons Free Use Image


Source: Map from, Wikimedia Commons Free Use Image

And then, in 1796, came the one, the only, Napoleon Bonaparte:


This famous painting, “Napoleon Crossing the Alps Into Italia” by Jaque Louis-David, housed at the Musée national du Château de Malmaison Wikimedia Commons, Public domain.

During the French Revolution, Napolean gained support from the people of Italy, and secret, revolutionary clubs formed all over Italia. Rebel factions wanted all these fragmented city states to be joined in a single Republic of Italy. In 1796 Bonaparte and his forces headed through the alps into Italia, and when they were finished, Napoleon had made himself Emperor. Eventually North and Central Italian City States were unified under the name, “Kingdom of Italy,” with Napoleon as King! The rest of the north was annexed to France and under French rule. Only Sicily and Sardinia remained free of French rule. This is what the Kingdom of  Italy looked like in 1810 after Napoleon:


Source: Map from, Wikimedia Commons Free Use Image

(Oliviero Family sidenote! This was a very important time for Papa’s family. It’s ridiculously complicated, but the short version begins with the House of Bourbon taking over Naples, a lot of French infighting,  everyone pissing off the Spaniards, and the Austrian Hapsburgs eventually getting all involved. It ends with Papa’s great-great-grandfather DeMarsilia being employed as personal physician to one of the Bourbon Kings in Naples, saving the King’s life and being given the title of “Don” (Lord) and a bunch of land on the southwestern coast of Italy. If Papa’s father had stayed in Italy, the descendants would have been “Dons” and “Donas” (Lords and Ladies.) Papa said it was a sore point with his cousins when they discovered that they could have been considered royalty had the family stayed in Italy- especially when the girls found out that this would have made them eligible to marry a prince!)

And finally…Italia becomes…Italy!

In March of 1861 (that was only 153 years ago, dear friends- our great Nonnos and Nonnas saw this happen!), Italy was finally united under the rule of King Victor Emmanuel II ( You know, the guy that commissioned Rome’s “beloved” Wedding Cake monument!). Italian troops occupied Rome, and in July 1871, Rome formally became the Capital of the Kingdom. The Roman Pope at the time (Pius IX) was a rival of Italian kings and refused to cooperate, considering himself a “prisoner” of the Vatican. It was not until 1929 (yes! Only 85 years ago!) when the Pope finally accepted unified Italy with Rome as the capital.

After the initial “unification,”  Italian rulers started to expand their “empires” by creating colonies outside of Italy. The first Italian colonies were in Africa, and when Benito Mussolini and his fascists conquered Ethiopia in 1936, the “Italian Empire” was founded (I’m starting to better understand the finer points of Star Wars now…). Italy went on to colonize Eritrea, the Aegean Islands, Somaliland, Tientsin and Libya. But Italian Imperialism and Colonialism was not to last, as World War II destroyed fascist Italy and its colonial power. On June 2, 1946, Italy held its first free, non-fascist election, and Italians chose a republic to replace the monarchy. The king was no longer in power and the Italian constitution was put in place on January 1, 1948. Think about that– in the lifetime of you, your parents or your grandparents, this was all happening in Italy!

And that, my friends, is our brief tour of the area surrounding Italica Station and the ancient Italian past. Now, let’s get back on the train and head to our next stop– to explore what life was like for our more recent Italian ancestors.

Stop 2- Stazione di Difficolta e Speranza (Difficulty and Hope Station)



 Source: Wikipedia Commons, Unknown Artist. United States Public Domain image.

Italian diaspora- time to leave the homeland. Do you know why Nonna and Nonno left Italy?

A “diaspora” is the term for when a population moves away from its original homeland- voluntarily,  forcably or a little of both. It may come all at once, or in waves, over time.

There was an Italian diaspora that occurred right after the unification of Italy in 1861 and continued through the 1920’s, with one last large wave after World War II ended (although most left between 1861 and the start of World War I in 1914).

Right after unification in 1861, many Italians left because they had no land. The “feudal system” of land ownership was removed, and the land once owned by kings, nobility and aristocrats was redistributed to the peoples of Italy. However, many Italians in the South did not receive land- and therefore had nothing to farm. Many left Italy as a result. (Some of those without land did stay, but participated in a practice called “Mezzadria”– renting or leasing land from Italian owners. Tenants would tend the crops and provide a share of money back to the landowners. This was the reason Papa went back to Italy for the first time in 1937. As we just learned, Papa’s family had received land, and as you read in the book, he went to Italy in 1937 to check on their tenant, Ferraro. Ferraro had not been sending any money to the United States, and Papa’s family was concerned that the property had been abandoned or sold illegally.)

In the next wave of emigration, From 1900 through the end of World War I, Southern Italians also left because of problems in the South- there was an environment of post-war lawlessness, a chaos brought about by lack of civil services and enforcement, land issues (see feudal system, above!) and much sickness from poverty and bad living conditions. Sicknesses such as cholera (an intestinal disease caused by fecal bacteria) and pellagra (a dangerous vitamin deficiency) caused many deaths, especially in children and the elderly.

Times were clearly very difficult for Italians in Italy after World War I. The country and its people were weak due to lack of jobs and resources, and groups took advantage of that weakness with struggles for rights and power (which seemed, up to that point, never-ending in Italy!) The struggles and scarcity led to the rise of Fascism in the country. Eventually, around 1922, the Fascists took charge, and, during the first five years of fascism, 1.5 million people left Italy.2

The vast majority of Italians went to South America, ending up in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. (In our own family, Papa’s father came to the United States and his father’s brother went to Brazil. There is an entire group of Olivieros in Brazil!) North America was the second most sought out destination for Italian emigrants, and Australia was the third. Of those that went to the United States, most started their new lives in New York City, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, New Orleans and San Francisco. 3

Emigration away from Italy did not necessarily makes things better for Italians. As if courage to prepare and leave everything behind was not insurmountable enough for Nonno and Nonna, it was extremely challenging to accrue enough funds for the ship ride. Once on board, the ride itself was grueling for many. There were different ticket prices for different types of people, but the most common ticket for immigrants was passage in “steerage.” Everyone remembers the James Cameron movie “Titanic”- and the romance between first-class passenger “Rose” (played by Kate Winslett) and steerage passenger, “Jack” (played by Italian-American actor Leonardo DiCaprio.) Known for his obsession with attention to accurate historical detail, Cameron created a (deleted) scene of what he believed would look like the main section of steerage:

It seems fine enough, but it is important to remember that the people in steerage had to spend days and weeks in those cramped quarters. Also, the luxurious Titanic sailed decades after the earliest immigration waves began, and years after improvements commenced on trans-atlantic steerage conditions.

The excerpt below is from a 1909 Report of the United States Immigration Commission. The report was based on special agents of the Commission that secretly traveled as steerage passengers on 12 different transatlantic steamers. “There had never before been a thorough investigation of steerage conditions by national authority, but superficial investigations…had disclosed such evil and revolting conditions on some ships that the Commission decided to conduct an investigation sufficiently thorough.”4

This is what some of the special agents found in their visits to steerage:

“The old-type steerage is the one whose horrors have been so often described. It is, unfortunately, still found in a majority of the vessels bringing immigrants to the United States. It is still the common steerage in which hundreds of thousands of immigrants form their first conceptions of our country and are prepared to receive their first impressions of it.

The sleeping quarters are large compartments, accommodating as many as 300, or more, persons each…The berths are in two tiers, with an interval of 2 feet and 6 inches of space above each. They consist of an iron framework containing a mattress, a pillow, or more often a life-preserver as a substitute, and a blanket. The mattress, and the pillow if there is one, is filled with straw or seaweed.


Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. 20540. LC-USZ62-11202.

No sick cans are furnished, and not even large receptacles for waste. The vomit of the seasick are often permitted to remain a long ‘tame before being removed. The Boors, when iron, are continually damp and when of wood, they reek with foul odor because they are not washed.

The open deck available to the steerage is limited, and regular separable dining rooms are not included in the construction. The sleeping compartments must therefore be the constant abode of a majority of the passengers. During days of continued storm, when the unprotected open deck can not be used at all, the berths and the passageways between them are the only places where the steerage passenger can spend his time.


Photo Credit: Edwin Levick photo. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. 20540. LC-USZ62-11202.

When to this very limited space and much filth and stench is added inadequate means of ventilation, the result is almost unendurable. Its harmful effects on health and morals scarcely need be indicated. Two 12-inch ventilator shafts are required for every 50 persons in every room ; but the conditions here are abnormal and these provisions do not suffice.



The food may be generally described as fair in quality and sufficient in quantity, and yet it is neither; fairly good materials are usually spoiled by being wretchedly prepared. The preparation, the manner of serving the food…and disregard of the proportions of the several food elements required by the human body, make the food unsatisfying and therefore insufficient. This defect and the monotony are relieved by purchases at the canteen by those whose capital will permit.


Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. 20540. LC-USZ62-11202.

Considering this old-type steerage as a whole, it is a congestion so intense, so injurious to health and morals, that there is nothing on land to equal it. That people live in it only temporarily is no justification of its existence…It is abundant opportunity to weaken the body and implant there germs of disease to develop later. It is more than a physical and moral test; it is a strain. And surely it is not the introduction to American institutions that will tend to make them respected.”4

From reading this description, one can see why Papa’s pregnant mother, Elvira, arrived on the shores of New York sick and weak, and lost the baby shortly thereafter.

Off of the Ship…And Onto the Docks

For people that survived the ship ride, their arrival on Ellis Island could also be extremely challenging. Leslie Allen, author of the American history novel, Ellis Island, gives us a detailed glimpse into the life of an immigrant that has just disembarked from their means of passage onto the immigration docks: (immigrant photos from various sources added for purposes of illustration and not an original element of Allen’s book. Unless otherwise specified, photo source is, Prints and Reading Room of the United States Library of Congress.)

Some had used their life savings to purchase one-way tickets to a destination they had only heard about. Having sold their few worldly possessions, they boarded a steamship with little more than the clothes on their backs and dreams in their heads. An immigrant said, ‘If America didn’t exist, we would have to invent it for the sake of our survival.’

The 1891 law placing immigration under federal control contained a provision that excluded people suffering from dangerous contagious diseases. Trachoma, a communicable eye affliction, was especially feared. Passengers preparing to debark would ask each other if they “looked sick in the eyes.” They also worried about other ailments; whether sea-sickness was a disease, or would a child with a sty be torn from its family and sent back to Europe. Some people thought they had to pay something to the American inspector and doctor. They worried as to whether they had enough money to pay the officials.


Source: National Park Service, as found on

Even the steerage passengers were lined up according to their appearance. The steamship companies were aware of their reputation so they placed prosperous-looking and respectable passengers in front. Behind them were women with handkerchiefs on their heads. They were followed by the more alien-looking in their best: Russians in matted sheepskins, Greeks in white kilts, etc…Tickets and vaccination cards were in the caps, hats or teeth of the immigrants whose hands were full of baggage and babies. Some officials gave them a rough shove, shouting in a dozen languages to hurry. They hurried, and then waited – sometimes for hours – aboard barges.


A barefoot immigrant woman waits for her turn.

The busiest year was 1907 with 866,660 immigrants. The busiest day of that year was May 2, 1907, when 11 ships arrived with 16,209 passengers and four more ships arrived, making the total number of passengers 21,775. At such times, immigrants often had to remain aboard ship for two or three days. There were so many immigrants to process that the staff couldn’t spend more than two minutes with each of them, and they had to work nine hours continuously. There were never enough interpreters. Fiorello LaGuardia, future mayor of New York, was an interpreter – he spoke Croatian, Italian and German. He said they had to work seven days a week for two years.


Immigrants entered the main building in groups of 30, then marched to a wide, steep staircase. It was an inconvenience for the immigrant who had to carry a feather bed, pillow, wicker basket and maybe a small trunk. While the immigrants were struggling up the stairs, medical inspectors stood looking down at them. If anyone gasped or seemed faint of heart, the letter “H” was chalked on his back. Medical examiners eyed them from head to toe. If a child was carried, but looked old enough to walk, examiners suspected infantile paralysis. More chalk marks were added: “B” for back, “L” for lameness, etc. Elaborate hairdos were a suspicious sign of scalp ailments. Lice were commonplace, but didn’t rate a chalk mark. ‘Eye’ men flipped back eyelids with buttonhooks looking for trachoma, whose victims were usually deported. During stringent mental exams doctors looked for symptoms of retardation, such as tremor of tongue, biting nails, unusual decoration on the clothing, etc. The immigrants who were marked by “X” were led away for closer observation. That yielded detailed notes, such as: “heart beats rapidly when talking to strangers.” “He fell in love with a young lady on board ship. She did not reciprocate.”

Blog15Chalk markings

If the doctor cleared them, people then went to the huge Registry Room. Thousands of people lined up in winding rows to the immigration inspector who sat behind a big desk on a high platform, under a portrait of George Washington and an American flag. An intimidating sight to the immigrant.


There were many questions, many fears. What is your name? Where are you from? Where are you going? Do you have any relatives in the United States? How much money did you bring? Do you have any physical or mental health problems? What is your height? Your weight? Are you an anarchist? Are you a polygamist? Some of this information is contained on the one line for each passenger on a ship’s manifest. The manifests with the names and records of our ancestors are the history of the populating of America during this period.

Some immigrants passed into America with their names intact. Many didn’t. Names were often misspelled or altered on the manifests. Immigrants sometimes shortened their names or Americanized them. Sometimes the officials “helped” them. Thus, Portnovsky became Porter, Schmidt became Smith, Goldstein became Gold.

When the immigrants were asked where they were going, it took ingenuity to decipher the replies. “Szekenevno Pillsburs” was Second Avenue, Pittsburg. One newcomer said “Springfield.” “Which Springfield?” “The cheapest one.”

Four out of five immigrants were free to go their way. Some of the rest received a white badge – temporarily detained while awaiting relatives or money. The detainees called Ellis Island the “Isle of Tears.” An inspector stated he had seen many jails, some pretty bad. But none as bad as the dormitories on Ellis Island where detainees had to wait.


Italian children with white badges wait for their family


In 1914 deportations rose to 16,588 people. Several hundred chose suicide to deportation. Echoes of happiness and grief, despair and triumph haunt the halls of Ellis Island’s empty buildings. There was the “kissing post” where families were reunited, and the “stairway of separation.” From it, one passage led to the railroad ferry, another to the boat for Manhattan, and the third to detention and possible deportation. For some people it was a joy; if nothing was wrong with them they went with their families. For those not admitted, there was heartbreak and desolation.”

Welcome to the United States – Now Go Home…

Immigrant families may have been profoundly relieved when their family members arrived safely from the long voyage and joined them in their new home – but not everyone was happy to see the throngs of immigrants pouring into ports like New York, New Orleans, and others. Many existing United States citizens were nervous about the continuing influx of immigrants.

Wikipedia shares an excerpt from a New York Times article of April 17, 1921, titled “Italians Coming in Great Number,” which discussed the vast numbers of people at the Italian ports waiting for ships to take them to the United States and other countries.

“…The stranger walking through a city like Naples can easily realize the problem the government has to deal with. The side streets…are literally swarming with children, who sprawl in the paved roadway and on the sidewalks. They look dirty and happy…Suburbs of Naples…swarm with children who, for number, can only be compared to those in Delhi, Agra and other cities in the East Indies…”

Similar sights began to appear on the streets of immigrant neighborhoods in the U.S.A.- a population size, energy and dynamic that had not existed prior to the waves of immigration:


Mulberry Street – Now Little Italy, Lower East Side NYC, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain circa 1900

The fears of existing U.S. citizens were heightened by the unknown- who were these new neighbors, and exactly what were they bringing to the United States with them? After a ship called the “Italia” came into port, it was determined that some passengers were carriers of smallpox, and the entire manifest of ship’s passengers had to be detained. Word spread that the incoming immigrants were infected and this caused quite a reaction from those on shore, especially those that were not so keen on the influx of new neighbors in the first place.

Newspapers ran stories about the sheer numbers of people coming in off of the ships. One example is a New York Times editorial piece from December 18, 1880, about the Italia, called “Undesirable Immigrants.”  Here are just a few excerpts taken from an editorial piece: (for entire article see: )

Excerpt #1:


Excerpt #2:


Excerpt #3:


Not exactly the welcoming that our friends in the Fiat commercial gave to their immigrating Italians, si?

In addition to having throngs of fearful citizens, The U.S. and other countries were industrializing after the World Wars and saw the immigrants as an excellent source of extremely cheap labor. This demand for workers resulted in many immigrants being hired by companies before they even left Italy, the companies paying their ship fare. Many of these immigrants were then employed under horrendous conditions (such as sweatshops) and found themselves in conditions of indentured servitude or near slavery.

Blog30Plumage Sweatshop

Women working at a plumage factory. Source:

In 1901 the Italian government created an office called the “Commisariat of Emigration” to help assist and protect its citizens leaving Italy for foreign shores. The Commisariat set up hostels at the ports so that people would not have to sleep on the docks waiting for their ships, kept order at the ports, provided health inspections, enforced ticket costs to ensure there was no “price gouging,” scalping, or trading of ship tickets, and worked with receiving countries to ensure emigrants would be received at the destination country. Italy’s Commisariat of Emigration suspended emigration to Brazil for some time when it was found out that many migrants had ended up as slaves on Brazilian coffee plantations.

Eventually, countries started to put quotas on emmigration and immigration. Italy restricted emigration out of Italy between 1920 and 1930, and the United States created the Emergency quota act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924 in an attempt to curb the flow of new people coming into the US.

We Made it! Now What?

If Nonno and Nonna were released from Ellis Island, they still faced additional challenges. The first, finding suitable places to live and decent work opportunities. In the early phases of immigration, people often stayed wherever they could, which included “tenement” buildings and cramped living quarters.





Papa said that at one point in his childhood in New York, they had 16 adults and children living together in a “moderate sized apartment,” which Papa said was always clean and cared for – each of the occupants contributing to the household regardless of age or skill level. Papa said his bed was in the dining room, and his jobs at 5 years old ranged from cleaning the pans under the “ice box,” to stirring the wine on the fire escape (see Papa’s recipe for “Immigrant Ice Wine” at the end of the blog!), to loading coals into the coal heater in the basement.

In the later phases of immigration, many people had families waiting for them with places to live and possibly even jobs. But even with those “luxuries,” starting a new life in a new country was challenging. Families, even children, often worked together to make enough money to stay in shelter, food and clothing.


An Italian family sews doll garments together.


An Italian family sorts coffee beans for packaging.


Cramped living quarters in an Italian tenement in 1910

Blog25farming together

Italian family farming together in 1890


Italian men work at the dock

From the Etruscan Tribes to Ellis Island Occupants- Gratitude for Their Courage and Fortitude

As you have seen, my friend, life for Italians, from the time of tribal conquests through the time of arrival on the shores of America, has always been challenging. But those of us reading this are living proof that our ancestors not only survived the grueling rigors of life as an Italian, they thrived. (Those experiences may also give us a clue to the root of the famous Italian passion and perseverance for life!) Once our ancestors came to America, they settled in, did what they had to, and worked very hard to create the lives that we-their descendants- would eventually enjoy. I hope the stops at these particular stations have given you have a better idea of what your ancestors- whether Italian or not- went through to establish life in this country.  After all, every single American, with the exception of our Native American brothers and sisters, are either immigrants or are descended from immigrants in some way. As Papa would say, “for that we gotta give em our respect.” I could not agree more. Thank you Great-great Nonna Rosina, Great-Grandma Elvira, Great Aunts Gaetana & Gilda, Great Grandpa Vincenzo and Papa. If not for you, who knows if and where I would be!

Now, dear ones, I know that part of our time-travel tour was intense. Those two stops are the most grueling and you, dear traveler, are most deserving of an intermission! You will need a good siesta, because when we return, we will board the time travel train again for our next stop- Sophia Loren Station. There, we will take you through the fiesta of Italian culture in America – the foods, the music, the cinema, and all the things we have come to love about Italy! You won’t want to leave that leg of the tour, but trust me it will be worth boarding the train one last time for our trip to the future, where you will meet some remarkable Italian-Americans and learn how you too can “Be Italian!”

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!

Papa’s Recipe of the Month: “Immigrant Winter Ice Wine!”

Papa always told a great story about one of his family chores- tending to the batches of wine they used to make out on the metal fire escapes of their apartment in the Bronx, New York.(During prohibition, the wine was made in the apartment building basements which required a descent down many, many flights of stairs.) Once Grandma or one of the Uncles had made a batch of homemade wine from crushed grapes, sugar, extra yeast and water, it was placed in large glass jugs and had to be stirred often to prevent the ingredients from settling at the bottom.

Papa’s job was to take a long handled spoon or stick and stir the mix 20 times. He was to do this every day. In the winter, it was also his job to bring the wine in on very cold days, so that it would not freeze and ruin the brew.

Papa said that one very cold day, an extra large batch of wine was ready to go, having fermented for the proper amount of time. Papa gave it one last mix, but in his haste forgot to bring the batch inside. Early the next morning he remembered and woke up in a panic, rushing to the balcony, expecting to see the wine frozen solid and ruined. Upon inspection he realized that 2/3 of the jug was frozen and 1/3 was a dark, deep, syrupy liquid. He poured the liquid into the glass and tasted it. It was the sweetest, most potent, wonderful wine he had ever had! Only the water had frozen, and what was left was all the color, flavor, sugar… and alcohol.

At first the family was furious – Papa had ruined an entire month’s worth of wine! But then he convinced them to to taste it – and a new family tradition was born. Every cold snap from that point on, they would remind Papa to bring in the drinking jugs. But they always made a small, separate batch and left it on the balcony to freeze.

Even as an adult Papa continued making his own winter ice wine, in the smallest of batches, as a special treat. He wouldn’t start from scratch, but instead would buy a jug of inexpensive wine ( usually Ernest and Julio Gallo Lambrusco), and when it was about 1/2 empty he would set it out on the front stoop to freeze. In the morning, he would break a hole in the center of the ice with a meat skewer or ice pick, and pour the luscious nectar through the hole into a smaller bottle. When he moved to Florida he would pour wine into old yogurt cups and freeze them, achieving the same effect but in smaller quantities. He would pour the liquid into small apertif glasses and enjoy the results – a few sips of nectar and nostalgia, that took him right back to winter in the Bronx and that fire escape wine.

  1. Fiat-
  2. Cohen, Robin (1995). The Cambridge Survey of World Migration. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 143. ISBN 9780521444057.
  3. “15° Censimento generale della popolazione e delle abitazioni” (in Italian). ISTAT. 27 April 2012.
  4. Steerage Conditions – A Report of the Immigration Commission – 1911
  5. Glazier, Ira (February 1993). “Review of: The National Integration of Italian Return Migration: 1870-1929” by Dino Cinel, New York Cambridge U. Press, 1991”. The American Historical Review 98 (1): 198–199. ISSN 0002-8762