On Growing Up Italian American, and Embracing Your Superpower

As a nation, we’ve grown weary of the violence and chaos that often is a front page headline – just recently we can point to Sutherland Springs, massive carnage in Las Vegas, and another terror attack in New York City.

I’ve been immersed, in the last couple of years, in what author/podcaster Tim Ferriss coined the Low Information Diet – erasing the influence of national/ local news and other distractions from my life.

It’s not that I don’t want to stay informed – some believe it’s without question your duty as a citizen – but I would prefer to accelerate the aging process with child like wonder and curiosity rather than see my world with a perpetual black cloud over it. To believe the world may be a wonderful place – as it once was.

For those of us who want to turn back the clock, retreat into a previous time – well, if you’re an aficionado of the news headlines, you could hardly be blamed. I consider myself one of those people – for good reason.

Not so many years ago, my life was filled with the influence of Italian immigrants. Calabrian and Sicilian immigrants, to be precise. Men and women with grit, determination, and a love of their adopted country.

There’s been a lot of attention paid by the aforementioned news machine concerning the plight of the modern immigrant. However, it’s not just the current administration in the White House that has issue with select groups of immigrants. As columnist Rosario Iaconis stated:

February 19 marks the anniversary of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s infamous Executive Order 9066. With the nation at war against the Axis powers — and still reeling from Pearl Harbor — FDR promulgated a directive that branded 600,000 Americans of Italian descent “enemy aliens.” Over 10,000 on the West Coast were forced to relocate, and more than 250 were placed in internment camps in Georgia, Maryland, Montana, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas.

In an earlier historical misstep, president Calvin Coolidge stated he thought Italians to be “an inferior race,” notably southern Italians.

An unfortunate series of events. If only presidents past and present could embrace the power of the immigrant. There are so many in my own life that should be deemed worthy of a spotlight for what truly makes this country great. I’d like to introduce you to some.

IMG_3970Some of you have already read, on more than one occasion, a series of posts about my grandfather’s brother Dominick. He was a hero to his adopted country of America, being killed in action in World War II, right before the end of the war. His loss left a gaping chasm in my family at the time, and he is still a hero to us today.

My cousin and I recently had crafted a military banner in his name, with his image flying high and proud in the city where I live, where he lived as a proud American citizen. As long as our family is here, we will never forget.

But Dominick was far from the only member of his family that emigrated to our shores. His brothers came here as well, and they were special in their own right.

My grandfather himself (Sebastian, pictured below to the right) has long been a featured topic on this site, with several articles that remain my favorites. He was one of the toughest guys I knew, and this was just not my opinion – the other men he knew, whether family or friend, verified his relentless nature and resolve.

The image I love – one that stays with me like it happened yesterday – is of him during one of our tragically brutal winters, shoveling snow with a steel handled shovel and no gloves to protect his hands. Dressed in an overcoat and fedora.

Over coffee on a recent Sunday morning, my cousin Mary told me a story that I didn’t know about my grandfather – or “Pop,” as I would call him. My cousin said that a fire had started in their first floor flat, in a living room area that was quickly getting out of control. Like, within minutes, all was going to be lost.

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Instead of the fire department coming to the rescue, “your grandfather came flying down the stairs (my grandparents lived on the second floor) and put the fire out – with his bare hands.” She added, almost as an afterthought, “I think he used a couple of small, wet towels. Or a blanket or something.”When I had thought I heard it all about my grandfather, I sat there holding my coffee cup, my mouth agape, mind in disbelief.

“Ho. Lee. Shit.” was all that I could say.

IMG_3975Another brother was Antonio, who I referred to as “Uncle Tony.” As tough as my grandfather was, Antonio’s brute strength stood out. Capable of tilling huge gardens and planting trees and bushes with the most rudimentary tools, he was as powerful a man as they come. He personified his Calabrian roots with his farming ability, and was responsible, along with his brothers, for planting much of the food that we would later eat.

He would make a point, after his work was over, to rough house with whichever one of us kids was within striking distance. If he said, in his broken English, “come over and give me a kiss,” you did. And got your youthful face scraped by a bearded stubble that felt made of steel.

Mariano, who to us kids was “Uncle Mario,” always captivated with his infectious smile and hearty laugh. If my grandfather was the quiet one – which he was – Uncle Mario was the talker, coming to my grandparents’ house for frequent visits, sitting at the kitchen table for an hour or more to dole out life wisdom and stories from the old country.img_3366

He was the man who taught you how to correctly prune the grape vines in the yard. And when the grapes were down, he’d make a homemade wine that after a glass or two would put you on the couch.

Although he was polite, always well dressed, and soft spoken, turns out Mario was a warrior in a previous life. Fighting for the Italian army in World War II (he didn’t make his trip to America until the early ’60s), he wound up becoming a POW during the war – later escaping and trekking hundreds of miles to freedom.

Hearing that was another “holy shit moment.”

And that’s just the men. The ladies in our family from that generation were even more influential. Working outside the home, but creating the ultimate space for us to grow up in – spending much time making sure the atmosphere was filled with love, warmth, security, and a sense of community. It was an amazing time.

“God, it’s such a drag when you’re living in the past” – Tom Petty

Italian American Podcast co-founder Dolores Alfieri said something while interviewing a guest that immediately hit me like a ton of bricks, stating her feeling about being raised Italian American:  “It was almost like I had a superpower.” 

As much as I would have to disagree with the Tom Petty lyric quoted above (I get a kick out of frequently visiting the past), I agree with Dolores without hesitation. It was a super power. You were safe, secure, surrounded by strength, integrity, passion, and values. You were loved.

It was a feeling, at times, of invincibility. You were bulletproof.

You can tell me that’s in the past. Those days are over.

For the most part, you would be right. The past is gone.

But those super powers remain. Ready to be summoned at any time, to serve you and those around you as well. It may not be like mine – being raised as an Italian American by a family whose best interests were your interests – but you have your own. You just have to call on it. Or discover it, if you have not yet.

In this time of violence, vitriol, and what some may call “a graceless age” – it would be great for all to believe – friends, family, children, the people that mean the most to you.

It’s especially for my kids. I want my son and daughter to know they have it as well. Although they’re both at an age where self doubt can creep in like an insidious force, they can call on their superpower. Like Superman type strength, or Flash like speed, they have it.

It’s the Sicilian in them, the Calabrian. It courses through their veins.

You can, in the finest moments, feel invincible. Unstoppable.

I know you can because I still feel it myself. In my heart, mind, and best of all, my memory of the past.

Like this article? Please share on your favorite social media channel. Or better yet… read some more, with the related content below. What’s your “superpower?” Let everyone know by leaving a comment!

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Fighting the Modern Battle – To Win at Keeping Tradition

IMG_3480Recently, my father and I had the privilege to visit his 95 year old aunt and her daughter – to sip a little espresso, chat about upcoming family events, and go over some old photos of family from the 40’s that needed a little clarification.

When I step into the house that my great aunt Maria has lived in for decades, I feel like I am stepping back in time, to one steeped in old world sensibilities. I would not be overstating my level of comfort in the conversation over coffee, looking at the photos of saints on her walls, and the calendar detailed in her native language.

The atmosphere makes me feel like a child again, or at least a teenager – longing for a time when all my role models were here, alive and well, to help and guide us to create our space here on earth.

The modern era can strip away a needed sense of simplicity, patience, and focus on the important. A trip to an older relative’s house – to Maria’s – has the ability to restore that sense of balance of what should be focused on.

Family, values, tradition – should I mention… food?

Distractions can be an issue anywhere. But they are ubiquitous in our hyper-connected society. I myself have been distracted repeatedly. Not just by the on-line world, but by the siren call of materialism, comfort, convenience and luxury.

The importance of keeping the traditions of the previous generations can be overshadowed by distractions. To keep them going, deliberate practice is needed – as needed as practice with an instrument like a piano, or a habit like your jump shot in basketball.

Without that practice, traditions can fade. They become as much a memory as the loved ones that came before you.

There are a variety of ways I practice keeping tradition, my favorite being the step by step process for the making of the Sunday Sauce. IMG_3435

Every time I do it, it takes me back in time to my grandmother’s house when I was young. From the initial fragrance of frying onions and garlic, the crushing of whole tomatoes, to adding the wine and spices – it’s all part of a ritual that makes me happy, and exposes my kids to how I grew up, at the same time.

It’s a symbolic gesture to my youth, and my heritage. And gives me the added bonus of cooking with my wife, hanging out in the kitchen, listening to music, drinking wine and having fun.

Aside from creating a great tasting sauce, practicing a traditional ritual like this allows me to take a swipe, or (better yet) throw a left hook – into the face of ultra convenient, drive thru, obsessed-with-fancy aspects of modern American living.

I like the idea of tradition – and the focus on food, family, friends, and the enjoyment of meaningful experiences that it brings.

I like going back. Seeing memories of Sunday dinners past. With all of the family, some still here, some long gone. Giving my kids just a glimpse of these very important times.

I’m not sure if they’ll ever experience Sunday as I did – but I’d like to think it’s part of my job to show them what it was like.

Like this article? Please share on your favorite social media channel. Or better yet… read some more, with the related content below. Grazie amico!

The Meatball As Center Of The Universe

“Rosina! Rosina! Rosina!”

Rolling over bleary eyed in the bed that I slept in at my Nonna’s house, those would be the words that I would first hear, early on a Saturday morning. The source of the noise would be my Aunt Maria, shouting my grandmother’s name as she burst through the front door.

It was her Saturday greeting, and it would always wake me up.

As I cleared my head, the smell would hit me, the reason my Aunt came over in the first place. The combination of frying meat, onion, and garlic.

I’d jump out of bed and quickly descend the stairs to the beat of the sizzling frying pan. Still in my pajamas, I would stand patiently in the kitchen, waiting for Nonna to make the offering: my early breakfast treat of a freshly made meatball, straight out of the pan.

This image remains prevalent in my mind some forty years later, as I cook meatballs in my own kitchen.

Freshly formed, before cooking.
Freshly formed, before cooking.

Over time, my involvement with the meatball went from taking the sample in my pajamas, to preparation and cooking stages. As I grew, Nonna would allow me to mix the meat with my hands, form the balls, and taste the first ones before we continued.

Every once in a while, she would let me cook one. To get the feel for the hot spots in the pan, and to know when to roll them as one side began to form a crust.

As she grew older, cooking 90 to 100 meatballs at a time began to fatigue her, and she eventually just had to sit and supervise. It was then I took control of the pan. The torch had been passed.

Now that she is no longer with us, it’s my responsibility to ensure the meatball remains a staple of my family’s diet. Like her, I was a traditionalist with meatballs, pairing them with pasta, simmering them in tomato sauce along side braciole and pork.

Finished product!
Finished product!

I learned from my Nonna’s sister the joys of meatball experimentation, serving them as their own course, and using a different sauce than the ubiquitous tomato variety. Her sauce was a savory mixture of bacon, onion, and white wine, and is now my favorite way to eat a meatball. It’s a simple recipe, easy to simmer in a crock pot and a big hit at dinner parties as well. Enjoy!

Meatballs alla Nicolina ( “white” meatballs )

For The Meatballs

  • 1 pound ground beef, top or bottom round, ground twice
  • 1 cup fine dried breadcrumbs (home made only!)
  • 1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 large egg
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • cup vegetable oil

For The Sauce

  • 2 strips bacon
  • 1 large onion
  • 1 cup sherry wine

Process

Crumble the beef into a mixing bowl. Sprinkle the breadcrumbs, grated cheese, parsley and garlic over the meat. Beat the eggs with the salt and pepper in a small bowl until blended, then pour over the meat mixture. Mix the ingredients with clean hands just until evenly blended, and shape the meat mixture into 1 ½-inch balls.

Heat the vegetable oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Put as many meatballs into the skillet as will fit without crowding. Fry, turning as necessary, until golden brown on all sides, about 6 minutes. Adjust the heat as the meatballs cook to prevent them from burning. Remove the meatballs and repeat.

Cut the bacon strips into small pieces, about 1/4 inch. Cook in the pan for 3 minutes or until crispy. Remove the bacon from the pan. Slice the onion and cook in the bacon grease until onion is soft and golden, about 10 minutes. Add the bacon back and the wine, put your finished meatballs in the pan, and let simmer for 15 minutes, making sure to spoon some liquid over the meatballs to keep them moist. Serve with a crusty loaf of bread and a hearty red wine.

You will love it!

It’s A Mad World: Old-School Edition

I’d like time to stand still. I’d like to believe that the summer season moves as slowly now as it did when I was young, but it won’t. It starts, and before you know it, it’s over.

School bells ring again. Seasons change, and we brace ourselves for our frigid and blustery north eastern punishment.

Time standing still is a ridiculous notion, and this year it’s taken a hard hit. The high school girl has morphed into a college student, and the boy once contained in the confines of a back yard is about to start his high school adventure.

Time has done everything but stand still.

Ticking Clocks

Clocks keep ticking, and the gray (hairs) keep coming. Is it a downhill slope? Or a future getting brighter?

The world goes mad, but you have to tell yourself that things will be OK, that the future is so bright that the shades should be worn at all times. I’ve spent the summer ducking and dodging stories of planes being shot out of the sky, fury fueled riots a la Rodney King, movie stars taking their own lives, and increasing gun violence in our local cities.

But such news is often hard to avoid. Everyone is consumed with it. We all love dirty laundry.

Most times, I manage to avoid the murder, mayhem, and disaster that make up the news bylines of our society, practicing what’s called The Low Information Diet. I usually don’t see any news stories other than weather, and when I do, I look at it with a jaded eye.

It’s all about stopping the noise.

The bad news keeps coming, but I’ll just look to my past for the good. No one, myself included, wants to live in the past, but I keep thinking what a great idea to make regular visits there. We sit around my cousin’s house on Sunday morning and reminisce over our coffee and toast, and draw the conclusion that some of the “good ‘ol days” were, in fact, just damn good.

Am I the father of a high school graduate? It doesn’t seem plausible, really. I was just playing ball the other day, with my friends, in my grandmother’s yard. School was out. Summer was full on. I was sliding into home. Catching fly balls past the fruit trees.

It had to be just the other day. Not decades ago. That’s how I remember it.

Goodnight-MoonIn what seems just a few days later, my kids were in their pajamas, falling asleep in their beds. I was reading them bedtime stories. Goodnight, Moon. Remember?

High school? College? Purely a figment of my imagination. Time can’t pass that quickly.

Cinderella Story

On a road trip with my wife’s brother into the heart of the Adirondacks, it felt like we were on a rocket ship back into the 1980’s, listening to one “hair band” after another. A bright, blue sky drive up the Northway, making a stab at the anthems of our youth.

I’m sure we heard Cinderella. “You don’t know what you’ve got, ’till it’s gone”. Loud and sonic, ripping down the highway.

Man, in that moment, I felt like a kid again.

It’s a lyric about love, but it could easily be a lyric about everything.

You don’t know what you’ve got. Does anybody?

I know what I’ve got. A college student. A kid heading to the 9th grade. A twenty-one year marriage.

I also know what else I have. An increasing disbelief that it all passes by so quickly. That the breakneck pace of life can’t just slow a bit, to briefly take in the glory of another summer.

Today was a gorgeous day, with a little time spent on the back deck. My wife had selected a Pandora station that played Tears For Fear’s “Mad World”. As I listened, sitting in my Adirondack chair in a bath of sunlight, the song sounded as fresh today as it did in 1983.

It was a mad world then. You could still call it a mad world. How else to explain the passage of time, making up your life, that rolls through in a blink of an eye?

Enjoy yourself, my friends. As my Nonna used to say, with a gleam in her eye – “It’s later than you think.”

A Craving For More Tradition, Sunday Style

Take an informal poll of people that you know, and ask them what their favorite day of the week is, the answer would almost always be Friday. The start of the weekend, you get to abandon your unfulfilling job for at least two days, and the opportunity is there to hang with your friends.

In an Italian American household, however, you may be surprised to hear a different answer. Our favorite day of the week is rarely Friday. The chosen day for many families around the country is Sunday.

These days, my Sunday routine revolves around going to an early Mass at St. Anthony’s Church with my Dad, and then making a quick trip to my cousin’s apartment to attend what we commonly refer to as “The Breakfast Bunch”.

Weekly attendance includes mainly cousins from my Grandmother’s side of the family, and it’s an informal gathering where we’ll have toast, coffee, baked goods, and shoot the breeze. Sometimes there will be an egg casserole or two.

It’s one of the best parts of my week not only because of the social aspect, but also for the memories it triggers of days gone by – of the fantastic Sundays of my youth.

The Flames of Tradition

My Godmother passed away a couple of years ago, and my Nonna has been gone for four years this January. As they were both in deteriorating health the last few years of their lives, it’s been a struggle to keep the flames of Sunday dinner traditions burning.

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Centerpiece of the day – Sunday Sauce

I still make a pot of Sunday Sauce at least every couple of weeks, and I’ll have a dinner with my wife and kids featuring the same food I had as a child. It’s just minus the massive crowds, and the jostling around the 14th Street dining room table that we used to gather around.

When I was young, I was at my Grandparent’s house for the entire weekend. Sunday was the fantastic finish. I would be there long before the aunts, uncles, and cousins showed up. Not only would I get a sneak peek at what was going to be served, I might also get a freshly pan fried meatball, or a piece of Italian bread dunked into the tomato sauce that was simmering all day.

More or less, it was the same menu every Sunday with a twist here and there. If it was Easter Sunday – well, that was the day the gigantic pan of homemade lasagna was broken out. If manicotti was made at my family’s restaurant that week (and didn’t sell out), that may have spilled into Sunday as well.

Regardless of what was featured on the table, it was always delicious, and there was always plenty to go around. My little Sicilians were expert cooks, and their Sunday Sauce was second to none.

The preparation of dinner was a process as well. Timing needed to be considered, as we usually sat at table in the early afternoon. Prepping was done as early as the day before, and Nonna would be in the kitchen for hours on Sunday.

Sunday’s Menu of Decadence

There’s a right way to do Sunday, and each menu item has the proper order in which it’s served. My grandparents’ end of the week dinners were always old-school, but just for kicks we like to take things to a modern level on certain Sundays.

Both ways are eminently enjoyable, and you can be as formal or informal as you like. But as far as the old-school way is concerned, there was nothing better. In my house, we’re pretty good cooks – but those Sundays from twenty or even thirty years ago provide a boatload of cherished memories.

Want to try it yourself? Here’s the balanced approach, whether you like it modern or old-school style:

Appetizers

Old School: Appetizers? Really? With the tonnage of food that hit the table for dinner when I was a kid, appetizers were not required. We would have more than enough, believe me. But I was always an expert at sneaking the aforementioned meatball before dinner, so that could count as an app. Score.

Modern Take: We can get really fancy here – we’ve done calamari, stuffed mushrooms, clams casino, mussels in broth. I’ll stop right there. Getting hungry just typing it. No pun intended, but the world is your oyster when it comes to appetizers.

Pasta

Old School: In my world, the pasta course is ubiquitous. My Grandmother’s choice was almost always a spaghetti or ziti, dressed with a tomato sauce that had been cooking for hours. Special occasions brought out the 10,000 calorie baked pasta dishes. Unbelievable.

Modern Take: We’ll still take it old school style here, but we often change the shape – ravioli, rigatoni, tagliatelle, among others. The sauces can change, too, although the Sunday variety is still my favorite. Oil and garlic, bolognese, and a variety of light cream sauces are new traditions that have hit our table.

Meat

Meatballs on my stove - like Nonna used to make
Meatballs on my stove – like Nonna used to make

Old School: In those days, the meat was meatballs front and center, and sausage or braciole. That’s it. And in the end, that’s all we needed.

Modern Take: We’re not doing quail or Cornish game hen here (that’s really fancy), but in my house we like chicken cutlets, braised short ribs, and my wife loves to roast a whole chicken on any given Sunday. Osso Bucco is something on my radar to try soon, as well.

Salad

Old School: The salad was always eaten last at the table on 14th Street, used as a palate cleanser. It was iceberg lettuce, dressed with olive oil and red wine vinegar. Very simple, and although it may not sound good to you, I thought it was excellent.

Modern Take: Like the apps, you can go many different ways here, and we have – Caesar salad, salads with walnuts and cranberries, avocado, with chick peas and beans, with balsamic glaze and other fancy dressings. And we rarely use iceberg for anything – it’s romaine, spinach, or mixed greens. Again, unnecessarily fancy. But so very good.

Desserts and Beverages

Old School: With the calorie meter obliterated already, dessert was still on the way, but here’s where the Sicilians threw their twist in and decided now we should eat healthy – by giving us nuts and fruit. My Grandmother would roast chestnuts or crack walnuts, and my Grandfather would peel and eat multiple pears, his favorite. I also remember Italian cookies, and the ladies were fond of sponge cake. Drinks included water, soda, and a simple red table wine. Espresso at the end.

Modern Take: I’m already thinking about grabbing tiramisu from the local bakery for the next Sunday dinner. My wife will bake cakes and make other desserts (we call one of our favorites “chocolate crack” for its addictive qualities), and her mother is a great pie maker. Drinks have run the gamut- mixed cocktails, sparkling water, red wine, white, craft beers. Very fancy.

Find Your Way Back

As my Grandmother’s age crept into her 90’s, she couldn’t host the big dinners anymore, on Sunday or any other night. I took over the meatball making chores for her on Saturdays, and on the following Sundays a smaller group of our family would show up for a little brunch.

Nothing too over the top. Scrambled eggs, some meatballs with sauce, Italian bread. Strong, stove brewed coffee. Sponge cake. Seated in the kitchen instead of the vast dining room table.

Those Sundays were special, too. My kids grew up around that kitchen table, having their first servings of spaghetti in their high chairs, in the house on the street that I grew up on.

Those days are sorely missed. And with our “Breakfast Bunch” gatherings now, we try to recreate that special feeling of family ties that were their strongest, so many years ago.

When Sunday was, without question, the favorite day of the week.

What’s your story? Have a favorite day? Or tradition that you’d like to share? Leave your comment below.