If I wasn’t careful when entering the cellar, I’d walk face-first into a thick leg of prosciutto curing as it dangled from the ceiling. And then, of course, there were the orderly rows of mason jars lining the bottom shelf, filled with last season’s tomatoes picked at their peak from the garden and promptly canned. More often than not, I’d spot a crate of potatoes on hand for gnocchi, occasionally a stray box of garlic cloves, too.
Because it was in the drafty basement, the floor of the cellar was always cold—so I never lingered. Swiftly completing my kitchen errands, I popped in and out, running back up the stairs to proudly deliver the large bowl for the salad, the refilled olive oil carafe, the extra box of rigatoni—each time breezing by the wooden plaque on the wall that said sempre famiglia in bold, all-caps lettering, as if it was screaming to me every time.
When I think back to those large family dinners, what I hear is a cacophony of laughter and hyperbole-heavy storytelling—always peppered with animated hand gestures. I hear the crackling sizzle of impossibly thin veal cutlets making contact with the bubbling olive oil, and I smell the gently simmering tomato sauce as it toes the perfect line between sweet and acidic. And sometimes, if I close my eyes and concentrate hard enough, I can almost taste the dewy pignoli cookies melting in my mouth.
But I also remember my grandmother struggling with the fussy plastic wrap as she would dutifully package up even the smallest of leftovers, always faithful to her maxim that it’s a sin to waste food. And while I never asked why, I have to imagine the pangs of hunger she experienced during the war never completely left her.
And then there were the times I would smile to mask my confusion as my grandfather would mention sleeping for two years in Hotel Luna—only years later coming to understand it as a euphemism for outside, under the moon, his “hotel” during a post-war stint in Venezuela en route to America.
Even when I didn’t totally understand the extent of the sacrifice my grandparents had to make, I still understood a little. And even when I didn’t totally grasp how deeply ingrained food was in our culture, I still knew it was important. After all, we were always eating.
And yet, I never, ever talked about the fact that I was Italian.
The Godfather is one of the highest grossing American films of all time—spawning aphorisms that, to this day, remain deeply ingrained in our lexicon.
From “Revenge is a dish best served cold,” to “A friend should always underestimate your virtues and an enemy overestimate your faults.” And perhaps most memorably, “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
There’s veritable debate over whether the film reinforced the Italian-equals-mobster stereotype, or whether, because it was by Italians about Italians, it somehow portrayed them more virtuously, as fully realized people. And yet, there’s no denying the fact that this franchise, widely considered one of the greatest of all time, legitimized a genre of film and television that capitalized on “mob” culture,” catapulting it into the cultural zeitgeist.
My adolescent-to-teen years didn’t coincide with the “classics” akin to Goodfellas, The Sopranos, and Donnie Brasco, but it did with Jersey Shore—the paradigm of early-21st century reality television.
My classmates would laugh over lunch as they recounted how the self-described “Guidos” and “Guidettes” spent the day doing laundry and going to the gym, invariably ending up at a bar in some variation of an alcohol-fueled contention night after night. And each time I feigned laughter out of solidarity, I added another brick onto the stalwart tower of cognitive dissonance growing inside of me—one that so convincingly led me to believe that my Italian heritage was somehow antithetical to everything I aspired to be in life. Educated, well read, widely traveled, law abiding.
And although my parents and wider extended family embodied all of these positive attributes, standing as stellar examples of the type of person I aspired to become, what I saw, watched, and heard outside of the haven of home was somehow louder to my young, impressionable ears. It masked the fact that, of the 26 million Americans of Italian descent, ⅔ wake up every day to white collar jobs, with only .0025 percent involved in organized crime. It didn’t feed me stories of A.P. Giannini, founder of Bank of America, or Antonio Meucci, inventor of the modern telephone. It fed me Snooky, JWoww, and DJ Pauly D.
Although the way in which this message took shape was uniquely millennial, the message itself was not; Italians have been weathering prejudice since they started arriving in droves between 1880 and 1920. An estimated 4 million entered the United States during this time, and with them the stereotypes of organized crime tarnishing their collective identity—something that climbing up the socioeconomic ladder did little to dispel. Ethnocentric chauvinism by Northern European settlers also played a part in the anti-Catholic sentiment dominating an otherwise Protestant majority, adding fuel to the fire of Italophobia.
I was in sixth grade when I uncharacteristically mentioned in passing to one of my older peers that my paternal grandparents are Sicilian—to which he replied, “Oh man, better not cross your dad.”
And I just stood there, wide-eyed, wondering how in the world he knew my dad. And more importantly, why he would think that of someone who is literally the kindest, gentlest human being I know. And while I clearly wasn’t nearly old enough to understand the nuances of what had just transpired (hence my inability to come back with a pointed retort… or anything at all, for that matter), I knew enough to grasp the fact that I was just insulted.
Fast forward a few years to high school, and there I was—convinced that it was too arduous of a task to try and convince the world that two seemingly contrary facets of my identity could harmoniously coexist when most people, I assumed, would only see one. The time-honored, pre-conceived notions were simply too strong.
I wasn’t ashamed of being Italian; I was just resigned to the fact that my Italian-ness lived at home—in our salad-after-dinner sequence, in the romantic lyricism of my grandparents speaking English with a thick accent, and in their gentle scolding every time I placed a loaf of bread upside down, sat at the corner edge of a table, or threw out salt without tossing it backwards over my shoulder—as one does. It was there on the scorching summer afternoons we spent picking absurd amounts of zucchini from the garden, reaching deep between the thorny branches even as they scratched our skin, knowing full well that the dredged and fried zucchini blossoms were well worth any temporary rash. And it came to life every time we lingered after dinner, cracking walnuts and pistachios, munching on fennel, and eating just one more clementine.
So yes, my Italian-ness lived at home, but not because I was ashamed. The opposite, actually. It meant too much to me, and I was convinced that if I spoke about it, it’d be misunderstood, tarnished in some way. So I didn’t.
When Italian was offered at school, I staunchly turned to French—a language steeped in academia. When the opportunity presented itself in college for me to study abroad, Italy didn’t cross my mind. I chose Paris. And each time one of my professors at the Sorbonne would hear my vaguely French-sounding name and glance up, a flicker of guilty pride would pulse through my veins. Of course I never told them I was French. But I didn’t say I was Italian.
As I matured, I found myself blurring the once perfectly defined line between home and everywhere else. And while my friends, coworkers, and acquaintances knew that objectively I am of Italian descent, I remained reserved about just how heavy of a hand it played in my childhood—less out of fear of judgment than habit. I was used to not talking about it.
And then November 2017 came around, and I lost three grandparents in the span of exactly two weeks. Just like that, the “Italian” part of my life—the one I counted on for 24 years to always be there—was threatened.
But as the universe delivered the ultimate punch-in-the-gut, it also knocked down the antiquated tower of cognitive dissonance inside of me that for long had made it that much easier to compartmentalize different parts of my identity. And in its place, I slowly began to feel a swell of something akin to dignity, self-respect, maybe even pride.
A few weeks ago, I came across the trailer for Made In Staten Island—a new reality TV show chronicling the plight of eight Italian-Americans fighting against the temptations of “mob” culture they were born into. And instead of feeling ashamed or angry that this was happening yet again, I felt emboldened. To speak up, and to share my culture. Because the Italian narrative Hollywood loves may very well never change. But I can.
I don’t have to feel burdened by the omnipresent elephant in the room every time “Italians” come up in conversation. I don’t have to preface, or justify anything. There are no caveats. I will talk freely about Sunday afternoon dinners, about the fact that meals were never a means to an end; they were the main event. I will find a way to articulate the comfort of not just being well-fed, but nourished, and I will hold on tight to the way I felt every time my grandmother hugged me—like there was no other place she’d rather be. Because I want people to know that the Italian values and traditions espoused so virtuously by my grandparents and, in turn, my parents have molded me into a person that honors family as the most fundamental and formative social unit that one has. It has given me a faith in something bigger than myself and, for better or for worse, it has filled me with a deep-seated need to feed everyone that comes my way. In short, it has made me more fully human, which is certainly not something worth hiding.
And I can’t help but wonder, sometimes, if this change of heart is my grandparents—wherever they may be—gently tugging me closer to them.
I have to believe that it is.