When friends first meet my family, a few things happen within five minutes: my loudness instantly makes perfect sense, the friend is given something to eat, and my family brings up the fact that we're Italian at least three times. Being Italian is a big thing among a lot of Italian-Americans, and our culture and heritage are a source of comfort and strength. This is particularly true when we have kids, because we need to pass on our way of life. So I've put together some tips from an Italian-American mom that I think every mom should know and follow. Why? Guys, because there are some things we just know, OK?
Growing up in a family that strongly identified as Italian-American was fantastic and weird. We were, in most ways, a typical American family, but somehow different. The families on TV didn't necessarily ring completely true to our experiences or lives, but there were nevertheless lots of Italians represented in pop culture (mostly as mobsters, but we're OK with that as a group) so I felt both seen and represented, but simultaneously unique.
I'll also assert here and now that, as far as ethnic groups in America go, we really lucked out. In recent years we've been allowed to maintain elements of our culture without that same culture being held as a liability against us, or as an impediment to our integration into mainstream American culture. I don't know too many people who strongly identify with their ethnic background who can say the same.
My husband, the father of my children, is not Italian, and so it falls on me alone, their Italian-American mother, to ensure that my kids grow up knowing just how fantastic their Mediterranean heritage is. Yes, that means talking about being Italian-American frequently and passing down my parenting wisdom to the rest of you all, including the following:
Respect The Paesan
I have to start here because this concept is a vital component of Italian-American life. Paesan is Italian for "countryman," but it takes more than just coming from the same part of the world to truly be considered in this category.
While we often find a pleasant camaraderie when we find out someone else is also Italian (and will instantly ask "Where in Italy?" and "What's your last name?"), paesan more specifically refers to the other Italians who form your close circle of family and friends. It's your grandparents friends from church and your mom's high school pals (and their kids) in addition to your aunts, uncles, cousins, and other relatives. A paesan need not actually be 100 percent Italian, and you can "marry in" to a group to become a paesan (though the fact that you aren't actually Italian will be brought up routinely, both casually or teasingly).
Point is, these people have been important to you your whole life, and will therefore be important to your children as well.
Always Have Pastina On Hand
Pastina, little known outside Italian-American circles, is a magic food with a singular purpose: to heal the sick. It is tiny (seriously, minuscule), star-shaped pasta that create a unique, porridge-like texture. Served with a bit of butter, this is the only food one should ever eat while sick. I don't think I know anyone who has eaten this in a state of perfect health — either they're physically ill or feeling blue and need nostalgic comfort food. While it's a dish generally reserved for children, anyone can benefit from its healing properties.* As an Italian-American mother, I make sure there's always a box in the house, just in case.
*It doesn't actually have any scientifically proven healing properties that I know of, but it's like eating a hug.
Use Garlic And/Or Olive Oil Before You Resort To Calling A Doctor
There is not one instance of sickness where, before taking me to a doctor or specialist, my mother didn't first try to cure me with garlic. Ear hurts? Stick a clove of garlic in there. Feel a cold coming on? Chew some garlic! Rash? You know what's good for that? Olive oil! Just put it right on there! Of course if I got really sick we went to the doctor, but first, like Frank Sinatra before us, "we did it our way."
(And by God if it didn't often work.)
Talk About "The Old Country" As Needed
Italian-Americans have a special place in our heart for Italy, despite the fact that most of us have never been there and know nothing about it or the culture. Understand, we hold tradition and history close, and we know that it's "the motherland..." but at the same time we're a proud and stubborn people and we spend a good chunk of our Italy talk explaining why we're better off over here.
That's why we either speaking about it glowingly ("Florence is the most beautiful city in the world! We're going to go there as a family someday!" "The Calabrian coast is absolutely stunning!") or we speak of it derisively or as a threat ("Wash the dishes by hand? What is this: the old country?" "Anthony, if you talk back one more time I'm sending you to relatives in the old country so you can learn some manners.")
Don't Let Anyone Correct Your Pronunciation Of Italian-America Words, Not Even Actual Italians
As far as languages go, Italian-American and Italian look pretty much nothing alike. For starters, Italy is a fairly new country, n that it was only unified 156 years ago. And even after unification the various regions continued to do their own thing, linguistically. (True story: when my grandparents visited Italy, a Roman woman could pinpoint the exactly town his family had come from because of the word my grandfather used for "children.")
So between differing dialects, bastardization over time, and the fact that Italian-American slang and dialect is largely stuck in the early 20th century (most of our families came over here before 1930, so we keep using the same words over and over with no fresh infusions from "the old country") these leads to some "unique" pronunciations.
Cannoli? Ganole. Prosciutto? Prashoot. Marinara? Marinad.
They're fundamentally not words you would hear pronounced in "proper Italian." That said, they are our words and you will pry them off my cold dead tongue. And if my children ever dare say "mozzarella" in my house I will tell them to pronounce it properly (it's "mootzadell") or staizitt*!
Bedtimes Don't Count When Company Is Over
And company is frequently over. But what's more important, getting a good night's rest when tomorrow is a weekend anyway or getting extra bonding time with the paesan? Come on, guys. Joey just came over with some sfogliadell and bocce balls. How else are the kids going to know the exquisite deliciousness of Italian pastry or the dire importance of a bocce game between friends?
Always Be Cooking
It's your destiny, as an Italian mom, to be "the one who cooks," especially among your non-Italian friends. But what choice do you have? Someone at some point might be hungry! And as all Italian moms know: food is love! If they don't have food they'll think you don't love them!
Umm... yeah. This isn't a strictly speaking healthy attitude and we're working on it. Slowly.
Babies Love Jewelry
Or so you'd think, based on how Italian parents deck out their bambini. Little girls traditionally get their ears pierced, like, while they're crowning. (OMG, not really, you guys, but they're young, nonetheless.) It's not uncommon to see children of any gender sporting a gold religious medallion or tiny gold bracelets. So just go ahead and decorate your baby like a tiny, fancy Christmas tree. Who doesn't love a bling-wearing baby?!
Beware The Malocchio
Lots of cultures have their version of "the evil eye," and for Italians its the malocchio, a curse that comes about when someone else looks at you jealously. This can be done both intentionally and unintentionally, so it's important that you be on the look out for those you love. The malocchio can be warded off with amulets (if you've ever wondered what this thing is, it's to protect against the malocchio) or by throwing up horns (yes, just like if you were at a metal show).
"But Jamie, how do I know if I even have the malocchio?"
Good question! An old Italian woman has to diagnose you using a bowl of water and olive oil. (She can also use these same ingredients to remove the malocchio). How, exactly, is beyond my purview as an Italian mom, though. This is really more "Italian grandma" territory. Moms just have to know an old lady to whisk their children to if there's ever an issue.
There Is One Right Way To Do Sunday Dinner
Start cooking by mid-morning. Your sauce/gravy is going to take hours. Company will arrive a solid hour and a half before you told them to come. They think nothing of it because, "What do you mean 'company.' We're not company. We're family."
Around 1:00 p.m. you can set out the antipasto (pronounced antipahst), consisting of various cheeses, olives, breads, crackers, and fatty, salty meats. When everyone starts to gorge (because it's 1:00 p.m. and they're hungry), someone has to remind them that there's still dinner to eat... that same person will set out more antipasto, because food is love.
When dinner is served, usually between 2:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m., you will have to make a stop at the kids' table and get them established before you can sit down with the rest of the adults. There will at least one child at the table who wants "butter on their noodles." Shake your head, for that child has become a medigan.
Then you can eat and yell when people don't eat more (but, like, in a loving way).
Every House Must Have At Lease One Religious Statue Or Picture
Even if you're not religious, there's probably at least one family heirloom Blessed Virgin statue sitting on a shelf somewhere, or a picture of Saint Francis in the basement.
Always Know A Guy
No matter what your kid needs, Italian parents always "know a guy" via the vast network of paesan. "My son needs a coat. I could go to the mall, but I know a guy in the garment district who gets them imported directly from Italy. Nice coats, and he's a friend of the family so he'll let me have them at cost." "My daughter needs a haircut. Paula and Joe Mangiano's daughter Theresa has a salon. We'll go there."
As your children get older, they will marvel (and sometimes be annoyed by) this extensive Italian conglomerate (because sometimes I just want a coat from the mall, mom!). They will also be confused by how exactly you know this person, which will make sense because a lot of the time you haven't spoken to these people in a while. But it is your job as an Italian mother to act as though they are completely insane for not knowing who this person is.
"What do you mean you don't know Luca DiGenero! You know him! He's grandma's cousin's brother-in-law. He used to bring you ganole when you were little! You love Luca!"
Own The Stereotypes About Italian Mamas
Stereotypes, by and large, are not a good thing. They can be damaging, hurtful, and problematic, but I must admit: I've never seen a group of people revel in stereotypes quite as much as Italians. I think this is for a few reasons, honestly. One, no one (including people in power) seem to take them too seriously (at least not in any way that holds us back from participating in mainstream society). Two, they're largely not negative. Three... yeah, a lot of them are kinda true. Italians in general and Italian mamas in particular are lively, loud, loving people. I say just lean into it.
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