Category Archives: Italian

My Italian Grandmother Wasn’t a “Nonna,” and Yours Probably Wasn’t Either

 

“Nonna” is the Italian word for grandmother (“nonno” for grandfather). It is used whenever Italians speak of a grandmother figure, the woman sporting a bun, apron, perhaps rolling pin or wooden spoon and always in the kitchen cooking. I am Italian on both sides with grandparents from Italy. However, these words “nonna” and “nonno” are foreign to me.

 

                             Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

 

My grandmother was from a town just outside Naples. My grandfather was from a town about 30 minutes away in the mountains. We called grandma “anonn” and grandpa “unonn” pronounced like “ah-nun” and “oo-nun” in Neapolitan dialect. I imagine the words are similar or the same throughout the South of Italy.

 

Standard Italian is based on the Tuscan dialect. So the word “nonna” is from standard Italian. (I’ve written an article on Italian dialect here.) It is strange that even though the overwhelming majority of Italian immigrants were from Southern Italy, the words from the Northern Italian dialects are accepted without question.

 

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

 

You will see “nonna” in the media, and indeed, I have reluctantly used it in articles because that is the term used in contemporary media for grandparents. But in my heart and in my home, grandma and grandpa will always be anonn and unonn.

 

I wish my grandparents and great-grandparents were here, but I know they are smiling down on me. I know they are proud that, of all the books I could have written, in my 20+ career with a master’s in creative writing from NYU and a law degree, I chose to write their story, I chose to do the right thing, not the popular thing, not the marketable thing. And so it was, when I was deciding if I wanted to write a cookbook a number of years ago, that I started researching Italian food in more depth. Given my own personal experiences and those of my family along with the research I have done both here and in Italy, I could no longer remain silent to the maligning, so commonplace today that it has become inadvertent in many instances, of millions of people of their generation and their descendants. Since my book was published in March 2018, I see a zeitgeist of exploration of Italian-American history and culture in the popular media.

 

                            Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels

 

And I can still see my anonn, even though she’s been dead over ten years, with her old wooden rolling pin, rolling out dough for struffoli and bows, or sitting at the kitchen table shaking some Brioschi onto a napkin for me to eat while she drank hers in a glass of fizzing water. I see her picking mint in the backyard near the white fence. I see her stirring a pot of tomato gravy on Sunday morning that in my memory’s eye seemed taller than her.

 

I hear her voice, in her optimistic way, saying “you never know.” Meaning, you never know, something good might happen. I miss these Yogi Berra-like idiomatic sayings of hers. From her, I learned to never show up empty-handed to someone’s house, or in her words, “with my hand’s hanging.” She made me laugh when she told nasty people to “go shit in a hat.” Another she always shared with me is “Check your dates.” She meant that, at the grocery store, I should always check the date on the food I buy to make sure it’s the freshest.

 

So as Mother’s Day is around the corner, I impart some of my anonn’s wisdom to you—never go anywhere with your hand’s hanging, you never know what may happen, the creeps can go shit in a hat, and always check your dates.

 

                                     Photo by Allef Vinicius on Unsplash

 

Image by Markéta Machová from Pixabay

–Dina Di Maio, author of Authentic Italian: The Real Story of Italy’s Food and Its People, available at Amazon.com

 

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Italian Mushrooms & Peas

Grandma often made this simple side dish, and it is one of my favorite ways to eat mushrooms.

Italian Mushrooms & Peas

1-2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 medium red onion, sliced

1/2 lb. mushrooms

3/4 cup frozen peas

1 small clove garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon salt

fresh mint leaves

pimiento (optional)

Saute the onion in olive oil over medium heat. When it starts to wilt, add the mushrooms and garlic. Cook until soft. Add salt. When mushrooms are cooked, add the peas and about 4 mint leaves. Cook until heated. Transfer to a bowl. Garnish with mint leaves and pimiento.

–Dina Di Maio

Italian Radish Leaf Salad

During the year, my grandma would buy radishes and add the radish leaves to her salad. Because there weren’t too many radish leaves, we kids would fight over them. That’s why Grandma would buy a lot of radishes during the Christmas holidays and make this radish salad.

Italian Radish Salad

As you can see from the photo, it is very easy to make. Just wash the radish leaves and place them out on a serving platter. Top them with the sliced radishes and maybe sliced olives or a roasted pepper. Drizzle with olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt and pepper.

–Dina Di Maio

North Carolina Zabaglione

Zabaglione is an Italian custard made from only eggs, not eggs and milk.* It comes from the Piedmont area of Italy, but I’m claiming it for the Piedmont of North Carolina. Why, you may ask? Well, it is a staple dessert of the Waldensian people from Northwestern Italy who settled the town of Valdese, North Carolina, 125 years ago. In Valdese, it is known as zabaione. I have made it even more North Carolina by using Raleigh, North Carolina’s own Oak City Amaretto, instead of the traditional wine.

North Carolina Zabaglione

1 dozen egg yolks from pasteurized eggs

1/3 cup superfine sugar

3 tablespoons (1 shot) Oak City Amaretto

amaretti cookies

In the top of a double boiler (off the heat) whisk the egg yolks and sugar. Add the amaretto and continue whisking until frothy. Fill the bottom of the double boiler with water and bring to a simmer or slight boil. Put the top pot in the double boiler and whisk vigorously for 3-4 minutes until the mixture looks like a smooth custard. There is a risk that you could get scrambled eggs, so you want to whisk continuously and with a strong arm. Serve immediately or slightly warm in sherbet glasses. Serve with amaretti cookies.

*I have seen some recipes that use milk as well, but most of the traditional and older recipes do not.

–Dina M. Di Maio, author of Authentic Italian: The Real Story of Italy’s Food and Its People, available at Amazon.com

 

Is It OK for Non-Italians to Open Italian Restaurants?

Because I’ve written a book that debunks myths about Italian food in America and also discusses the sociopolitical issues surrounding Italian immigration to the United States, I’ve often thought about the term cultural appropriation as applied to Italian food in this country.

As of late, there is a push to open pizzerias selling “true” Neapolitan pizza, certified by an organization in Italy, the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (AVPN). According to them, if you are not making this “true” pizza, you are not making pizza. The problem with this ideology is that the pizza that the 16 million+ Italian immigrants who left Italy 100 years ago made doesn’t qualify as “real” Italian pizza even though they and their descendants made pizza famous throughout the world. Yes, that’s right, the pizza made by the most famous pizzaiolo, Gennaro Lombardi of the first pizzeria in the United States, Lombardi’s, opened in 1905 in New York City does not count as “real” Italian pizza. Neither does Frank Pepe’s in New Haven, opened in 1925 by an immigrant from Naples. Mind you, some of the most popular pizzerias in Naples do not fall under the AVPN guidelines, like Da Michele. However, according to the AVPN, a pizzeria that follows their criteria but opened by a person of non-Italian heritage, is “real” Italian pizza. (The criteria include using certain types of ingredients and ovens, among other things. Ironically, tomato is one of the ingredients and it did not exist on pizza until after 1492. In fact, Frank Pepe’s famous white clam pizza, without tomato, would be closer to the original pizzas of Naples than “true” Neapolitan pizza with a tomato sauce, as the Neapolitans used to put small fish on the pizza dough.)

How is this applied in the “real” world?  I’ll demonstrate. Let’s say I’m Person X.  A non-Italian person is Person Y.

Person X–my great-grandparents, their daughter–my grandmother–and all of her siblings, all born-and-bred natives of Naples who immigrated to the United States because of the adverse conditions created by the Italian government in Italy in the last half of the 19th century to the early 20th century, made pizza and opened pizzerias in the United States, and then their granddaughter and daughter–my mother–and her husband, my father, made pizza in the United States. This is all MEANINGLESS, according to the current ideology and food media coming from Italy.

Person Y, who is not Italian at all, with no basis for understanding Italian culture and cuisine, takes a vacation to Italy, watches a pizzaiolo make pizza in Naples, looks out at the bay of Naples, drives down to the breathtaking view of the Amalfi Coast, comes back to the United States, follows the AVPN guidelines, opens a pizzeria selling “true” Neapolitan pizza.

Voila. The non-Italian is the “true” Italian, and what am I?

(In addition to pizza, there is also a push to re-brand Italian food in general to what is currently available in Italy today, essentially discrediting the food the immigrants brought here 100 years ago and made famous throughout the world.)

Maybe my point is better illustrated if I’m using a different cuisine as an example. I would not be so presumptuous as to travel to Japan and sample ramen at a few well-known ramen shops, come back to the United States and open a ramen shop. I might fall in love with ramen (which I have) and try to re-create it at home, which is perfectly acceptable. However, calling myself expert enough to open a restaurant and profit from it, I wouldn’t presume to do. However, that is exactly what many people are doing today with pizza, traveling to Naples for a week, hitting the most well-known pizzerias like Sorbillo or Di Matteo and claiming to know enough about pizza to bring it back to the United States as if it’s a unique discovery and not a part of a thousand-plus-year-old culture that the Italian immigrants brought here 100 years ago.

I wonder do these “Neapolitan tourists” know anything about the history of discrimination and marginalization of Italian Americans in the locales where they are opening their “true” Neapolitan pizzerias?

Who? Oh, yes, us, the Italian Americans. I know, I know, we are not a vocal group. You see, we cannot pronounce words and we are too busy in organized crime to read a book or defend ourselves. (I’m being sarcastic here.)

I know, I know, I should just eat a slice of “true” Neapolitan pizza cooked by John Doe and fugetaboutit.

But, I can’t do that. I can’t do that and the reason why is best expressed in this essay by Dakota Kim in Paste:  “We’re Having the Wrong Conversation About Food and Cultural Appropriation.”  I think she hits the nail on the head with the bolded words about the lack of real thought about the racial, ethnic and class issues involved in food production and consumption.  There is a privilege in taking a trip to another country (something many Americans cannot afford to do). Many Americans are immigrants who left their home country, not because they wanted to, but because conditions were so bad that they had to find a new home. Many are not immigrants but exiles. And many cannot go back to their home country even to visit. Historically, immigrant populations have not been treated well in the United States, and as each new group assimilated, it went through a period of discrimination, some more or less, some that still continues. These immigrant groups keep a part of their traditions alive with food through the generations. Food is an integral part of a person’s identity, and yes, that means ethnic identity. Can someone take a trip to Italy, for example, for a week or a month, and eat four, five, six, ten pizzas and know everything there is to know about making a pizza, everything there is to know about the Italian history and culture, about being Italian? And what if they open pizzerias in areas with a history of discrimination or marginalization of Italian Americans?  This leads me to the question that is the subject of this essay:  If you are not Italian, is it cultural appropriation for you to open an Italian restaurant?

As Kim mentions, well-known chefs take advantage of the American business model, and the power structure that exists that the elite have the money and therefore, the time to travel and the connections to invest in their business ventures and publicize their restaurants.

The danger of this, though, is that it can redefine the food and culture in the minds of the American people and can sometimes rewrite history, which is something I discuss in my book, Authentic Italian: The Real Story of Italy’s Food and Its People. Hence, why the media can get away with saying that (the derogatory term) “red-sauce” restaurants are not “authentic” Italian cuisine and only the cuisine of contemporary Italy is.

Part of me says, this is America, you should be able to open any kind of restaurant you want. If I want to open that ramen restaurant, I should be able to. If Person Y wants to open a pizzeria serving “true” Neapolitan pizza, bada bing. But the other part of me says, yes, this is cultural appropriation, and no, you shouldn’t open a restaurant if you don’t have a connection culturally to the food you are serving. While I say this, I do recognize that we live in the United States, and this is the land of the free, free market and free speech. Americans are free to open any kind of restaurant they want to, and I am free to criticize them. In the end, it is up to us as consumers, as individuals, to research the restaurants we frequent, to vote with our dollars, to be mindful of the food we eat and the cultures behind it.

–Dina Di Maio

***All writings and photographs are the intellectual property of me, unless I’ve noted otherwise, and can only be used with permission. If you are inspired by this blog, please use professional courtesy to note it.***

 

 

 

South Jersey–Italian Since the Civil War and Host to America’s Longest Running Italian Festival

South Jersey looks a lot like rural North Carolina farm country. I know it’s not, though, because instead of shack-like stores on the side of the two-lane roads selling barbecue, they sell ravioli. Instead of large crosses and “Thank you, Jesus” signs, there are monuments to Padre Pio. It is otherworldly to me, a parallel universe where the Italians took over the Heartland of America. I mean, what says it more than the Sacred Heart of Jesus and a John Deere?

Hammonton, New Jersey, was settled by Italian immigrants during the American Civil War. The community was started by one Sicilian immigrant who encouraged others to come. They did, establishing farms, and their descendants now grow Jersey’s famed tomatoes, blueberries and peaches. Each July, Hammonton also hosts the longest running Italian festival in the U.S., the Our Lady of Mount Carmel festival that celebrates the feast day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on July 16. In its 143rd year, the festival runs from July 9-16. There’s plenty of Italian food, and this is probably the one place in America where you can get broccoli rabe added to your sandwich.

The highlight for me is the procession of the statues in front of Saint Joseph’s Church.

If you donate a dollar, you get a prayer card of the saint that is passing by.

If you travel to the area, don’t forget to visit Penza’s Pies for blueberry pie or Bagliani’s Italian Market for Italian products.

–Dina Di Maio, author of Authentic Italian: The Real Story of Italy’s Food and Its People

7 Italian American-Owned Food Businesses in the Carolinas

Here is a list of some of my favorite local food products and food trucks in North Carolina and South Carolina owned by Italian Americans.

Nellino’s Sauce Co.–A pasta sauce company started in Raleigh, North Carolina, by Italian-American Neal McTighe based on his mother’s and great-grandmother’s recipes for classic sauces like marinara or tomato and basil made with good ingredients.

 

Melina’s Fresh Pasta–Italian-American owner Carmella makes classic fresh pastas like spaghetti and linguine as well as many creative ravioli like roasted red pepper & feta or goat cheese & honey. There’s even the pimento cheese ravioli. She also teaches pasta making classes in Durham, North Carolina.

 

 

Barone Meatball Company–Serving up classic Italian meatballs as well as fun creations like buffalo chicken meatballs and vegetarian ricotta balls. Owned by Italian-American Stephen Dewey, based in Raleigh/Durham, North Carolina.

 

 

Oak City Amaretto–An Italian-American amaretto made by Italian-American Anthony Scalabrino from a recipe inspired by his grandmother’s homemade amaretto, made in Raleigh, North Carolina.

 

Benny T’s Vesta–The first dry hot sauce available in five grades of heat made from a variety of fresh chile peppers grown in North Carolina, created by Italian-American chile enthusiast Ben Tuorto.

 

Charleston Bloody Mary Mix–A bloody Mary mix made by Italian-American Ryan Eleuteri that has all good ingredients and no horseradish–its distinctive flavor comes from a habanero mash, made in Charleston, South Carolina, found throughout the East Coast and Midwest.

 

Mr. A’s Beignets–A food truck serving delicious beignets and coffee with chicory New Orleans style in Apex, North Carolina, owned by Italian-American Arlton Cangelosi.

 

All photos in this article were used with permission of their respective owners.

–Dina Di Maio