It seems these days that everyone has a dream or desire to be Italian or at least a guido. With shows like The Jersey Shore, Real Housewives of NJ and others, there is a glamorization of what being a so-called “Italian” is. I can attest from my background and upbringing that this is far from what it means to be Italian. The one thing I can highlight as a positive is, if you do watch, Vinny and his interactions with his family. You watch him and his family sit down for big meals with Italian accents and broken English flying across the table. These are the moments that are what being Italian is all about.
I’ve had the great fortune of being first generation American with my Dad and family arriving by boat from their town of Sant’Arsenio. Yes you read that correctly, by boat. As a matter of fact my father has even been able to find some old photos from the voyage:
They moved to Jersey City, NJ and my Nonna has only ever lived in 2 houses here in the States, the second being for all but 2 years of her life. As long as I can remember nothing has even changed since they moved here. It’s riddled with Catholic mass cards, plastic table cloths and the smell of gravy and cookies deeply embedded into the walls and furniture. The smells of the house are some of the most visceral memories I have from childhood. As I sit here writing this post I’ve paused a few times just thinking back to those moments of pasta making, the bubbling of gravy, the smell of pan fried pork… yum. Don’t forget the constant endless supply of food, cheese and wine. It seems that despite the small size of the house there is no better-stocked building in the world. I can promise you that if you ever have a meal at Nonna’s you will waddle out fully satisfied and face hurting from smiling so much.
I guess the point of all this is that Nonna has been such a big influence in my life and my passion and love for food. To be honest, they are some of the most positive memories of my childhood and some of the most clear. I remember making salame by hand in my basement before even being in first grade, stuffing the casing by hand with a funnel and Nonna tasting raw pork while I cringed at the thought. I clearly see the flour fights while making cavatelli and the wooden board that we always worked on. I remember my grandfather making wine and the barrels under the basement stairs with the wine eventually making it into my glass, diluted with a bit of Sprite of course. As a side note, I have no idea where this thing went, but gosh I wish I had that board.
The most clear however is perhaps the smell of the gravy she makes. It’s been the same recipe for years, the same smell and that same great flavor. The secret is simplicity— tomatoes, meat and a little bit of oregano. That combined with patience and time makes a pretty amazing sauce.
This is just the tip of the iceberg for what growing up Italian was like. My Dad was never a guido, nor was anyone else in my family. We are proud of where my family comes from and Nonna may be my hero in life. She’s been up on her feet, working her ass off for over 90 years. She is my Nonna and I love her dearly and miss her a lot being out here in Colorado. Truth is I dread the phone call and hope to never get it. The only thing I can do however is continue to absorb the wealth of knowledge she has and continue on the traditions in both food and culture that I’ve learned over the last 32 years. It has shaped my life and my passions. I am proud and thankful to have had that experience. I hope you enjoy a little bit of what it means to be Italian to me and how great and special my Nonna is. Yes, I’m tearing up as I write this.