Growing Up Italian

I’ve looked back at many things in this column over the time which I’ve had the opportunity to write this forum, including what the city of Jamestown was like, what it was like growing up here, what it was like going to Parochial School, what television was like when I was a kid, what it was like serving as a teacher and coach in this community, and what importance some people have had in this community and in my family. Today, I wish to look back at my heritage, and reminisce a bit about what it was like growing up Italian.

First of all, both of my parents were of Italian heritage, and both of their parents were also of Italian descent, which makes me at least 200 percent Italian, I think. Now, I’m sure everyone has many memories of what it was like growing up, with family traditions, and many traditional memories associated with their heritage, whatever ethnicity it might be. I hope as I look back on my growing up as an Italian-American, that everyone can recall growing up as Irish-Americans, German-Americans, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, etc., and recall some of the special memories of celebrating their heritage in their own families in the early days through adulthood of their lives.

My family did not live in “Little Italy.” We didn’t speak Italian, though my mother spoke it when she talked to my “nanu” when he called. She also spoke Italian to her friends when they didn’t want us to know what they were saying. (We learned to pick up a word or two here or there, but they pretty much accomplished what they set out to, and we were left wondering it was that they didn’t want us to know.)

We also didn’t eat Italian every meal. We weren’t even an “every Sunday” spaghetti, sugu and meatball dinner family, though we did have it often enough to appreciate the food of our ethnicity. My mom was a great cook though, and we did enjoy the delicacies of our ethnic country. I already mentioned spaghetti and meatballs.

I remember having the pasta piled on our plates and mom putting a huge bowl of meatballs, sausage and pork in the middle of the table to be passed around. I remember the cheese and grater set out on the table and the fun, as a kid, of grating your own cheese on that meal. I remember the meals of Italian sausage, or lasagna, the occasional meal of manicotti, and those meatless Fridays when every so often pasta with lentils (pasta lindicci) was a special treat. Fortunately, Sally has mastered the art of Italian cooking and somehow has been able to duplicate the deliciousness of spaghetti sauce, pasta lindicci, etc., “justa lika mama used to make.”

I also remember those times when mom fried up the “garduni,” made up a batch of egg plant parmigiana, and baked up some fresh Italian bread. And then there were the Italian cookies … the biscottis, the puccidottis and the pupu colovas, and the occasional cannoli. I also remember, much to the anger of mom for the mess we made, taking a huge chunk of pepperoni on a fork and roasting it over the flame on top of the stove, and when it was roasted just right, slapping it onto a piece of crunchy crust Italian bread, folding it over and eating it like a sandwich.

We weren’t really into Italian opera, but appreciated some of the entertainers of Italian descent and my parents loved the music of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, Jerry Vale, Vic Damone, and Al Martino, and they listened to them regularly.

Weddings were so much fun to attend. There were so many traditions, starting with the cookies again, but also the traditional dancing of The Tarantella, and the tradition of guests greeting the newly married couple where the new husband gives the gentleman greeting them a cigar and the bride offering the wife or girlfriend (if they were of age) a small “shot” of Rosolio, which was a homemade sipping drink made of grain alcohol, the main reason for it being a sipping drink.

Being a member of a primarily Italian Catholic Church parish, and living in a community where another Italian heritage parish exists, there were many wonderful Italian Festivals which have been annual events for many years, allowing so many, those of Italian heritage, and those who just enjoy a wonderful social event filled with great food, great music, and great fellowship, to enjoy so many traditions from the Italian culture. I have also traveled, almost annually, to Mayfield Heights in the Cleveland, Ohio, area for the annual Holy Rosary Parish, “Feast of the Assumption”

Italian Festival held each August, which has even featured the St. James Italian dancers from Jamestown as performers the past few years. This festival features the traditional Italian procession through Mayfield (also called “Little Italy”) where the statue of the Blessed Mary is carried through the streets with people offering donations in the name of Mary, the Mother of God. The donation is pinned to a veil adorning the statue. This festival includes a celebration of Mass by Father Rocco where Father offers the main portions of the mass in Italian. The festival brings older Italians back to their traditions and customs, and reinforces those customs and traditions to the younger generations hoping to keep them alive through the continuation of their family lineages.

Growing up Italian for me, obviously from this piece, was, and is, very memorable and special. It brings a sense of pride for my ancestry, which I’m ashamed I don’t know all that I should about it, but it makes me proud to be an Italian-American. I see that same pride for their heritage in many of my friends of Greek descent, Irish ancestry, Scandinavian culture, African lineage, etc., so I hope this allows everyone to look back at their heritage and appreciate where they came from and how their own particular lineage has added to the wonderful “melting pot” which is these United States of America. May we all appreciate, respect, and cherish all cultures, traditions, and customs of everyone who is, and is preparing to be, an American in this country. God Bless the United States of America.