Italianness

I am exactly 50% Italian. My mother’s side bears the Italians while my father’s is a mesh of Europeans, descending from England, France(?), and I believe even Scandinavia (which would explain my fair complexion). Somewhere way back when, Daniel Boone is a relative, though from what I understand, he bore many, many, many children.

Any cultural routines I have I attribute to my Italian side. I did not grow up Catholic, though both of my parents were rooted in Catholicism. I grew up “free to choose your relationship with God.” I mention this only because religion will play no real part later in this post. I admit that most of the time when I see or meet other Italian families, I assume they are Catholic; whether that’s right or not, I just wanted to clear it up for anyone who may also have made that assumption.

I have come to discover that I really value certain traditions deriving from one particular culture or heritage. I have a fondness for homemade Italian food, as my mother is one hell of a cook and baker, as was my grandmother. I love hearing the plethora of funny stories about my Italian relatives. My grandfather came over from Italy when he was six and my grandmother was first-generation American. There is a rich history of Italians in Rochester, NY where my grandparents raised their family. My grandfather had a successful construction company which built many of the still-standing buildings in Rochester today. To me, that’s seriously cool.

For being half Italian, I am extremely fair-skinned and grew up with blonde hair, which has darkened over the years. My mother can get tan walking down the street, whereas I will burn swiftly and assuredly if I am in any kind of sunny, tropical environment and not wearing at least SPF 40. My brother was able to tan a bit better, but neither of us look remarkably Italian. It’s one of those things where if you knew both of our parents, you would catch a feature here and a feature there.

If I ever have children, the gene pool will be further divided and they will be 25% Italian, 25% mutt of whatever else I am, 25% Irish, and 25% German.

I don’t know that I will pass down much of my Italian heritage to my children as I don’t speak the language or cook more than one or two dishes I’ve learned over the years. But as I scrubbed the bathroom today, my mind began to wander as it usually does during the monotony of the routine, and I started chuckling to myself as I thought of a few things I deem distinctly Italian.

And so, in the spirit of sharing, here are a few I thought of:

Something isn’t clean if it’s not done with bleach. I believe all Italian mothers pass this on to their children. To that end, my favorite bleach product to work with is Soft Scrub.

Clean: nostrils burning and skin dried out.

I know this seems like an ad placement but it’s not. (I should put it under Zoe Recommends, though!) It not only blasts through soap scum and germs but it makes a sink shine. I use it for both bathroom and kitchen sinks. See how pretty?

The other cleaning agent is vinegar. I can’t tell you how many windows I cleaned over the years when it was Cleaning Day with my mom and I was using a spray bottle with a mixture of distilled vinegar and water. Though I loathe the smell, it really does do the job of cutting grease and getting things to sparkle. You know, if you’re not using bleach.

Take your bow, vinegar!

There are certain words for which the only acceptable pronunciation is the Italian one. I can’t say “ricotta” in a nasal, Midwestern twang. It’s “rrrri-gotte.” Just imagine that with an Italian intonation. When I go to Subway, I would prefer to ask for “pepperoncini” but I say “banana peppers” because nine times out of ten, it’s easier that way to convey what I want to the Subway worker.

My mother prefers saying mozza-rrelle for “mozzarella.” Same way for “biscotti,” sometimes I heard it as bis-got. I feel silly saying any of these things this way except to my family members, so holidays for me have a few Italian food words thrown around quite often, amongst a few other phrases of the dialect my mom and her siblings grew up with.

When it comes to Italian cookies and pastries, we are absolute snobs. (Same with Italian restaurants, too, but I’ll stick with just the cookies for now.) I absolutely adore Italian cookies but they can not come from just anywhere. I have yet to experience what I consider real Italian cookies outside of Rochester, NY. My favorite place to get them from is Gruttadauria Bakery. It is still a family owned place after multiple generations with age-old recipes for their pastries and cookies. And the smell? Ooooooooohhhhhmyyyyyyygaaaaaaaahhhhhhhdddd. If I can afford to, I will have their delectable cookies grace my wedding reception. When I see my mom at the holidays, I usually try to get a box. Zoe Recommends Gruttadauria Bakery with my whole heart and soul!

And lastly….

I mentioned spray bottles before with the vinegar and water (and sometimes my mom had them filled with watered down bleach, too). Because I now associate spray bottles with the “Italian way to clean,” Febreze is my generation’s Italian cleaning tip. It probably sounds silly but it is what it is. We’re big Febrezers.

Febreze is a genius product.

I would absolutely love to hear from any Italian-American readers if you have anything in particular that you do or say as a direct result of growing up with Italian family members. I will always be proud of my Italian background, no matter how watered down the gene pool becomes.

Until next time, mio amici.

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Comments

  1. I know what you mean about sounding silly using real Italian words and pronunciations when not around family or other Italians. I always want to pronounce “bruschetta” how it should be, “bru-skay-tah,” but the confused looks I get from waiters isn’t worth it!

  2. My mother was born in Sicily, as were all four grandparents. I’m sure you and I grew up with the same foods and expressions. And I know what you mean about being snobs when it comes to cookies and pastries. That’s why I wrote this post about sesame biscotti:

    mostlybrightideas.wordpress.com/2011/09/08/the-queen-of-cookies/

    My grandmother used to make me a drink made with raw eggs and vermouth. It’s called zabaglione. Have you ever had it?

    Great post, Zoe. I hope you’ll write more about growing up Italian.

    By the way, I finally found Peanut Butter Twix — I had to go all the way to Florida for them, but it was worth it.

    • Hooray!! I’m glad you found them to be just as worth it. Now I want another one.

      I can’t wait to read your post on biscotti. I have to admit I had wondered if you were Italian – maybe my Itali-dar was going off. I’ve never had zabaglione! I love the name, though – probably because it starts with Z. Do you still like zabaglione? I don’t know if I’d enjoy that drink….

  3. As a 100% Italian (as far as I know) girl living in Sicily, it made me feel proud reading your post and related comments. Discovering that those little things I grew up with are the same you grew up with so far away from Italy it’s great and somehow a bit funny. Gosh, I’d love to hear you say “zabaglione” or “Parmigiano”!
    It’s nice to see how you American people care of your origins.

    • Thank you, Eshu! I love hearing from someone all the way in Sicily! So do Italian mothers love to clean with bleach and vinegar?

      I don’t know about other European families who settled here but I know most Italian-American families are very proud of their roots. Thank you for commenting!

      • Oh, they do love it!
        Just to tell you: a week ago I caught my mum adding vinegar to the dish-washing detergent, before I could say a word she told me: “Vinegar it’s great to clean oil and grease, didn’t you know?”. And you know what? It really works!

        You’re welcome. Have a nice WE!

  4. I am 50% Italian, 25% Polish, and 25% Irish. (Those last two give me my fair complexion!)
    My Polish/Irish is from my mother’s side (a lot of drinkers).
    The Italian, from my father (lots of angry hand gestures).
    But I wouldn’t change a thing! I love my mixed up family history. Great to hear you’re proud of yours, too. 🙂

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