Being Italian is like sitting at the cool kid’s table in the cafeteria. Everyone wants to join. We love to eat. We love to drink. We’ve produced some of the world’s greatest painters, sculptors, and composers. Basically, we’re just all that is awesome. My memories of growing up Italian are a rich tapestry woven out of a lot of love, a lot of laughter, and a lot of lasagna. Here are 10 things you can only appreciate if you grew up Italian.
1. We always ask our guests one question before they’ve even taken off their coats: “Have you eaten?”
It’s a reflex. If we don’t have “something in the house” to offer, whether a pizza or a plate of cookies, we’re being inhospitable. Heaven forbid we make a bruta figura (bad impression).
2. We panic when cleaning up after a party and discover there are no leftovers
This might sound counter intuitive to the non-Italian. In other cultures, no leftovers is a sign that you made delicious food. In the Italian mindset, no leftovers means the possibility that someone went home hungry because there wasn’t enough for seconds (or thirds). Leftovers means we’ve overcompensated and made sure that there would be more than enough, and everyone’s eaten their fill and gone home happy. When cooking for a party Italian-style, there’s one rule: If the serving plates are empty when it’s over, you’re not doing it right.
3. We consider Spaghetti-Os a banned substance
As a child, I saw all of my friends eating Spaghetti-Os. I thought this was something right out of the space food pantry at NASA. Spaghetti out of a can? How precisely did that work? So I asked my parents why we never bought it. My dad replied, “Only Americans eat that stuff.” In my household growing up, this phrase, roughly translated, meant “It’s not real food.” No further questions.
4. We argue over “what to bring” to a friend’s house for dinner
Wine? Cookies? Cake? Something more substantial? They’re offering us their hospitality, so the least we can do is contribute to the table. If a friend says that nothing is needed, we err on the side of caution by bringing a homemade dish with wine to complement it!
5. We plan holiday meals at least a month in advance
I still have memories of sitting at the dining-room table with a Thanksgiving turkey hangover, and my grandmother would pull out her notepad and say: “Okay, let’s talk about Christmas.” Eisenhower put less thought into his D-Day tactics than Italians put into a holiday meal. If you can’t deal with that, leave the table. Oh, and speaking of food… (Because you know, it’s not like I’ve talked about food at all yet)…
6. We turn Christmas Eve into a SeaWorld exhibition
If you’re not only Italian, but Italian and Catholic, you know exactly what I’m talking about: seven fish on Christmas Eve. We do this for three reasons. The first reason is that seven is a biblical number, representing the seven sacraments. Second, at one point in history Catholics had to abstain from eating meat on Christmas Eve. Finally, we’re just nuts for good food and tough challenges! This is usually the explanation I offer as the most plausible of the three.
7. We never need an excuse to open a bottle of wine
Case-in-point: my family still has a home video somewhere in which they’re opening a bottle of wine to toast my first bath. Everything is cause for celebration in an Italian family, and what’s a party without wine?
8. We have an incredibly loose definition of the word appetizer
Have you ever seen that John Pinette routine about the Italian restaurant?
“Luigi, can we order?”
“No, first we gonna bring out some food.”
“Okay then, you’re not scarin’ me!” The game is on! Not that I want to give anyone the idea that Italians are preoccupied with food, or anything, because that would be crazy. When we talk about appetizers, it is food before the food but not necessarily a lighter, smaller dish.
9. We value the versatility of pastina
Pastina is basically the culinary version of that blouse in your closet that goes with everything. You can dress it up or dress it down. Sauce, butter, chicken, veggies—you name it, pastina works with it. We aren’t afraid of serving several types at one meal!
10. We can give everyone lessons on how to throw a party
When my grandmother passed away last month, we invited everyone who came to the burial out to lunch (at an Italian restaurant, because of course). Several courses and a few glasses of wine later, I forgot for a few minutes that we’d just buried my last grandparent, and that’s how Grandma would have wanted it. It’s not just about the food; it’s about the fellowship. Food is just the link that brings everyone around the table to share their lives together.