ROMEO, ROMEO and my next book, IF YOU CAN'T TAKE THE HEAT... both take place in Brooklyn, New York, and all but one of my characters are Italian so I thought I'd share what growing up Italian was like.
I was the kind of Italian who didn't know I was American because I was born in America, I thought I was an Italian who was born in America--after all, my Great, Great Uncle, Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, was once the Prime Minister of Italy.
I didn't know I was any different from any other kid because, like most Brooklyn Italians, I lived in an Italian neighborhood. We lived next door to Mrs. Romeo, across the street from Mr. & Mrs. Mistretta, and the love of my young life, Binny Chivoni, lived a couple of doors down. Everyone I knew was Italian.
Once a week, my Nana would take me by the hand, drag her shopping cart behind her, and we'd walk to the outdoor market. I didn't step into a supermarket until I moved to New Jersey. Nanny and I would make the rounds visiting the bread man, the cheese shop, and Richie Collaro's butcher shop. I was five years old before I learned that meat came from cows and not Uncle Richie's shop.
Every Friday, like clockwork, our cats would wait by the door for the fish man. My favorite Fridays were when Nana would buy octopus or lobster. Nothing beat spending the morning playing with an octopus in the bathtub or having lobster races across the kitchen floor.
As in most Italian families, our lives revolved around food and family. Sundays were the day everyone came for supper after Mass. The dining room table was where I learned how to eat a seven-course meal in four hours. It's where my grandfather cut eyeglasses out of orange peels for me to wear, and I learned that cut up peaches taste even better soaked in Grandpa's homemade wine.
Everyone was just like me until I left Brooklyn. Moving away was a real culture shock. You can imagine my surprise when I was invited to eat supper at a friend's house and discovered that some people eat orange-colored, over-cooked spaghetti from cans.
It didn't take me long to learn that most families didn't fight the way my family did--one minute wishing the earth would open up and swallow someone whole and the next kissing them on both cheeks. In my family, no matter what happened, the yelling always turned to laughter. When you did something wrong, you got a quick smack up side the head and it was over until the next time. And still to this day, when my Aunt Anita walks behind me while I'm sitting at the table, I duck my head just to be safe.
I learned that not everyone played with their octopus before they cooked it. Heck, most people didn't eat octopus.
I learned that much of my vocabulary was Italian--and people look at you funny when you say that you have agita, or call somebody a boccagalup or stunad.
I learned that people will do almost anything to be invited to my house for dinner, and that when you're cooking for American's, you can cook half of what you'd normally make for the family.
But most of all, I've learned how lucky I am to have grown up Italian, and how lucky I am to be able to share all the love and laughter in my books.