Sunday, May 18, 2008

Growing Up Italian.




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.


17 comments:

  1. Robin,
    I enjoyed your post. I never played with octopus growing up, but I was offered carabou once when I was trick-or-treating in Alaska. *G* Your family sounds dynamic, interesting and most of all, wonderful. You were blessed to grow up in such a warm and loving environment.

    Diana Cosby
    www.dianacosby.com

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  2. Ciao Robin! Great post! I'm sure your books will be full of Italian family fun. My friend Cheryl loves the word agita, and i knew her for years before I finally said, "What the HELL is agita?" :--)) Look forward to reading the books.
    Marie

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  3. How wonderful! You paint such a vivid picture of your young life!

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  4. My family is colorful all right, as a matter of fact, they're the most colorful of any family I've ever seen.

    We always laugh, no matter what we're doing. I'll never forget at my Grandfather's viewing, the director of the funeral home had to ask us to quiet down three times because we were laughing too loud and disturbing the two other viewings taking place.

    Grandpa hated flowers. He'd say in his broken English "Don't buy me flowers, buy me food. What do I want with something that's going to end up in the garbage?

    The first thing that popped into my head when I saw my grandfather's casket was that we should lose the flowers and have a smorgasbord instead. I started laughing. I figure it was Nanny's way to make him pay for all those years he refused to buy flowers for her.

    Thanks for stopping by!

    Ciao,

    Robin

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  5. Robin! Your post made me so hungry! Thank you for sharing such vivid and wonderful memories.
    Christina

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  6. Love the slice of life, Robin. No wonder "Romeo, Romeo" is so vivid and colorful. Can't wait to buy my copy!!

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  7. Robin,
    I think when I read your book, I'll get very hungry. Can I come for dinner sometime?
    Cheryl

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  8. Hey Robin!

    I grew up with the large Italian family - my great grandmother sat like a queen on her daughter's sofa every Sunday. There'd be the crab cookouts in the summer; I remember my Uncle Joe letting the crabs chase me up the steps. And the card games in the basement between my great uncles. And the homemade pizza that I cannot, to this day, duplicate. The big, wet kisses from the adults, the zillions of kids all over the place...and of course, 7 fishes on Christmas Eve. Luckily, though, not one of them was octopus!

    Can't wait to see Annabelle's story!

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  9. I love the post! Suddenly I have an urge to wear orange peel glasses. :)

    September can't come soon enough. I'm looking forward to reading Romeo, Romeo. Wishing you all the best.

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  10. GREAT Post, Robin!

    To my knowledge, I don't have one drop of Italian blood in me, and yet I LOVED Italy when I visited. I've been back 3 times and would return tomorrow if time and resources permitted! The Italian language is so pretty that I don't even mind being cursed at in it, and I have been, more than once. :-)

    Cindy

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  11. Hi everyone~

    My son went to the street fair and bought me carmel corn and fudge. Why fudge, I don't know but as he's so fond of telling me, it's the thought that counts. I think he had an anterior motive. After he gave me the goods, he hugged, kissed me, told me how much he loved me, and then asked if we could have pizza tonight.

    Of course I dropped everything and made the dough and the sauce. I'm such a sucker!

    Judi~ I'd be happy to share my recipe if you'd like. I think it's pretty good, though, I just talked to Vito the other night and his crust beats mine. He said all he uses is high-gluten flour, water, olive oil and yeast. It was the best crust I've ever had, and that's saying something! Next time I go to Mangia e Bevi (Vitto's amazing restaurant) when he's not busy, I'll get him loaded on grapa or Sambuca and get the measurements out of him.

    Robin :)

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  12. Robin - I loved your story of fighting, Italian style. My mother was Irish-French. We spent a lot of time yelling and sobbing and throwing things - and then yelling and sobbing and hugging when we made up.

    But I'm sorry to say I don't have any childhood memories as fantastic as playing with a soon-to-be-eaten octopus in the bathtub! Fabulous.

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  13. Hi Sweety.

    I'm happy to say, although I'm not Italian, some of my best friends are (yes, dear, including you!), and my kids grew up thinking everyone ate Calimari. As for large families, they are usually a blessing, sometimes a curse, but always there--whether we want them there or not. I wouldn't trade mine so can empathize with you about yours. Keep the smiles coming, darlin'. I'm so looking forward to reading your book---and getting it autographed.

    Much Love, kiddo.
    Pat

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  14. Robin-

    How awesome to have so much inspiration stem from your family. I love that you could draw from such a vivid childhood. I can't wait to read your book and see what else there is to learn about being a part of a huge Italian family!!

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  15. What a great post! Such beautiful memories you have accented with good food and happy times! :)

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  16. Robin,
    What a great post! My husband's family is Italian as well, with a grandmother (Nonna) straight from a story book: black curly hair that mysteriously never grays, lotsa pasta, and hushed conversations about La Cosa Nostra ("Ah sh! sh! sh!"). Being of German/Anglo descent, I found the craziness (accordians?!? at weddings?!?!?!?) to be overwhelming at first, but ultimately comforting. Can't wait to read Romeo, Romeo!!
    Sara

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  17. Robin,

    Better late than never I always say.

    Great post.

    Your Italian family reminds me so much of my Southern family, only we were eating okra and fried chicken and pulling the catfish out of the fish pond with a cane and a line.

    For all of you out there, I have eaten Robin's pizza. (Judy, you need to nab that recipe before she recinds the offer.) And yes, her domestic god of a husband was actually helping to cook it.

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