Italianitàis delicious in every way! It reminds me of Richard Gambino’s seminal work Blood of My Blood, only with more whimsy. What made you write this book? I have the feeling that this book was a thought in your head for a long time before you began writing it. Am I right?
Well, first I am so pleased that you enjoyed my book, Italianità: The Essence of Being Italian and Italian-American. I am humbled by the comparison of my work with that of Richard Gambino’s. Thank you so much for such a wonderful compliment.
Yes, you are correct. The book rattled around in my head for quite some time before I put pen to paper as they say, although no one really writes long hand any more.
Concerning what inspired me to write the book, when I first travelled to Italy there was an expectation on my part that Italy would be a lot like my old neighborhood in Utica, New York, but on a much larger scale. I expected that I would be going home in a sense. I was excited for my Amarigahn wife to see the culture in which I was raised. Most importantly, I expected that when someone with a name like Giovinazzo arrived in Italy that Italians would embrace as one of their own, a fellow Italian returning to the motherland.
That is not at all what happened.
I discovered that the way in which they lived was vastly different from back home in Utica, their food, their manners, their attitude towards life. Many did not even consider me to be an Italian. I was just another tourist.
Like most Italian-Americans I am fiercely proud of my culture, our culture. Yet, my travel to Italy made me realize that I did not truly understand this culture. I mean not just Italian culture, but Italian-American culture. Who are we? Really. Aren’t we more than just caricatures pulled from The Sopranos and Jersey Shore? What are the differences between us and the people back in Italy? Why are we different?
As I came to understand the answers to these questions, something happened that I didn’t think could. I became even more proud of being Italian. I realized that the understanding I had of our culture barely scratched the surface. We are the inheritors of an extraordinary culture. I want my fellow Italians and Italian-Americans to appreciate that. I want to inspire them to dive deeply into the waters of Italianità.
What was the process of writing this book like and how long did it take to complete?
The book consumed my life for six years. It dominated the movies I watched, the music I heard, the books I read, the food I ate. I spent weekends writing, proofreading what I wrote during the following week. Whenever life intervened on my routine, family gatherings, business deadlines, or home repair projects that couldn’t be delayed, I felt guilty that I wasn’t working on the book. As we neared publication, I read, and reread, and reread, and reread what I wrote. For the last two months before going to print, I sat reading the book out loud to the books on the shelves in my library. I just read it over and over again until I felt like I had the thing memorized.
I believe I spent as much time reading and researching as I did writing. I wanted to get the history right. That is my biggest fear, that I messed up on some of the facts. I also travelled to Italy to see first hand the things about which I was reading. I explored the trulli in Alberobello, visited Dante’s remains in Ravenna, and ate pizza in Napoli, the birthplace of the modern pizza.
With this as a foundation, I pulled together what I felt were the most relevant points of our history to define as best I could our culture as well as the how that culture evolved. While my biggest fear is not getting the history correct, my second biggest fear is that I would bore the reader with historical facts. So, I interjected family stories and anecdotes to help make the history a bit more palatable. The history, however, is very important. It forms the foundation of some of the more entertaining topics in the second half of the book.
Take the Mafia, for example. Why is it called the Mafia? Why did it developed the way it did? When Christopher, Carmella Soprano’s cousin became a made guy where did the ceremony come from? The answer to these questions are found in the history of the Mezzogiorno, southern Italy and I discuss this in detail in the book.
In the book you mention that your wife is not Italian-American—what does she make of the culture, of this “essence” you have so wonderfully written about?
She thinks I am crazy!! My wife, when I met her, was your average white bread, butter-in-cupboard Amarigahn. My wife’s family was VERY matriarchal. They had the minimum number of men required, her father only had a sister, her mother was raised by an aunt, a maid, and her grandmother. My wife only had a sister. Her sister only had daughters. Then I come along. Oh Madone!! They all thought I was nuts.
I was also the first Italian she dated. When I was driving to pick her up for our second date I felt great, driving fast, Pavarotti blasting from the cassette deck, the windows of my Camaro rolled down, singing at the top of my lungs. It was a perfect summer evening in Southern California and I had a hot date. When I walked in the door I handed her two roses saying; “I gotta warn you, I am feeling particularly Italian tonight.” By the end of the evening, I proposed and we have been together for well over thirty years. I told her, once you go Italian you never go back. History has proven me correct…so far.
The change, at times, has been difficult on her. Years ago, we were debating the merits of a particular television series she watched. My point to her was that the characters on the show were totally unrealistic. She responded by saying; “Look at the Sopranos! You like that show. I have never met anyone like that.” I simply gave her a you-gotta-be-kidding-me look. She paused and then said “before I met you, I had never met anyone like that.” I should be clear that she wasn’t referring to the Mafia connection. I don’t know anyone in the mob. I may be one of the few Italian-Americans that admits this. She was referring to the types of personalities on the show.
I am happy to report, however, that the assimilation is almost complete. She has really embraced the culture, longing to visit Italy nearly as much as I. She especially loves Lake Garda with Sorrento a relatively close second in her heart. She even studies Dante, giving a good explanation of his concept of contropasso.
The biggest change, however, is in the kitchen. I can go on and on listing many of the dishes, she has mastered, from her sauce to her braciola to her risotto to her pizza which is incredible. My mother would be very happy to sit down to any of my wife’s meals. Where she has really excelled, though, is her stromboli. I showed her how my mother would make it was with either spinach or sausage, one or the other. My wife, however, took it and improved on it. It is a thing of beauty. You really have to come by the house some time for dinner.
How was your upbringing influential in the writing of this book? I ask this assuming that your Italian-American culture is very, very important to you.
This book would not have happened were it not for my upbringing. I am not certain whether I love Italy and the Italian culture because I am Italian, or if the Italian culture is as truly wondrous as I believe it to be. The culture is so ingrained in me, I can’t do any sort of objective analysis.
Philosophy talks about things having essential attributes, attributes that make something what it is. Absent those attributes that thing would cease to be what it is. If you built something that receives television signals, but by your design it could not display an image then what you built could not be called a television. An essential attribute of televisions is that it displays images. By the same token, if you were to take from me my Italianità, I would not be me.
Our cultural heritage permeates the way I think. When I think of Christmas, it is not the unwrapping of gifts on Christmas morning, but the Feast of Seven Fishes on Christmas eve. When I think of summer, it is not going down to the ol’fishin hole, but sausage and pepper sangwhiches at the St. Agnes festival. When I think of comfort food, it is not canned tomato soup, but my mother’s homemade past fazool. The icons of our culture evoke in me memories of the halcyon days of my childhood.
How has your Italian-American identity grown and/or changed over the years?
Admittedly, my Italianità has, in part, been thrust upon me, but only in part. When you carry around the name Giovinazzo, most introductory conversations center around your Italian heritage. When they ask you about Italy, you had better have a ready answer that matches their preconceived notions. If you don’t they pause to look at you, you can see the rusty wheels in their brain grinding away. “Is he really Italian,” they wonder.
When I was younger and didn’t understand our culture all that well, without realizing it I acted out the caricatures of Italian-Americans. Hey how ya’doin? Ja eat yet? No, j’ew. Ya wanna grab a slice? I was living in southern California outside of any significant Italian-American community. I was loud and crass which is what people expected of me. I peppered my conversations with Italian slang, half the time not knowing what I was really saying.
Things started to change for me with the first trip to Italy that I described earlier. I started to understand being Italian meant something else, something much more significant. Italy has nurtured the greatest philosophers, scientists, artists, poets, and theologians ever to have drawn breath. Western civilization would not be what it is without the contribution of the Italian people. We aren’t the stereotypes created by Amarigahns. We are poets, scientists, and artists.
I was in a discussion with a person recently who was of Irish descent who objected to these feelings about my culture; she said everyone says that about their heritage. While I agree that everyone should be proud of their heritage, Italy really is different. The contributions of just Florence during the Quattrocento exceeds the contributions of most other nations for the past two millennia and rivals many more. That is just one Italian city for one small slice of time.
This is our heritage, this is our inheritance. I have learned to embrace these aspects of our culture and celebrate these men and women rather than cartoonish characters of popular media.
I would like to briefly return to conversations I have with people when I introduce myself. The one that drives me up the wall is when they start talking about the Mafia. “Oh, Italian.” They grin and with a conspiratorial hushed voice they lean over, “I had a cousin in the Mafia.” Everybody had a cousin, uncle, friend, parent of a friend, a sick cat that was in the Mafia. The Mafia. The Mafia. The Mafia. For a secret crime organization, they don’t do a very good job in keeping it secret. Hell, if half these stories were true, the Mafia would have a bigger payroll than GM at its peak!!
Often, I point out that the Mafia is nothing to venerate. They are a blight on our people. We need to get that straight. Some stroonz had the nerve to say to me once that the Mafia takes care of its own. No, it doesn’t. These guys are bums. Earlier I said that I like the series The Sopranos. I do because I believe that the show is powerful; it shows what a bunch of low-lifes they are. Tony wasn’t a good guy. Think of the things he did to the people around him; he cheated on his wife, burnt down his friend’s restaurant, and even killed Christopher. This is someone to admire? Bullshit!! His own mother tried to kill him! These are supposed to be heroes of Italian culture? It is bad enough when I hear this from non-Italians, it is especially aggravating when I hear it from Italians themselves.
I really enjoyed the historical aspects of the book—aspects of Italian history that, perhaps, many people do not know. How do you think the historical aspects of Italy explain or perhaps exemplify themselves in Italianità today?
Now that is a great question. A couple of times in the book I quote Count Klemens von Metternich, the nineteenth century European statesmen, who said Italy was merely a geographic expression. After the fall of Rome, the peninsula was composed of city states with no real Italian nation. For much of the past two millennia Italy was the battleground of Europe with various foreign powers dominating different parts of Italy. At times, these foreign powers used, and at other times competed with, the Catholic Church that had its own agenda. This effected Italians in two fundamental ways.
The first is that Italians lack a real national identity which is very different from Italian-American culture. We really aren’t conscious of regional divisions. To Italian-Americans if your ancestors came from Italy, you are Italian. Italians, however, are divided, city against city, region against region. You can hear it in the national anthem; We have been for centuries / stamped on, and laughed at, / because we are not one people, / because we are divided. To their credit they have been trying to change. You can hear this in the anthem as well; Let’s unite under / one flag, one dream; / To melt together /Already the time has come. Despite this effort to form a single Italian identity there are still regional biases within Italy. I have heard more than one person say “Garibaldi did not unite Italy, but divided Africa.”
This has resulted in a bi-polar Italian identity as can be seen by comparing Italians and Italian-Americans. The Italian is Marcello Mastroianni wearing a perfectly tailored suite, moving with an understated self-assurance. Italian-Americans are something quite different, much more out there, more boisterous. When we think of Italians, we think of the people from the industrialized, more prosperous north. People who live what they call La Bella Figure, the beautiful figure, the concept of living gracefully. The south is much poorer and we should bear in mind most Italian-Americans came from the south. Prior to coming to the United States our immigrant forebears were not as concerned about cultural niceties as they were survival. They were less educated, more agrarian. As a result, we see a culture that celebrates life without necessarily focusing on social niceties.
The second way our history has affected our culture is an inherent mistrust of institutions such as government and the church. Of course, there are many Italians who have conservative leanings, both politically and religiously, but inherent in our culture is general mistrust of these institutions. For example, one of the things about which Italian-Americans are most proud is our strong sense of family, more so than in many other cultures. This has its roots in the distrust of government. Fillipo Sabetti of McGill University referred to moral familism which was on exclusionary system in which Italian families banded together in mutual support to combat a corrupt government. Even after unification, in the south the contadini, the common Italian, saw the government as just another invader from the north. This gave space for crime organizations, such as the Mafia, to develop. Again, this is discussed in more detail in the book.
This distrust of large institutions even extended to the church. Remember, as I said above, the Catholic Church played its own political games often at the expense of the Italian people, up to and including resisting Italian unification. I am reminded of the Old Italian proverb; if you want to be rich become a thief, policeman, or priest. Carlo Levi in his book Christ Stopped at Eboli tells how the southern Italians had very little interest in the church to the frustration of the priest who characterized the people as nothing more than pagans. Many Italian-Americans have lost their faith completely or simply observe a social kind of Catholicism while others have turned to some evangelical cults.
You tackle every aspect of Italian-American life in your book—from Catholicism , the structure of the Italian meal, the puttana , to the Mob—which part of the culture interests you the most? Which confounds you?
Italian culture goes back 3000 years. It is such a deep culture that any one aspect could provide a lifetime of study. What fascinates me the most, however, is Italian literature and the creators of that literature, the artists of our people who work with words. I would extend that a bit to include the poetry of Italian Opera as well.
While Dante is the most renown of Italian poets, deservedly so, there is also Boccaccio, Cavalcanti, and Petrarch. I would add that you need not go back 500 or 600 years to read great Italian literature. Many contemporary authors are equally fascinating. There is Giuseppe Di Lampedusa’s The Leopard as well as the works of Umberto Ecco that include Foucault’s Pendulum and In the Name of the Rose. Currently, I am rereading Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. This is a phenomenal book. He does things in this book that I have never seen another author attempt, much less so successfully deliver.
As I said above, I would extend this to include opera as well. I understand that opera is kind of like scotch, you have to develop a taste for it, but once you do. Minchia!! The Italian language is beautiful in and of itself, it has its own music, yet in the hands of a master it can be just as intoxicating as any 12 year blend. Listen to the words of Una furtive Lagrima, when Nemorino sings of how he has finally won the heart of Adina. He sings of how he could feel her heart beating against his chest as he holds her. As he sings it is so easy to feel the woman in your own arms, to be in that breathless space of two lovers about to kiss. Or think of O mio babbino caro Lauretta sings to her father of her love for a young man Rinuccio. As I write this, I think of my own daughter who is just a few days from her own wedding and I see in her eyes the love she has for her future husband is the same passion expressed in this aria.
Beyond simple love stories, there are operas that capture the character of the Italian people such as Tosca. In the second act as Tosca stabs Scarpia she says to him Guardami, look at me. None of this knife in the back stuff, she makes sure he is looking her in the eye as she drives the knife in. What is more defiant than that? What is more Italian? This is the meat of who we are!!
When speaking of Italian opera in relation to our culture, you have to discuss Verde’s Va Pensiero. Written during the Austrian occupation of Italy, the opera is about the Jewish captivity in Babylon. In Va Pensiero the Jewish slaves sing of the longing in their hearts for their homeland. Since it was first performed, it was recognized as a metaphor for the Italian longing for their own homeland.
They say the farther in years you get away from the original immigration event , the weaker the identification with the culture becomes—-it can be seen today in many of my Italian-American students, for instance, who have the Italian last name but know nothing about the culture whatsoever—-is this just inevitable? How do we retain the culture in ways that if feels relevant and not just an artifact to the current generation —and those who will come after?
That’s easy. You can start by buying my book. PLEASE! I have a wedding to pay for.
All kidding aside…
Sadly, what you say is true, but not inevitable. A few months back I was speaking with a Jewish friend about his culture and the traditional Passover meal seder. An important aspect of this meal is the telling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt. The youngest person at the meal begins the story by asking four questions, I believe they are called the Mah Nishtanah. My friend made the point that through these types of customs the Jewish people were able to keep their cultural identity. Think about that for a moment. Despite not having a homeland, incredible oppression, near extermination, they have retained their cultural identity.
This is what we need to do. One of the things I loved most when I was a kid was Christmas eve dinner, The Feast of Seven Fishes. The food was wonderful, but what really stands out in my mind is what happened after the meal when my father would tell the family stories. This connected me with my past. We need to tell the stories of Italy and our Italian culture. Not just on Christmas Eve, but every day. Turn off the television, sit down, eat, and, for Christ sakes, TALK.
The second thing is the language. To the best of my knowledge, all my Jewish friends speak Hebrew. They have to do it as part of their bar mitzvah, they need to get up in front of the congregation and read Hebrew. We need to do this as well. Our children need to learn to speak Italian, so do we. There are many on-line study programs where you can learn Italian in your own home and at your own pace.
One final lesson to learn from our Jewish friends is the Taglit-Birthright which is a free ten-day heritage trip to Israel. Taglit is Hebrew for discovery. So, in essence, these are trips to discover their birthright. We need to do this. An example of an Italian Taglit-Birthright is in Anthony Fasano’s book Forty Days in Italy Con La Mia Famiglia. If you read his book, you see he went through a transformation similar to my own. Up until he was 35 he did not appreciate his Italianità, then after the birth of a child he went back to capture his family history. So, go to Italy. Learn your culture.
Some advice when traveling to Italy, don’t go on an Italian cruise or take one of these big bus tours. You won’t get past the tourist traps or be able to really meet the people. You can easily go on your own. You will find with a little politeness most Italians are very happy to help. If you are physically able, try taking a bicycle tour. I have done these trips multiple times; they are terrific. On a bike you will see parts of Italy that most tourists never see. You will also get to interact with people beyond the average trinkets’ salesperson.
If some of these things are out of reach, simply educate yourself as best you could. There are dozens of great documentaries, such as the PBS series The Italians. There are tons of great Italian books, some of which I have mentioned in this interview. I would also recommend some wonderful Italian films; Cinema Paradiso, Il Postino, and Malèna. Just do what you could to get past the stereotypes in order to learn true Italian culture.
Define, in your own words, the very essence of Italianità.
That is a difficult question to answer, so let me do it in something other than words. If you want to know what Italianità is look at Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo’s painting Quarto Stato. That painting is the image of Italianità in two important ways.
First, these are people looking to the future. I so love that you asked about how to keep our culture strong as our immigration to the states recedes into the past. I love it because it asks about the future. So much of our Italianità is wrapped up in the past, what we were. It is, however, so much more than that. It is about Italy’s future, Italian culture’s future, and most importantly, it is about our own future. Il Quarto Stato shows Italian and Italian-Americans in my opinion, marching towards the future.
Second, there is a look in their eyes. A look that to me has a great deal of meaning, a meaning that I explain in the book. So, I am going to cheat a bit on this answer by simply saying you will find a complete answer to this question in my book, Italianità: The Essence of Being Italian and Italian-American.
Finally, just for fun, spaghetti, cavatelli or lasagna?
Lasagna, definitely lasagna. I said earlier how the icons of our culture evokes memory of my childhood. When I simply hear the word Lasagna I can see myself sitting at my mother’s dinning room table, putting a plate of lasagna in front of me. I can see the perfectly cut square with its thick layers of meat and cheese between the pasta. She always would serve it with sausage in the upper right-hand corner of the plate. It was like a picture in a magazine. It was beautiful and tasted fantastic.