ITALIAN WHEN WE EAT
Sitting in my grandparents’ kitchen, eating dinner, we watch the Mike Douglas show. I am twelve years old. Since both of my parents are working, I am at my grandparents’ because I am sick.
My grandparents don’t eat in the parlor, so they wheel the television on its stand, tilting it toward the kitchen. This is where I learn fragments of Italian, or more specifically, Sicilian, which is quite different. In fact, although close to Italian, Sicilian is considered a different language. Interestingly, Sicilian is not used as an official language anywhere, not even within Sicily.
I write down the words on a piece of paper. Padje for padre, Bedda for bella.
Interestingly though, my grandparents only use Sicilian to speak to each other. They never talk to us in Sicilian.
“It’s too hard for you to understand,” my grandmother says.
Then, when I start to learn Italian in high school, I practice on my grandfather.
I butcher some words, attempt a hacked sentence.
He then sings Michele La Scupadude Se Caca Gli Pantaloni. Michael the sweeper shits in his pants.
Seeing the look on my face, my grandfather changes his tone.
“Ti Vogghiu,” he says, which I hear as “I want you.”
I stare at him, not knowing what he’s saying.
“I love you, it means,” he says. “What do they teach you in school?”
Apparently, not much. It seems that whatever I learn is only a little bit useful when I try to speak to them. They seem to understand me – sometimes. But mostly I do not understand what they are saying.
The only time my grandparents, and even my own parents, freely speak Italian is when it comes to food. But even then, they use their own words. You have to appreciate how confusing all of this is to a kid’s mind.
My grandmother calls pizza a’pizz. Instead of just saying oregano she rolls her r’s, making the word sound exotic.
But then there are all the other words: mozzarella, pasta fagioli, ricotta, capicola, for example. While my mother claims her parents never teach her Sicilian – they want her to be American – she acquires the pronunciation of the food words. Italian food words are safe. Though Americans might look at us funny when we speak Italian, especially Sicilian, they accept the Italian language when it comes to food. Why is this? Italians, especially Southern Italians, are darker, louder, and tougher. Even though we are Christian, by and large, the Catholicism of Southern Italians is more carnal, more pagan, and dramatic; quite different from the Protestant Christianity of America. But Italians ingratiate their way into the hearts of Americans with food: the aromatic smell of garlic, pasta with sauce, lasagna, meatballs, spaghetti and, of course, pizza. Italian foods are now as American as hot dogs and apple pie.
While my family feels comfortable using Italian food words, I later learn that they say them all wrong.
Going to dinner parties with fellow students at college, they say mozzarella, and ricotta. Pasta fagioli instead of pasta fazool. I feel ridiculous saying ricotta, so I say a’regautta.
I hear laughs from the table.
“It’s ricotta, not a’regautta.”
“I’ve used the word all my life, thank you,” I say, though I do feel self-conscious now.
“Well, you said it wrong. I guess you Sicilians from Queens didn’t learn how to talk the right way.”
And of course, to some extent, they are correct. We do not learn how to say the words correctly. Whereas all Italians speak a local dialect, most Southern Italians, who immigrate to America, speak only their local dialects. Owing mostly to their lack of education, Sicilians, like my grandparents, work in labor jobs; their language is crude, grammatically incorrect. When they come to America, they live in enclaves with Italians from the same region. And naturally, in America they take labor jobs, drop out of school early and speak a crude form of English. Of course, this isn’t everyone’s experience.
Even until today, when I visit my mother, I am not certain what to call certain foods. I do not say ricotta, because it sounds haughty to my ears, but I also cannot say a’regautta, either. Frankly, it just sounds silly. I avoid saying the word altogether. I just point and nod.
This bifurcation of the Italian language and Italian dialect also applies to Italian pastries and desserts.
Many dessert food names, like Gelato, Panna Cotta, Biscotti, Torrone, Cannoli, Cappuccino, Tiramisu, are said the same way in English as they are by Southern Italians in America. There are often mispronunciations of the proper Italian words, but Italian Americans and non-Italians pronounce them the same way. For example, Italian Americans and non-Italian Americans pronounce mascarpone as mas-car-pohn when they should say mass-car-po-nay, but that is niggling the details.
However, when we venture across Italy, pastries and desserts may have different names and are sometimes pronounced differently depending upon the region. As most of the Italians that immigrated to America are from the south, Southern Italian pastry names have become part of the Italian American language.
My mother gives a recipe to my wife for zeppole. She also writes down sfinge next to zeppole and then I remember, years ago, hearing the word sfinge. Zeppole, or sfinge, is an Italian pastry consisting of a deep-fried dough ball. You plop a ball of dough in a vat of boiling oil, fry it until it solidifies and voila, you have a zeppole.
“They’re easy to make,” says my mother when I call her to talk about the recipe. “The oil ruins your pots, though,” she adds.
“What do you call it?”
“What, are you writing a book?” she asks. “I call it zeppole and sometimes sfinge. We say both.”
You can make zeppole either with a light and fluffy consistency, or with a more bread-like texture. Of course, a zeppole is not complete until you sprinkle it with powdered confectioners’ sugar. Like many people in New York City, I eat zeppole at feasts like San Gennaro but, since my mother makes them, I have them at home, too.
Speaking of the San Gennaro festival, I have to talk about my sfogliatella experience. Sfogliatella means “small, thin leaf/layer,” as the pastry’s texture resembles stacked leaves. Sfogliatella, sometimes called lobster tail in English, is a shell shaped filled Italian pastry native to Campania. In Neapolitan cuisine, there are two kinds of sfogliatella: sfogliatella riccia (“curly”), the “normal” version, and sfogliatella frolla, a less labor-intensive pastry that uses a short crust dough and does not form the sfogliatella‘s characteristic layers.
At fourteen years old, I am working as a busboy during the San Gennaro festival at Ferrara’s Pastry Shop in Little Italy, working to save money to take guitar lessons. I am amazed watching the bakers make sfogliatella. The dough is stretched out on a large table, then brushed with fat (butter, lard, shortening, margarine, or a mixture), then rolled into a log. Disks are cut from the end, shaped to form pockets. Then the inside is filled with custard using a snout shaped canvass apparatus. Since I can eat a pastry for free at Ferrara’s, I have a sfogliatella with a cappuccino in the morning before I start my shift. The sun shaded by the Campari umbrella overhead, I savor each bite of my sfogliatella, feeling like I am king of the world. What other fourteen-year-old has this luxury?
Then, many years later, living above Court Street Pastry in Brooklyn, I wake up to the aromas of cheesecakes and almond scented spices wafting in from the store below. By the time I get out of bed, the bakers have worked almost a full day. Court Street Pastry’s crowning glory is the sfogliatella, or as they call it, the lobster tail. Their version of the lobster tail has a croissant like exterior, though crunchier and more layered. The inside is filled with a mixture of whipped cream and custard, which must include near a pound of sugar. I buy a lobster tail every now and then and nibble on it first thing in the morning. It is so rich I cannot imagine anyone being able to eat a lobster tail in one sitting.
Then there is struffoli. Struffoli are puffy jelly-bean sized balls of fried dough which are crispy on the outside, light, and airy on the inside. After making the honey balls, they are then drenched in citrus-scented warm honey and decorated with sprinkles.
According to folklore, struffoli bring good luck since their spherical shape is a symbol of abundance. In Sicily, struffoli are referred to as pignolata. In Abruzzo, they are called cicerchiata. They are mostly associated with Christmastime.
“I don’t make struffoli anymore,” says my mother. “Too much work.”
Nowadays I get struffoli at Italian Bakeries to bring to my family on Christmas. I eat a few of them, but mostly I get them for everyone else. The truth is, for me, like so many people, struffoli remind me of the dessert table during the holidays. I love the way they pile up on a plate, even if a little haphazardly. I always eat the struffoli balls at the bottom of the mound; that is where all the honey accumulates. They are often decorated with candied red and green cherries, stripes of candied orange or lemon peel, candied nuts, candy, and edible ribbons. At the bakeries, I love how they are wrapped in a colorfully tinted cellophane. Struffoli looks like Christmas.
No one corrects my pronunciation of struffoli or zeppole, sfinge or sfogliatella. They are Italian American words. They have not been hijacked by Americans who think they know better. These Italian pastries remain, not only as special words that only we possess, like secret pagan incantations that evoke the holidays, a piece of italianita, but also as superbly delicious desserts that are part of our unique culture heritage.
I make sure to bring struffoli and other Italian pastries to my family on holidays. Everyone enjoys them. The mingling of the words, along with the delicious tastes, decorative colors, recalls the spirit of my grandparents. Reaching out to take a struffoli, I am stretching across place and time. I close my eyes, sink my teeth into the sweet soft texture. With each bite, I relive the words and phrases of a time gone by.