Italian Flavors

During Il Carnevale, which starts the day after the Feast of Saint Agatha on February 4th and ends the day before Ash Wednesday, kids and adults dress up in costume. Kids go from house to house, like they do on Halloween here in the States, to get treats and to throw confetti (i coriandoli). Grownups attend lavish masquerade balls, or house parties if the money is tight. This tradition , which started during the late Medieval Times masquerade balls, was later enriched by La Commedia Dell’Arte because of its popular and funny characters like Arlecchino, Pantalone, Dottore, Capitano, Colombina e Mirandolina. La Commedia is comedy shows performed for free at the town square during the seventeen century and already nowadays during festivals. La Commedia is often impromptu and has themes like the lord of the house wooing and pestering the maid.

Venice and Viareggio are known for their fantastic celebration of Il Carnevale, taken already to the streets. Treats like strufoli and zeppole (pastries) , and castagne (roasted chestnuts) are enjoyed by everyone. The mood is A Carnevale ogni scherzo vale (At Carnival time every functional joke is fine). Il Carnivale is the highlights of winter fun, besides skiing on the sharp Italian mountains like the Alps and the Apennines.

Spring, summer and fall make the evenings enchanting with house parties on the terrace under a smiling moon where music to dance to, finger food and pastry to please the ear and palate. shared pastries are cannoli, granita (Italian ice), briosche (Italian croissants). shared drinks are Campari or Cynar on ice. If you like serious liquor, have a Grappa or Strega. House parties are a great method for students to socialize, make friends and find a sweetheart.

Ferragosto is a month long summer celebration. Italians take all month of August off. People who live in the mountains go to the seashore. People who live by the beach go to the country side. City folks prefer the islands of Sicily, Sardinia or smaller islands like Capri, Alba, and the Aeolian islands. Everyone loves and visits the major cities of Venice, Milan, Florence, Naples, and Rome for their history, art and fine cuisine.

During Ferragosto, Italy becomes the Garden of Eden where fruits and vegetables are everywhere: on every street stands and al mercato (outdoor market): delicious watermelons, sweet grapes, apricots, plums and peaches, all kind of tomatoes, oranges, tangerines, eggplants, cucumbers, zucchini, and squash. Italy is also the land of picturesque vineyards and olive trees. The Virgin Mary is honored during Ferragosto in the Feast of the Ascension on August 15. Of course when it’s so hot, Italians like to take an afternoon nap.

As saying goes “When an Italian sleeps alone, he or she sleeps with the angels; when the Italian doesn’t sleep alone, the angels look the other way.” This is romance Italian style! Of course, the only reason Italians may take an afternoon nap is because they work from 8:00am to noon, go home for four hours to eat and enjoy romance then back to work at 4:00pm until 8:00pm. The evening is to have supper with the family then go out and socialize with friends at the bar. A bar in Italy is also an ice cream parlor, coffee house and pastry shop.

The fall is for wine making. already though machinery have taken over, grape stomping is nevertheless going on at the minimum for entertainment and to keep the tradition. The vineyard owner invites family, neighbors, and friends who hand pick mature grapes; then grape stomping starts. The midday meal at grape harvest usually consists of spaghetti with marinara sauce, stockfish alla cacciatore, seasonal fruits, popular Italian cheeses and, of course, the prior season’s wine. A beautiful tradition is the guests make toasts in rhyme while enjoying the meal. One guest toasts “To wine-making, to health and wealth!” Going around the table another say “May the white wine have perfect clarity!”, and another guest may continue with “The meal is delicious in true sincerity.” Jokes and pranks add to the joyful event. Guys attract the present girls by making poetic toasts and by trying to get the girls drunk. All at the table joke, tease each other while older folks remember “the good old days”. The fun is real and wine is made. Viva l’Italia!

Most holidays are the same like in America and in Europe: Christmas Eve/Day, Easter and New Year Eve/Day; others are rare to Italy and to Italy’s nearby countries, like La Festa della Befana. La Befana is a good witch who brings presents to kids on the Epiphany Eve. Another holiday is Easter Monday, which Italians take very seriously. Easter Monday excursions to the country side and stopping at a local trattoria (a diner) for a fine meal or alla salumeria (a deli) for sandwiches are quite uncommon and very welcome after the forty days of Lent, the season for penitence and introspection.

Other popular religious Italian holidays are La Festa di San Giuseppe (Saint Joseph’s Day) on March 19, Il Giono di Tutti i Santi (All Saints Day) November 1, Il Giorno dei Morti (All Souls Day) November 2, and L’Immacolata Concezione (the Immaculate Conception) on December 8 .

I must confess I am uncompletely to Saint Joseph’s Day, a popular Southern Italy holiday with a rare dinner (pranzo) menu: peachicks and rise soup, baccala (stockfish), fried calamari, stuffed artichokes, broccoli of rabe in garlic sauce, rise balls, and zeppole for dessert. Because Saint Joseph’s takes place during Lent there are no meat dishes at the table where nineteen guests are invited and seated (19 because of March 19). The hosts and the guests recite a fleeting thanksgiving prayer before and several times during dinner: “Questa casa consolata sia con Gesu’, Giuseppe e Maria!” (Let this house find always comfort in Jesus, Joseph and Mary!).

Italian baby naming conventions are quite simple: the first boy is named after his paternal grandfather, the second after his maternal grandfather; the first girl after her paternal grandmother, the second after her maternal grandmother; later offsprings are named after a favorite uncle, aunt or very close family friend. In my case, I was named Joseph after my paternal grandfather. Italians celebrate also name days, besides birthdays.

The flavors of the Italian cuisine suit every palate. Northern dishes like risotto, osso buco, gnocchi, spaghetti with pesto sauce, and southern dishes like lasagna, eggplant parmigiana, baked ziti, stuffed shells, and pasta with marinara sauce are only a few. The list is far too long to be already mentioned here. What about pizza? Regular, Sicilian or spingioni. I knew I was going to catch you on this one! Ah, ah! Spingioni is a pizza made on the eve of major holidays when abstinence from meat is traditionally required: Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, and Good Friday. The pizza is topped with tomato sauce, sliced onions and peppers (before sautéed in olive oil and butter), breadcrumbs seasoned with parmesan cheese, oregano, parsley, basil, rosemary and olive oil. The pizza is baked while it is pressed down by a skilled, which is removed a few minutes before the pizza is ready, to have a crispy top.

Italian is the language of poets: Dante Alighieri, Francesco Petrarca, and Giovanni Boccaccio. It’s the language of artists: Michelangelo Buonarroti, Leonardo da Vinci, and Raffaello Sanzio. Italians celebrate their patriots in Giuseppe Garibaldi and Giuseppe Mazzini, composers in Giuseppe Verdi and Gioachino Rossini, and in inventors like Guglielmo Marconi. What about love, passion and pure lust? Visit Verona and admire Juliet’s balcony climbed by Romeo every night so he could be with his Juliet.

Like people of any nationality, Italians are proud of their heritage: they treasure it, they love it, and they perpetuate it. Beliefs, customs, history, culture, religion, arts and teachings make people who they are. They define and shape the individual in the continuity of history and civilization, and in the eternal flux of progress which makes the human soul reach beyond the heavens to touch the hand of God.

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