Growing up as a first-generation Italian in Highland Park in the ’60s and ’70s, I am fairly convinced was quite different from the experiences of my American friends. Even though I am a half-breed, my parents were both European immigrants, with accents. I never noticed that my mom couldn’t enunciate her th’s, until I was a pre-teen and my American friends pointed it out to me. After all, my Italian friends had no problem understanding her!
Social gatherings included church and school at Immaculate Conception in Highland Park, where it seemed most families were either Italian or Irish. There were amazing dances and costume parties at the Highwood Rec Center and St. Joseph celebrations at St. James Parish in Highwood. Family and friends were mostly Italian, or at least European immigrants, with interesting accents of their own. At their core of their lives were hard work, good food, good wine and card playing.
My Nonna Clemma was always in my life, babysitting for me, then eventually each of the cousins that followed. My Nonno worked in his woodshop in the basement of their home in Highland Park, and to this day the smell of fresh-sawn wood reminds me of him. How many days I spent peeking through the little hole in the brown paneling on the stairway, watching as he carefully crafted furniture with his own bare, rough hands. I remember how he kept his bottle of Chianti on the floor under the kitchen table, against the wall, so he could reach it every night at dinner.
By the time I was 21, I had visited Italy six times with my family, each time creating memories with relatives in the beautiful tiny village where my mother grew up, Sant’Anna Pelago, in the province of Modena, region of Emilia Romagna.
In those days, my grandfather’s country home was still alive with his mother, his aunt and the other relatives who all took care of each other, the way people did in the old days. My early memories include andare dietro le muche, which literally means following the cows as they grazed along the rolling mountain hills; throwing cracked corn to freely roaming chickens; watching the 50 multi-colored rabbits tear out into the farmyard when my Zio Iuffa opened the barn door in the morning; and playing at the Pila, a concrete water fountain that still runs today.
I have hiked up the mountain with my Great-Aunt Caterina with the help of our walking sticks. We picked wild raspberries for homemade liquor that she gladly offered me in a pretty little shot glass when I was only 12! I learned how to pick hazelnuts from a tree and dry them under my bed, and I collected tadpoles from an icy cold river with my cousin Antonio.
I have laid fresh flowers in front of the Madonina dei Necci on the hidden walking trail up the mountain from our home. It seems that every group of houses had their own Madonna to honor. I watched my Nonna Rosa knit a pair of socks for my little brother and I remember her spinning wool on her spinning wheel just so I could see how it worked.
On New Year’s Eve, I waited patiently for my babysitter, cousin Rina, to come back in from the cold snow-covered stone barn, where she cut a cross into the hind fur of the milking cow so she could magically speak that night. I have also crawled into a bed that was warmed with a wooden contraption that included hot embers in a white enamel chamber pot — called a Prete a letto, a “Priest in Bed,” for some unknown reason — because there was no central heating in the cold stone house.
I like all types of food, but I really only know how to cook with Italian flair. I make my own soups, sauces and meals all without recipes, unlike my American friends who usually can’t cook without them. When I asked my mother for her fantastic veal-stuffed chicken breast recipe, her exact words were: “I’ll make it, you watch, and that’s it. There’s no recipe.”
I definitely carry the cherished food philosophy of Italy, where food is almost holy as compared with the typical American view of food. On this side of the pond, we’re used to food that is so artificially manufactured, colored, equalized and standardized, that we can’t even recognize non-engineered food. In the Italian households that I frequented, moms spent hours at the kitchen counter chopping vegetables, stirring sauces, rolling pasta dough, and gathering to make tortellini, tortellacci and lasagne.
How has being Italian shaped me? In more ways than I can articulate. Dinner is important to me, and I cook it from scratch. Family time is also important because I believe raising my children right is the most important thing I can do at this time. Staying connected to my roots keeps me grounded. It’s fun, it’s rewarding, and I love to maintain traditions and stories about my people. I hope that future Italian-American generations will want to learn about their forefathers. I hope they take the time to contemplate what their Italian ancestors’ lives were like, just as I have been so fortunate to have experienced.
See you here next month for a story of artist Aldo Piacenza, a Highwood native, and his unusual Italian-inspired folk art! Every month thereafter, you’ll learn about people and things related to our Little Italy up here in the north suburbs. Got to go, my mother’s waiting for me to help make tortellini today! Ciao!