Italians and Music – Perfect Together

Italians and Music – Perfect Together

Italians and music; they are inseparable.   Throughout the millennia Italians have been devoted to music and their love has translated into the invention of instruments on which to interpret their moods, innovative composition and a flair that distinguishes from the forms of the past.

Woman playing a bass shawm, (Tobias Stimmer ca. 1500)

During the Iron Age the ancient tribes of Italy made and played on different types of lyres and string instruments. In Roman times new string instruments, small organs and percussion instruments were added. The Middle Ages saw the birth of the lute, shawm, recorder, viol and bagpipe, to name just a few.

Then the Golden Age of Music arrived. From 1577 with the invention of the violin and cello by Andrea Amati and the string bass by Gasparo da Salò the world exploded with new sounds, rhythms and musical art forms. The introduction of the modern piano in 1709 by Bartolomeo Cristofori added tones never produced before.

Early tenor Viol (viola da gamba)

Albertini-sonatinae-title-pageBesides the construction of instruments, the Italians were at the forefront of composing for these instruments. In the 1600s we begin with Ignazio Albertini, whose sonatas later influenced Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart. In the 1700s, Domenico Alberti wrote operas, songs, and sonatas for keyboard instruments, and it is probable that Mozart’s first violin sonatas were modeled on Alberti’s work; Tomaso Albinoni, a Venetian, composed operas (unfortunately none survived) and instrumental music that greatly attracted the attention of Johann Sebastian Bach, who wrote at least two fugues on Albinoni’s themes, Arcangelo Corelli and Antonio Vivaldi were universally acclaimed in those times and their work still is highly respected among today’s musicians.  Let us not forget the greats operatic composers who followed —Donizetti, Bellini, Rossini, Leoncavallo — and in the 19th century, Verdi and Puccini, just to name a few.

Now consider an interesting musical tidbit which I believe most people are not aware of. Consider Italian-Americans and Jazz. Yes, Jazz! According to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary (Revised Edition 2006) jazz is “a type of music of Black American origin characterized by improvisation, syncopation, and a regular rhythm, and typically played on brass and woodwind instruments.” The origin of the word itself is given as “early 20th Century: of unknown origin.”

Italian immigrants in New Orleans made a long-lasting and vital contribution to Jazz music. Though there is much debate about his.

Nick La Rocca

The men responsible were Salvatore Massaro, known as Eddie Lang, Giuseppe Venuti, Leon Roppolo and lastly Dominic La Rocca. To this day the debate rages as to their relevancy, but let me explain.

The date 1917 is considered the birth date of jazz when the Original Dixieland Jass Band (no that is not a typo) made its first Jazz recording. This music is derived from the rhythmic beat and cadence of West African slaves living in Louisiana. Black men played by ear and improvised on their instruments, creating its very unique sound.

New Orleans, one of the most active port cities in the United States, saw swarms of men descend into town from the docks. These men (sailors, trappers, loggers and local longshoremen working on the waterfront) were looking for a good time. They found their amusement in brothels, gambling houses, opium dens and the liquor flowed freely. Employment in these houses of ill repute was plentiful, as the local African Americans of the area realized. They brought their talents there and assured themselves of a good livelihood.

Italian immigrants were also seeking a situation which would assure them of a good living. They grasped the unique and spontaneous rhythms of the dance halls in the red light district and formed their own bands. Dominic (Nick) La Rocca was a cornetist who arrived in New Orleans in 1876. By 1908 he had a band consisting of a cornet, clarinet, trombone, and trumpet.   His band was so popular that a Chicago nightclub owner brought his band north, playing there for several months. The audience was eventually hooked on the sound. Unfortunately, black jazz bands did not meet with the same success because of the color barrier at that time. It would be decades before they would have success in Chicago.

ODJBcardBy 1917 La Rocca’s band, renamed the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, was booked in New York City’s Paradise Club. It was the first white jazz band in the northeast. Though their music was considered raucous and crude, they became a sensation, earning one thousand dollars a week. In 1918 their fame sent them to Europe for eighteen months. When they returned they were offered a record contract with Victor Studios in New York City.

Eddie Lang a.k.a. Salvatore Massaro

Eddie Lang, a.k.a Salvatore Massaro, was born in Philadelphia in 1904. He came from a musical family, his father being an instrument maker, and studied violin for eleven years, but taught himself to play the guitar. He found that his Italian name was not helping to advance in the jazz world. He changed it to Eddie Lang.Gigs at picnics and parades earned him a pittance. It was not until he became a member of the Scranton Sirens, with the Dorsey Brothers, that his luck changed. He formed his own band with Joe Venuti and made his first record, I’m Sitting On Top of the World.

Whereas the original jazz bands depended on the banjo, Lang, aka Massaro, brought a new and exciting guitar sound to Jazz thanks to his classic music training.   He was the first major jazz guitarist. He died at age 30 of unknown causes.

His friend Joe (Giuseppe) Venuti from Philadelphia adored his friend Lang. They both studied the violin but like his friend he gravitated to the freedom of improvisation used in Jazz.   In 1926 he and Lang recorded two duets and his career was launched. Venuti, again because of his classical training, altered the jazz harmonics just enough to make the music more listener-friendly and a less harsh. He was acknowledged as a superior violinist but was not successful in forming and maintaining his own band. What Lang did for Jazz using his guitar, Venuti did using his violin.

Leon Roppolo

The next instrument to alter the original coarse sound of jazz was the clarinet, played by Leon Roppolo or Leon Rap. Leon learned to play the clarinet by listening to black musicians in his father’s saloon. From this humble musical background Leon became known as an incomparable jazzman and one of the greatest clarinetists. His career only spanned ten years, having been institutionalized in a mental hospital at 25 years of age. He set the benchmark for the clarinet in a jazz band. Although he cut only a few records his reputation was international.

The names of these men, Massaro, Lang, Venuti and Rappolo are rarely seen in the annals of American Jazz. There is vociferous debate over their contribution to the Jazz world.   No one can deny, however, that if it were not for these men who had the privilege of taking Jazz out of the provincial realm of Louisiana and promoting it in the Chicago, New York and Europe, the dissemination of the Jazz sound might have taken a longer time. These men introduced instruments and tones outside of the original brass and woodwinds Jazz band sounds. Their slight softening of the character of Jazz helped spread Jazz across the United States. Perhaps without these Italian-Americans this music might have remained a regional phenomenon, never leaving Louisiana.


Celebrations of Italian Identity

Celebrations of Italian Identity

Celebrations of Identity

All over the United States celebrations of Italian identity are being held every single month of the year. The immigrants of the Mezzogiorno of Italy are dispersed around America and they brought their customs and devotions to their patron saints with them at the turn of the 20th century. A directory of these favorite saints and festivities has been compiled by the Order Sons of Italy in America; three hundred seventy Italian festivals are held in thirty-nine states.

We have all heard of the Festa di San Gennaro, founded by Neapolitans and held in New York’s Little Italy for the last one hundred years. Did you know that it is also celebrated in places such as Seattle, California, Ohio, New Jersey and Florida? Believe it not, he is not the oldest continuously honored patron saint. That privilege goes to Our Lady of Mount Carmel thanks to the immigrants of Nola, Italy and Campania who settled in Hammonton, New Jersey. Their feast has been held for 137 years! The Nolianos are truly devoted to Our Lady who is believed to give special protection to cloistered Carmelite nuns who originated in the Holy Land. This safety is also given to those who believe in her. 

giglioFeast of the Giglio

The other renowned celebration is Brooklyn’s Feast of the Giglio. A fifty-foot flower-ladened steeple of wood is carried through the streets, there are masses, novenas, and all the celebratory activities of a typical Italian festival.   The Nolianos of Williamsburg, Brooklyn started this feast over 100 years ago, which is also known as the Feast of St. Paolino, but the actual celebration dates back to the fifth century. The story goes that in 410 A.D. North African pirates invaded Nola. Many were killed and the young men and boys were taken away as slaves. The mothers and widows were desperate, praying constantly to Our Lady. Bishop Paolino of Nola offered himself up in exchange. When a certain Turkish sultan heard of Paolino’s altruism, he was very impressed and accepted his exchange. The captives were returned and eventually so was Bishop Paolino. Upon his return, the townsfolk greeted him with lilies and the tradition of the Gigli (lilies) began.

Festa di Tutti i Santi

St. Joseph is venerated in eight different cities, but the most popular Italian saint who is honored all over Italy and the U.S. is St. Anthony. Twenty four celebrations are held in June, mostly on the East Coast but also in California. We have festivals for Sicilian patrons, such as St. Calogero in Boston, and St. Rosalia in Alabama and Louisiana. We cannot forget St. Nicola di Bari, which the Pugliesi celebrate in Chicago. Then, of course, we have festivals having a generic name such as the Festa di Tutti Santi (Feast of all the Saints) in Chicago; that name makes sure no saint or region is left out. Celebrations in West Virginia, Minnesota and Illinois are generally called “The Italian Festival.” tablefeasts

La Madonna dei Martiri

There is one patron saint which is celebrated in Hoboken, New Jersey by the Italian-Americans from the city of Molfetta, Bari, Italy: La Madonna dei Martiri has been celebrated since 1928 there. This city has become gentrified in the last 40 years with many people from different states and of many ethnicities living there, therefore, recently, during festival time the heading of advertisements and banners reads The Italian Festival, but below are still the words La Madonna dei Martiri. Believe me, the Molfettesi know it’s their feast and they come in from the environs in September.

La Madonna dei Martiri is not just celebrated in Hoboken, New Jersey. Well, how about Australia and South America? My father always said that wherever in the world you go you will bump into another Molfettese!

martiriaustraliaMolfetta is a city on the Adriatic Sea with roots going back to the 9th century and was under the domain of the Sicilian monarchs. During the 12the century Norman King William II of Sicily ordered a Hospice to be built in Molfetta for the crusaders returning from the battles in the Holy Land. The soldiers were treated for their injuries there as best as 12th century medicine would allow. Some men survived but most died. On one trip to Molfetta, a ship carrying Crusaders saw something floating in the water. It was a Byzantine icon of the blessed Mother with Angels on either side. The men took this as an omen that they would survive and set up the icon in the Hospice for veneration. There it hung for a number of centuries until 1369.

In that year, the King of Napoli, Ladislao di Durazzo, in an effort to attract business to the area around Molfetta and Bari, authorized that a fair displaying the Madonna and the work of regional artisans be combined with the religious feast of La Madonna dei Martiri. The Molfettesi have celebrated this saint for the blessings bestowed on the townsfolk, who are mostly fishermen. This is the manner in which the Feast of La Madonna dei Martiri was born in Molfetta.

Each year between September 8th through the 15th people from all over Italy and Europe descend on Molfetta for the festivities. They bring their crafts and art with them as they did in the fourteenth century.

Hoboken ground zero

In Hoboken the feast began in 1928 and has been going strong for ever since. The Molfetessi of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut replicate the feast from the hometown of their ancestors. The illuminations of the streets of Molfetta are in the Byzantine style, but in Hoboken they use the Roman arch usually. The statue of the Madonna is carried through the streets of the town, novenas are said and they even have the “Blessing of the Fleet” (can’t forget the fishermen) and fireworks over Frank Sinatra Park.

The immigrants from Molfetta have been dispersed all over the United States, but prevalently live in the East, such as New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, the mid-west, in particular Illinois, Ohio, Missouri, and the west, mainly in San Francisco, California; being fishermen, they were employed on the California coast in the fishing industry there, and even Alaska.

But the Molfetessi didn’t just scatter all over the United States. They also dispersed all over Australia. Unlike the United States, where Hoboken is the ground zero of the feast, Australia has five Madonna dei Martiri celebrations. On September 8, the faithful participate in religious and cultural activities in Sydney, Turncurry, Adelaide, Port Pirie and Freemantle. All these cities have fishing fleets and therefore under the protection of La Madonna, just like Molfetta. So devoted are the Australians that each city has its own statue; no sharing here.   La Madonna dei Martiri’s celebrations also exist in La Boca (Buenos Aires), Argentina and Caracas, Venezuela.

hoboken-feast-of-the-madonna-dei-martiri-2008It truly is a testament to the strong beliefs and customs of the Italian immigrants who came to the shores of America and beyond over a century ago. No matter wherever they came from or where they ended up, their patron saints came with them. Though most the festivals were initiated by southern Italians, we cannot forget those who came from central and northern Italy: they had their Saint Rocco, Saint Gandolfo, St. Clare and St. Francis…

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Italian Prisoners of War in the US.

Written for L’Idea Magazine.

Italian Prisoners of War in the United States


As the years pass, 68 to be exact, the memories of WWII fade further and further away. Unfortunately, parts of history are not always remembered and often not acknowledged. I wonder how many young people today realize that captured Italians, Germans, Japanese were removed from their theaters of war and brought to camps in the United States. The subject of these POWs doesn’t come up, I suspect. The number of WWII veterans is steadily dropping.

Occasionally, a novel will be published which will shine a light on an all but forgotten aspect of the war. Two books come to mind, The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet and The Anguish of Surrender – Japanese POWs of WWII. One tells of the internment of Japanese Americans, their round-up, the conditions they endured and the implications after the war. The other is about the Japanese aversion to surrender. No American novel that I am aware of tells the story of the Italian POWs in the United States.

prisonersinparadiseA number of years ago, a documentary entitled Prisoners in Paradise told their story, but a novel (historical-fiction or non-fiction) has not surfaced. In Italy, prisoners of the U.S. have published works about their experience in US POW camps, but I am not aware of any of those books being translated and marketed here. It’s a pity because their story should be remembered.

Between 1940 and 1945, 425,000 POWs landed on American soil. The majority of these men (350,000) were from Germany. There were camps for the German, Italian and Japanese in all but three states – Nevada, Vermont and North Dakota. They were on the East Coast in places such as Governor’s Island (NYC), the Raritan Arsenal (NJ), Fort Monmouth (NJ) Port Johnson (NJ), Brooklyn (NY), Camp Shanks (Rockland County, NY), (Bayonne (NJ). On the West Coast they were housed in an old fort on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, the Los Angeles area, the Midwest (Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Illinois), the Northwest, (Wyoming, Utah, Colorado) and the South (Louisiana, Texas, Alabama.)   Usually these camps were put into areas where facilities to house them already existed, and where there was some type of labor shortage because of the war (factories, farms, munitions depots, ports, etc).

powimageThe Italian POWS numbered 51,000 and were placed in the 21 camps in 18 states. Generally speaking, the Italian soldiers were sympathetic to the Allies. Knowing this, the government gave them the option of renouncing Italy and joining the Italian Service Units. If they did this, they would be treated well, be given a job on their facility and could have freedom of movement with permission. The general enlisted man readily agreed for fear of being put in divisions being sent to fight Japan. The officers who were more educated and indoctrinated in Fascism were more reluctant. They had a real crisis of conscience and felt more loyal to their cause. If the men continued to swear allegiance to Italy they were considered non-compliant, referred to a NONS, and many were shipped to Hereford, Texas. Four thousand Italian officers were put on the Hereford Reservation.

POW UtahOne would think that the Italian prisoners would be welcomed with open arms in the NY/NJ and Boston area, but they were looked upon with suspicion when they first arrived. The Italian-Americans were finally convincing people they were Americans first, and now all these enemy combatants arrived to spoil things. However, that did not last long and in a short time the Catholic parishes near the installations were inviting the men to Sunday dinners, dances and outings. Those housed in the NYC area were treated to trips to museums, the Bronx Zoo, the Empire State Building and the usual tourist attractions of New York City. All social and cultural events were denied to the NONS in all the other states where they were placed.

Bocce field built by Italian POWs in Benicia Arsenal

To Californians, Japan was the real enemy. In the land of farmers and wine-makers, California, the Italian soldiers were enthusiastically received. Men were put to work in the fields or on fishing boats, earning $8.00 a month. The Catholic parishes ministered to their religious needs as well as social needs.

Italian prisoners of war contributed one millions hours of labor to the war effort. They were farm workers, bakers, ditch diggers, dock works, freight handlers for trucks, railcars, fulfilling the needs of the communities in which their camp was located.

pow artwork two

To the Italian prisoners, the camps were almost paradise. Although there were instances of mistreatment, especially toward the NONS, they were kept in clean barracks, had hot showers, an abundance of food and they could spend the money they saved from their work at the local PX. The educated officers would often buy books, writing papers and utensils, supplies for painting, sculpting, woodworking, for activities which they would do in their spare time. With these skills they also earned extra money. They made jewelry from scrap metal, made furniture and cabinets for people who sought their expertise, painted portraits and even religious frescos for churches. Often, they did not take money for their work.

Hereford Chapel fully restored

Five Italian prisoners died in Hereford, Texas, not too long before the war ended. It is not known if they died from disease, accident, or mistreatment. We do know that the NONS in Hereford built a chapel to inter their fellow officers there. The chapel was built using scavenged bricks, broken glass, and surplus material. Using their own money they purchased an altar, double French doors, and stained glass window. Since they knew they would be shipped home within a few weeks, they worked long and hard and completed the lovely chapel in three weeks.

The chapel eventually fell into disrepair, but it was restored not too long ago.   It stands proudly in the middle of a corn field, a testament to the Italian officers who lived and died on the 800 acre where they were stationed for the duration of the war. Let us not forget the brave Italian men who fought for Italy during WWII and were brought to the United States as prisoners!

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What’s in a name?

“What’s in a name?” asked Juliet in Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet.  She had just learned that her lover’s surname belonged to a family that was her parents’ enemy.  Basically most people don’t give their family name a second thought.  It’s one’s name, basta!  What people don’t realize is that one’s surname holds clues to their distant past.  Your last name may relate to your ancestor’s occupation, nationality,  physical description,  personality and their religion.  It may also tell where in town they lived or what province they came from.

In Roman times, only the princely classes had surnames but not the general population.  The aristocrats of Rome were named after their fathers or their origin, if they were not of the Latin tribe.  The Romans were Latins , having subjugated the Sabines, the Etruscans, the Samnites, the Umbrians, the Oscans and many others.

The father’s name was the son’s surname.

Gaius Sallustius Crispis         Gaius’s father’s name was Sallustius

Titus Sabinus         Titus’ father’s name was Sabinus and was probably a Sabine.

Titus Flavius Sabinus      Titus’ father’s name was Flavius and was also a Sabine

Claudius Etruscus             Caludius’ father’s name was Etruscus and an Etruscan

Sextus Caecilius Africanus      Sextus’ grandfather was Africanus  African

Italian surnames as we know them came into use in the 1400s when the population moved in large numbers from the country to cities.   When people were in small farming communities, everyone knew their neighbors intimately, their names, their origin, their comings and goings.  By contrast, there were so many people in cities with the same name; a system had to be devised to identify someone correctly for legal and church matters, etc.

Italians have more surnames than any other nationality.  Three hundred fifty thousand to be exact.  Just as the Romans used the father’s name as the identifier, centuries later Italians used the same method.    Some family names were based on the father.  For example, Di Bernardo means son of Bernardo, De Alberto (son of Alberto) , D’Onofrio (son of Onofrio,) Del Vescovo  (son of the bishop.)

Leonardo da Vinci is identified by the town he came from, Vinci. (Leonardo from Vinci.) My mother-in-law’s family name was Milano.  That means one of two things.  Her people either came from Milan or it could also mean her family was of Jewish ancestry.  When Jews were forced to convert to Catholicism, they were given surnames based on the city in which they made their conversion.  My husband’s family, as far as we know, came from Molise and were Catholic.   Were they always Catholic?  Did they move from Milan to Cerro al Volturno at some point?  I’ll have to do some digging to answer these questions.

People with family names such as Venezia, Firenze, Ferrara, Trani, Genova, etc., would do well to search the Jewish archives in those cities.  It’s highly probable that those names were given to them.

Bagnasco (asco), Galeazzi (azzi), Garibaldi (di), Colella (ella)  and Cefalu (u) all have a suffix at the end of the word.  These endings give the geographic origin of the persons above.  They are: Liguria, Emilia, Lombary, Campania, Sicilia.  Lombardy has 24 possible suffixes at the end of a name, the largest number of all the regions.  Sicily follows with eleven endings.  Some regions share the same suffixes.  They are: Liguria and Piemonte, Emilia and Lombardy, Abruzzi and Campania, Sicily and Calabria.

If the surname has a prefix – Li Calzi, Lo Certo, Lu Piccolo, La Rossa, Di Lorenzo, Della Torre, Del Pozzo, De Ceseare,  these again indicate  where the person was from, although not a precisely as the suffix. For instance, North Italy, South Italy, Central Italy, etc.

Where a person resided in a town was often used to name a person.  Andrea Torre, Andrea lived near a tower; Peppino Fontana, he lived near the fountain;  Sergio Camposanto, Sergio lived near the cemetery and Mauro Aquaviva means he lived near  the rapids of a river.

Zappa, Farina, Archiprete, Barone, Caruso refer to someone’s occupation and became his surname.  For example: Zappa (hoe) is a farmer; Archiprete (high priest) clergy; Barone, (baron) and Caruso means sulfur carrier.  Sulfur carriers generally had to keep their hair cropped very short.  If you last name is Caruso and your family came from Sicily, you may have worked in the sulfur mines.  Otherwise, it was just a physical description of how the person wore his hair.  Pelagati ‘skins cats,’ Pelarati, ‘skins rats.’

A name that is very amusing to me is Scozzafava which means fava bean shucker.   Fava beans have an inedible skin which needs to be removed before eating the bean.  Perhaps in the 1300s, the fava bean farmer was given this name.  To shuck means to remove the husk or to open the shell.   Before you cook fava beans, you must make a cut at the top of the bean.  After they are cooked the skin is removed.  Maybe the person who cooked the beans was assigned this surname.  It is certainly a curious name.

One thing can be said about Italy, people were always coming and going over the millennia.   As a consequence, invaders left their mark in the physical appearance of the inhabitants and in the family name which would reflect the foreign ancestry.  Names like Tedesco (German), Greco (Greek), Turco (Turkish), Francese (French), Spagnolo (Spanish) are just a sample of the many names that reflect the conquering armies.

If your ancestor was a founding, and therefore impossible to learn the identity of the parents, they were given names such as Trovato (found), Esposito (placed outside), Orfanelli (little orphans.)

The final manner Italians surnames came into being was the description of the person.   This category is one of the largest.  The name reflects either a physical or a personality trait.  The name  Culetto, the person had a little ‘ass,’  or if the family name was Chiacchierone, the fellow was a chatterer.   In Puglia if you were given the dialectal name Ciavattone, ( called my father and it’s ci sound, I’ll leave it to you whether you want to leave it in or not.) your ancestor was probably a chisler or thief.  Simpler names such as Basso, Alto, Anziano, Del Vecchio , Rossi, Negri, Cecato,  Gobo referred to what the person looked like.  The names mean: short, tall, old, from the old man, red-heads, blacks, blind, hunched-back.

Let me not forget names whose origins cannot be explained or else someone had a good sense of humor when they were designating a person with his moniker.   I have a relative with one such name, Sciancalepore.  Sciancalepore means to tear the hare apart.  This name must have had meaning in the 1300s, but is lost to today.  Similar funny names are Barbagelata (Icy beard),  Pappalardo (one who eats lard), and Cantalupi (Sings with wolves.)

As you can see there is a great variety of family names in Italy due to the many categories used in the naming process back in the fourteen century.  As each region has a very distinct character, a diverse history, so too do the hundreds of thousands of Italian surnames.  No other nationality can compile such a comprehensive list, but then Italians always do things in a big way. Don’t they?

Food! Glorious Food! Italians Are What They Eat.

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13 January 2015


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Food! Glorious food! Italians are what they eat.

Many of us have just celebrated the Christmas holidays and have tasted the delights of the season. Of course, that is if you remained in the areas with a large Italian-American population. If you daughter is in Nashville and your son is in South Carolina you were probably traveling.

If you brought a trunk full of Italians cooking supplies, then you were in good shape to prepare a sumptuous meal that is so customary for an Italian Christmas feast. If you traveled by plane, good luck trying to find even the most basic ingredients.

carpaccioThere are approximately thirty Italian restaurants in Nashville and there are only a couple that serve something other than chicken and veal parmesan, marsala, piccata. Antonio’s, which has a 4 star rating, is probably the best, with a wide variety of food that is not drowned in a red ragù. Carpaccio alla Toscana and Salmone e mascarpone are two items not found anywhere else. In Charlotte, the pickings were slimmer. Antipasto, as we know it, barely existed, as well as pasta e fagioli soup. One of their other four star restaurants is indicative of the American’s idea of Italian food. For an appetizer, they had a Giante Meatball as an appetizer. They could have at least looked up the word giant in Italian. To most people, spaghetti and meatballs is the only Italian food they know.

spaghettiI visited a friend of Dutch-American ancestry and she wanted to make an Italian meal for my visit. I watched as she made her meatballs. She rolled chopped meat – plain chopped meat, no seasonings, no cheese, no egg – into spheres the size of billiard balls and plopped them into jarred sauce to cook. The seasoning was in the sauce, you see.   I know she was making an effort, so I didn’t say a word. She prides herself as being a very fine cook.

The gastronomic history of Italy goes back a very, very long time. Consequently Italians have been concocting delicious recipes for well over two thousand years. In the fourth century B.C. Marcus Gavius Apicius was known for his sauces and creations that are flamboyant and perhaps to us bizarre. Fried flamingo tongues, camel’s heels, and calves’ testicles were popular (by the way, the last item is known to us in the US as Rocky Mountain oysters.) Of course we all have heard of foie gras but good old Apicius came up with that idea. He force fed geese with figs to enlarge their livers, whereas the French decided to use corn. A record of his recipes can be found in two cookbooks – De Condituris and De re coquinaria.

No other ethnic group can boast about food as the Italians can. Unfortunately, the definition of Italian food in America does not resemble how and what Italians eat in Italy. An Italian-American friend went to Italy on a grand tour of Rome, Florence and Venice and came back saying that they could only order pasta pomodoro and pizza because they didn’t have any Italian food they were accustomed to eating at home. You could not find it. They are not very adventurous. In Charlotte, they would fit in well. Bruschetta, caprese, chicken parm, spaghetti with meatballs and tiramisù were on every menu.

For the edification of the Italian-American reader, let’s begin with the definition of Italian food. There is actually no one definition because each region is distinct from the other. Granted with the various areas of Italy being more accessible than they were 60 years ago and the immigration of many southern Italians to northern areas, there has been much cross-cultural exchange. You can find Pugliese food in Rome and Sicilian food in Venice. Still, the character of the food and the palate is still very regional.


Italian-Americans need to know that Italian food is not pasta with a red sauce in many regions of Italy. The assumed typical Italian dinner in America of antipasto, minestrone, pasta, chicken parmesan with zabaione for dessert does not exist in Italy.

Florentines would prefer a soup, the Milanese a risotto and the Venetian a polenta dish for openers.   From Rome southward, macaroni or soup is the appetizer. In northern Italy antipasto consists of eggs in sauces, stuffed mushrooms, pork products like mortadella. In the south, olives and vegetables pickled or fried reign supreme as the hors d’oeuvre. It is never followed by minestrone. The Italians begin their meal with either antipasto or soup, never both. Quite often antipasto is skipped all together and soup is the opener.

Soup would consist of a consumé with bits of meat for the north or sliced vegetables in the south. If you start with a minestrone soup you would never follow with a pasta. After all, minestrone is considered too hearty an entrée to begin a meal.

Vegetables and fish are abundant in Italy, so many meals could consist of a hardy fish soup and bread. Bread is never missing at a meal. Italians do not waste food and as a consequence items that would be thrown away in America are fashioned into an edible dish. The stems of Swiss chard, for instance, are fried into crispy sticks as an appetizer. Inferior cuts of meat, such as lamb’s heart, liver and lung are a delicacy which proper cooking and the right condiments render palatable and delicious.

The skate, a fish that would be discarded in America, is eaten in Italy. The large meaty wing of the skate is boiled, and then sprinkled with lemon juice, oil and parsley. Italians eat to live, not live to eat as Hollywood would have you believe. The French also cook up skate wings, but in butter. They call their dish raie au beurre noire and people pay a hefty price in a French restaurant for it.

cavolorapaItaly is known for its vast assortment of vegetables. They can be made into a main dish, such as eggplant parmesan or eaten raw. Italian vegetable names are used in the United States but if you go past the coasts you would be hard pressed to find them. Broccoli, zucchini, finocchi are all words borrowed from the Italian language. The Jerusalem artichoke is a corruption of girasole and kohlrabi is the corruption of cavoli rape. I dare you to find these vegetables in West Virginia, but I’m sure you will find spaghetti and meat balls.

An Italian meal is not ended with a piece of cassata cake or pie, nor dessert such as cannoli, zabaione, or panettone. Customarily, in the North fruit and cheese, which is so abundant in all of Italy, is served. In the South, fruit and nuts signal the meal has come to an end.

So, dear readers, rejoice is the diversity of Italian cooking. Italians have taught the world what to eat and how to eat. Do not be fooled by the Italian-American meal. It is more American than Italian. It is not bad, it is different and definitely not what the locals are eating in Venice, Padua, Lucca, Bari and Taranto.