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Words

I try to pinpoint words that when strung together, like beads in a necklace, express something with texture and richness; I hope for the occasional sparkle of a well placed gem. I frequently fail miserably. But on a good day, as with a candid photo, I unexpectedly capture a heartbeat, and it feels as if I've successfully seized fog with my hands.

Friday, July 8, 2011

È Buono! È Italiano!

I’ve never been cool. The kind of person who couldn’t even rent a person to be cool in my place. Didn’t sit at the cool table in school. Never went to a dance or prom. Didn’t really even date.

I’d love to tell you I’m a late bloomer, or an ugly duckling who became a beautiful something, but no. Basically I am who I’ve always been. And not very cool came right along with me.

So imagine my surprise when suddenly it became absolutely cool to be Italian?

Huh? When did this happen?

It’s not just being Italian. It’s eating Italian. Wearing Italian things. Having Italian stuff. Speaking Italian. Knowing Italy.

“I spent the summer in Tuscany.”

“Have you been to Umbria? Gubbio is lovely this time of year.”

What? I mean, che cosa?

Growing up there was the occasional masochist who owned a Fiat instead of a Triumph or MG.  Fix It Again Tony. Looked great. Good thing, too. Given how often a Fiat is stationary. In your driveway. On the side of the road. In your garage. Or, Tony’s Garage.


My first husband wanted an Alfa Romeo. Which he called an Alfa Romero. Caesar’s cousin, I guess. But that’s a one-off. No one really wants an Alfa.

A lot of people knew Ferrari. Like they knew Sophia. From magazines and movies. I guess that was the beginning. Ferraris, women, and maybe Campagnolo bike parts. Take any bike and add Campi gears—bragging rights. Back in the day.


My grandfather, Pietro, went by Peter or Pete, because he was very proud to be an American, even though he compared everything to Italy. If my grandmother was saying his name, he was Pete-uh. 

Grandpa would scan hotel room phone books as he traveled the U.S., searching for his last name. Or his cousins’. Or my grandmother’s maiden name.

“Eh, look, look, some relatives here,” he’d call out in thickly accented English. A lone Paolucci or Iavarone hidden in Tulsa.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s impoverished conditions sent Italians to America in greater numbers than from any other European country. My grandfather came as a young man whose future would have been tending sheep on family land; here he was a successful businessman who sponsored the immigration of many. It’s not surprising he found Italian names in phone books. In the Bay Area he brought a lot of them.

What would Pietro, er, Pete, say now? What would he find? With Italian immigration statistically insignificant since 2000.

Italians aren't moving to the U.S. anymore. Italy is prosperous. No more inioni or icci’s coming on the boat. No Della ______ with a passaporto and resident visa hoping for a better life. Yet he’d see exotic Italian names are mainstream. It may not be people coming but it's everything else.

Shoes, hangbags, hats, garments, jewelry and sunglasses. Gucci. Versace. Dolce & Gabbana.

Sleek Italian furniture made with luxurious Italian leather.

Olive oil. So much olive oil Italians have to import additional olives from Spain to make enough oil to export to the U.S.

There’s wine. And more wine. And sparkling wine. It’s not champagne, it’s Prosecco. And glass. Fancy Italian glass from Murano. Probably wrapped in a frou-frou cloth bag made of Italian lace from Burano.

The cars, the motorcycles, and the to die for red Vespas. Sorry, is that red, or is it rosso? Don’t forget the bicycles. And even the trademarked color of the bikes, “Celeste” – so Mr. Bianchi would know his bicycles dotting the rolling hills of Italia.

Everyone knows the Italian ski team, and soccer team, and cross country team. Forza Azzurri in their Italian bright blue color.

Then there’s the cheese, no longer parmesan, but parmigiano reggiano, and grana padano, not to mention mozzarella di bufala, with it's different Italian-named sizes. Like bocconcini. There's marscarpone for the now ubiquitous dessert, tiramisu. Which everyone knows how to pronounce.

And speaking of Italian-named sizes. Want a cuppa Joe? How 'bout a vente? Or, doppioLatte or cappuccino?

It’s cool to say ciao, and prego. And arrivederci. Even the Vietnamese manicurist, the Mexican housekeeper, and the Bulgarian produce guy say, “Ciao, Signora.” So does the Philippino auto mechanic who works on my car.

But nothing would startle my nono more than a $25 plate of pasta. With Lidia Bastianich, Mario Batali, Rachel Ray, and Giada de Laurentiis writing cookbooks, hawking Italian food on television and in their glamorous restaurants, we all eat Italian, all the time.

It’s one thing for me to be an every night Italian. I don’t know any different. To me, it’s what we eat. Even when my mom or grandma tried to make an American meatloaf it ended up like a giant meat-a-ball, in the shape of a loaf pan.

But everyone is eating Italian every night. My friend in Kentucky (who’s red-headed and not one bit Italian) is tossing pizza dough in the air one night a week and has a weekly Friday spaghetti feed. Really? 

Seriously.

I can throw a plate of pasta together for a couple of bucks, even cheaper if I skip the parmigiano, but step into a restaurant and all of a sudden it’s carbonaraamatriciana, and arrabiatta, Bolognese, and not a piatto for less than $20.

Gnocchi pesto. Gnocchi? When I was a kid my friends had never heard of it. We tried to explain. Potato dumplings. They shuddered. C'mon, we said, how bad could it be, it's made from potatoes. Nope, no one wanted to try it. Now they’re searching the internet for butternut squash gnocchi served with browned butter and sage. And polenta fritti, and alla griglia. People are barbecuing grits and thinking it’s high-fashion food. Mamma mia.

Gone are the days of spaghetti and meatballs, or fettucini Alfredo (with its questionable roots), replaced by dishes made with Roma tomatoes and San Marzanos imported from the motherland, grown in the volcanic soil of Naples.

All those years of being the quintessentially uncool person, thinking a flat iron might have saved my social life had it only been invented, and it turns out we only had to cook more pasta. The dish of the peasants. The primi piatti to be served before the main event. 

Only poor folks had pasta as a single course with insalata (now served after the meal at the ristorante autentico), and all over America it’s the hippest thing goin’.

What do the French say, plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose? The more things change, the more they stay the same. This is one change Pete would find stunning. He would have traversed the Atlantic and then the United States, from Acqua Viva di Cagli, to Ellis Island, to Columbus Avenue (now Corso Cristoforo Colombo) in San Francisco's North Beach, to find food of his peeps in every store, every home, every restaurant, every fridge, every bakery, every deli. Dappertutto! Don't worry, Nono, you can chase your meal with gelati, right across the street. 

And after the sticker shock had worn off I think he’d say, che mangia bene, vive bene! He who eats well, lives well. È buono! È Italiano! What he believed all along.

So, a brand new identity is born. Who knew? I’m cool. The whole darned family is cool! And we're sharing it, one bite at a time.


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