Here Comes the Neighborhood—Italian Wedding Receptions of the Past

Family and neighbors came together, and always created a night to remember.

By: Tony Traficante, ISDA Contributing Editor

Weddings are momentous occasions for Italians, as with any family. They are about tradition and also about fun. Many beautiful legends surround the Italian wedding ceremony; however, little is ever reported about the receptions. Here is how I remember an old-style Italian immigrant wedding reception of the 40s and 50s.

Most of the Italian families in our area were from southern Italy, and “Non aveveno un sacco di soldi.” They didn’t have a lot of money. Even so, if there was a marriage, there had to be “una bella ricevimento o se fa una brutta figura.” To not have a reception, no matter how modest, would be a disgrace on the family! The wedding receptions were basic, simple celebrations, neither elaborate nor fancy, but delightful and unique.

Preparations began weeks in advance, with neighbors and family pitching in to help. Paninis were the main entrée, followed by cookies, cake, and of course a variety of libations. The wine and anisette were homemade. There was always a variety of anisette flavors: coffee, mint, cherry, clear, and yellow.

A church hall was the least expensive venue, but some opted to have the reception at their homes. Finding a band was always an effort. Hopefully, you knew someone who knew someone with a two- or three-man reasonable combo. Otherwise, the local concertina player would do. It didn’t matter. Italians could dance and sing to almost anything–or nothing!

Cookie baking began early on with volunteer families producing dozens of taralli, biscotti, and pizzelle. The delicious aromas of vanilla, anise, and almond are intoxicating!

“I panini” were the last to be made, to serve them fresh. The ladies formed a production line. One laid out slices of bread, another spread on the mayo or mustard, a third slapped on lunch meats – “prosciutto, salami, mortadella, soppressata, o cappicol” –  and one finished with a leaf of lettuce. No tomatoes were put on the panini “Lascia stare i pomodori, se no i panini arrivano pastosi,” said the boss lady. We don’t want mushy panini! At the end of the line, the paninis were double wrapped with wax paper and stacked in bushel baskets.

‘Confetti,’was the customary candy-coated almond treat presented at these affairs. Representing the bittersweet nature of marriage, they were made, swaddled with delicate pieces of tulle, in quantities of 5, or 7; lucky numbers and a mother’s prayer for an equal sum of grandchildren! Yikes!

The reception hall arrangement was different than expected. It wass arranged with plenty of chairs around the walls. There were no typical dinner tables. A table, at the entrance of the building, had bottles of welcoming drinks. As men entered, they were offered a shot of whiskey, and the ladies chose from vermouth or anisette. A complete bar with a half keg of beer, whiskey, wine, and soft drinks was at the back of the hall. Later, guests would receive panini, served from the bushel baskets, cookies,and a “confetti” souvenir.

Following the customary bridal dances, the bride remained on the floor to begin “la Busta.” A custom where she holds a small white satin bag and dances with any of the guests who wish to dance. For the privilege, the bride receives a token gift of money in her purse.

The fun of the evening was dancing, for all, especially with the repetitions of the exciting, dynamic tarantella unballostimolantee dinamico!” It is just fascinating to watch the symmetry of that dance as couples, twirl about, breakaway, then come back into a gentle embrace. Women spin gracefully about the room, and the men counter with movements of sensitivity and adoration.

And lest we forget, the night never ends without the anticipated singing of beloved Italian folk songs. A favorite being the beautiful, moving Italian Alpini mountain song “Quel Mazzolin di fiori.”

A final custom of the reception is the “breaking of bread,” by the bride and groom. Today we call it cutting the cake, meant to be a loving gesture of commitment and lasting relationship.

As the newlyweds prepare to leave, the guests shout out one more toast “Spero che la vostra vita essere come il buon vino, gustoso, nitido e chiaro. E come un buon vino può migliorare ogni anno che passa!” May your life be like a good wine, tasty, crisp, and uncloudy. And like a good wine, may it improve with each passing year!

“Evvivi i sposi!”

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