What Was Special About Growing Up in an Italian-American Home

Coming up in mid-20th century America as an Italian was a treasured experience

By: Basil Russo, ISDA President

Life in our country has changed so dramatically in recent years. Mass shootings have become an all too common story on our evening news shows. The threat of terrorist attacks are something we are forced to think about all too often. And the hostility extremist groups in our country exhibit toward one another is frightening.

We miss the security and stability we felt as children — children who were blessed to grow up in an Italian-American home.

Life was so much simpler and sweeter then. We had parents who loved us but weren’t afraid to discipline us. Our homes were filled with emotions, excitement and constant family interaction.

Let’s reminisce about what we can honestly say were “the good old days.”

Most of us grew up in neighborhoods that were either Italian American, or at least had a strong Italian-American influence. Our homes were simple and modest, but well cared for. The most important room in the home was the kitchen because of the significance the preparation and enjoyment of food had in our lives. The least used room in the house was the living room. The couch always had a plastic cover on it, and the room was only used when special guests visited.

The woman of the home, whether it was our nonna or our mother, spent nearly every hour of the day cooking, cleaning, washing and ironing. Their job was so much more difficult than any 40-hour-a-week job today. But they performed their work with love and a great sense of pride.

Sunday dinners were the most important event of the week in our home. The three to four hours needed to prepare the sauce (or gravy, or sugo, as different families chose to call it) began early in the morning to accommodate an early afternoon dinnertime. Meatballs and sausage were often cooked in the sauce, and often neck bones and pigs feet were used to add even more flavor to the sauce. If we were famished and pleaded our case, we often got a chunk of crusty Italian bread dipped in the sauce to hold us over until dinner. And dinners were the time to eat well and talk freely. Good conversation and good food were inseparable at the Sunday dinner table.

Holiday dinners also provided us with special family memories. Every good thing that occurred at Sunday dinner could be multiplied by 10 at a holiday dinner — more people, more food, more noise and more enjoyment.

To feed her family well was a nonna’s or mother’s way of expressing her love for her family. That is why so many of our wonderful childhood memories revolve around food. Italian-American mothers showered their families with love.

As a youngster, I also had vivid memories of my nonna cutting off the heads of chickens in our basement, and plucking and burning off the feathers to prepare a meal. I also remember helping my nonna can tomatoes. And when it came time to play, I would often run and hide between the flapping sheets and shirts hanging on the clotheslines in our yard.

Our nonnos and fathers worked hard as well. Aside from family, nothing was more important to Italian-American men than adhering to a strong work ethic. They well knew of their responsibility to be good providers to their families, and they would take whatever jobs were available, no matter how difficult the work or how meager the pay, to fulfill their responsibility to their wife and children.

Our nonnos and fathers also had certain responsibilities around the house. Many of us have memories of helping them make wine each year, as well as sausage or sopressata.

I can remember my nonno sending me down to the basement with an empty pitcher to be filled from the wine barrel. As he handed me the jug, he would smile and tell me to start whistling and not to stop until I brought the filled jug back to him. However at meals, he would pour me a small glass of wine and dilute it with some ginger ale.

Our backyard gardens were an essential part of every Italian-American home. My nonna would prune our rose bushes and flowers, while my nonno tended to the tomatoes, zucchini, grapevines and fig tree. I always enjoyed helping them look for the ripe tomatoes and figs that we would pick each week.

Some of our fondest childhood memories involve our family’s photo albums. Pictures were the primary means of documenting family history and important events. Looking through my family albums with my nonna often prodded her to relate many interesting family stories.

Family weddings also provided many wonderful memories. Receptions were held in old union or church halls. I remember sawdust being sprinkled on the floor to help the polka dancers whiz by. The Grand March was the highlight of the reception and was often conducted by one of the family elders. Later in the evening a huge circle would form on the dance floor, so that couples could jump into the circle to dance the tarantella When it came time to eat, sandwiches were passed around from a basket to guests sitting in folding chairs along the walls, which was followed by the passing of sugarcoated almonds. In later years, the sandwich basket was replaced by a buffet table. And everyone’s favorite drink was a highball, made with whiskey and ginger ale.

Many of us had the good fortune of attending Catholic grade schools. The nuns provided us with a good education and a strong dose of discipline. I can remember Sister walking up and down the aisle, tapping a ruler in her hand, as she slowly examined our work. It was not unusual to get a rap on the knuckles from the ruler, showing her displeasure. God forbid we ever got in trouble at school because our parents would double the punishment once we got home. I really believe we all tried to do as well as we were able in school, because we never wanted to embarrass or disappoint our parents.

Yes, life was special for us because we had the good fortune to be raised in Italian-American homes. Homes where family, love and loyalty were the most important elements of life. Homes where we felt safe and secure. Homes that provided us with strong values and a strong faith in God.

How wonderful it would be if our children and grandchildren could also experience such an upbringing.


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