You grew up with a huge family, not all blood and sometimes you’re really not sure who you’re related to. You’re loud, you talk with your hands, and everybody has a story they’re ready to tell. Every family event has way too much food and you have recipes in your cupboards for gravy and lasagna and calamari going back generations. Sound like you? It’s pretty safe to say that you consider yourself Italian American and this list is going to sound pretty familiar.
1. You learned to cook at age three.
By the time you could walk, you knew how to at least do the basics. You could make pasta or scramble an egg or at least bake cookies. You probably had your grandma to thank for that. Grandma Mary taught me to cook and Grandma Kay taught me to bake and, seventeen or so years later, I still love to do both.
2. Everyone in your family can cook, at least to some degree.
Some of us don’t like it, but we can all do it. I’m not talking Emeril Lagasse-type cooking, but, still, it’s pretty good. I’ve had friends say that all the women in their family can cook, but, for Italian-Americans, we can all cook. In fact, my one male cousin (yes, he is the favorite and we all know it) can probably cook better than most of the rest of us.
3. There’s always way too much food at family gatherings.
Last Christmas, there were only around twelve of us and my aunt still made four pounds of pasta. To put that in perspective, a serving of pasta is usually two ounces. There are 16 ounces in a pound. No wonder we’re all eating pasta for days after.
4. You still make the seven fishes on Christmas Eve.
Calamari, shrimp, flounder, smelt, squngilli, baccala (salted cod), scallops. At least those are the seven fishes we eat. And despite the fact that we’ve been eating this every year since I was born, I still needed to ask my mother for help remembering this list. By the way, does anyone really eat the smelt?
5. Christmas Eve is a bigger eating day than Thanksgiving or Christmas.
Thanksgiving is great and all, but Christmas Eve is the day to eat. We do a typical Thanksgiving with the turkey and the stuffing, although I do know Italian families that eat lasagna or pork on Thanksgiving instead. For us on Christmas Eve, it’s pasta with shrimp and stuffed calamari (two fishes down). Then the second course is the rest of the fishes. Then the desserts roll out which usually cover the length of a table.
6. Your friends stare at you when you pronounce food names ‘weirdly.’
You say gala-maud, they say calamari. You say gaba-ghoul, they say capicola. You say muttadell, they say mozzarella. You’ve probably been corrected on it more than once, but you can’t help it. Those are the words you grew up hearing.
7. You also probably thought calamari was spelled ‘gala-maud.’
I can spell calamari and mozzarella just fine now, but, when I was younger and saw them on a menu, I immediately got confused. What were those weird words and why was the waiter pronouncing them differently than me? By the way, to write this article I had to look up how to spell capicola. I’m twenty and I’m still pretty sure I’m spelling it wrong.
8. You’ve gotten into fights over whether it’s sauce or gravy.
Northerners say sauce, southerners say gravy… I think. I don’t know anymore. I’ve had this argument way too many times. Whatever, I’m from Naples and I say it’s gravy.
9. You have baskets filled with old family recipes.
Or buckets or overstuffed files of family recipes. It’s pretty safe to say that they are not organized and they are covered in stains of dinners past. It’s also pretty safe to say that, despite them looking unorganized to you, your grandma could find what she was looking for in them in ten seconds flat.
10. Having only twenty people is considered a quiet Christmas.
You know that the best meals are always the ones where there are so many people the house is shaking from the noise. In fact, the cops may have even been called about a noise complaint, once or twice or fifteen times.
11. You probably can’t pronounce everything on the dessert table.
I’m sure I’ve asked what things are at the dinner and dessert table every year since I was born, but I’m still not sure what they all are. It doesn’t help that a lot of the time I’m told their Italian names and I’m not exactly fluent. I know pizza gaine is meat pie and pizza dolce (pronounced doch) is sweet pie, but that’s about all I got.
12. Sunday dinners were a constant.
And it didn’t always mean your own family. For me, I grew up in a mostly Italian town (actually, the most Italian town in America according to the Census Bureau) so most of my friends were Italian, too. It always felt like a strange honor to be asked to someone else’s house for Sunday dinner. You felt special, like you were a part of their family too.
13. You looked down your nose at Italian restaurants.
There are always those dishes that your grandma or aunt or uncle or parents just make so much better than any restaurant can. If you were to order it at a restaurant, you know you’re just setting yourself up for disappointment. I try to keep my mouth shut when I’m out to dinner with friends, but I sometimes can’t help it. They order those dishes and claim the restaurant makes the best in the world. Um, no, sorry, my grandma does.
14. You also looked down your nose at Ragu.
I mean Prego isn’t that bad, but it’s not exactly a prize either. The best foods are always homemade ones. And gravy (yes, I said gravy, fight me) is one of those foods that you can get out of a jar when you’re rushing to get dinner on the table. But, face it, you know you’re disappointing your Italian ancestors by doing it.