Someone in Italy is reading my blog.
When my stats popped up on WordPress.com, the boot of Italy was illuminated like a Christmas tree. This would be exceptionally thrilling except that it’s my sister and her family, who are visiting the motherland on vacation.
Though I’ve got about as much Irish in me as Italian, I consider myself Italian American because my father’s family came from Sicily. I don’t know if all families lean toward the father’s side in terms of traditions and heritage, but that’s how my family rolled. I guess it’s inevitable when your last name is Milazzo.
About the only sign of my mother’s Irish roots was a crest on a blue and gold tapestry hanging in our finished basement. I don’t know why it was relegated to the basement, but one day it appeared on a dark paneled wall across from the bar and has hung in the same spot for 50 years.
I never asked my mother about the crest, which represents the county where both of her grandmothers were born, until now. She said she bought it from another doctor’s wife who was from Ireland and hosted an art show. She bought the tapestry and two framed prints to help my Dad decorate the basement, which he finished himself.
Aside from the tapestry, there are no other obvious signs of being Irish in the house. There is no Old Irish Blessing hanging on the wall,, nor Celtic crosses, Irish kitchen prayers or anything with shamrocks on it. (The Irish blessing is on an old liquor bottle behind the bar, but I never knew it was there until Mom showed it to me. I don’t think it counts since no one ever knew it was there.)
This is a little sad because the Irish are such a welcoming, friendly and festive bunch, as I learned when I married into a family named Murphy.
Both of the Curmudgeon’s parents were Irish, which made it easy for them to celebrate their Irish heritage and they did – with bells on. My father-in-law was the consummate host, filling our wine glasses before they were empty at dinners. Champagne began flowing at 9 o’clock Christmas morning, tingling our toes as we opened our gifts and requiring a power nap before we gathered for Christmas dinner.
But it’s tougher when parents come from different ethnic backgrounds because families must choose which traditions to keep alive. I guess it’s a little like when parents of two different religions marry and must decide how to raise their child. More often than not, they must choose one religion because it’s practical and less confusing for the child.
I don’t know why Italian won over Irish – perhaps it’s an outgrowth of our paternalistic society and a surname that came straight from a town in Sicily – but we were raised to think and conduct ourselves as Italian American women.
One of the first rules is good manners, and always having more than enough food to eat. If you have just enough food or wine, you risk running out and embarrassing yourself. And let’s face it, no Italian American hostess with any sense of pride wants to do that.
One night while growing up, my mother ran out of veal cutlets at a weeknight dinner. We’d all finished our meals, so the empty platter meant that there wouldn’t be leftovers for sandwiches the next day (seriously, a huge blessing. Finding a cold veal cutlet between two slices of bread in your lunch bag is the biggest disappointment in the word).
When my father saw the empty platter, he turned to my mother and said, “I guess I’m not giving you enough money for meat.” My mom looked rightfully hurt and annoyed because she had prepared enough cutlets. But this is how it with Italian Americans. You may not want or eat the leftovers, but you want to know they’re there.
Another rule is cleaning the house for company. I don’t mean picking up and a light vacuuming. I mean a full-on deep cleaning including wall, baseboard and floor scrubbing, upholstery cleaning, polishing furniture, wiping down windows and dusting door and window jams. Above all, the bathroom must be immaculate.
One of my mother’s biggest pet peeves with my father was his insistence on cleaning doorknobs and light switches before guests arrived. “There’s so much to do around here and he’s polishing doorknobs,” she’d say. It kind of became our catch-all expression for people doing minor work when major jobs loomed.
The other major rule for Italian American queens is never to show up at someone’s house empty-handed. In our house, we referred to people who committed this faux pas as showing up panza presenza. I don’t know if this is the correct translation, but in our house it meant presenting yourself with your empty stomach.
Huh? Here’s an example:
You’re hosting a party. Most guests bring food, wine, flowers or other hostess gifts, but someone shows up with only a smile. The next day, her (and it is always her, not his) oversight is duly noted.
“Can you believe she showed up panza presenza? someone asks. “No, I really can’t. She couldn’t have picked up a few pastries on her way over here? Like we’re all not busy? Who does she think she is coming over here empty-handed?”
Showing up with something is deeply ingrained in my psyche. The other day, we were visiting relatives, who were hosting us for an overnight stay. As we sat in the car waiting for the ferry, I turned to the Curmudgeon and said, “We’ve got to bring something. I can’t show up panza presenza. It’s bad form.”
So we trotted over to a bakery and bought a blueberry pie. It wasn’t much, but it was something. At least we didn’t show up on their doorstep with just two growling stomachs looking to be fed. You want people to feed you because they want to, not because you’re ravenous. (And incidentally, you never show up at someone’s house starving. That’s bad form too.)
I’ve never been to Italy, but I hope to change that next summer. Both kids are graduating from their respective schools, and we’re thinking of going over to see the old country. It’s too early for a non-planner like me to think about, but I’ve already have one prospective stop.
While writing this piece, I stumbled across a restaurant in Sicily on the web called Panza E Presenza. It’s located in none other than Milazzo. Coincidence? You tell me.