As you most likely know, nowadays Americans of Italian ancestry are the nation’s fifth-largest ethnic group. So, to be growing up Italian – American is a curious experience filled with the unique Italian American culture and traditions.
If you are among the Italian – American men you will probably enjoy our descriptions of what it is like to be growing up with a noisy family, always showered with food and together with plenty of cousins.
Italian’s romance with food
For people of Italian origin, even if your family has been removed from the country for generations, Italian family culture follows through many areas in your life.
Of course, the most important area is food. When your friends come over, your family asks them no fewer than six times if they want something to eat.
It is never boring when the whole family is together, and every time you try and tell someone how many cousins you have you must be forgetting at least one of them because they are too many to count.
One of the most striking differences between your American friends and you is the amount of food you eat as a family, especially on holidays. Your American friends only eat turkey on Thanksgiving or Christmas. And they eat turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce.
Now, Italians do eat these things, but among many other things like antipasto, soup, lasagna, meatballs, salad and whatever else grandma finds is appropriate for the particular holiday. The turkey is usually accompanied by a roast of some kind and is followed by a combo of fruits, nuts, pastries, cakes and homemade cookies. For the Italian – Americans a seven-course meal between noon and 4:00 p.m, is a common thing.
Sunday dinners are one of the most important events of the week in your Italian – American home. Your family needs three to four hours to prepare the sauce or gravy, or sugo, however, you may call it. Your mother and grandmother begin early in the morning to prepare early afternoon dinnertime.
They often cook meatballs and sausage in the sauce, and if you are from older generations you know that often neck bones and pigs’ feet were used to add more flavor to the sauce. And in case you get hungry before dinner, there is a good chance you will get a chunk of crusty Italian bread dipped in the sauce to hold you over until dinner.
All meals are cooked with ingredients from someone’s home garden. Yes, you have a garden, or at least your grandparents have one. And not just flower gardens, but massive gardens where tomatoes are mainly grown. Of course, there are also peppers, basil, lettuce and squash in the gardens. Everybody has a grapevine and a fig tree, and in the fall all the Italians make homemade wine, lots of it.
Plus, the Italians teach everyone to drink wine at dinner, even the kids would mix it with ginger-ale and enjoy their homemade wine.
Another part of holiday traditions is the “Honey Balls” or Struffoli. Italians start talking about this dessert long before Christmas because that’s the only time of year grandma will make it!
Italian songs and movies
An essential part of the Italian American family culture is singing Italian songs together with your family, and sometimes even dancing to them.
Growing up Italian, you must know Toto Cutugno and the lyrics to “L’italiano” and “Ti Amo”. Also, no Christmas can go without the Christmas anthem “Dominick the donkey“. And if your name is Dominick, you must have been teased with “Hey! Chingedy ching, (hee-haw, hee-haw) It’s Dominick the donkey!”, countless times!
When it comes to movies, there is one movie in particular that all the Italian girls have a sweet spot for. The Lizzie McGuire Movie is a classic, and the gorgeous Paolo is definitely boyfriend goals.
If you are a girl of Italian descent, you should know the song “Volare” like the back of your hand, and you are likely to impress your American friends with reciting the entire Italian part within the song.
Religion as the center of Italian lifestyle
You know you have been growing up Italian American if your childhood is full of memories of you and your family going to church on Sunday and also you must have had crosses in your home. Or at least at your grandparents’ home.
Your grandparents did their best to install religious beliefs in youngsters and they probably have succeeded. Passing on the spiritual code to new generations has always been such an integral part of Italian family values.
Speaking of values, you would probably agree with us that communion and confirmation are so much more than a sacrament. Receiving your First Holy Communion must have been quite an event for your family.
Events in the Italian way
Italian weddings are surreal! Be sure that when you go to an Italian wedding, 500 more people will be invited. However, the bride will most likely know only 30 to 50 of them. You will probably hear a lot of distant relatives saying to you “Oh, you got so big since I have last seen you!”. And the confusing thing is that you don’t remember most of these people.
What is common for most Italians that you meet at events like these is the gold jewelry. They all wear at least one gold piece on them. The Italian traditions suggest that babies receive pieces of jewelry on their Christening, Communion, or Confirmation. And maybe even for graduation and other events. The crucial thing is that the jewelry has to be from Italy. Now isn’t this lovely?
The way Italians talk and live
What is common for Italian American men is the English – Italian language they invented for themselves. You never speak only one language, you mix English and Italian as you wish. You casually throw in Italian words in almost every sentence and everyone in your family has no trouble understanding you.
Also, for the Italians there is no such thing as merely talking. Most of the time, it‘s yelling. You probably yell when you tell a story, you yell when you fight, and you yell when you express your love to one another. That is really a norm for the Italians.
As for greeting people, there is a habit of kissing someone on the cheek when you say goodbye. Americans might find this a bit strange, but that is how the Italians do it.
When it comes to names, they repeat an awful lot, trust me. In a typical Italian family, you can find more than one “Angela’s”, “Lucia’s”, “Mario’s”, “Antonio’s”, “Dominick’s”, and a couple more “Salvatore’s”.
The traditional way of naming kids is for them to be named after someone. Usually that someone is a grandparent. And these grandparents are worth the confusion that comes with many same names in the family. They are a valuable part of every Italian family and are very much respected.
They are the ones to remind everyone in the family about Italian American history. They are here to tell stories about the period between 1880 and 1924 when more than four million Italians immigrated to the US. They came here in a search for a better life mainly from Southern Italy. And of course, they took whatever jobs were available, no matter how difficult the work or how low the pay, to fulfill their responsibility to their families.
The strong work ethic is among the typical Italian personality traits. Other than being loud, big foodies and immensely family-oriented.
We think that you would agree that food, faith, music, gardening, and work ethic are at the heart of growing up Italian – American. And that you wouldn’t trade your Italian upbringing for anything in the world.
As for other non-Italian people, they might not be completely aware of the Italian influence they probably have in their lives. Just think of this – the food you eat, the clothes you wear, the products you use, the celebrities you love and the co-workers you have. You could very well be surprised to realize that you too have been living under the influence of Italians your whole life.