I once read that the main ingredient in an Italian dish is enjoying it with family and friends. In Italy, la famiglia is everything. And family gatherings are at the center of it all. You may have visions of what an Italian family dinner looks like from friendly stories or perhaps something you’ve seen in a movie, but you cannot truly grasp the bond between family members until you join them for a meal.
When I was ten, my dad married a lovely woman who came from a very large, very close-knit Italian American family. My stepmom grew up surrounded by relatives. They literally eat, breathe and live for their family. Not only is every weeknight dinner eaten together at the dinner table, but one night out of the week was usually reserved for Family Night with the whole extended family and every Sunday — they knew to be at Grammy’s by 3:00 PM for Sunday gravy.
Coming from a smaller family with less concentrated cultural ties or traditions, my brother and I quickly learned what it was like to be a part of an Italian family. Our eyes were immediately opened to a whole new world. A world where mopine was slang for not only the dishtowel, but also the piece of cloth that Papa used as his napkin at the dinner table. Where pasta never came with just butter and Parmesan (my favorite dish), but served with this sauce they called gravy that had way too much flavor for my 10-year-old palate. Where squid was served stuffed, not fried (be careful of the toothpicks!) and ladled over my aforementioned once white and buttery, now red and saucy fettuccine. Where the volume in the room could reach unprecedented levels and everyone speaks over each other, unapologetically. Where a pinch-and-turn on the back of your arm could mean you did something wrong or a loving sign of affection. Where family was so much more than just your blood relation. They were your friends, your confidants, your business partners, your source of entertainment… They were your everything. Needless to say, we were overwhelmed. But in the best of ways!
Over the years, my brother and I grew close with our new Italian family. It didn’t take long for me to grow an affinity for baking pizzelle cookies with my Grammy, chopping up snails with Papa for a snail salad and our weekly family nights, full of great food, tons of laughter and memories. The dinner table is where I laughed the most and ate the most. It is also where I learned the most. My family shepherded me through my adolescence, when it wasn’t necessarily cool to spend a Saturday night at home, but you wanted to because of the promise of homemade pizza and movies with your brothers. They’ve taught me the importance of family and carving time out to spend with your loved ones – something I hope to pass down to my own little citizens, one day.
I don’t know what it is about the Italian culture that spurs this closeness. Nor do I think it is only the Italians that celebrate family in this way. But there is something to be said about the bond that is created, over a meal, when you eat with an Italian.