Archive | November, 2012

Italians vs Italian Americans

28 Nov

I was raised in an Italian American family, complete with the pizzelles, ravioli and loud, hand-waving family members. We were always active in the Italian-American community* and maintained Italian friends. One of my best friends in the world, Tony Sylvester, is also Italian and our family’s relationship begin when our grandparents went to grammar school together in the 1930s at St. Anthony’s. Tony asked me if Italy Italians were different from our sort-of cliche Italian-American families. and this is what I have found.

First, let me give you a bit of a geography and history lesson to set the scene. Most Italian immigrants to the US came from southern Italy. Many from the regions of Campania, Sicily and Calabria. Italy is a very divided country, culture norms in the north and south differ as much as Asian and African. In the south they have a diet staple of pasta vs rice in the north. The south is more loud and “in your face” while the north is more reserved, mostly because of the German influence. Umbria, where Mitch and I lived is smack dab in the middle and takes bits and pieces from both as well as having uniques quirks of their own. Because most Italian Americans are from the south, that is the culture we associate with “Italy”. So while Italian Americans are Italian horn wearing, pasta and pizzelle eating, huge family in your face kind of Italians, Italy Italians from the north wouldn’t recognize you at all. In fact, our Umbrian Italian friends had never heard of pizzelles, I had to describe the Italian horn to them and we apparently do Italian food allllll wrong. According to them of course!

The other cool part of this story is how Italian words have crept into English as common place: cannoli, pizza, pasta, biscotti, cappuccino, pepperoni, ravioli to name only a few. The only problem is that the context in which we use many of these words, most Italians would have no idea what we were trying to say. The translations of the Italian American words to Italian is as follows:

Cannoli: the plural form of cannolo, you order 1 cannolo

Biscotti: cookies, any and all

Pepperoni: a bell pepper

They don’t even have pepperoni like we eat it! How crazy! Italians, as with most of Europe live a more structured lifestyle than us footloose and fancy free Americans! They eat at a certain time, in a certain way, have always done and will always do. I can’t tell you how many times Mitch and I got yelled at for eating something the wrong way or at the wrong time. Another huge difference, Italian Americans get drunk. Italy Italians very rarely do. They only get drunk when they’re young and strictly at a disco or night club. They do drink wine all the time and starting at a young age, but never in excess.

Pasta is pasta in America and in Italy 🙂


The most prominent difference we have noticed is efficiency. Italian Americans may be late sometimes, but they have been “Americanized”. Italy Italians live on the Mediterranean time table and are not only always and consistently 20 minutes late, they do very little with purpose and find themselves doing the simplest of tasks multiple times. Their goodbyes take 30 minutes on average, sometimes even up to an hour. My cousins and I get yelled at all the time for putting our coats and shoes on, saying we’re leaving and then standing their talking forever. Let me tell you, this is ingrained in our bodies! Italians typically say goodbye or “ciao” over 20 times before they actually walk out the door. Both groups talk with their hands, the difference is that Italian Americans use many gestures to mean a wide variety of things. Italy Italians however use fewer gestures, but with more passion and more often.

So Italian Americans are definitely Italian, if only Southern Italy. There are similarities they can’t deny, but also differences that are bond to occur with an ocean and decades between you and your old county. Thanks for all the memories Italy, we’ve learned a lot and had so much fun experiencing the beauty of your country and people! Ciao!

*For those of you how don’t know, Canton, Ohio has a rather high and recent Italian and Greek immigrant population.


From tree to table: Olive oil

18 Nov

Last week we had the lovely opportunity to see the process of making olive oil from tree to table, literally.

The net spread around the base of the tree to catch the olives

Olive picking happens late in the harvest season, after most other crops are done. Here in mid-Italy most people harvest early November. It’s hard to believe, but the majority of olives are still harvested by hand. For this reason you want to choose a dry day, preferably one that it hasn’t rained for a few days. In most cases, only the largest of olive farms harvest mechanically because of the permanent damage that is done to the tree. We also waited for the dew to burn off before we began. You’re under the tree so if the tree is wet, so are you. The first thing we did was spread the net under the tree. The net catches the olives as you knock them from the tree. We used our hands and these small, plastic rake-type tools to pull the olives off the trees. You simply run your hand or the tool down the branch pulling off as many olives and as few leaves as possible. The goal is to get all the olives off the tree, which is actually a bit of a challenge and quite time consuming. This was a very dry, hot year and yields were nothing of what they normally are, same for the grapes 😦 After all the olives fall onto the net you gather them into a compact pile and dump them into crates.

Gathering the olives

Olives are a tricky business, one should never wonder why olive oil is so expensive. You gather hundreds of lbs of olives and you get very little oil, typically only 10-16% of the original olive weight. We only have about 35 trees on the property, but during a good year it provides enough oil to last the family all year. I can’t imagine the families and farms that harvest thousands of trees by hand! Once all the olives are picked you take them straight to the olive mill. It’s crazy, they’re everywhere! Many, many Italians press their own oil and each have their favorite “frantoio”. You dump all the olives in the hopper where the leaves are removed and the olives are washed. The olives are then crushed, heated and the oil is extracted. The remaining, dried pulp is then sold to other companies that use chemistry to extract the last remaining bit of oil.* The pulp is also a perfect compost fertilizer to replenish the trees with the nutrients they lost in producing the olives. The whole process of pressing took about an hour. Fresh oil is a brilliant green, almost artificial looking and spicy with a very unique flavor.

Fresh-pressed olive oil! Look at that color!

Once you taste fresh olive oil you’ll recognize it forever. Claudia, our host mom/boss, enjoys fresh-pressed olive oil with the traditional Tuscan/Umbrian saltless bread. The traditional bread is done saltless as it has been since the middle ages when a salt tax made it too expensive for the average baker and has since stuck. In most instances I don’t enjoy the bread (who would have though that pinch of salt would make such a difference?!) but the strong flavor in the fresh oil compliments the bland bread well.  So that’s the story of how we picked and pressed the olives during the day and were able to enjoy it with fresh bread that night!

Getting crushed and heated!

*This oil is specifically labeled in Italy as it is not olive oil in it’s truest form, not Extra Virgin.


12 Nov

Our handmade, paper-mache Venetian masks!

Mitch and I had the awesome pleasure of spending our last long weekend in Italy in the mysterious and beautiful city of Venice, or Venezia in Italian. After a bit expensive, but very comfortable ride on a bullet train we arrived at the main train station, San Lucia. We had a bit of an antsy situation when we arrived at our hostel, 45 minutes outside of Venice. We decided to try our luck at finding a hotel/hostel closer to the city center and headed back toward the island. Funny part about this our attempt… either 5 hotels were fully booked on a Thursday night in November, or Mitch and I looked super sketchy that night! We finally decided to just send me in to ask and for Mitch to stay outside with the backpacks and… SUCCESS! Thank goodness, because I was seriously coming to terms with sleeping under a bridge 🙂 It worked out in our favor because the suite was the only room available and they gave us a deal. We had a beautiful view of one of the canals and was very nice. Actually, the nicest room we’ve had in Italy. So now that we had a bed to sleep in, we could be off to enjoy the city!

The beautiful multi-colored homes of Burano

That evening we just walked around exploring the narrow alleyways and poorly lit corners. It’s part of the ambiance of Venice, the city definitely has a darker side. Everyone went on and on about how expensive Venice was, but we really didn’t find that to be the case. Rome, Florence and Venice are all equally expensive, I mean they make their money on tourists so that is to be expected. People spend more money in Venice because they are so many dazzling things to spend your money on! Murano glass, hand-painted masks and romantic gondola rides to name a few. Friday morning we woke up early to get a head start on sightseeing. We bought 12 hour water taxi passes and went to both Murano and Burano islands. Mitch and I fell in love with glass blowing 2 years ago at a Chihuly exhibition at Cheekwood Botanical Gardens in Nashville, TN. That being said, Murno was amazing! We were able to watch glass-blowers at work, and marvel at everything from 6ft tall chandeliers to the smallest, most delicate flowers. From Murano we went to Burano which rather than glass, is famous for bright and fun painted homes along the canals. It is safe to say Burano is a rather picturesque site.

One of Venice’s canals

Next we took our next best alternative to a gondola ride, the public water taxi system down the Grand Canal from the top of the city at San Lucia to the bottom of the city at St. Mark’s Square. Even with the hordes of people and loud engine, the sights along the canal are awesome. One of my favorite aspects that displays that character of the city are the uniquely painted poles that are in the canals to tie the boats to. Many are painted different colored to represent the different families that own them and the corresponding building. It is awesome to see so many families still upholding the tradition that used to be an important indication of family ownership. It’s funny the slight alternatives that we’re willing to take because we’re pinching pennies, but it really works! We’ll take our romantic gondola ride when we come back and aren’t planning a wedding haha It was an awesome hour on the water and we ended at the Byzantine Basilica of St. Mark and enjoyed the chapel. Venice was a center of trade for hundreds of years and because of the Venetian merchants, Venice has a large international influence and you can see it evidently in the architecture. We proceeded to walk through the city up to the Rialto Bridge. We had been told of how beautiful it is, but even more beautiful is the view from the bridge. We shopped a bit and than caught some gorgeous views of the sun setting behind the city and Grand Canal. The sun is setting rather early this time of year so we knew we needed to get all of our daylight sightseeing done early. That evening we found a very cool wine bar, nice restaurant with reasonable prices and  bar full of touring Americans. It was a very fun and relaxing evening wandering from watering hole to watering hole in the city.

Sunset over the Grand Canal on the Rialto Bridge

On Saturday we booked our tickets home in the morning for 1:30pm and spend our last view hours visiting various museums and churches in the city. We visited the Scuola Grande di San Rocca, Accademia Galleries and the Leonardo da Vinci Museum. We were on a hunt to see Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man and because we recieved various spots that it could be located it felt a bit like a wild goose hunt. When we got a fairly confident answer that the print was at the Accademia we went and after hunting the whole museum were told that yes it was at the museum but “too precious to be on display”. Ahhh!!! 5 hours and tired feet later, Venice is lucky that we were able to hundreds of priceless works of art and Leonardo inventions along the way.

Venice isn’t the easiest city to navigate with over 400 bridges connecting some 118 islands. The best way to get around is to simply follow the few signs in hopes of finding your end goal. I’m a huge fan of these routes, actually my friend Allie and I love to get lost when visiting cities on our travels. This is great on days when you don’t have a time schedule, however we had a train to catch and walking back up to the train station Mitch and I got remarkably lost. This is rare for us, but non the less sent us sprinting across bridges and through throngs of tourists to make it to our train with 4 minutes to spare. It’s hard to believe that a mysterious city like Venice can be as real as the pictures, but it truly is. Mitch and I loved wondering through the tight streets and discovering the beauty of Italy’s Venezia.

Farmers market on the water! Awesome!

Wine Museum

3 Nov

Having spent the harvest season in the “green heart of Italy” as Umbria is loving known, Ev and Claudia thought it only appropriate to take us to the wine museum of Italy in Torgiano. Let it be known that not everyone has such gracious hosts when participating in a work-exchange program. We have been incredibly lucky to have bosses/hosts parents that take us with them to see the country and encourage our learning about Italy through experiencing it. Although the museum was initially funded and continues to be supported by a local winery, Lungarotti, the museum provides completely independent information on when and how wine came to be the delicious nectar of the gods that we enjoy today.

The Roman god of wine, Dionysus

Most likely having origins similar to humanity in the middle east, it is believed that wine was discovered by accident while trying to save grapes. After discovering the pleasant drink that crushed and fermented grapes turn into, the rest is history. All cultures from the Ming Dynasty to the Romans have cultivated grapes for the production of wine. Wine was not only used socially as we enjoy it today, but often used as a tonic or medicine and as the only pure thing to drink, as water was often contaminated.


Wine “flasks” shaped with holes in the middle to be strung on a rope and carried by your animal

We were able to see ancient practices of trellising the vines, presses, tanks and barrels. It was cool to see the way of trellising grapes that we still have examples of on the farm here in Todi. The practice has been given up for more practical ways of grape-growing, but for centuries vineyard owners would plant apple or other fruit trees in rows as in an orchard and than plant the vine right next to the trunk of the tree. The grape vine would grow up the tree and through the branches. It’s funny because it has the illusion of a grape tree, and was practical because you were harvesting two crops in one space, but the quality of wine was being hindered by too much shade from the leaves and only half the nutrients because sharing the soil with the tree. Most now use the wire trellising system in some capacity and have a higher quality grape.


Huge wine press continuously used in Italy since the 1600s!

As much as it was a wine museum, it was also a ceramics museum. The reason for all the ceramics was to feature how wine has been stored, poured and carried for thousands of years. It was magnificent to see the ingenuity of thousand year old flasks (see picture above) and what fun the artists had when making pitchers with trick holes so the wine would only come out by holding it in a very particular way. They had so many examples of these “trick” pictures. I told Mitch that being on this trip has helped me get a grasp on dates. Since the U.S. has such a recent exploration it’s easy to think that 1776 is a long time ago, and you always hear “This bla bla bla was built in bla bla bla BC” but it never registered in my head until recently that I was looking at a wine vase in perfect condition, crafted beautifully and that’s 2 thousand years old! I have finally gotten a grasp on the backward counting of BC and have a much better appreciation for everything from pottery to architecture.

Wine is amazing, just when you think you’re finally starting to get a grasp on it you visit the wine museum and your brain is flooded with information again! Wine is agricultural yet classy, fun yet sophisticated and ancient but ever-changing…basically awesome. It was very educational and enjoyable to see how wine went from an accident to grapes being the most cultivated crop in the world and it only continues to grow. This is definitely a site to see if you are planning on a trip to Italy.

Maranda Saling

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