The Authentic Italian Culture Debate

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ilcircolo1“Non ho capito, che cosa vuole, Signora?” (I don’t understand, Ma’am, what is it that you want?”)

My Italian-American dinner companion, fresh off the plane from the Midwest, repeated her request using her best (fake) Italian accent. “Parm-Uh-John-O, por favor.”

The waitress visibly recoiled once she caught the gist of the request. The tone of her voice rose, “Questi sono funghi porcini, freschissimi e molto delicati. Sicuramente non si deve coprire il loro sapore con il parmigiano. Sarebbe un peccato mortale!”

They both looked at me to translate, and more importantly, to diffuse the escalating conflict.

You see, a plate of pasta with fresh, seasonal, delicate, mushrooms should NEVER be covered up with strong Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. In rural Molise, where we were, it’s an offense against God and country. Not to mention the chef.

This week our group of expats, COSÌ, is joining forces with Italy Roundtable for a combined post about “authenticity” as it relates to our individual experiences with Italy. The theme was left intentionally vague so that each of us may interpret it as we wish. For my part, I’d like to ponder what it means to be Italian-American, and if that designation can be called “authentic.”

Under the Floridian Sun

The timing of this post is particularly relevant for me. About a month ago, I had the privilege of attending “Italian Week” in Palm Beach, in my home state of Florida. The event was sponsored by Il Circolo, the local Italian-American society that promotes the preservation of Italian culture in South Florida.ilcircolo

The society was started in 1976 by Reverend Nicholas Maestrini who, upon arriving at his assigned post in Palm Beach, noticed that there was a total lack of awareness of Italian culture in the area. So what did he do?  He literally looked up all the people in the Palm Beach phone book with an Italian last name and invited them to dinner.  Thus started his cultural society.

This was not my first encounter with the group; I first met them back in 2009 when I was studying Italian Literature at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. Their name kept popping up around various Italian events in the area, and I soon came to realize the scope of their activities, and the importance of their contributions.

Besides having a genuine affection for authentic Italian Culture, these folks put their time, efforts, and yes, their money where their hearts are. If it weren’t for their work, it is likely that university programs such as the one at F.A.U. would cease to exist. These “niche” college programs with exceptional faculty and in-depth curriculums (but low enrollment) simply cannot function without private contributions in today’s academic environment. Organizations like Il Circolo are the only thing that stands in the way of universities eliminating these programs outright. If that isn’t authentic, I don’t know what is.

ilcircolo2You hear this debate all the time about whether Italian-American culture has anything to do with the Italian culture of Italy. Well, here’s my take on it: While they are not exactly the same thing, they come from the same place in the heart. The core values are perfectly aligned, even if the vocabulary and recipes and music and other traditions are sometimes disassociated from one another. The important stuff: family, the dinner table, and knowing where you came from…those sentiments are exactly the same.

In July, I spent a few days in New York City and I wrote a post about Little Italy, and how it has slowly lost its Italian character. I suggested that the Old World Italians that first inhabited those immigrant neighborhoods would actually be happy for the Chinese that are now living there. For one thing, it means that their children and grandchildren have moved out—moved out of the inner city and into the American Dream. Little Italy was always meant to be a transitional place between the Old World and the New, and not the final destination of their collective journey.

And so their children did move on and became entrepreneurs, professionals, politicians, and community leaders. But when they gained prosperity, yes, they also lost a bit of so-called “authenticity.” Which is just what their immigrant ancestors would have wanted.

Un caffè americano, per favore

CaptureCoffeeWe do the best we can to preserve what’s authentic, and adapt the rest to make up the difference. During Italian Week, I also met Adriano Cerasaro who, along with his wife Kate and partner Iain, own Rabbit Coffee Roasting Company in nearby Riviera Beach. Adriano is from Rome and he’s a self-proclaimed coffee appassionato. What he and his partner have done is to combine the highest quality international coffee beans with the Italian style of roasting coffee to produce an original product that is the best of both worlds.

Their coffee can make a mean cup of espresso, but more commonly in the States, it’s used for caffè Americano. In fact, they have found great success in selling their Cold Brew—an iced coffee concentrate from Guatemalan beans that creates a refreshing beverage particularly appealing under the hot Florida sun. This is true to the Italian-American spirit: use Old World knowledge and local ingredients to create something unique that borrows from the best of both worlds. You can really taste the difference in their small batch production, especially when compared side-by-side against the Big name in American coffee—you know who I mean.

Italian or American?

Anyone who is an honest student of Italian-American culture knows that there are some pretty huge gaps between the Italy experienced by Italians today, and the culture that our ancestors created in the U.S. a century ago. Italian-Americans use “Italian” words that are often an amalgam of Neapolitan/Calabrian/Sicilian dialect and the immigrant English that their grandparents spoke. Many cook “Sunday Gravy” in their homes instead of ragù. And some like to flash the Gucci accessories that their Italian grandparents would have seen as a sinful waste of money (not to mention an invitation for the malocchio).

So in the end, maybe this debate about “authenticity” is much ado about nothing. It all depends on where you are, as it relates to both time and location. If your feelings and intentions are genuine, then in my mind, they are also authentic.

Just don’t ask the waitress to put parmigiano on your plate of mushroom pasta. There are some indiscretions that just can’t be defended in any culture.

So here are the rest of the posts from the alliance of expat in Italy bloggers:

  1. Jessica – Where is this “authentic Italy” everyone’s looking for? / http://italyexplained.com/italy-roundtable-authenticity/
  2. Gloria – The odd woman out’s view on “authentic Italy”/ http://www.athomeintuscany.org/2015/03/18/the-odd-woman-outs-view-on-authentic-italy
  3. Rebecca – Italy Roundtable: Finocchi Rifatti al Pomodoro
  4. Alexandra – Art and Travel: the authenticity of seeing art in person
  5. Melanie – Everything is Authentic
  6. Kate – On being authenticated / http://www.katebailward.com/drivinglikeamaniac/2015/03/on-being-authenticated/
  7. Michelle – Living Authentically: How Italy Forced the Issue / http://bleedingespresso.com/2015/03/living-authentically-how-italy-forced-the-issue.html
  8. By Georgette of Girl in Florence: ‘Real or Fake? Shop Smart in Italy’ 
  9. By Pete of Englishman in Italy – “How Authentic an Italian are you?”
  10. By Andrea of Sex, Lies and Nutella: “How to be an authentic Italian (in 9 simple steps)”
  11. From Married to Italy, The fear of the fake: What “authenticity” means to a foreigner in a strange land
  12. By Misty of Surviving in Italy: What does it mean to be authentically Italian?
  13. Rochelle of The Unwilling Expat: Leading an Authentic Life in Sicily
  14. Gina of The Florence Diaries: Searching for the Real Italy

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Living in the Caput Mundi and trying to decipher Italian culture for the English speaking world.

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