Tag Archive | "Italian-Americans"

So You Want to Be an American?

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Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shores.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

 

*****

 

These words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty hearken back to a time when the United States government meant them.   From the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, throngs of humanity forsook their homelands to make a long and sometimes perilous journey by sea across the Atlantic Ocean.  Landing on Ellis Island, these people gazed up in wonder at the proud and majestic Lady Liberty.  The torch she held aloft was a metaphor for the travelers’ hopes and dreams: they had finally reached America, the land whose streets were said to be paved with gold.

 

Some came from Ireland; the lucky ones, that is.  Too many Irish men, women, and children died of starvation at sea, the victims of their country’s two potato famines.  Others came from Europe simply to make better lives for themselves and their children.  Irish, Italian, or Eastern European, each group arrived with their own language and culture.  Before they would come to create America’s “melting pot,” their one commonality was their belief in the promises carved onto the Statue of Liberty.

 

As the saying goes, “That was then. This is now.”  Now, those promises are so empty that perhaps we should consider scrapping them as we did the Berlin Wall.  The truth is that the golden door is closed for the huddled masses and wretched refuse named in the inscription on Lady Liberty.  The Land of the Free is no longer free of charge.  Today, it costs money to apply for U.S. citizenship.

 

According to the USCIS (United States Citizenship & Immigration Service), that cost is $680.00 American dollars, $595.00 of which is required to process a single application from a single foreigner.  The remaining $85.00 is for biometric fees.  A full 90% of the USCIS’ budget comes from these fees.  The fees are adjusted every two years and guess what?  They are never adjusted downward.  The USCIS claims that the process of naturalization – the final step before attaining citizenship — is expensive.  Indeed, it is.  As a requirement for attaining citizenship, immigrants must be permanent, legal residents of the United States for at least five years.  This time span is shorter if applicants’ parents or spouses are U.S, citizens.

 

Some immigrants, however, don’t achieve citizenship so, ahem, quickly.  For some living and working under reduced circumstances, it’s difficult to save up the necessary fees.  Adding insult to injury is the fact that the fees are non-refundable; neither does their payment guarantee citizenship.  Even Green Cards carry fees.  But hey, the USCIS doesn’t care about these petty matters.  With 90% of the agency’s budget dependent upon the fees it charges, one can only assume just how hefty the salaries of the agency’s top management must be.

 

As Popeye would say, “I can read written an’ write wrotten, but this writin’ is wrotten rotten.”  I guess the USCIS wants to acquaint would-be citizens with the American banking system before they even arrive on our shores.

 

However, all is not rotten in Denmark … I mean, the U.S. of A.  The Obama administration has demonstrated its commitment to encouraging increased citizenship because it is good for America.  Ali Noonani, Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum, stated, “We applaud the Administration for not increasing [fees] and putting a halt to increased fees for immigrants who are eager to become American citizens.”   But even if the fees remain where they are, would-be citizens still have to come up with 680 bucks.  This truly is good for America because our government has discovered a new source of revenue that does not involve taxing the rich.  All we need are immigrants willing and able to pay into the system.

 

It is any wonder that hordes of aliens are streaming illegally across our southern borders in hot pursuit of the American Dream?  For those who slip like butter past the border guards, life is but a dream.  But for those trying to enter this country legally, that dream has become a nightmare.

 

Easter, Italian Style

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Too many years after I’ve supposedly grown up, I still crave a loaded Easter basket as Lent draws closer to the day of Jesus’ resurrection.  Maybe I never did grow up.  Or maybe I’ve just had memorable, if not schizophrenic Easters as a kid.

 

In Catholic school, Easter, and particularly Lent, were solemn occasions marked by ritual, soul-cleansing, and sacrifice.  But at home with my Italian-American family, Lent was a time of reflection, not self-recrimination, culminating in a boisterous, joyous celebration on Easter Sunday.

 

Every Ash Wednesday, I marched into church under the nuns’ watchful eyes.  Single file and quiet as, well, church-mice, my classmates and I anxiously awaited our turn with a humorless priest.  The air was musky with incense and the church dark but for the banks of glowing red candles bracketing the altar and the light filtering in through the tall, colorful stained glass windows.  One by one, the priest marked our foreheads with the ceremonial ashes, muttering, “Thou are dust, and to dust thou shalt return.”  The thought of turning to dust frightened me, but the fright didn’t last long.  Sprung from school, my friends and I encountered the kids from the public school down the block.  They’d point at us and laugh, asking if we knew we had dirt on our faces.  We’d respond by asking if they wanted to eat dirt.   Repeated every Ash Wednesday, this Mexican stand off became our own ritual.

 

When I arrived home after ashes, it was with a small cardboard box, courtesy of the nuns.  I had to assemble the box, and when I did, a black and white photo of starving children gazed out at me woefully.  Since my sister brought home the very same box, my mother grieved — and not for the starving children.  We were compelled to fill the boxes with a coin a day throughout the Lenten season and hand the boxes back to the nuns, fully loaded, just before the Easter break.  My friends’ parents gave them a nickel a day, or sometimes a dime, with which to feed the starving children.  My sister and I got a penny a day from my parents, who didn’t have much money and who never got over the harsh reality of growing up during the Great Depression.

 

One year, I’d hung a gift, a small holy water font adorned with an angel, above my coin box.  After depositing my daily penny, I’d make the Sign of the Cross with my little holy-watered fingers.  I’d pray to that little angel that the nuns never open the boxes and see that I couldn’t give silver coins like the rest of the kids did.  The angels took mercy upon me, but the daily pennies were not the only source of angst during Lent.

 

Every kid also had to give up something they dearly loved for Lent – and every kid had to report what they’d given up in front of their entire class and the scowling nuns.  I’d cogitate giving up my best friend Billy for a whole forty days, but that was too cruel a sacrifice.  Billy was the only friend whose irreverence for the nuns rivaled my own.  So I tried getting way with giving up chocolate, but that didn’t work.  Thanks to raging allergies I’d suffered as a child, the entire school knew that if a piece of chocolate passed my lips, my arms would break out in a horrid rash.

 

Thus cornered, I swore to lay off non-chocolate candy, like strawberry twists and Chuckles™.  Asking a kid to give up candy for that long is like asking an alcoholic to lay off the booze.  I’d be saintly for a week, maybe two, and then cave and confess my sin in a darkened confessional every Saturday afternoon.  Behind the screen, my favorite disembodied priest, Father Frank, never chastised me.  I think he would have whispered, “It’s okay, kid; in the grand scheme of things, snitching a little candy is not a sin.”  But he had to bow to the rules, so I got off with a couple of Hail Marys and an Our Father hastily said at the altar.

 

Good Friday was a dreaded event, for my mother unerringly dragged me off to church to pray the Stations of the Cross.  The east and west walls of our beautiful church featured nearly large as life dark wooden bas-reliefs of Jesus at every Station of the Cross.  The carvings depicted a sorrowful Christ scourged by the Roman guards, crowned with thorns, stumbling beneath the weight of the cross, and more, things that make today’s horror movies seem like cartoons.  The images were disturbing, particularly for a kid.  But the worst was my mother’s very audible sobbing and praying at every Station.  I always scouted around for that proverbial hole going down to China, but the marble floors of the church were unrelenting.

 

Simultaneous to these religious rituals, happier things were going at home.  My parents were squirreling away the jelly beans, straw “grass,” and stuffed chicks and bunnies that would populate my Easter basket (my sister’s included the foiled chocolate eggs verboten for me).  And, there were my blessed Easter outfits. 

 

To save money, every winter coat that my mother bought was always, and I do not exaggerate, three sizes too big for teeny little me so that I could grow into it (which I never did).  But Easter was a different story.  Perhaps in light of Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice, my mother sprang for a new spring coat every Easter.  Ah, spring coats, genteel things of the past!  I distinctly remember a soft pink coat, a sunny yellow one, and a rather stylish black and white window box plaid, all of which I was allowed to choose.  These were accessorized with white or black patent leather shoes (depending upon the color of the coat), a dainty pair of gloves, and a hat of my choosing, often with a little net pulled down over my eyes for drama.

 

My only task, other than to fill the coin box with pennies and break my fast with alarming regularity, was to color the eggs.  I loved doing this, but because of my mother’s job and need to keep house, I was left to my own devices.  Unsupervised, I boiled eggs on the stove and then colored them with dull tablets that bloomed into miraculously bright clouds when dropped into vinegar and water.  One year, my mother insisted that my friends and I watch “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”  To mitigate this Executive Order (who among us really wanted to see Jesus crucified?), I proudly passed out the colored Easter eggs to my pals.  My friend Anita was so upset by Jesus’ on-screen suffering that she gripped her egg a little too anxiously.  It exploded all over her, the couch, me, and the wall.  I’d goofed with that egg, you see, by forgetting to hard boil it!  Talk about having egg on your face!

 

One flight below us, my grandparents broke their own eggs, stirred pots, and did other things in their pre-Easter pas de deux.  Their labor of love was to prepare, cook, and/or bake the antipasti, lasagna, meatballs, sausage, and grain pies from scratch for their four children, their children’s spouses, their twelve grandchildren, and the various and sundry relatives that showed up unannounced for Easter dinner and dessert.

 

One year, we counted forty people, the majority of whom simply crashed the party.  But who could blame them?  My grandparents’ food was that delicious and the celebration that much fun!   My uncles’ jokes and raucous laughter volleyed across the table, the red wine was poured liberally, and we kids scurried around, rolling eggs, showing off our outfits, and singing and dancing to Motown hits.

 

The piece d’ resistance of those Easter feasts was the grain pies, plural.   Grain pies appeared on the table after the meal, and grain pies went home with each happy family.  For the uninitiated, picture an American cheesecake, but just barely.  Grain pies were half the height and half as heavy as their American cousins, moistened with pearls of tapioca-like grain soaked in milk overnight and folded into a ricotta, sugar, egg, and citron mixture.  Strips of pinked dough crisscrossed the tops of the pies, out of respect for The Cross and He who had died upon it.   Even now, at Easter, in every Italian bakery in New York, you will find grain pies.  I have tasted many of them.  And none of them has ever come close to the melting moistness of my grandparents’ … maybe because they were made with genuine love – as were these, my Easter memories.

 

Arrotini (Grinders)

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A newspaper article that appeared in the November 10, 2011 edition of The Italian Tribune newspaper reminded me of my grandfather, the patriarch of our family.  Arrotini was the name of the article.


If someone would have asked me about the word “Arrotini,” my first response would have been, “It is a pasta made in Italy.”  But to my surprise, Arrotini translates to “grinders” in English!  And, here’s why that word brought my grandfather to mind most recently.


Rocco, my granddad, emigrated to America in 1896.  He hailed from the village of Castelluccio Val-Maggiore in the province of Foggia, Apulia, Italy.  After my grandmother, Filomena, had passed on, Rocco had to leave his son, Donato (my father) with family in Italy, until my grandfather had established himself in America.


Rocco settled in Rosetto, Pennsylvania, where he remarried Giovanna Campanaro.  Upon his marriage, he sent for Donato.  In 1901, my dad, Donato, accompanied by a chaperone from the town of his birth, arrived in Pennsylvania to begin his life in America.


My had grandfather come over with few skills.  All he had were the muscles in his arms and the drive to forge a decent life here for his family.  As a result, he earned his living working as a laborer. One of the skills he acquired was to sharpen cutlery with a small hand-propelled grinding wheel.


Most of his work was seasonal.  During off season times, he would strap that small grinding wheel onto his back and walk through his town as well as neighboring towns, calling out his services to attract business; he  sharpened cutlery and tools for housewives and anyone else with a need.  It has been rumored in the family that on one occasion, he’d walked as far as Pittsburgh, eking out a living for his family.


In 1910, prompted by better job opportunities, Rocco and Giovanna moved to South Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where they continued to raise their family.  In the ’30s, Rocco managed to procure a job with the city’s Sanitation Department.  He collected trash for a living, in the days when such workers were known as garbage men and not the misleading euphemism of “sanitation engineer.”   It was a job that he would keep until his retirement.


One did not have to ask Rocco what his occupation was; just a simple handshake told the story.  He was a large man, with years of hard, physical hard labor etched upon his face and his character.  His sources of enjoyment were simple: his wife, his family and friends, Italian cigars, and his dark, pungent homemade wine.


During my formative years, every Sunday evening meant a visit to my granddad’s home, which was the gathering place for the entire family. All the kids were assigned to the living room, while all the grownups conversed in the kitchen.  When refreshments were served, the children were then allowed around the table.


Ours was a military family.  My granddad’s eldest son, Donato, enlisted in the United States Navy during World War I.  Donato’s step-siblings were Filomena, Nicholas, Jenny, Lucia, Biagio, and Rocco Jr.: the children who later became my uncles and aunts, and some of whom became U.S. soldiers.


With the attack upon Pearl Harbor, America entered World War II.  As named by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “our sons, the pride of our nation,” marched or were drafted into that long global conflict.  My family was no exception.

 

Uncle Bill (Biagio) enlisted in the US Air Force and saw action in the North African and European theatres with the 448th Bombardment Squadron.  Drafted into the U.S. Army, Uncle Nick was deployed to Italy as a member of the 34th Infantry Division.  Uncle Rocco, Jr. did not go overseas; he was assigned to the U.S. Army stationed at the Frankford Arsenal in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  I followed two my uncles overseas.  Attached to the 24th Infantry Division in the Philippine Islands, I became part of a multi-national Allied coalition in a stabilizing/peacekeeping mission.  For a full year, I was stationed in Japan after that nation’s Emperor had surrendered to the Allies.


My grandparents both passed away in the same year, 1942. Perhaps the timing was a coincidence, or perhaps it was a matter of lifelong devotion to each other, a devotion that did carried into the next life.   When they passed on, they left the family with a legacy of hope and survival.  They never lived to see their sons return from war, or their grandson; they never witnessed the warm welcome that we all received from our loved ones waiting patiently, and praying for our safety, at home.


I guess many families of immigrants can relate to this story, for World War II produced 16 million men under arms before it ended.


As I subscribe to The Italian Tribune and read the articles about Italians, Italian-Americans, and their way of life, I never fail to reminisce about events that happened to, or helped to shape, my family.  All the years that I told people that my grandfather was a garbage collector, I never envisioned when the day would come when I could say that I knew for a fact that he’d possessed a marketable skill, a skill that had put food on his family’s table for a number of years.  Thanks to that newspaper and its illumination of the word, “Arrotino,” I will always equate “grinder” with my granddad’s trade of sharpening cutlery and tools for neighborhoods far and wide.


Toasting a Healthy New Year

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My little niece, now 22 years old, has always run to extremes.  In her academic career, she’s consistently ranked among the top 5% of her class, even in Physics, her “bear” subject.  Jaimie* even earned a partial scholarship to Columbia University, to pursue her Master’s degree, but in typical Jaimie fashion, chose a much smaller, non-Ivy League school closer to home.  Her clothing, makeup, accessories, and techno-gadgets, ever since I can remember, are the prettiest, the best, the most current.  Anything else, she’s eschewed with the snobbery mustered only by the young and uber-confident.  About six years ago, my niece latched onto another extreme in her eating habits.


Red meat has not touched her lips in all that time.  Fat is avoided at all costs, unless it is “good fat,” such as that provided by salmon, tuna, or halibut (and she won’t eat much of the latter two, due to the threat of mercury).  She shops at the wonderful and costly Whole Foods® whenever possible, though there is but one such store in her area, and even that is located a distance from her home.  Jaimie’s daily, no bad carbs diet consists of the following, in this exact order:


1. Oatmeal with skim milk, nuts, and fruits (no sweetener of any kind, not even Agave nectar).


2. An organic apple with all-natural almond butter


3. A cup of plain Greek yogurt with fresh or dried blueberries


4. Another piece of fruit of her choosing, organic, of course


5. Multitudinous vegetables for dinner with approximately 3 ounces of lean protein


On New Year’s Eve, I watched my niece, who is 5’6″ without an ounce of discernable fat on her frame, who enjoys running, and who is not, thank God, anorexic, gobble two cookies and then beat herself up about it.   I told her to forgive herself, for it was a small discretion committed on a holiday.  I said this as I popped the pills that I am compelled to take nightly, to counteract allergies, asthma, and another health issue that, if not properly managed, can be significant.


At three o’clock on the morn of the brand new year, after kissing my niece and the rest of the family goodbye, I arrived home to a small miracle.  My older kitty, who has not been doing well, was not only eating on her own, unassisted, she was eating the healthiest food of all: her new, lower-protein kibble that she has been unable to manage of late.  My husband and I had consulted a homeopathic vet for her earlier that same day, a vet who’d put our girl on all-natural whey protein and who showed us an easier way to give her the necessary fluids via IV.


I awoke on January 1st thinking that none of this could be a coincidence, including the date on the calendar portending a new start.


Maybe Jaimie isn’t such an extremist, after all; surely, she will be healthier than her aunt as well as a lot of others who are not as conscious of their diet and exercise.  And methinks the homeopathic vet is on to something, particularly considering that the state-of-the-art veterinary service we’d consulted previously had sent my husband and me home to sit a deathwatch on our beloved cat.


I am the first one to use and promote homeopathic products (i.e., salt or honey to close small wounds, a Netty Pot® to clear stuffy sinuses, red wine to stave off macular degeneration).  But I could be better about my overall diet, and in fact, I was, when I was diagnosed early this year with the afore-mentioned condition.  I actually love healthy foods but don’t eat enough of them.


In the manner of many Italian-Americans, I’d cooked three fish salads for this New Year’s Eve celebration, knowing that they and their leftovers would be both tasty and extremely healthy.  But my husband had picked up small trays of eggplant rollatini and stuffed shells at a local salameria, so that I would not have to cook for New Year’s Day.  As I scooped out the rich food to warm it up, I pulled off all of the external mozzarella, thinking, “That stuff is going right into our arteries.”   By the time I was done with the mozzarella, I didn’t even want to eat the food, but neither did I want to waste our hard-earned money.


“There’s a healthier way to do both dishes,” I thought, “and I’m going to find them.”   Small changes, over time, will yield big results.  Rarely do I make New Year’s resolutions, for rarely do I keep them.  But with Jaimie and our rallying kitty for inspiration, I made the resolution to treat my husband and myself better this year in terms of the foods that we consume and the amount of exercise in which we engage.  I think we can do it.  And I think we’re going to have a happier, much healthier New Year for it … ancient Mayan prophesies notwithstanding!  :-)


*  A pseudonym, to protect my niece’s privacy.



Where Angels Fear to Tread

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Today, my mother turned 86 years young.  I called her to wish her a happy birthday and somehow, we got onto the topic of politics.  History has taught me nothing, for it’s impossible to have a serious discussion with my mother, the female Yogi Bera and soul sister to Lucille Ball.  This morning, I pontificated, “It’s not possible to run for public office in this country unless you’re filthy rich!”  A heartbeat later, my mother’s asked sweetly, “Oh, when did that change?”


My mother’s comedy routines began in early childhood.  It’s not that she set out to make people laugh; it’s just that … like certain angels … trouble simply followed her.  Hilarious trouble!


At the tender age of nine, my mom was a product of extreme poverty.  The Great Depression and my grandfather’s illness meant no luxuries of any kind, for it was a struggle in those days for my grandmother, the sole breadwinner, to put food on the table, pay the rent, and clothe her family.  Understandably, when my mom’s Uncle Dan pulled up in front of her brownstone one day in a shiny brand new car, she thought she’d landed in Oz’s Emerald City.   My mother’s aunts were already crammed into the car’s front and back seats, but Uncle Dan rolled down the window and hollered for his young niece to hop into his new jalopy.  She didn’t need a second invitation for her very first ride in an automobile.


As the aunts yammered on excitedly, Dan made a rather sharp turn at a corner.  Like kids piled into a carnival ride, the aunts all shifted en masse … against my mother.  Under their combined weight, the door flew open, my 9-year-old mom rolled into a puddle, and the aunts continued to chatter on, oblivious to their loss.  Dan had his eyes on the road ahead of him, not the puddle behind him.  No one missed my mother as the car rolled blithely along with the passenger door flung gregariously wide.


A few minutes later, a wet and very ticked-off little Mary came up to the car, wind-milling her arms and legs and hollering at the top of her lungs at her stunned relatives, who blamed her for the tumble.  My mother was completely unharmed, for as she often says, “Thank God I was born with a hard head!”  Hard as it was, that head still gave her some trouble.


At the age of twelve, tomboy Mary was playing in the street (probably the same one into which she’d rolled three years earlier).  As it was not considered “lady like” to play where cars rolled by and horses clopped, all the other kids on that street were boys, including my mom’s two brothers.  Now, my Uncle Vince had a good friend nicknamed Whitey.  The reasons for his nickname were his platinum blond hair and pale blue eyes.  In an Italian-American neighborhood, the fair Whitey stuck out like a sore thumb — but his looks were not his only distinction.


Whitey, though young, was already in possession of two JD (Juvenile Delinquent) cards, courtesy of the NYPD.  New York City law demanded that if a boy incurred three JD cards, he’d become a guest of the State.  Unruly boys were jailed in those days.  And these were real jails, not today’s politically correct holding pens where perps “get religion” and subsequent early release.


That day, Whitey the JD was amusing himself by tossing rocks around.  He knew not to aim at the other kids or the windows on the brownstones.  Being a city kid with no pond upon which to skim stones, he was flinging rocks at nothing in particular.


My mother had just finished chalking up the street with a hopscotch diagram.  She straightened up to proudly admire her handiwork.  In the instant that she did, she caught one of Whitey’s rocks right in her third-eye chakra: smack between her eyes.  Under the impact, she swooned to the ground like a Victorian maiden, bleeding profusely.  Housewives hanging out of windows screamed bloody murder.  They screamed for my grandmother.  Whitey turned even whiter and ran for the hills, not even stopping to see if he’d done away with my mother.  Quick like bunnies, my uncles snatched up my mom and ran with her straight to the pharmacy, with my screaming/praying grandmother in tow.  In those days, few people had money for doctors, so pharmacists filled the bill except in the direst of emergencies.


Bleeding and woozy from her ordeal, my mother endured the two stitches that the pharmacist put in her head.  As if sewing up a hole in a sock, he was not artful as a physician would have been.  His handiwork would leave a scar between my mother’s eyes in the shape of Jesus’ cross, an appropriate and most noticeable symbol for one pulled all too often out of harm’s way.   Whether out of guilt or pity, the pharmacist then handed my mother a cool, delicious ice cream cone, free of charge.  Ice cream, a costly luxury, was never, ever seen in her home.  Immediately, her brothers commandeered the treat, telling their injured sister between licks that she was too ill to eat the cone!


Whitey vanished into thin air.  For years, no one had seen him or heard from him, not his family and not even my Uncle Vince, who had been his close friend.


When my mom was all grown up and working in the department store in which she was destined to meet my dad, management put her behind the sweater counter, selling fine women’s sweaters sewn with sequins and other feminine embellishments of the day.  She was a natural saleswoman, warm and friendly with customers.  Hardly anyone walked away from her counter without making a purchase.


One day, a couple strolled into her department.  As the woman examined the sweaters my mother had placed on the counter, my mom took a good long look at the man.  Something about him nagged at her as she struggled to recall a childhood face matured into that of a man.  Suddenly, it dawned.  “Whitey!” my mother exclaimed.  Instantly, Whitey turned, well, white.  “You — you must have mistaken me for someone else,” he stammered.


“You mean you don’t remember me?” my mother asked incredulously. “I’m Mary, Vince’s sister, from the old neighborhood.”  “I’m sorry; you’ve mistaken me for someone,” Whitey insisted again, guilt written in his pale blue eyes and the blush creeping up into his platinum blond hair.


“Oh yeah?” my mother countered in her best Edward G. Robinson voice.  Pointing to the cross between her eyes, she demanded, “Did you forget this as well?!?  You put it there!”  At that, Whitey snatched the sweater out of his wife’s hands, tossed it onto the counter, and hauled her out of the store as if his butt were on fire.  Across the selling floor, my mother’s department manager was stunned.  “You didn’t make that sale,” the woman said in surprise.  “That man looked as if he’d seen a ghost.  What did you say to him?”  “Beats me,” my mother shrugged innocently.


Like Ricky Ricardo’s Lucy, my mother was always getting herself into a pickle.  She had a real problem with doors that locked, particularly bathroom doors.  Being a modest woman, she insisted upon locking those doors. But being mechanically inept, she also managed to lock herself into a number of bathrooms in her lifetime.


When I was eleven years old and suffering from the flu, she did just that.  A frantic pounding and howling from behind the bathroom door roused me out of bed.  Hot with fever, I told her not to worry, that I’d phone my dad.  When I did, he snapped, “Deal with it!  I’m at the office; I’m trying to earn a paycheck here!”  “Hang on,” I told my mom, “I’ll go get Grandma and Grandpa.”


My grandparents lived in the apartment below us; it was their house.  My grandfather was more meticulous than Felix Unger could ever hope to be.  To give you but one example of his fastidiousness, my grandfather ironed and folded rags! That day, he and my Gran were hanging wallpaper that had a very distinct pattern; one screw-up and their walls would have looked like hell.  “I’m hanging wallpaper here,” my grandfather insisted. “So? Your mother’s always locking herself into bathrooms!”


With no hope on the horizon, I shuffled upstairs in my bathrobe and leaned against the bathroom door — wherein, my mother was having a very serious panic attack, for she was claustrophobic.  Like Dracula’s Renfeld harnessed into a straightjacket, she was working herself into a real lather … except that my mother’s straightjacket was a locked bathroom door.


Rationally, I told her, “Ma, you’ll be okay.  You have running water if you’re thirsty.  You have a toilet if you have to go.  And you have a window for fresh air.  Go open it and take a good deep breath.  Ma … you opened the window?”


“Yes.  Thanks.  You’re so calm!”


Of course I was; I had a fever of 101.  “Don’t worry,” I soothed. “I’m gonna call the Fire Department now.  They’ll bring a ladder and you can climb down.”


“Noooooooooooooooooooooooo!!” she shrieked.  “I’m afraid of heights!!!!!!!!!!!”


“Ma.  We’re only two stories up.”

“I am not climbing down that ladder!!!!”


“Okay, then stay there ’til Daddy gets home.”  It was ten thirty in the morning, and Daddy would not be home until about 6 PM, if the subway gods were kind.


“Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!”


Summoned by the screams through the open window, my grandparents had left their glue pots and curling wallpaper to check out the situation.  “Break the door down, Grandpa,” I suggested mildly, suddenly wanting to see some action.  My grandfather looked at me as if I’d lost my mind.  “You know I just painted that door last month.  I’m not ruining my house!”


Thus at a loss, he consulted the neighbors.  In a matter of minutes, every neighbor on the block was convened outside my bathroom door.  This meeting of the minds included Mike, a convivial little terrier of a man who lived directly behind us and was rumored to like his booze.  Come to think of it, Mike did smell a tad medicinal that day. “Don’t worry, Mary,” he said to the door, “we’ll just remove the door frame, get at the hinges, and take ’em off.”


“Over my dead body!” thundered my granddad.  From behind the door, my mother alternately moaned, screamed, and supplicated as if she were being dismembered.  I eyed my grandfather knowingly. “You’ll never get that room wallpapered at this rate, Grandpa.”

“What else ya got?” he then demanded of Mike.


“Nuthin’,” Mike shrugged.  Neither did anyone else.  They wound up removing the frame and the hinges, after all, and then replacing everything.  When my dad got home, he arrived suspicious, for my mother, as I’d said, had had problems with bathroom locks all her life.  He walked into the bathroom, locked the door behind him, and then jiggled the lock, as you would a thing that has a tendency to stick.  It opened easily!


My mother was so grateful to Mike that, after her escape, she ran to the fridge to liberate the lone can of beer in there (my family were not big drinkers).  She tossed the can over the fence to Mike, who caught it with a gleam in his eye.  A few minutes later, our phone rang.  It was Mike.  “Mary,” he drawled, “you lobbed that beer at me like Whitey Ford pitchin’ a ball.  It exploded all over my kitchen ceiling!”


Trouble follows some angels, yes.  But even some angels are afraid to tread where my mother goes!


Of Roses, Thorns, and Stevedores

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He’d inadvertently witnessed a Mob slaying when his wife was eight months pregnant.  Under cover of night, taking virtually no possessions, they fled New York City for Boston, grateful to be escaping with their lives and that of their unborn child — their first of ten boys and girls.


Thus was the unborn child in this real-life drama, my grandfather, the only one of his siblings to emerge from the womb not in The Big Apple, but in Bean Town.  Due to the very real fear of a Mob reprisal, my grandfather’s birth in 1891 was so clandestine that all his parents ever recounted was, “Joe was born on a hot day in July.”  Since that was like saying that Eskimos lived in the cold, my granddad, as a boy, adopted the Fourth of July as his birthday.  It was a date appropriate for a budding patriot and future war hero.


As an American-born kid of Italian immigrant parents, he grew up fast and hard in a town a lot more Irish than Italian.  When the Mobsters in question were all safely behind bars, the family moved back to New York City, a literal stone’s throw from the Brooklyn Bridge.  Joe took with him his street smarts and wry sense of humor.  Both of these stood him well in his job as stevedore on the rough Brooklyn docks.


In those days, mobs of n’er-do-wells, tipped off by their buddies on the wharf, would lie in wait at night to overcome and sometimes kill the stevedores in order to loot the valuable incoming freight.  The Irishmen on the docks didn’t like Joe any better in New York than they had in Boston, but he never backed down from a fight.  Eventually, they grew to respect him, his fists, and his “never say die” attitude.


Joe worked hard, but so did his wife, my grandmother Rose.  Rose only married him to get out of the house, or so she’d vowed, and often, right in front of my grandfather!  But theirs was a true love story, bittersweet and inspiring.


Held a virtual captive under her father’s roof seven days a week for eight long years as her family of eight’s sole source of income (she sewed gloves purchased by a manufacturer in the city), Rose was not swept off her feet by Joe, whom she had met at a rare family function, in a rare moment of respite.  But he fell hard for her beauty and natural charm, and she liked his humor.


She liked the fact that he stood up to her father, the family despot.  She liked it that Joe dressed nattily when he wasn’t dockside, with diamond pins in the lapels of his fine suits; she liked it that he’d been to the opera as well as the motion pictures (unprecedented treats for her).  She liked that he was knowledgeable and passionate about politics.  She liked that he took her to ice cream parlors in the days when women were still frowned upon in such establishments, and that he proudly showed her off there.  Joe was a man of the world and she, a quiet Italian immigrant eleven years his junior, an immigrant, at the time, with no English language skills.


On the eve of their marriage, in church, Joe and Rose sat a little too close together for my maternal great-grandmother’s tastes.  She told her future son-in-law to keep his hands where she could see them.  Joe grinned his famous mega-watt smile and asked if his mother-in-law-to-be would like to sleep between him and his bride the following night!


Joe taught Rose English.  She taught him spirituality.  They shared a sense of humor wrought of growing up in hard times.  All went well with Joe and Rose, and their growing family, until he became permanently disabled as a result of an old, increasingly debilitating injury sustained in World War I.


Theirs had been a traditional marriage, but when my grandfather was no longer fit for dock duty, or any job for that matter, my grandmother secured work in a factory, sewing those gloves.  Her skill, persistence, and strong people skills earned her the job of supervisor: a decent-paying job to which many men of her class aspired, particularly during the Great Depression, when so many were jobless and hungry.


Joe stayed home to raise their four children.  Rose made the money and eventually purchased a family home in a nicer section of Brooklyn, all on her own dimes.  Once, pushed to the limit and knowing her rights as a sworn-in American citizen, my grandmother broke the back of a corrupt union.   She did it single-handedly, logically, and courageously, knowing that she had five mouths to feed at home and knowing how rough the unions were, even in those days. Methinks she learned a thing or two from her husband, the former stevedore — but her victory was won without ever striking a literal blow.


My grandmother was a strong, spiritual woman; my grandfather, a strong, spiritual man.  Neither one of them groused about their odd but workable role reversal.  They were simply partners, life partners supporting each other and their family.


The habits that Joe had acquired during the early days of this role reversal were never discarded; as a small child growing up under his roof, I saw them firsthand.  Never have I known a woman to keep a house so neat and orderly as my granddad, never — and in the Italian-American culture, this is saying a lot.  He kept the house, cooked the meals, gardened, and made sure his kids toed the line and grew up right.


As the first grandchild born into his house, I became his primary lifeline to the outside world.  He had his daily newspapers, TV, radio, and Life magazines, of course; he had the neighbors and his nine siblings and their families for conversation and company.  But it was me he took an interest in most.


From my grandfather, I learned about politics; from him I gained an appreciation for the early, laudable mission statement of the Democrats.  I’d come home every day in my little Catholic school uniform, and he’d want to know what I had learned in school.  We’d discuss those things, and then he’d illuminate what the nuns had not: who President FDR was, why he was such a great man, and how he’d saved the nation during the Great Depression.  He’d speak also of the intrepid Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders.  He’d held up John F. Kennedy as the greatest President we’d ever had, after George Washington and Abe Lincoln, of course.

We’d peruse the newspapers together and he shielded me from nothing.  The Vietnam War raged on during my grammar school years, and the animosity between a tiny, brave nation (Israel) and a bloodthirsty Middle East was really heating up.  The papers, and Life magazine, were filled with the most horrible stories and photos.  Although a decorated war hero, my grandfather would turn his dark, solemn eyes upon me and say, “War is never glorious; war is hell.”


I don’t think they ever realized it — and my grandfather barely lived to see it — but his patriotism and hatred of war, coupled with my grandmother’s courage and fundamental knowledge of U.S. law, set the table for me to demonstrate peacefully for positive change, both in New York City and our nation’s capital.


During the summer, when school was out, I’d become my grandfather’s secretary.  He’d dictate letters to me and I would write them out longhand. But he always posted them himself.  He’d joke, “I want to be sure you put them in the mail box and not the fire alarm box.”  Some of the letters were to his cousin, one of the founding Sisters of the Carmalite order, of whom he was very proud.  Others went to a surviving war buddy; still others were sent to family friends.  When I finally borrowed a typewriter in my early teens and he spied the results on paper, he was astounded, wanting to know how I got the print so very neat!  He taught me politics and I taught him the technology of the times, including the benefits of a transistor radio during a major blackout.


My granddad, along with my grandmother, also taught me the joy of cooking.  It was he who taught me never to overwork dough for pastries, for it would become tough.  Upon my first solo attempt at cinnamon rolls, he cracked, “We can send these to the Israelis to use as weapons.”  I was hurt, he apologized, and we both had a good laugh.  And never again did I muck up the pastry dough!  He died at the age of 80, as a direct result of that old war injury, the worst of which he’d managed to keep at bay for decades.  My grandmother had told me many times, “In those days, men died like flies on the operating tables, with injuries like that.  God spared your grandfather for many good years.”


Some of my relatives still recall my grandfather as a hard man, intractable in his views and, like his political heroes, speaking softly but carrying a big stick.  I remember a man who still flirted with my grandmother when they were both senior citizens, a man who always took the time to speak with me as if I had a brain instead of being a child to be “seen and not heard,” a man who quietly solidified the unflagging spirituality that had bolstered my grandmother through some very hard times.


To this day, I do not carry a single bad memory of my grandfather.  All I have are fond memories that never fail to make me smile.  When he passed after I’d turned 16, I had a dream about him, almost as soon as we’d buried him.


In the dream, I was walking along the avenue on which we’d lived.  I ran into my grandfather coming from the opposite direction and cried, “Grandpa, what are you doing here?!?”  Even in dream state, I was well aware that he had passed on.  Excitedly, he said, “Kat-a-leen, we always talked in life.  You always gave me good advice and I gave it to you.  Up in heaven, where I am now, I met this Jewish lady.  She’s very nice.  But more than that, she knows her politics.  We have wonderful heated discussions; they’re so lively and I enjoy them so much.  What do you think about that?”


He seemed to want my approval.


Shocked, I blurted, “Grandpa!   If you’re having a relationship with this Jewish lady, even a friendship, what are you going to tell Grandma when she joins you in heaven?!?”


He looked just as stunned as I’d felt.  “You’re right!” he exclaimed.  “Of course, you’re right. I didn’t think about that.  Thank you!”  With that, the dream ended!  


In retrospect, I am not so sure that it was a dream; it may have been a nighttime communiqué from my granddad, from the other side, for it was so very like him.   To this day, I wonder if my grandmother, when she got to Heaven to join him, went looking for that nice Jewish lady to give her a piece of her mind! 


Remembering the Greatest Generation

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To the best of my knowledge, my grandfather Rocco Petruzzelli was born in Italy in 1865.  In 1896, he left his homeland and the village of Castelluccio Valmaggiore near Foggia / Apulia, Italy and set out for America, leaving his son and my father Donato – born a matter of months earlier on October 31, 1895 – with relatives.  Apparently, Rocco’s wife and the mother of Donato, Filomena (nee Schiavone) died during or shortly after childbirth.


Upon arrival in America, my grandfather settled in Roseto, Pennsylvania, an enclave populated primarily by Italian immigrants and named for the village of Roseto Valfortore in Italy.  There, he met and married Giovanna Campanaro and, shortly thereafter, sent word to Italy for his son to join him.


Donato, then age 5, left Castelluccio accompanied by Domenico Rosso, a family friend from the village.  Years later, he told me that when he left home, he was riding on the back of a donkey and that, as he and Domenico departed, the villagers came out to wave goodbye.


They arrived in New York City, America in January 1901.  Anxiously awaiting their arrival, my grandfather somehow missed them as they landed at the dock.  Frantic, he contacted the New York Police, and they searched the entire area to no avail.  The police advised him to return to Roseto where, they reasoned, the person accompanying him would likely go.  Arriving home, Rocco found that his son and friend had preceded him from New York.  Safe and sound in Roseto, a joyous reunion and celebration commenced.


The Petruzzelli family continued to reside and grow in Roseto.  Not a skilled worker, my grandfather worked laborious jobs to eke out a living.  When there was no work available, he would strap a small grinding wheel on his back and seek out opportunities to sharpen knives, scissors, and various types of cutting tools.  Often, the search for work would find him walking to other towns.  One year, he walked all the way to Pittsburgh, a distance of more than 250 miles, sharpening knives and tools to provide for his family.


Nine years later, he moved his family to Philadelphia in an effort to enhance his own employment prospects and the quality of life for his family.  They settled in South Philadelphia residing in a house at 1240 South Iseminger Street.   My grandfather secured a job as a laborer with the Philadelphia Street Department, and in 1912 at the age of 47, proudly became a Naturalized Citizen of the United States of America.   At the time, his wife Giovanna (Joanne) was 14 years his junior, and they lived with their five children – Donato age 17, Filomena 8, Lucia 5, Jane 3, and Nicholas 1.


A few short years later, they purchased a home in the 1100 Block of Cross Street that would be our extended family’s gathering place in the years to follow and their residence for the remainder of my grandparents’ lives.  Here, they had two more sons, Biagio (Bill) and Rocco Jr., bringing the family total to 7 children.  When the United States entered World War l, my father Donato left this home, enlisted in the United States Navy, and served until he was Honorably Discharged on September 3, 1919.


In 1942, my grandmother Giovanna passed away only to be followed a few short months later by my grandfather Rocco.  Both were laid to rest in Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, Pennsylvania.  At the times of their deaths, the winds of war were fanning the flames of World War II in Europe and the Pacific.  Ultimately, three of their sons, Nicholas, Biagio, and Rocco Jr., as well as their grandson, Thomas, would all make contributions to America’s war effort.


Today at age 83, I am the oldest living member of the Petruzzelli family and filled with fond memories.  I recall a trip to Roseto with my grandparents at the age of 8.  We spent a week visiting my grandmother’s relatives.  As a city boy, I found it a wonderful experience seeing how they lived in the country.  They raised chickens and had vegetable gardens and grape arbors that stretched from the chicken coops to the house.  They even had a goat that produced milk.  Offered a glass of it, I found it strange drinking warm milk, and everyone had a good laugh at the look on my face as I drank it.


At every opportunity, I try to instill in my children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren their Italian heritage in hopes that they will know about their cultural roots when I am gone.  As I reflect on my own life, I realize that my most enjoyable times were spent in the company of family and friends.


Tom Brokaw, a well-known journalist and news anchorperson on NBC, wrote a book entitled The Greatest Generation.  It was the story of the generation of Americans who lived through The Great Depression and then fought and won World War ll.  And, I am very proud at being numbered among that group.


Yet, Tom Brokaw never met men like my grandfather and all the other Western European immigrants who left their homelands to come to America seeking a new and better life for themselves and their families, many arriving with just the clothes on their backs.  In my estimation, it is they who are worthy of the designation as “The Greatest Generation.”


Happy Mother’s Day (Buona Festa Della Mamma)

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In the United States and other countries around the world, a day is set aside to honor motherhood.  In the U.S. and many other nations, that day is the second Sunday in May.   Regardless of the precise date, Mother’s Day is a special day in our lives to recognize the women who bear the pain, nurture, guide and love their offspring selflessly their entire lives.


Not limited to humans, the strong bond and caring between mother and child can be observed throughout the animal kingdom.  In Roman Catholicism, the Virgin Mary is worshipped and adored as the spiritual Mother of all.


Growing up in a family of Italian heritage, my brothers and I considered our Mom special not just on Mother’s Day, but all year long.  She was always there for us when needed, toiling endless hours cooking and cleaning.  She took care of our family business while Dad was earning the money to put a roof over our heads and food on the table.  Despite her seemingly endless household chores, she still found time for Dad when he came home from a hard day at work.


She did all these things and more out of love of family and did them without complaint, calling it her duty.  Today, it would cost a King’s ransom, even without perks, to pay an employee who kept a home as tidily and lovingly as did my Mom.


When things got out of hand amongst us kids, she stepped in and solved the problem.  And, if you thought you could avoid punishment by being fleet of foot, forget it.  The average Italian Mom could nail you in the back of the head with her shoe at fifty paces.  Ask George W. Bush how difficult it is to avoid a shoe attack.  And, he saw them coming!  Call it tough love or any other politically correct term you choose, we soon learned the secret of getting along with our friends and relatives.


Yet, we always felt the protective shield of Mom in our lives.  Always watchful of her brood, Mom could transform herself from meek and mild-mannered to ferocious in an instant, should anyone or anything threaten her family.  And, when Mom wasn’t happy, nobody was happy.


The day I marched off to war, she tried to keep a stiff upper lip when we said goodbye, but she could not hide the tears in her eyes.  My future uncertain, I knew that I would be atop Mom’s prayer list.  They say, “A mother’s prayers go straight to heaven.” And, while I am certain that my Mom’s prayers helped keep me safe, I also think of another old adage, “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.”


So as we celebrate Mother’s Day, I would like to take the liberty of including the entire writing staff of Write On New Jersey in wishing all mom’s of every time and place a “Happy Mother’s Day.”

Let There Be Peas on Earth

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In the 17th century, King Louis XIV of France elevated the humble pea by ordering it to be placed, en masse, on the dishes served at the parties in his most elegant palace.   Tasty snow peas were being developed in Holland at about the same time Louis’ guests were rolling them around on their plates in Versailles. After the colonists arrived on the shores of America, peas were introduced to the “New World” and thus became a staple here.   Peas, as legumes, belong to the family of beans.


In the 19th century, an enterprising monk and botanist, Gregor Mendel, played a pivotal role in the budding field of genetics by crossbreeding peas in his experiments.


A more modern experiment, in the 1970’s, crossed the common garden pea with the snow pea to result in a new product: the sugar snap pea.  To extend the edible life of the pea, most are canned or frozen; only 5% of the fruit is marketed fresh.  Today, the largest growers of fresh peas are the United States, Great Britain, China, Hungary, and India.


At the turn of the 20th century, when America opened its doors to thousands of immigrants flocking in from Western Europe, those throngs included Italians. Their culture had a history of cultivating, drying, reconstituting, and eating legumes.  Along with their food and its preparation came the Italian culture.


Many Italians celebrate Spring by eating fresh peas at their peak.  Although this peak occurs in May, peas are in season from February until September.  As a boy, I would sometimes help my mother shuck fresh peas from their pods when she made a delicious vegetable soup with other assorted vegetables.


Many families of Italian immigrants grew up on pasta e fagioli (macaroni and beans, usually cannellini), lentils and peas, lentils and pasta, and pasta e piselli.  All of these dishes from “the old country” are meatless; all are very tasty and healthy.  And all go a long way in feeding a hungry family on a stretched-to-the-limit budget.  Peas have also been used as ravioli filling in place of the usual meat or ricotta cheese.  Pea ravioli are usually served with a rich pesto sauce.


One of the joys of growing up in an Italian family is to reminisce about the old days and our favorite dishes.  As I listened to these tales, I sometimes smiled and interjected, “Did you ever eat stuffed peas?”  With that, everyone around the table looked quizzical until one brave soul asked, “How do you stuff peas?”  With a wicked grin and a bad Italian accent, I would reply, “Upper U.S.,” thus giving my audience a little chuckle.


The little round legumes have finagled their way into our vernacular through sayings such as, “They are as close as two peas in a pod”.  The modest pea is also featured in nursery rhymes like “Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in a pot, nine days old.  Some likes it hot and some likes it cold, and some likes it in the pot nine days old!”  Given American ingenuity, it was inevitable that we take William Shakespeare’s famous soliloquy and give it a little twist.  What school kid has not recited the immortal words, “To pea or not to pea?  That is the question!”


Peas have been also used as bait in catching fish and small animals. Armed with a wooden mallet and a can of peas, the hunter or fisherman spreads the peas on the water or the ground and waits patiently.  As soon as the beast comes in range, he hits it on the head.  Believe that one, and I have a Bugs Bunny cartoon to sell you!


As Bugs noshes his carrots (another veggie best left to another story), let us return to the pea’s main use in our society.  It is a wonderful legume in all of its varieties.  It brightens plates, provides nutrition in a pretty little package, and gives our grandkids something to play with at the dinner table, other than their sisters’ pigtails. In today’s fine Italian and Continental restaurants, one often finds the hearty peasant dishes, such as pasta e fagoli.  Like King Louis’ peas, the modern pea and its cousins in the legume family are now served to very discerning diners!


So, the next time you are faced with a plate of peas, either stuffed into ravioli or mounded on your dish with a pat of golden butter, you may feel vindicated in telling them, “You’ve come a long way, baby!” 

Christmas Eve in Italy (Vigilia di Natale in Italia)

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Feast of the Seven Fishes

Christmas Eve in America is celebrated with pagan rites, Santa Clause, Reindeer, Tree trimming, and last minute shopping in preparation for the birthday of Jesus the Christ.

 

In Italy it is a Holy Day, celebrating the eve of the birth of Jesus.  It is called The Vigil (La Vigilia) and is celebrated as a feast day.  The Nativity is the heralding of the newborn King in Bethlehem, Judea and the story of Christmas.

 

In Italy, particularly Southern Italy, the celebration of La Vigilia is composed of an odd number of fish dishes, 7, 11, or 13.  For more than 1000 years during fasting periods amongst Roman Catholics, meat was forbidden, as it is for certain Lenten meals.  In place of meat, fish was substituted.  Thus, Christmas Eve represented a day of abstention from meat, and the feast of the fishes became tradition.

 

During the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s, many Italians immigrated to America and, with them, they brought their old world customs.  The Feast of the Seven Fishes was one of them.  The number 7 represents The Seven Sacraments, 11 represents the 12 Apostles minus Judas, and 13 represents the 12 Apostles plus Jesus.  From these computations was derived the number of courses of the meal.

 

Over the years, the number of courses has diminished to the currently-accepted 7 fishes and pasta.  Among Italian-Americans, there is no uniformity in the way in which the meal is served and individual family traditions reign supreme.  Usually, however, the first course is Pasta with garlic and oil (Aglio Olio), which signifies the purity of the virgin birth, followed by shellfish, crustacean, squid, eel, octopus, small finfish, and large finfish.  The ritual of eating in this order signifies a progression in the nature and size of the fish consumed as one moves closer to God.

 

To those who live in proximity to New York City and find they would like to celebrate Christmas Eve Italian-style without all the preparation required, try visiting Mulberry Street.  Here, you can find many old world Italian restaurants that serve traditional Holiday meals.

 

Italian-Americans who follow this tradition relive and commemorate a time when Christmas Eve meant a gathering of one’s family – including grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins – to share the joy of the Eve of the birth of our Savior.

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