Traditions in an Italian American Family

Many Northeast Ohio residents claim Italian ancestry. A recent survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Commerce indicates that about 14 percent of Northeast Ohio residents identify themselves as being of Italian ancestry. Many of these people have relatives who immigrated from the Italian regions of Abruzzo and Molise, especially the province of Campobasso, where my family is from.

Most Italian Americans identify strongly with their heritage. Sadly, as generations pass and the Italian DNA is diluted through marriage, the descendants of the original immigrants only know their ancestors from old pictures and maybe a story or two that was told around the dinner table at the holidays.

If there is anything that will help keep our Italian identity alive and relevant, it is our traditions. They are a great way to keep the family history alive for the younger generations through stories, recipes or items such as a pot that Nonna used every day to make sauce or a wine press that Nonno used to press the grapes in the autumn.

Most families have a go-to person such as an aunt, uncle or grandparent (if you’re lucky) who acts as the family historian. This person will often be the child who loved sitting around the table after dinner to listen to the adults tell stories of what it was like when Nonna and Nonno first arrived in the U.S.

My grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles are long gone. I am now the keeper of the family history and help sort fact from fiction when necessary. I am also the keeper of some of the family’s precious traditions

Many traditions involve religious holidays and the preparation of food. These are great ways to practice traditions and pass down the recipes to the next generation. Other traditions such as wine and grappa making were born out of necessity because the water quality in many areas was horrendous and not drinkable. Cleveland was one of the first major American cities to purify water for its citizens. Most Italian immigrants made wine in Italy and they continued the practice in their new country. It made economic sense to use the native grapes on the back-yard trellis, then crush, press and ferment them into wine. The new immigrants had a reliable, healthful drink that reminded them of home. Grappa, which is made from the pomace left over from pressing the grapes, could be distilled and infused with herbs and spices and used as a medicinal elixir.

Traditions help to bring families together and celebrate where we came from and honor those who came before us. It’s never too late to restart a tradition that your family used to have. I have listened to many 2nd and 3rd generation Italian Americans who remember Nonno making wine in the basement and wish they could continue the tradition. I always tell them, “what’s stopping you?” 

One of our family’s traditions is wine making every autumn. We celebrate this tradition with a grape pressing party with family, friends and even friends of friends who seem to want to be part of the Italian American experience. Some remark that they live their Italian heritage vicariously through these shared experiences! After the grapes are pressed and the wine is in the barrels, the physical work comes to an end and the “traditional” feast begins. Homemade wine is served, antipasto is next with homegrown figs, olives and cheeses. Sausage is roasted on the grill, pizza is baked in the wood-fired pizza oven, and pasta with our family’s sauce and meatballs are served. The feast isn’t complete until the cannoli and biscotti is served with homemade Limoncello, expresso and maybe a little Grappa.

My advice to those who feel they are losing touch with their heritage is to hit the reset button. You can get back to your roots and you will be surprised at the response you will get from family members who feel the same as you. Talk to some of your cousins who may have Nonna’s old St. Joseph Day Zeppi (fried dough) recipe, get together and make some. I’m sure your cousins would welcome the chance to get together and celebrate their heritage whether it is sausage making, polenta making, wine making, canning jars of sauce, making annual trips to Cleveland’s Little Italy just for the experience, or visiting the Italian Cultural Garden’s summertime event “Opera in the Park.” These are just some ideas for traditions that are just waiting to become part of your family’s history. Amore.