Archive for September, 2013

Wine-Making: a Staple of Italian Culture

Posted on September 30th, 2013 by Anna in Uncategorized | No Comments »

When you think of the great wines of the world, chances are wines from Italy will be at the top of the list.  Italy produces 1/3 of the world’s wine at about 51.5 million hectoliters per year.  As astounding as this is for a relatively small country, (Italy is just a little over half the size of California,) their true excellence lies in the unmatched quality of their wines.  When I first tasted proper Italian wine during a weekend trip to Venice, I was an undergrad accustomed to €4 a bottle wine from Lidl.  Unaware that wine could be delicious, as opposed to a punishment you inflict on yourself, I ordered a glass of house wine and found it to be delicate, flavorful, and refreshing all at once.  I was stunned.

But of course, Italy has had thousands of years to perfect the art of wine-making.  Since the time of the ancient Romans and Etruscans, viticulture and wine-drinking has been a crucial aspect of Italian life and customs.  With Italy’s diverse geography—coastal, with mountainous regions like the Italian Alps in the North and the Apennines—and sunny, temperate climate, it allows for twenty different wine-making regions.  In the Northeast are “The Venezie,” three regions that have pioneered in wine technology and contain some of the top wine schools in the country.


In the North you’ll find Piedmont, the region of Italy that is renowned worldwide for its prize-winning wines.  As most grapes are produced on small, family estates, viticulture is not so much an industry as a way of life in Piedmont, resulting in excellent wines, mainly strong reds such as the Barolo, Barbaresco, and Gattinara.  These wines are best suited for a rich, flavorful meal, such as pasta or seafood, although some of the region’s whites, such as Asti Spumante, are ideal to have with pastries.

In central Italy, in regions like Tuscany and Umbria, you’ll find the best climate conditions for growing grapes, with abundant sunshine and warm temperature.  Tuscany, with its gorgeous weather and hilly soil, has been the heartland for Italian viticulture for millennia, ever since the Etruscans domesticated wild grape vines.  Since then, it has been renowned for producing Chianti, Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, and other powerful, robust wines perfect for pairing with red meat or game, or any kind of flavorful cheese.


Even the South of Italy and the islands, regions such as Calabria, Sicily, and Sardinia, are skilled at producing unique artesian wines.  Sicily, which has more vineyards than any other region in the country, is famous for its dessert wines, such as Marsala.  They even have a festival of wine, November 11th or St. Martin’s Day, which is the day that new wines are officially ready to drink, and is celebrated locally in each village.  Sardinia, famed for its wines meant to be drunk with seafood, creates a delicate, fruity Vermentino—to be had with shrimp, vegetables, or swordfish—as well as Moscato, Nebbiolo, and both red and white Sauvignons.

Clearly, Italy’s culture of wines is as diverse and fascinating as its cuisine.  There is a wine for every meal, for every aspect of life, and for every type of food.  Wine dominates their history, their literature, their folklore, and their daily life.  It’s declared to be a cure for every disease and malady and a necessity for every good dinner, every good conversation, and every holiday.  In light of the fact that it’s impossible to think of Italy without thinking of its wine, wine is surely the key to Italy’s culinary legacy, and one of the greatest gifts it has to offer the rest of the world.

Cinema Paradiso: Your Introduction To Italian Film

Posted on September 27th, 2013 by Anna in Uncategorized | No Comments »

For anyone new to Italian cinema, the ideal starting point is Nuovo Cinema Paradiso, (known internationally as Cinema Paradiso,) internationally renowned and winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1989.  Director and screenwriter Giuseppe Tornatore composed this film as a bildungsroman intertwined with a celebration of the golden age of cinema.  With a cast of charismatic actors and an iconic score by Ennio Morricone and his son Andrea, Cinema Paradiso is nostalgic and highly entertaining, often sentimental, but never maudlin.

A shortened version of Cinema Paradiso was an international hit.

A shortened version of Cinema Paradiso was an international hit.

The story, which takes place mostly as a flashback, follows the childhood of Salvatore “Toto” Di Vita, a famous film director living in Rome.  We see him growing up in Giancaldo, a small town in Sicily towards the end of WWII, a precocious boy with a passion for sneaking into the local movie house, “Cinema Paradiso,” to watch the parish priest censor films.  (Every time a couple kisses onscreen, the priest’s face contorts with ire and he rings a bell, signifying that Alfredo, the projectionist, must literally cut the scene out of the film reel.)  Toto watches it all from behind a curtain and later collects the cut scenes—romances and Spaghetti Westerns and war films and fairy tales—to play with at home.  Even somebody with no interest in allusions or montages of classic Hollywood and Italian films will be enchanted by the extended shots of the Sicilian countryside and century-old stone buildings and marketplace.

While the scenes from Toto’s childhood and adolescence follow the set pattern of most male Catholic coming of age stories, (think Angela’s Ashes only with more pasta,) they are never clichéd and ultimately triumphant.  The fatherless Toto pesters his way into becoming Alfredo’s protégé, and we see him grow up to be the main projectionist at the Cinema Paradiso.  We watch the film industry evolve over the course of Toto’s teenage years while the movie house serves as a backdrop for the dramas and romances of the entire town.  More than just a form of entertainment, it serves as an escape from small-town Sicily, a window into the larger world and an excuse for the townspeople to let their imaginations run wild for a short time.

Heartwarming performances by Philippe Noiret and Salvatore Cascio

Heartwarming performances by Philippe Noiret and Salvatore Cascio

The only weak point of Cinema Paradiso can be found in Elena, the insipid blonde girl Toto falls in love with, who doesn’t do much of anything aside from giggle prettily, cover her face with shame, and say things like, “I love you, but my father has other plans for me.”  She’s not so much of a love interest as a foil for Toto’s hyper-romanticism and status as tragic hero.  Aside from Toto’s pining for his unexceptional girlfriend, the real relationship of Cinema Paradiso is the father-son bond between Alfredo and Toto.  Philippe Noiret and Salvatore Cascio, the actor for 7-year-old Toto, have such an exceptional chemistry, bouncing back and forth between gruffness, compassion, mischief, and pride, that you’ll be cheering for their friendship for the entire 174 minutes of the director’s cut.  Their rapport changes as Toto grows up, but it always rings true, and the scene where Alfredo urges grown-up Toto to leave Giancaldo and never return is genuinely heartbreaking.

At the heart of Cinema Paradiso, deeper than his connection to Elena or Alfredo or anyone else, is Toto’s passion for movies, for which he sacrifices everything, and which anyone can sympathize with.  Cinema Paradiso is essentially a love song for all great movies and the men and women who devote their lives to making them.  Tornatore shot every scene with the utmost devotion and craftsmanship, making for a film that is rich in comedy, pathos, and wisdom, a sure hit for movie-lovers everywhere.

Ancient Myths That Forged Italy

Posted on September 24th, 2013 by Anna in Uncategorized | No Comments »

As a culture that dates back thousands of years, Italy has a rich wealth of folklore and legends.  While the country is primarily Roman Catholic now, ever since Constantine mandated that the Roman Empire convert to Christianity in 313 AD, the ancient Romans had a diverse and colorful mythology, influenced both by Ancient Greek and the Etruscan stories.

The Roman pantheon of pre-Christian gods was based almost entirely off of the Greeks’ but translated into Roman names.  At the dawn of time, so the stories went, Saturn was the ruler of the universe and, fearing a prophecy that one of his children would overthrow him, he devoured his offspring.  Finally his wife gave him a stone to eat instead of his youngest son, (Saturn was not too observant for being ruler of the universe,) and when the boy, Jupiter, grew up, he deposed his father, freed his siblings, and took his place as king of the gods.  His older sister Juno he made his queen (they were gods—they could do what they liked,) and the rest of his brothers and sisters he appointed as heads of various realms.  Neptune became the god of the sea, Ceres became the goddess of the harvest, Vestia became the goddess of the hearth, and Pluto became the god of the underworld.

The Roman gods are based off of their Greek counterparts.

The Roman gods are based off of their Greek counterparts.

To Juno’s dismay, Jupiter went on to have affairs with many women, peopling the ancient world with more gods, demigods, and heroes.  A second generation of gods, mostly sons and daughters of Jupiter, came into being: Minerva the goddess of wisdom, Mars the god of war, Mercury the messenger god, Apollo the god of music, his twin sister Diana the goddess of the hunt, and Bacchus the god of wine.  The only younger god not in some way related to Jupiter was Venus, the goddess of love, who according to legend came into being, a miscegenation of dawn light and sea foam.  Another of Jupiter’s famous offspring was the hero Hercules, who spent his life being tormented by the vindictive Juno.  Outraged that her husband would favor his son by another woman, she struck Hercules with a madness that caused him to see his wife and children as wild animals.  After killing them all in a frenzy, Hercules had to perform twelve labors of atonement which earned him fame and prestige throughout the ancient world.

Aside from the tales of the gods, perhaps the most famous Roman myth is that of Romulus and Remus, twin sons of Numitor, the king of the region, abandoned at birth in the river Tiber to save them from being murdered by their uncle.  They were rescued by a she-wolf and then raised to manhood by a shepherd and his wife.  Once they discovered their true identities, they raised an army, killed their uncle, and restored their father to his throne.  Deciding to head off and found a new city to rule, they disagreed over where the city should be built.  Romulus killed his brother, built the city on the Palatine Hill, and named it after himself: Rome.

According to legend, Romulus and Remus were suckled by a she-wolf as infants.

According to legend, Romulus and Remus were suckled by a she-wolf as infants.

While these myths are thousands of years old, they still prove to have an important influence.  The planets, obviously, are named after the Roman gods, with Jupiter, the largest, being named after the king, as well as a handful of elements.  The Roman gods and legends proved to be a favorite subject of paintings, sculpture, and literature throughout the middle ages and the Renaissance, and are still reinterpreted in books and movies today.  A testament to the creativity and imagination of the ancient Romans, they are timeless stories that will continue to entertain readers for years to come.

Carnival, a Timeless Venetian Tradition

Posted on September 19th, 2013 by Anna in Uncategorized | No Comments »

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACarnival, the season of festivities leading up to the forty days of Lent in the Catholic calendar, is renowned for being one of the wildest, most indulgent onslaught of culturally-sanctioned partying possibly anywhere.  Traditionally beginning on St. Stephen’s Day and lasting until Shrove Tuesday, (the day before Ash Wednesday,) Carnival has been embraced by countries internationally.  However, no city embodies Carnival more completely than Venice.  (Except for New Orleans, but Mardi Gras as celebrated by Louisiana is more of a New World phenomenon.)

Carnival has a rich history dating back to medieval Italy, when “la Repubblica della Serenissima” was the wealthiest and most cosmopolitan city in Europe.  In the 12th century, Lent was the most austere time of the year in which people were compelled to practice abstinence, fasting, and prayer for forty days until Easter, symbolizing the time Jesus spent fasting in the desert.  Because eating meat during Lent was forbidden by the Catholic Church, (a practice which dates back to the early Church’s ties to the fishing industry,) it made sense for the Venetians to throw a week of parties to get rid of their excess meats and rich foods before the season of penitence.  The term “carnival” dates back to the phrase carne vale, which means “farewell to meat” in Late Latin, with the dual significance of “farewell to the flesh,” which alludes to the state of abstinence in favor of a more spiritual outlook.



Venice’s iconic Carnival masks are recognizable around the world, with traditional Venetian mascherari, or mask-makers, having a highly esteemed guild in Renaissance Italy.  In the 13th century, wearing masks was so popular in Venice that laws were passed regulating their use.  Masks were forbidden while gambling or while visiting convents, and soon their presence dwindled to masquerade balls and other festivals, most notably Carnival.  Wearing masks permitted all kinds of taboo activities to take place with safety to their perpetrators’ identities, such as gender-swapping and sexual liaisons between members of different social classes.  Today, Venice’s stunning and intricate masks are as beloved as ever, with many varieties on display in the ubiquitous Venetian mask shops.

The bauta is the classic full-face mask, traditionally gilded and worn with a black cape, which assures complete anonymity to its wearer.  The Columbina is a mask for the top half of the face, decorated with crystals and feathers, and there exist many other distinctive masks based on different characters of the Commedia dell’arte performance style such as Arlecchino and Pantalone.  The Medico della peste mask is the surreal, bird-like mask with a long, sculpted beak, a reference to the plague doctors who thought wearing such frightening disguises would scare off the evil spirits that caused the bubonic plague.

These grotesque masks are a reminder of the darker aspects of Carnival, which came into being in a society ravaged by the Black Death.  The “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die,” mindset was a key contributor to the excesses of Carnival; when you and everyone you knew could be dead in a few days, it made perfect sense to enjoy yourself with dances, feasts, and debauches while you still could.

Although its religious and end-of-the-world significance has mostly vanished over the centuries, Carnival still exerts an enormous amount of influence in the modern world.  Edgar Allan Poe found inspiration in the garish, macabre aspects of Carnival, which he conveyed perfectly in his stories “The Cask of Amontillado,” and “The Mask of the Red Death.”  Every year Carnevale di Venezia attracts up to 3,000,000 tourists and revelers, proving that, despite its decay since its Renaissance heyday, Venice still stands as a paragon of romance and mystery the world over.

Mina Mazzini: The Queen of Screamers

Posted on September 17th, 2013 by Anna in Uncategorized | No Comments »

407px-mina4When we think of Italian singers of the 20th century, the most common image that comes to our mind is that of male opera tenors: Pavarotti, Enrico Caruso, and Andrea Bocelli.  However, one of Italy’s most widely loved and controversial pop stars—with the haunting vocal power of Adele and the shock value of Lady Gaga—was a woman from Lombardy named Mina Mazzini.  Although her name is largely unknown in the United States, she was a world-wide music legend over the course of her five-decade career, and Louis Armstrong famously declared her to be “the greatest white singer in the world.”

Mina Mazzini, born Anna Maria Mazzini, started her music career at the age of 18 and quickly became known as “The Queen of Screamers” for her loud, energetic voice.  (An urlatori, or “screamers” referenced a trend in Italian music of high-volume singing drawn from the boogie-woogie and blues genres of American music.)  Mina’s three-octave vocal range and enthusiastic performance style quickly drew the attention of the music industry.  Italy immediately embraced her as a rising star in the doo-wop scene, and her songs quickly flew to the top of the charts in Italy.

As her career developed, Mani moved away from the pop-swing genre and began singing deeply emotional love songs, generally tragic ones, which were more suited to her resonating voice.  She began to experiment in different musical styles such as jazz, mambo, soul, and somber, brooding love ballads such as Un anno d’amoreLeaving behind her image as a clean-cut rock and roll ingénue, Mina dyed her hair blonde, shaved her eyebrows, wore heavy eye makeup, and introduced a new, melodic sensuality to her performing.  Her gestures and interpretive hip-movements brought her music to life; more than a singer, Mina was a musical storyteller whose love of singing was evident in every note.

Scandal struck when Mina became pregnant by Corrado Pani, a technically married man, though separated from his wife, as divorce was then illegal in Italy.  Even more unseemly was Mina’s refusal to cover up the relationship, which led to the Catholic Church demanding that she be banned from Italian TV.  Audiences, of course, were outraged, and they purchased her records more than ever, demanding to have her back on the air.  Such success in the face of the Vatican’s condemnation gave Mina the chance to cultivate her new image of independent, rebellious womanhood.  She sang songs on subjects which were frowned upon by the Church as being immoral and unfeminine: smoking, sex outside of marriage, and the female libido. Mina_blackandwhite

In 1964, once her television ban was lifted, Mina’s success became a worldwide phenomenon.  Her songs soared in European and UK charts.  She toured Europe, appearing on Venezuelan and Spanish TV, and Germany, Austria, and Switzerland voted her the world’s most popular singer.  Notable composers wrote songs specifically to showcase her extraordinary vocal range, such as Ennio Morricone’s Se Telefonando and the sassy, mellifluous jazz number, Brava by Bruno Canfora.

In 2006, Mina married the Swiss cardiologist Eugenio Quaini and became a Swiss citizen.  While she is no longer a high-profile figure in the music industry, she remains an inspiration to musicians and composers, and in Italy her name is sacrosanct.  The five dynamic decades of Mina’s career, resulting in 77 albums and 71 singles on the Italian charts, prove that hers is a talent that will endure for years to come.

Buono come il pane, bello come il sol: Italian Proverbs

Posted on September 10th, 2013 by Anna in Uncategorized | No Comments »

Italy is a country with a rich history, and over the thousands of years of its existence it’s picked up a few pearls of wisdom, which it has been passing down from generation to generation.  I’ve always been fascinated by proverbs and the way different languages can take the same idea and skew it ever so slightly.  Italy stands out from other western cultures through its wealth of age-old sayings, many of which unsurprisingly use food as a metaphor for the wise, amusing, and sometimes downright confusing lessons of human existence.

A key difference between Italian and English culture is evident in the saying, l’arte di non fare niente.  The English equivalent is “killing time,” which has a neutral connotation at best, suggesting shiftlessness, that the time-killer would be better off doing something productive.  But the Italian translates to, “the art of doing nothing.”  It refers to the beauty of taking it easy once in a while, letting go of your responsibilities and just enjoying life, an important value in Italian culture.  Similarly, sbagliando s’impara, or “one learns by making mistakes,” is the more forgiving version of the workaholic’s “practice makes perfect.”  Even the Italian parallel to “my way or the highway” is friendlier: O mangi la minestra o salti dalla finestra.  (Eat this soup or jump out the window.)  While it’s still bossy and threatening, you’re at least getting soup out of the bargain.

Some Italian proverbs can seem bizarre and weirdly specific to English ears.  For example, a common way to say “good luck!” is in bocca al lupo! or “in the mouth of the wolf!” to which one would respond, crespi il lupo! or, “may the wolf crack!”  The Italian version of, “He wants to have his cake and eat it too,” would be, Volere la botte piena e la moglie ubriaca, (He wants a full wine barrel and a drunken wife,) suggesting that Italians value wine and women over cake, which is sound thinking.  Other proverbs that demonstrate staples of Italian culture include Nella botte piccolo c’e il vino buono (the small bottle has good wine,) for “good things come in small packages,” and non e’ pane per i miei denti (it’s not bread for my teeth,) to the English “it’s not my cup of tea.”

And then there are those proverbs which are uniquely Italian, such as Chi e’ sordo, orbo e tace campa cent’anni in pace, which translates to, “He who is deaf, blind, and dumb lives in peace to be a hundred.”  This ominous proverb hails from Sicily, where the principle of omertà is highly valued.  Omertà, (which can be traced back to the Spanish hombredad, meaning “manliness,”) is the code of honor requiring silence and noncooperation with authority figures in the case of local affairs, often used to cover up Mafia crimes while justifying Sicily’s tradition of vendettas.  Somewhat more heartwarming is A tavola non s’invecchiar; this saying refers to Italians’ love of good food, good company, and good conversation—at the dinner table, where one can enjoy all three together, one does not grow old.

Italy’s fondness of proverbs is so thorough that they even have a proverb about proverbs: I proverbi sono come le farfalle, alcuni son presi, altri volano via.  “Proverbs are like butterflies; some are caught, others fly away.”  As always, the Italian language has managed to take an abstract idea and illustrate it effortlessly by a vividly poetic image, a tradition which is evident in every aspect of Italian life.

Commedia dell’arte: a Progressive Art Form in Renaissance Italy

Posted on September 10th, 2013 by Anna in Uncategorized | No Comments »

Pierrot, Harlequin, Columbine—these are names that few recognize today, but in the past, when live theater was the easiest and cheapest form of entertainment, they were legendary.  Dating back to 16th century Italy, these characters come from Commedia dell’arte, a form of outdoor theater that relied heavily on improvisation—essentially the street performers of the Renaissance.  However, while their performances were basically farces and satires, Commedia dell’arte was a serious addition to the theater of the times, and it left a lasting impression on thespian traditions in the centuries to come.

The plots of Commedia dell’arte generally all depended on their collection of exaggerated stock characters that anyone in the audience could relate to: lovers, clowns, tricksters, old misers, boorish policemen, serving maids, and so on.  Traditionally, there would always be a pair of lovers, the innamorati, and a vecchio, a decadent old man determined to keep them apart, whose machinations would be foiled by the antics of his servant.  Plots were simple and straightforward, dealing with sex, love, jealousy, and old age, and generally included off-the-cuff jokes and satires of well-known figures and scandals.

Clowns, known as zanni, (which live on today in the English word “zany,”) performed the same actions as Shakespearian clowns—they were servants of the other characters who posed riddles, played pranks, and entertained audiences with their bizarre schemes and antics which often backfired.  The most enduring of the zanni is Harlequin, or Arlecchino, echoed in the character Harley Quinn from the Batman comics and Neil Gaiman’s short story, “Harlequin Valentine.”  Harlequin is the classic trickster, wearing a patchwork costume and often blackface or a black mask.  He is gluttonous and mischievous, and generally comes onstage to perform acrobatics and pull pranks on the vecchio. 

Harlequin’s love interest is the maidservant Colombina, who is usually portrayed as flirtatious and sassy, often the smartest character in a cast of buffoons, happy to lead Harlequin along while fighting off the advances of Pantalone.  Pantalone, the greedy and arrogant miser, usually the father of the innamorata, is often the key antagonist to the storyline, providing a recognizable villain to rally the audience against as well as a degree of pathos.  The feckless husband of Colombina is Pierrot, the sad clown, whose sole purpose is to having his heart broken, (Colombina inevitably leaves him for Harlequin,) while being the naïve, trusting object of other characters’ tricks.  He is always portrayed in a white costume and a black skullcap, symbolizing innocence and sadness, and has shown up in countless plays, operettas, and films up through the twentieth century.

While Commedia dell’arte as it was originally conceived no longer exists in the thespian world, it has directly inspired works of art in all areas.  The classic puppet show Punch and Judy is based on the clown Pulcinella, while various operas and plays have adapted characters and scenarios.  But perhaps Commedia dell’arte’s most crucial addition to theater has been its introduction of female actors to the trade.  During a time when women’s roles were played by men, this was a highly controversial move, and many Commedia dell’arte troupes were labeled degenerate by the powers that be in Renaissance Italy.  However, this opened up new opportunities and modes of expression in the theater world, leading to further evolution of the roles of actors and artists in society.

Food and Family, the Cornerstones of Italian Life

Posted on September 5th, 2013 by Anna in Uncategorized | No Comments »

Growing up in an Italian-American household, I became accustomed to the strong role food plays in family life.  Christmas dinner at my Sicilian grandmother’s house saw her and a gaggle of aunts cooking, shouting, banging pots and pans for hours in the kitchen while the menfolks waited, helpless, in the living room.  Grandmom’s meatballs were legendary—they stewed for hours in a marinara sauce of her own making and were so tender they practically melted upon contact.  Pasta was plentiful and always steaming.  Each lesser matriarch brought her own homemade dessert: biscotti from Aunt Trish, tiramisu from Aunt Rose, and anise-flavored pizelles from my mother.  There was nothing better for your heart, my Uncle Joe always assured me, than red wine, olive oil, and lots and lots of garlic.

Italy’s relationship with food is a time-honored one in which a good meal serves as nourishment for all five senses.  When most people think “Italian food,” pasta and pizza is what immediately comes to mind.  In truth, Italian food is unbelievably diverse and varies from region to region.  Northern Italy is famous for its stuffed pastas, such as lasagna, ravioli, and manicotti.  Venice is known for risotto and polenta, which are often cooked with seafood ingredients closer to the coast.  Fegato alla veneziana is Venice’s signature dish, made from thinly-sliced veal and sautéed onions.  Liguria, another region in northern Italy, is heavier on vegetables in their cooking, using a lot of pesto sauce as well as artichokes in their pasta dishes.

Central Italy is where you find many of the traditional notions of Italian food: pasta dishes with heavy use of tomatoes, meat, fish, and pecorino cheese.  Tuscany, whose dishes come from peasant traditions, uses a lot game in cooking its famous minestrones, while Umbria depends more on vegetables, herbs, and freshwater fish.  Naples, which many consider to be the Mecca of Italian food, (indeed, that’s where pizza originated,) has too many delectable foods to list, including spaghetti alla puttanesca and eggplant parmigiana.  In the southern regions, including Calabria, Sicily, and Sardinia, seafood plays a very large role in cuisine, including tuna, swordfish, cuttlefish, eels, lobster, and shrimp—you name it, and it’s sure to be the main ingredient in a creative, traditional meal that the Italians have been perfecting for hundreds of years.

Ironically, I didn’t learn to properly cook until after college, when I got a job in a vegetarian café.  (We weren’t big on pasta there, as about half of our clientele were on the Atkin’s diet, but I did learn to cook with loads of garlic.)  In fact, for much of my life I’ve avoided Italian restaurants whenever possible, seeking to broaden my horizons beyond the Mediterranean fare I grew up with.  But recently I’ve found that when I go to visit relatives I always bring cannoli from the family-run deli near my house.  When I meet up with friends for dinner, I suggest we go to Little Italy.  When I cook dinner for friends I generally end up making pasta with meat sauce—easy to prepare and it tastes stunning.  (With enough rosemary and oregano, you can’t go wrong.)  These foods not only remind me of family—and of my grandmother who, not speaking much English, used her cooking as a way to convey love to her grandchildren—but they are my way of proving that I can live up to the proud culinary heritage that I come from.

Italiano… Perché?

Posted on September 2nd, 2013 by Anna in Uncategorized | No Comments »

There are many different reasons to learn a new language.  Mandarin will help you get ahead in the world of business, Arabic will give you opportunities in international relations, and Spanish will let you communicate with 406 million people across four continents.  And then there’s Italian; while it isn’t as widespread as English or Spanish, and while it’s lacking the socio-political urgency of Mandarin or Arabic, Italian is the perfect language to learn for those who want to intimately appreciate some of humanity’s great art, literature, film, music, and, of course, food.

Modern Italian, derived from Vulgar Latin, is virtually the same language as it was written 700 years ago by Dante Alighieri, Florentine author of The Divine Comedy, renowned for proving that a vernacular language, rather than the classic Greek or Latin, could deal eloquently with sublime mattersAfter the fall of the Roman Empire, Italy became a peninsula of rivaling city-states, and when scholars convened in the 19th century to determine a standard spoken language for the newly unified country, they settled on Dante’s Tuscan dialect, which they agreed was the most melodic and aesthetically pleasing.  In fact, the final words of The Divine Comedy, l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle,” have been described by scholars (generally other Italians,) as the most beautiful and enduring words ever written.


Since then, Italian has been renowned for resonating beauty and romance—Lord Byron described it as sounding “as if it should be writ on satin”—and its popularity among people who study it as a second language demonstrates its lasting impact on western culture.  The trochaic rhythm of spoken Italian, (that is, its words are generally divided into pairs of syllables, with the stress being on the first syllable: Nel mez-zo del cam-min di nos-tra vi-ta,) gives it a tantalizingly musical sound, making it ideal for poetry and song.  In addition to Dante, poets and writers of the Italian Renaissance such as Petrarch, renowned for his love sonnets, Boccaccio, author of The Decameron, and Niccolo Macchiavelli of The Prince fame still inspire readers and artists.  Some of history’s greatest operas—even those composed by foreigners like Handel and Mozart—are written in Italian, and the music written by opera legends like Rossini, Verdi, Puccini endure to this day.  Even in the 20th century, filmmakers such as Giuseppe Tornatore, Roberto Benigni, and Federico Fellini are admired by anyone well-versed in foreign cinema.

So why learn Italian?  Because you are missing out on a crucial aspect of culture and humanity if you don’t.  Of course, you can always read a translation of Dante’s Inferno, watch Cinema Paradiso with subtitles, and read the English synopsis along with Madame Butterfly.  But in doing so you’re only getting a diluted version of the language’s true meaning, as well as being distracted from the sound of the words themselves, which is half the experience.  Being able to understand and revel in the language of Dante will give you a new appreciation for life and a heritage that has influenced much of modern history.  And if nothing else, you’ll be able to travel to Italy and order everything on the menu at whatever restaurant you come across, which is no small victory.  Buona fortuna!