By Romina Monaco
People ask me ‘What is the Italianista?’. Or more often I’m asked ‘What is it that you do?’ I believe that the concept of The Italianista has always been a part of me. In the summer of 2008 I went on one of my usual summer holidays to Italy. My mother’s people come from the sub-Alpine region of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia. Little did I know when I arrived in my family’s village of Artegna that the turbulent history of the region would literally unfold before me. I had heard through some villagers, or paesani, that there was an archaeological excavation on Artegna’s castle grounds and that the project had been spearheaded by the universities of Milan and Udine. An avid history buff, I was really excited at the prospect of witnessing a dig first-hand. I hiked up that hill, took some photos and to my surprise I was invited to partake in the excavation.
It was a dream come true…I became the female Indiana Jones! For the next week I sifted through three thousand years of earth - terrain that housed the remnants of a Celtic settlement, a wooden Roman fort and then a stone castle that was raided by Slavic and Germanic Barbarians. In those moments I was living and breathing the history of my people. When I discovered a bone fragment I imagined that it belonged to an ancestor who had fought fearlessly in battle! It was an intense moment, to say the least.
I returned home to Toronto with new and foreign thoughts lurking in my mind. In my life, was I truly where I wanted to be? I was ready to begin a new journey. Eventually I became a board member of the Italian Heritage Month of Ontario but even that didn’t seem enough. So, one year ago I left my work in the wine and restaurant industry and chose to dedicate my time to my Italian heritage. Many laughed. ‘How can you make a living from this?’, they would ask. The only answer I could give them was ‘I don’t know. The only thing I know for sure is that I’m headed in the right direction.’
I created a website that encompassed all facets of Italianness and called it The Italianista and in less than a year I have written articles for Panoram Italia Magazine, Whatever Vaughan and now have my own culinary feature in Snap Vaughan and Snap Caledon. I recently co-hosted a program on CHIN Radio where I discussed the challenges that face the Italian Canadian community today. I had no journalism experience - only my passion for all things Italian.
What exactly is Italianess or Italianita’? Italianita’ encompasses the spirit and the body of a people. So what does this mean? In respects to the body, Italians come in all shapes and sizes. Depending on where they originate from, of course. This is a genetic heredity stemming from a 5000 year-old evolution. Italy’s geographic location and its reputation as an important piece of real estate made it an easy target for unwelcome invaders. I have traveled up and down the boot and have seen the dark, exotic features of the Turks, the Moors of North Africa, Greeks and the Spaniards. I have seen the flowing red hair, blue eyes and freckled cheeks of the Celts, Normans, and Slavs. Recent findings show that many Italians can claim Jewish ancestry. According to genetic researchers Italians can also trace their roots to Asia and the Middle East - many descending from the large number of slaves brought to Rome during the hey-day of the empire. As you can see, Italians are a collective of many ethnicities. However, more important than bodily form is the Italianita’ spirit.
This spirit is synonymous with passion. Italian passion has fueled the hearts of trailblazers who have changed the world. The polarizing Roman Empire brought order, governance and a universal language – a template still used today throughout the western world. With courage and fire in their spirit, Marco Polo, Cristoforo Colombo, Giovanni Caboto and Amerigo Vespucci crossed perilous waters and discovered new worlds. These discoveries elevated the poor from the dark ages and gave rise to a new middle-class society. Through the trade of novelty goods from these faraway lands were born the merchants and shopkeepers of Europe - who then created the market system that we know today. Now considered the father of modern science, Galileo Galilei was unjustly imprisoned by the church for his broad-minded views. After 800 years, the intellect of Dante Alighieri still inspires authors and poets. Because of Dante’s beautiful prose written in his native Tuscan dialect, Tuscan was chosen as the official Italian language during the Unification of Italy 150 years ago.
The Italianita’ passion created beautiful architecture - regal Roman temples, the Vatican and the Romanesque and Baroque styles of the city-states of Florence, Pisa, Siena and Venice. Let’s not forget the impressive gothic Cathedral of Milan - the second largest in all of Europe which took an astonishing 400 years to complete.
Italianita’ is enlightenment, or the Renaissance, which has forever changed the history of mankind. This movement inspired free-thinking men and gave rise to incredible inventions, medicine and fabulous works of art. Michelangelo’s intensity can be seen in his majestic statue of David and the tragic La Pieta’ - where a heart-broken Mary holds the body of her son, Jesus. They seem so real that you expect them to come to life before your very eyes. Italianita’ can be witnessed in every painting by Leonardo where his upward brush stroke created the famous Mona Lisa smile. In our modern era we’ve witnessed the passion of Modigliani, Versace, Valentino, and Dante Giacosa who created the Fiat 500.
You can even hear Italianita’ in the music composed by maestros Puccini, Verdi and Rossini. Long after their deaths they are still captivating audiences at La Scala and around the world. Andrea Bocelli and Pavarotti’s thundering arias play on the global air-waves as do the modern pop ballads of Zucchero and Ramazzotti. The ancient Tarantella is still celebrated at modern-day southern Italian festivals.
You can experience Italianita’ by immersing yourself in the films of Federico Fellini, where La Dolce Vita has come to symbolize the Utopia of human existence. Italianita’ is depicted in the Oscar-winning films “La Vita e’ Bella” and “Cinema Paradiso”. Feel-good films like “Letters to Juliet”, “Under the Tuscan Sun” and “Eat Pray Love” are a welcome change from some less than desirable depictions of Italian culture.
And we all know that you can taste Italianita’. Referring back to the famous explorers we can ultimately thank Marco Polo and Columbus for Penne alla Arrabiata. Marco was said to have brought the recipe for noodles from the Orient and Columbus brought from the Americas the first tomato, which was considered to be poisonous, along with hot peppers, potatoes and corn. What would Italian food have consisted of before these great discoveries? Just think about it… no pasta, no polenta, no gnocchi. The Greeks can be accredited for introducing the first olive tree and grape vines. Without a prolonged visit from the North Africans there would be no espresso, no Eggplant Parmiggiana or marzipan.
The tapestry of Italian cuisine is the result of many cultural influences. Interestingly enough I grew up having regular afternoon tea with my father’s parents. Afternoon tea…isn’t that an English thing? In my father’s region of the northern Alpine lake district of Como, Lugano and Maggiore the tradition of drinking tea was brought by the British who would come to stay at the lakeside resorts during the summer months. In my mother’s region our traditional dessert, which is served at all local festivals, is - believe it or not - Strudel! Another recent addition to Italian cuisine is the use of Oregano. It was introduced into Italian-American cooking because Basil was not readily available to the newly-landed immigrants.
Italian wines were a hidden gem before WWII. After the war, with the economic boom of the late 1960’s the world began to recognize Italian wines. The Barolo and Barbaresco, once cheap reds from Piemonte, are now considered some of the most prestigious in the world. In the hot arid south, where the warm winds blow in from the Sahara, you’ll find the Primitivo grape, Italy’s version of Zinfandel. In central Italy is the famous Chianti including the Tignanello and Sassichaia Super-Tuscans. We can’t forget the Valpolicella of the Veneto, the Montepulciano of Abruzzo and Friuli’s sparkling, Prosecco. These once obscure wines served at the wooden harvest tables of the local family fattorie, or farms, are now being poured and savoured at some of the finest restaurants world-wide. Winner of countless prestigious viniculture awards, Italy is now the second largest exporter of wine in the world.
Italianita’ embodies the spirit of prosperity. A passion for living a better quality of life resulted in several waves of immigration beginning in the late 1800’s. 25 million Italians left Italy and this is considered the biggest mass immigration of modern times by ANY ethnic group. As of 2011 there are over 80 million direct descendants of those Italians who emigrated in last 150 years. Imagine if they all returned their ethnic homeland? Italy would sink into the Mediterranean Sea and flood the rest of Europe! Most Italian Canadians can trace their Italian origin to the 1950s and 60s when, after the Second World War, Italy found itself in financial ruin. Here in Canada 1.6 million people consider themselves to be of Italian origin and Italian is the third most spoken non-official language after Chinese and Punjabi.
Italianita’ on a global scale is also synonymous with entrepreneurship. This Italian Canadian work ethic, adopted by the immigrant experience, is all around us…and statistics usually don’t lie. According to Stats Canada, Italian Canadians earn higher than the average annual income and have a below average unemployment rate.
Finally Italianita’ reflects generosity and hospitality – a way of life where no friend is ever turned away at the door and where no one leaves anyone’s home hungry. Although the days of Little Italy are over – where paesani congregated to help and support each other in a new land, this spirit of generosity still exists. There is a brotherhood, sisterhood and solidarity within the community that continues to this day.
Unless a meteor hits this planet eradicating all life as we know it, I am certain this culture will sustain itself and continue to flourish not only here in our little part of the world but also throughout the globe!