Some people, having eaten pasta, chicken parmigiana, salad with oil and vinegar and cannoli believe they have had a real Italian holiday meal. But there’s a difference in having tasted Italian food and having experienced an Italian holiday dinner. For Italians, food is a celebration, a social event, a time to enjoy life and each other’s company. It must not be rushed like hot dogs at a ballgame, but rather savored like fine wine.
Perhaps we’ve become too caught up in our modern world — hitting the drive-thru between baseball practice and ballet class — shotgun messaging all our friends at once — dining with someone while texting someone else. So let me tell you what it was like to be completely immersed in a traditional Italian holiday dinner.
It was always fun watching newbees at our holiday dinner because they didn’t know what they were in for, so they didn’t know how to pace themselves. Our dining and kitchen tables would be set up through the dining/living room archway with a sheet of plywood spanning the gap between them to make a 28-foot long table.
The meal began with two big antipasto platters bursting with artistically arranged roasted red peppers, pepperoni, mozzarella, cracked olive salad, provolone, eggplant salad, peperoncino, celery, scallions, assorted olives and anything else my dad could think of. There would also be platters of battered cardoon, stuffed mushrooms, clams casino and scacciata. This was the introductory course, the time for “Hi, how have you been” conversations and would last at least a half-hour.
Next came the macaroni course which might be lasagna, home-made ravioli, manicotti or other pasta, accompanied by meatballs, sausage, braciola, eggplant parmigiana, venison parmigiana, hot cherry peppers and of course red wine. You could gain five pounds on the aroma alone. As knives and forks went to work, my dad would jokingly ask, “How come everybody got so quiet?” This course, which would go on for more than an hour, is where we lost a few of the uninitiated who mistakenly thought this was the main meal.
Belts loosened and conversations rose.
Then came the precious moment when the unsuspecting outsiders’ eyes widened as they sat with swollen tummies watching the table fill up with prime rib, baked ham or pork roast, accompanied by mashed potatoes, candied sweet potatoes, corn, beans, fresh bread and more wine. The room reverberated with laughter and passionate conversations (which a non-Italian might think were arguments). By the time we finished this course, stomachs were crowding out breathing space in our lungs. This was when Mom would rally us like a coach demanding five more pushups. “Have some more. Mangia. It’s a sin to waste so much food.”
We didn’t fall for it. We knew the dessert round was coming.
Besides homemade pies, cakes and Italian cookies, there were seasonal favorites—cannoli, honey ribbons, Easter Bread, anisette cookies, biscotti and bowls of nuts, figs, finocchi and fruit; accompanied by espresso coffee and Sambuca, amaretto or other liqueur.
As evening came, bleary-eyed bears hibernated on easy chairs, people chatted in groups, some played pinochle and the rest picked happily on stuffed artichokes.
Food alone is just a meal. An Italian holiday dinner is a social event, an all day celebration of love and friendship. It’s something everyone should experience at least once.
The Madison-Old Bridge Township Historical Society invites readers to tell us about their holiday traditions so we may share them with future generations. Contact the society at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sebastian Rizzo is a member of the Madison-Old Bridge Township Historical Society. He occasionally writes the “Living History” column for Newspaper Media Group. The historical society invites readers to share memories of Old Bridge for its newsletter. Send stories to email@example.com or mail to 4216 Route 516, Matawan 07747-7032. For more information, visit www.thomas-warne-museum.com.