Written by Tanya Tecce, told by Carmen Tomassetti
I am not sure exactly when, but at a certain point I do remember realizing, “Wow. There are people who are actually not Italian!”
To be Italian means feeling pride in being part of a culture that I think has some real positive aspects to it – the first being family- and people-centric. As kids, we always knew that just because it was dinner time, that didn’t mean our friends had to go home. Everyone was welcome. It was “You sit down, we’re going to feed you, too. You are more than welcome here!” At any holiday dinner you could expect to feel like there were 30 people you belonged to, and that can be a great feeling!
Secondly, the way that people relate to each other, the way we are demonstrative with our feelings and have a certain sense of freedom.
Third is pride in the work and contribution you make to society. Like many Italian immigrants, our Philadelphia Italian-American culture was a time capsule of sorts, with food dishes (adaptations), traditions and music lingering, captured like a snapshot of the time when our grandparents left Italy to settle, grow and evolve more, now with an American flavor.
My Nonna Antonietta, her parents and husband (my nonno Carmine), came here from Chieti, Abruzzo, and my mom, Aurora Gambale’s parents, came from Avellino, Campania.
My father was originally a tailor. Then he went into business for himself. He sold the best suits from his clothing store, in our basement. All the “big-wig” doctors and lawyers from the city would come to buy their quality suits from Carmen. It was known everywhere that if you needed a suit, that’s where you go. You go see Carmen. Back then, to “make a living,” you made a life. You feed your family, pay the bills. Mom really enjoyed being a hairdresser and had a sense a pride working in her shop.
Interestingly, I have been in business myself for over 30 years with my entertainment production company, but neither mom nor dad played music. But music is in my blood. Music speaks to my soul and it definitely helps to be part of a culture where emotions and the senses are so much at its core. In fact, I visit my cousins in Casalincontrada, just outside of Chieti, a few times a year. The town is known for its music school and local musicians.
My father took me to Italy when I was 16 years old. It was his first time, too. I remember when he met his aunt for the first time he broke down in tears – tears of both joy and of sadness for the length of time it took to realize this moment. I couldn’t fully appreciate what was happening at that time, but for sure, a seed was set in my heart.
Each year over the following decade, my cousin Aldorino would write to me faithfully. As a young man making my way through the world, the letters were nice. I didn’t understand then the impact they were yet to have on me, but the seed was slowly growing. At 30 years old, I got an invite to my cousin’s wedding. I visited again, this time as an adult.
A favorite memory is playing piano for the family. I saw all my relatives singing and completely enjoying the moment. It was surreal, and with tears in my eyes, I thought and felt to myself, “Thank you, Dad, for giving me the greatest gift ever: This family in Italy.” To this day I still say the greatest gift I’ve ever received is my relationship with my family in Italy.
I continue to consider, “What does it mean to be Italian?” I’m still having a lot of fun exploring that question as I travel through Italy, turning over every stone possible to learn and understand more.
For good and “bad,” our struggles and wins echo those of humanity. I know things change subtly, and even not-so-subtly amongst the different regions, but the more I learn, the more it occurs that there is no right or one-way to express a thread of our culture, that it’s instead just all a variation on the theme of “Paisan.” I find myself deeply proud of the culture of Italy and deeply proud to be a part of something that has been a touchstone for thousands of years.
The country speaks loudly to my soul, to my sense of place, to my identity. I have this deep sense that the Italian blood running through my veins cannot be taken from me. I visit about four times per year to discover more by “looking through the glass of a Negroni,” as I like to call it. I learn about the stories and circumstances behind the traditions, (for instance, the pepperoncino) and now I feel I understand modern day Italian often more than Italians who came here only two decades ago.
What “looking through the glass of a Negroni” has reflected to me most so far is that whether it be Firenze, Chieti, Avellino, or Sorrento, the common theme is “il dolce far niente.” The sweetness of doing nothing. To live in the present is called the present because it’s a gift. A gift Italians know best!
Carmen Tomassetti is founder of CTO, a local entertainment production company producing musical entertainment for private events for over 30 years. He splits his time between the greater Philadelphia area, Florida, and of course, Italy.
OUR IMMIGRANT STORIES ARE PROUDLY SPONSORED BY STAMPONE O’BRIEN DILSHEIMER LAW