How I Embraced My Italian Heritage (After My Father Tried to Bury It)

The Italian American Heritage Society of Long Island will use its platforms to tell the Italian American story of our people. It’s personal and everyone has a story to tell. Long Island journalist David Paone offers insight into his family’s heritage to kick off the series.

My father was ashamed of his Italian heritage.

I hate to say that, but it’s true.  Allow me to start at the beginning:

His mother, Assunta Bevevino, immigrated to the United States from Calabria, Italy, in the early 20th century, along with countless other Europeans. I believe she was in her teens.

She married his father, Phillip Paone, who was American born, but of Italian ancestry.

My father and his sister, Elvira, were children during the Great Depression. It didn’t help that their parents had no education and were pretty damn poor to start with, regardless of the state of the national economy.

My grandparents, Phillip and Assunta (Bevevino) Paone, circa 1920s.

The other fathers in his neighborhood in Pennsylvania were what you’d call old-world Italians: uneducated, cigar-smoking mooks who beat their wives. At one point my grandfather owned a shoe repair business, and these types would play cards in the backroom.

Unfortunately and unfairly, my father equated these low-class types with all Italians.

He despised them and didn’t want to turn into one himself, and knew that the only way out of this world was through an education. So by the grace of a local politician, he was able to attend the University of Scranton on a full scholarship.

This was followed by a few years in the Navy, during World War II (where he was stationed in Italy at one point).

I’m sure my parents would have gotten married regardless of my mother’s heritage, but I’m also sure my father was very glad that she wasn’t of Italian ancestry.

She was a mix of things and we’re not completely sure of them, but we do know Hungarian was one and she had a grandmother named Reilly, so that makes my siblings and me one-eighth Irish, which is just enough for St. Patrick’s Day.

The five of us were not named with the common names Italian-Americans name their children. Somehow I wound up with a Jewish name.

All during our lives in Malverne, we were told we’re Americans. We’re not Italian; we’re American.

At one point I tried to explain to my father that Italy has given the world many great things, such as the Italian Renaissance, Italian opera (if you like that sort of thing), and all that great food.

He didn’t care.

Speaking of all that great food, we just didn’t eat how my many Italian-American friends ate. My mother made what you’d consider American meals plus some Hungarian ones such as goulash and chicken paprikash. 

And she hated garlic. It made her sick to her stomach. So I didn’t discover garlic until I was in my teens.

And she wasn’t a fan of olive oil, either.

Without garlic and olive oil, whatever meals she made with tomato sauce just weren’t all there.

However, when we ate at our Aunt Elvira’s, that’s where we feasted on homemade meatballs smothered in authentic sauce. (She called it sauce, not gravy.)

Essentially my siblings and I were half-breeds with very little  heritage.

When I was in high school or college, my sister decided to embrace our Italian ancestry and started frequenting a nearby Italian café. This didn’t sit well with my father who imagined the same crowd from the backroom at the shoe repair business patronizing this place.

When she started answering our phone with “pronto!” (she was told this is how they answer the phone in Italy) my father put a quick stop to it.

She did introduce me to cappuccino during this time, though.

Over the years I’ve tried to connect with my Italian heritage, mostly by learning how to cook Italian meals.

My sister did the same thing first and had a lot of success when she made Aunt Elvira’s meatballs for the first time. Several years later I gave them a try and to my surprise, they turned out fabulous! 

However, for some reason, I’ve never been able to make them the same way again. I follow the recipe exactly and they turn out run-of-the-mill and nothing special. I don’t know why.

And then there’s the sauce. I just can’t get it right. It’s not like Aunt Elvira’s.

I don’t know why but my lasagna comes out more like soup.

But I make great stuffed shells! (I use the recipe from the Ronzoni box.)

Most of the girls I’ve dated in my lifetime were Italian-Americans, with two of them with Sicilian blood. Everything they say about Sicilian girls is true. Why didn’t I learn the first time?

When my brother was engaged to a girl from Michigan, he traveled to the Midwest to meet her family. All they knew about him was “an Italian from New York.”

Upon meeting him for the first time, his future sister-in-law declared, “He’s not greasy!”

Of course he wasn’t. My father wouldn’t allow it.

I need to do more than learn how to cook Italian meals. As an artist, I need to see Rome, Florance, and pretty much all of Italy.

My sister has done that already, too! In fact, she learned Italian before her trip so she could immerse herself in the culture.

I need to do the same thing.

Learning Italian and a trip to Italy are on my bucket list. Both of those things will take a lot of time and money, so perhaps I should start small and learn to make a better marinara sauce.

Does anyone want to help me out?

David Paone is a Long Island-based reporter-photographer and can be reached at [email protected].

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