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Sunday is Funday in ItalyDiscover how families unite once a week for bonding over delicious food and wild conversation
Some families in southern Italy are still clinging to tradition, especially on Sundays. They gather around a table and eat a homemade feast once a week. If the nonni are still alive, they are likely to have aunts, uncles, and cousins present with empty stomachs and hearts ready for reloading.
I've experienced Sunday in Italy and the United States. Families like my own have kept up their Sunday lunch appointments in other parts of the world after they immigrated. With southern Italians, the day pretty much goes the same way wherever you are.
People often head to church in the early part of the morning. The women (and sometimes even some of the men) spend the late morning preparing a large meal that will consist of antipasto (appetizers), primo (soup, rice or usually pasta), and secondo (a meat or fish dish).
Antipasto usually consists of salumi – cured meats, cheeses, olives, and the like. Nowadays, folks might add crudité or green salads or eliminate this part all together for health reasons, especially if the nonni have high cholesterol or high blood pressure. Sometimes, they do antipasto every other week or only on the most special of Sundays, such as Zia Lina's birthday or Santa Lucia. But I digress, which will happen a lot – especially if the older generation is doing the talking and they're always doing the talking – during your lunch, too.
Anyway, primo piatto is usually the star of the show. Most often, it is a pasta dish. Some sort of sauce with meat, such as Bolognese or Genovese (which includes onions), is usually the big winner to coat the Sunday pasta. Really, you could have a cream sauce with truffles, pesto, or anything else. Immigrant Italians tend to stick with one kind of sauce made by one person for their weekly meal, whereas Italians in Italy tend to be more adventurous. It might be because Italians in the Boot still make pasta pretty much every day, so they need to work in the variety even on Sunday.
Fresh bread is a must for la scarpetta, when you sop up every last bit of sauce on your plate with bread and eat it. As kids, we would often sneak into the kitchen before lunch, take a hunk of bread, and dip it in the simmering sauce on the stove. It's truly heaven on Earth – until nonna catches you and swats your hand for getting breadcrumbs into the pot.
In Ischia, a small island off the coast of Naples that is home to my ancestors and husband, people often have chunks of raw onion in ice water, radishes, or leaves of naked, washed lettuce on the table. They take bites of one of those babies in between bites of pasta. My mother-in-law tells me that my family does this because they were contadine (or peasants) and whenever they didn't have bread they would turn to their garden to help with the scarpetta. Whatever the reason, I love a good, raw onion with my pasta now. Since my father's parents passed away, we haven't been as fastidious about putting nature's gifts on the table but in the old days it wouldn't have been Sunday without them. My one zia, who married into the family, always says you know the Di Meglios are coming to lunch when the rabbit food is right next to the rabbit.
That brings us to the secondo or meat or fish dish. Ischitani often serve rabbit for the second dish because it is the one for which the island is most famous. But you might also find roast beef, pork chops, or any kind of roast. Italian meat loaf or even turkey has been known to make appearances. There are usually one or two simple side dishes, such as a salad or eggplant. In Italy, eggplant parmigiana is a popular choice and is served as a side dish. My in-laws often make roasted potatoes to go along with whatever meat we're eating. If you serve a fish-based pasta, such as linguine with clams, then you would serve a fish for secondo. It might be a simple octopus salad, fried calamari (yes, as a secondo and not an antipasto), or a baked fish (with its head on for flavor).
While the world is changing and even southern Italians are starting to move toward a more isolated life that has you visiting with family only for major holidays, weddings, and funerals, there are still remnants of Old World togetherness. If you could peek into the homes of southern Italians on "Domenica" at around 1 or 2 p.m., you would find them feasting and laughing.
It is a chance for them to catch up or even gossip about what's happening in the neighborhood, which means whatever they learned during the week in the piazza. Later on in the day, you might find some family members gathered around a TV watching soccer or Formula 1. Or maybe the family will be embroiled in a round of Italian cards. They play for pennies, but they always have some prize for the winner. Just beware nonno cheats at Scopa, zia will point out your deficits saying she does it out of love, and your cousins and you will get into all sorts of trouble, so don't be surprised when nonna comes after you with a wooden spoon.
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