My Two Italies
By Joseph Luzzi
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux
208 pages, $22
By Lee Coppola
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The waiter in the Florence restaurant had a look of disgust when asked by the American patron, the grandson of Sicilian emigrants, about a certain dish familiar to him via his grandparents.
“That’s the South,” the waiter said, disdain dripping from his lips.
And that seems to be the theme of Joseph Luzzi’s decipher of a country with two distinct cultures, a theme that currently dominates news from the Middle East and for more than 150 years has dotted the landscape of the Yankee-Confederacy United States.
Luzzi writes from a personal perspective. The son of Italian immigrants from southern Italy’s Calabria Province, he became a college professor specializing in the art and culture of such Italian cities as Milan and Florence.
As a boy living in Rhode Island, he watched his family slaughter animals, cure meat, grow vegetables and fruit and make wine, all culinary routines brought from Calabria. As an adult, his studies made him an expert in Italian artists and authors. He ran his university’s study-abroad summer program and gave lectures and seminars on Dante.
“I feigned an easy relationship with Florence,” he writes, “as if it were some prestigious college I had studied in years ago and I kept going back to for summer reunions. In truth, Florence was like Italy itself to me: the embodiment of high culture that I loved, but which always reminded me of its enormous distance from the world of my family.”
The reminder also came in his freshman year of college at Tufts University. One of his classmates was from Turin, “light-skinned and sleek as a Ferrari, she stood worlds apart from the thick, black-haired women I had grown up with.” But when he told her his parents were from Calabria, she sneered “that’s Africa, not Italy.”
“Italies” most often reads as a memoir, Luzzi drawing from practices and incidents of his past to illuminate the two visions of his forefathers’ homeland. He writes of his wife and their love and of her tragic death in an automobile accident.
He writes of his domineering and not-so-compassionate father, who had difficulty marrying his Calabrian past to his American present.
He relates an incident in which a neighbor’s wife was found with another man.
The woman’s brother beat her, and the council of Calabrian men led by the author’s father met with the husband to determine her fate. It was imperative, according to custom, that the husband punish his disgraced wife to regain his honor. Faced with the dilemma of bowing to custom or “following his aching heart all the way back to the arms of his scarlet-lettered wife, the husband moved to California … with his wife.”
It’s anecdotes such as this that give Luzzi’s work richness. And Luzzi’s academic prowess in all cultural things Italian, adds spice.
He draws from numerous authors, both long-gone and still alive, to delve into Italy’s history and explain how the country’s dialect-driven languages eventually were woven into one.
Luzzi appears to the reader as a conflicted offspring of southern Italians. He seems to appreciate and understand the life his parents and relatives lived both before and after their journey across the Atlantic, but he also appears to long for acceptance into the Italian world graced by that freshman at Tufts. Had his parents and relatives traveled north to find work instead of coming to the United States, their accent, clothes and table manners would have labeled them outsiders, he writes. “In a no-place, in America it was easier to invent yourself.” Still, that yearning for acceptance tugged at him, especially when he studied in Florence. He bemoans:
“I taught their culture and had devoted my life to publicizing their art to the world. Yet the Florentines held their ground. No matter how much my Italian improved, no matter how often I wore that slim-waisted Montezemolo shirt with the bold stripe, I could not scale the barriers to entry.”
Then again, the reader wonders, why try? After all, Luzzi admits it was his parents and what they brought from Italy that filled a void in his life, to wit, “The English grammar I studied in grade school disciplined my thoughts … but it was the tender and violent sentiments of my parents’ Calabrian that taught me how to feel.”
Lee Coppola is a former print and television journalist, a former federal prosecutor and a former dean of St. Bonaventure University’s Jandoli Journalism School.