I Fell in Love and Haven't Been the Same Since . . .
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. . . in love with Italy, that is. Speaking of this love, some of you have asked, "Who am I? What's Nello's Italy? What's Nello's Sauce?" Here's my answer: I grew up in central New Jersey to an Italian American mother and a father who makes a very good sauce. It was not your quintessential Italian American household, for sure, as I have plenty of Scottish, German, and Irish blood, but my mother certainly did grow up surrounded by Italian in Philadelphia. I have blond hair, am tall and fairly skinny, and don't look Italian at all. All this aside, much Italian culture made its way to me. I hadn't a clue what "Italy" or "Italian" meant as a little boy. I just remember my mother would always make lasagna on my birthday; she'd often make homemade pasta, like ravioli, and countless other delicious dishes. Like my great grandmother who was born in Carife, Italy and came to America in 1919, my mother has always had a beautiful garden: tomatoes, cucumbers, figs, flowers. I once built a scarecrow for the garden. My mother's temperament is classic Italian (I can imagine I'll get a "talking to" for this post!) and I've taken on a lot of that temperament in my own life. What do I mean? Well, you had to speak your mind in my home growing up. There was no sitting on the sidelines. If you're lazy or have done something stupid, you'd hear it from someone. No free passes. Lots of love. The kind of love you can count on. My father, my brother, and I sure are lucky guys.
It wasn't until college that I decided to study Italian, and I must say, it was hardly a "decision." I had to take a language. Italian seemed like a better idea than Spanish . . . again. But I proved to be a terrible student. The worst. I got a D- in my first semester of Italian. The professor told me: "I just don't think you can learn a foreign language." I sure did struggle through that year. Heck, I barely knew what a "verb" was. I wondered, "Will I ever fulfill my language requirement?" Though I was atrocious in class, I did love Italian culture and I liked to try to speak. I'd regularly go to the Italian language table in college for dinner. But I fought. And I fought. Eventually things started to click. I signed up to go abroad to Bologna, Italy. That's when it all began.
My first day in Italy was anything but easy. I remember getting off the plane, not understanding a word. The weight of knowing that I'd be there for ten months was so heavy on my shoulders. I was thrilled, too, of course, but overwhelmingly worried. How would I, the worst student of Italian at Dickinson College, survive? I did what many American students abroad do, I went straight for comfort food, things to remind me of home. My first purchase in Italy? A Coke. It tasted so good. Ahh, the crisp, refreshing flavor of "home."
But soon "home" became "casa." Everyday was exciting. New experiences. New tastes. New things to see. New friends. I'd have lunch with my Italian friends; we'd sit around the table and talk (well, I'd occasionally add a peep or two) for an hour each day. I'd visit my friend's family in Savio di Ravenna almost every weekend. Soon enough I was speaking basic Italian. Later I was speaking better than basic. Then I was relatively fluent. But it was hard. Every day a battle. I even once asked the store clerk at a supermarket if the sauce had "preservativi." What a mistake that was, "preservativi" in Italian means "condoms." Oh Lord. His response? Just a huge laugh, then an explanation. Almost as bad as when when my friend (female) asked the clerk (male) for "pene," not "penne," at the stationary store. That'd be--cough, cough--a "penis," not "pens!"
Those ten months in Italy were some of the best of my life. I learned much about the world and about myself. My time there instilled in me a love not just for Italy, but for life. Coming back to the United States was not easy. I was leaving my new friends. I was leaving a place that felt just right. I was leaving that feeling, I thought. The excitement of the day to day. Many of my classmates grew very close that year abroad, but we all worried we'd change--go off on different paths--once back at Dickinson. The challenge was real. Pennsylvania is hardly Italy. But I new that I would make my life Italy at that point. I enrolled in every Italian class I could, continued to study Italian (this time I was getting As), became the vice president of the Italian club . . . I was becoming Italian.
I returned to Italy for a summer after graduating. It was a joyous yet difficult time. I had finished college and didn't yet have a job. There I was, once again, in Italy, reminded of what I truly loved. But how could I make that my life? I returned to the United States after a few weeks, took up a job as a waiter, and began looking at graduate programs in Italy. Middlebury College's MA in Italian seemed right. No kidding, you have to sign a language pledge at Middlebury. Speaking English would get you kicked out of the program. I returned to Italy as part of the MA program just a few days before 9/11, this time to Firenze. I called home an apartment over the Arno river with views of Ponte Vecchio and the Duomo. I found it extremely difficult at first knowing that my country--my family and my friends--struggled greatly back home in the wake of the horrors of 9/11. I wanted to be back, but I also wanted to be Italy.
In Firenze I took courses at the university, even one on Dante, popped open countless bottles of wine (primarily prosecco, the corks of which my roommate Tommaso and I would fire off into the river), and traveled to various parts of the boot. I worked hard on my Italian, fine tuning my skills. I enjoyed a deeper appreciation of the nuances of Italian life and culture. I started to see the darker side of the country. The struggles Italians face every day. The political struggles. I was there to learn the sad news of my professor's assassination (Dr. Marco Biagi) by the Brigate Rosse, a left-wing terrorist group, for his work on a law that would change labor relations in the country. I learned Italian cooking by watching Italians cook, by sharing my time with them at the table day after day. I began to cultivate a deep appreciation for quality ingredients and culinary traditions.
I returned to the United States to start a career in teaching and scholarship, first at the University of Virginia, then at Clifton High school in New Jersey, then the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where I earned my PhD in Italian in December 2007. I wrote my dissertation on a fascinating figure from the late Renaissance, and read primarily about Italy between 1400 and 1650. I'd regularly travel to Italy for research and teaching--lucky me, I know. It was a great time in life. I recently was fortunate to be hired as an adjunct Italian professor at a small college in North Carolina. I teach introductory Italian.
And what about Nello's? It came to me one morning. I was lying in bed and bingo, the idea just popped into my mind: Why not start a website dedicated to all things Italian? Why not share my love for Italian food, wine, and culture with as many people as possible? I started Nello's that very day in March, officially launching the site in April. It has been nothing but wonderful ever since. These days I spend pretty much every minute thinking about Nello's. I have a wonderful love by my side who makes every day of life better, and who's as excited about Nello's as I am. What's next for Nello's? I'll of course keep sharing Italy with you; the way I see it, the way I love it. I hope to hear more from you, too. Promise me you'll write?