Making Traditional Italian Food Our Way: My Family’s Story

Everyone makes traditional Italian food their own, depending on the region, the season, and the info that our grandparents passed down to us. Here’s my version.

In my family, growing up—even though I’m a mix of German, Italian, Irish and other European nationalities (to a lesser degree—the Italian culinary traditions are the ones that we always celebrated, cherished and enjoyed.

Whether it was reminiscing about the old pizzelle press at Christmas, accidentally laminating the leftover lasagna with plastic wrap when we reheated it in the oven on New Year’s Eve, digging into big slices of Italian rum cake on birthdays, or rolling out the dough for Easter pie or Easter bread in the spring, traditional Italian foods were at the center of our holiday table.

Sunday dinners were filled with Italian delicacies as well, like gnocchi and bracciole, prosciutto-wrapped melon, cannoli and those ear-shaped cheese-filled pastries from the Italian bakery.

The Importance of a Name

Fennel italian

For me, a big part of the key to understanding traditional Italian foods is to understand the significance of their names, and the Italian names of various ingredients.

Sure, since my family is from Naples you could say my people come from the land of pizza and ice cream. But for me those are, for the most part, strictly American foods.

Knowing the names of traditional Italian foods is part of their magic.

Of course, if I’m shopping basically anywhere outside the Italian Market in south Philly, this can also be a huge source of frustration.

No, I’m not going to say “ri-cott-a” instead of “rig-gaught,” as it was always pronounced in my household growing up.

Fennel is finnochio (pronounced our way: fa-nuke) and pine nuts are pignoli nuts (pin-yo-lee). Even when the lady at the Acme says, “Oh, you mean the spicy capi-ham?” when I ask for capicola, I absolutely refuse to pronounce it any other way. Sorry.

Honoring Memories and Passing on Traditions

Just three months ago, almost four, my grandfather passed away. Along with my grandmother, he probably had the most influence on my food-loving ways.

He always loved taking me and my brother to restaurants, cooking for us, and enjoying food with us, which was nearly as precious as the time we spent together.

He loved pasta fagioli, and veal cutlets with lemon wedges, and often indulged my never-ending childhood desire for spinach ravioli with white sauce. He taught me to love sausage on pizza.

Though I never shared his dislike for raw tomatoes, and though it wasn’t until very recently that I discovered his love of limoncello, we both always had an unquenchable sweet tooth.

What is authentic?


To talk about traditional Italian food from my perspective might seem kind of inauthentic to some people. Though I’ve been to Italy, I’ve only been to Venice and Verona, far from the poor southern neighborhoods where my family is from.

A few months ago, a cousin told me that she went back to one of the villages where my grandmother and her father’s family reportedly came from, envisioning the bucolic countryside.

What she found was essentially a city, or suburbs at least, with a car dealership and lots of modern hustle and bustle, with no hope of finding where our ancestors had once dwelled, and no one there to provide any sort of direction.

A Story of Immigrants

It was four generations ago that my family came over in dribs and drabs from Europe. They did this out of necessity in search of a better life. As a result, traditions changed. I’ll never know for sure exactly what their culinary traditions were. (But I’m betting their recipes for Italian Easter bread didn’t say Fleischmann’s at the top like mine does…)

The Keepers of Tradition

italian pasta

As the years have gone by, my brother and I have, in large part, become the keepers of family traditions, and for us this mostly means keeping alive the culinary traditions of our own childhoods and the ones we were told about by previous generations.

In some ways, this might actually be easier today than it was for our grandparents now that we can order citron for the Easter bread online, various ingredients are available locally year-round, and I have not one but TWO pasta-making attachments for my KitchenAid mixer (the one my grandpa bought me more than ten years ago, I might add).

Tradition isn’t Static


Even in Italy, Italian culinary traditions look very different than they used to.

Most of the women work outside the home these days and processed foods have taken over in the same way that they have here in the US. Gluten-free pizza is available in Italy, too (something that my mom’s very interested in, since she has celiac disease) and I wonder if it’s been adopted as a trend there the same way that it has in the US, or if it’s taken more seriously by restaurants out of respect for those who actually have a legitimate gluten intolerance.

Is it still pizza if it’s made in Italy without wheat flour? I think it is. Is it still “traditional” Italian food if you buy a slice at the mall from Sbarro? I’m not so sure.

Even though an Italian native might shrug her shoulders or furrow her brow if she hears me claim that I’m Italian, and even though the foods that I like to make with my family year after year might be downright unrecognizable to her, they’re still as authentic as can be to me. Italian culinary tradition, like all culinary traditions, morphs and changes as the years go by and as families grow and change and migrate to new lands.

Today, I live nearly three thousand miles away from where I was born, but my brother (and grandmother, and mom, and stepdad) still dyed Easter eggs and made Easter pie and Easter bread with me this year (though it was a week early and via video chat). Was it inauthentic even though we weren’t standing together in the same kitchen, mixing the same ingredients, breathing the same air? Nah. I don’t think so.

So, what’s the verdict? Authentic enough for ya? Tell me all about your own favorite traditional Italian foods in the comments.

About the author

Allison M. Sidhu

With a master’s degree in gastronomy, this girl’s got food on the brain! Allison’s a Philly native and recent transplant to LA. When she’s not exploring the local food scene, she loves snacking on homemade goodies in front of the TV with her husband.

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