The making of a real Italian

My dad was always told that his maternal grandfather, James Pacific, died young in a hunting accident.

It took his mother, Anita Pacific, years to admit that James wasn't a hunter and that the fatal hunting accident involved the police, not deer.

My great-grandfather was an Italian immigrant living near Pittsburgh, Pa. He was killed by the police in the late 1940s because of his associations with the Italian mafia.

I didn't find out about the mafia connections until recently. It isn't something that is often talked about, and it isn't something to be proud of, but it is definitely interesting.

"It's so attenuated from our life that it doesn't bother me," explained my dad. "It just makes for entertaining stories around the dinner table."

I've done some basic calculations, and I'm pretty sure I come in at about 45% Italian, all on my dad's side. James was one of my dad's three fullblooded Italian grandparents.

When I was younger and realized I wasn't as Italian as my dad was, I was crushed. But since I spent last summer in Florence, Italy, there have been some redeeming moments.

Growing up, I could count on one hand the number of times someone pronounced my last name correctly on the first try. But in Italy, I didn't have to coach people through the pronunciation of "Rossero." I thought I was used to explaining "rho-SARE-oh" to other people, until the refreshing moment when I suddenly didn't have to.

People in Florence treated me like an Italian. With my long, dark hair and the trademark Italian no-nonsense expression that I adopted while there, I almost seemed to fit in. It felt like I fit in, anyway. I'm hesitant to say for sure, because who knows what those real Italians thought.

See, there it is. "Real Italians." Who qualifies for that?

I remember calling my dad during my walk to class one day and mentioning how the "real Italians" walked too leisurely.

Before he could comment, I clarified, "You know, the ones who live here."

Enjoy what you're reading?
Signup for our newsletter

What would he think when I told him that sometimes I think I prefer American-Italian food over the authentic stuff? That sometimes I could really just go for some Alfredo sauce, or the meat pepperoni, not the peppers?

Is this the difference between a "fake Italian" and a "real" one?

When asked if he considers himself a "real Italian," my dad's answer is immediate: "Oh, yeah."

To him, you don't have to be born in Italy to be Italian. But you do need to have a large portion of Italian blood.

For example, my dad considers me Italian, though he probably won't think that about my children.

My mom is a jumble of things - German, Native American, Irish. Her heritage is comprised of so many little scattered pieces that she doesn't feel any particular allegiance to anything but her American roots. But she feels a hell of an allegiance to those roots.

My mom never lets us miss fireworks on the Fourth of July. She uses patriotic dish towels. She subconsciously touches her heart when she talks about the United States.

When my mom's kindergarten students neglect to stand up for the flag during the Pledge of Allegiance, she asks them, "Do you live in the United States? Would you rather live somewhere where they don't have our freedoms?"

When they only mumble during "America the Beautiful," she chides them and reminds them, "People died so you could sing that song."

When I was about to leave for Florence, my mom was wracked with worry that I would somehow end up in a horrible situation like Amanda Knox, the American exchange student accused of murdering her roommate while spending a year abroad in Italy.

The first time it came up, my parents and I were standing in our kitchen in Hinckley, Ohio, a tiny Cleveland suburb.

My mom stood at the sink, and my dad sat on a stool opposite her, leaning on the granite countertop. I shuffled along the slick, hardwood floors in my socks, sliding back and forth. Bruno Mars' voice pulsed from a speaker in the corner - there is always music in our kitchen.

My mom glanced over at me and began refolding the dish towel next to her. She looked at me again, but this time, my gaze caught hers and she had to speak. "You know," my mom began, "you have to be careful [in Italy]. Take your mace everywhere. You'll be in another country, and people don't always like Americans."

This phrase immediately caught my dad's attention. His head jerked up, and he threw his hands in the air, exclaiming, "She'll be fine! She's Italian!"

A laugh escaped my mom's mouth. She thought my dad's Italian pride was cute.

She exaggerated an eye roll, but her shoulders relaxed, and she tossed the dish towel down. "She's American."

As it turned out, the only people who targeted me for my Americanness were the overeager salesmen who peppered me in the street, and that only happened when I was carrying enough luggage to give me away.

Besides, I think it can be argued that this pertains simply to tourists, not exclusively Americans.

Regardless, stereotypes exist, and the variety of Europeans in Florence held many beliefs about people from the U.S. At one point, a British bartender told me that she always thought that Americans were "fat, stupid and spoke dumb English" - until she met one.

There are plenty of American students and tourists in Florence, and we weren't hard to find. At the beginning of my trip, that was comforting. But toward the end, it didn't feel like enough.

On one of those last days, I found myself wanting to be home in America for reasons beyond missing my family, boyfriend and dogs. It was July 4, and I wanted to be at home to celebrate Independence Day.

Because that wasn't an option, some friends and I opted for the next best thing: Lunch at an American diner.

The place, named simply "The Diner," was owned by a British man and marketed to the American students studying in Florence. This was my second visit, but my two friends were dedicated regulars.

I ordered chicken nuggets, which dulled my intense craving for chicken fingers, and a vanilla milkshake because it met my daily gelato criteria and felt patriotic.

As my friends and I sat in this mock diner, surrounded by American license plates and listening to American pop music, I couldn't help smiling. I was eight days away from being home.

As we unstuck our thighs from the vinyl chairs and got up to leave, we passed the British owner hanging a celebratory American flag.

"Happy Independence Day," he said, in his English accent. "Even if it's from us."

I chuckled at the irony as I exited the diner. The world around me shifted as the close-but-not-quite copy of stereotypical America faded behind me, and I stepped back onto the Italian cobblestones.

I'm not a "fake Italian." My family came from this beautiful country. I have roots here, and I'm proud of that.

But I'm not a "real Italian" either. Those Italians don't just have Italian roots - they have Italian trunks, leaves and branches, too.

Mine are American, and I think I prefer it that way.