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In with the new – An Italian American New Year’s

Okay, so maybe this wasn’t my best idea. And by that, I mean it was probably one of my worst ideas ever.

Right up there with the time I thought it would be fun to perform a sing-a-long of Andrea Bocelli’s greatest hits for Kelly.

capodanno3I thought my accompaniment of “Romanza” was brilliant, chilling I daresay. It wasn’t until years later that Kelly admitted she was holding back both horror and humor as a tone-deaf, 14-year-old Danielle bowed for applause. But I digress…

In any case, it was too late. My friends were at Casa Festino and we would just have to make the best of it; my fingers were crossed that our Italian take on New Year’s Eve didn’t scare them as much as my singing

Inviting Kelly, Nicole, Dan and Marcos over to celebrate New Year’s Eve with my family seemed like a good idea at the time. My friends and I wanted some kind of plan … but we were too young, and frankly too uncool, to go to a real party.

With no other options, I invited my friends to my house. My parents always had a fun gathering. In anticipation of the festivities, I had regaled my friends with a promise of Chinese food, an Uno tournament that stretched hours, and the ceremonial cutting of the New Year’s Luck Cake. The Luck Cake was my favorite part of the night, even though I never won. My mom prepared a simple Duncan Hines cake each year and dropped a nickel into the pan before baking it. Whoever got the slice with the coin was going to be lucky all year. Obviously, I coveted that coin.

duncan-hines

My sales pitch must have been compelling because my friends seemed excited to join us. That, or they realized anything was better than staying home and watching Dick Clark alone. And so we gathered at my house on Oak Street for what should have been a fun night filled with an abbondanza of MSG, Draw Fours, and Eros Ramazotti.

Things were going swimmingly until the Chinese food was cleared and my mom bust out the lentil soup. My mom’s lucky lentil soup doesn’t exactly look appetizing. You would never know it is a complex flavor that layers bacon, tomato, legumes and spices. It is delicious and as the name suggests … lucky. Many Italians eat it on New Year’s Day, but my mom usually makes us eat it on New Year’s Eve as well, to double the force of the fortune.

My mother served everyone around the table including my Uncle Rocco and Aunt Mae, Dad, Lisa, cousins, and of course, my friends. Most of my friends eyed the soup with curiosity, and took a few bites without much prodding. Kelly, however, backed away from the table and left the dining room, hoping to avoid the seemingly evil brown mush. Much to her chagrin, my mother noticed her absence immediately and tracked Kelly down to the kitchen. I watched from around the corner as she handed her a small bowl of lucky soup.

“Eat up, Kelly! We can’t have you jeopardizing your luck!”

“Ahhhhh, no thank you, Mrs. Festino.”

“Oh honey, I know you might be full from the Chinese food, but just have a little … for luck.”

“That’s okay. I’m fine.”

“Are you afraid you won’t like it? It tastes like bacon … its delicious. Do you like bacon?”

My mom was now holding a spoonful in front of Kelly’s face, poised as if at any moment the spoon was going to become a choo-choo train and start feeding my friend like a toddler. Kelly’s face was one of sheer will and determination. I realized that I if I didn’t do something, this standoff could go on indefinitely. I ran into the kitchen to save my friend.

“Oh mom … we should leave Kelly alone … it is just … well … she’s thinking of becoming a vegetarian. I mean … maybe. So she really shouldn’t have the soup.”

Kelly looked at me in shock for a minute, but recovered quickly. She picked her jaw up off the ground, turned to my mom and nodded solemnly. But my mom was smarter than that.

cotechino_lenticchie-622x431“Nice try, girls. I just watched you both eat chicken fingers, crab rangoons, ribs, and dumplings. Kelly … you have to have just a little. Just one spoonful! It is for your luck! Please.”

Kelly must have realized her stubbornness was nothing compared to a superstitious Italian woman, and so she resigned herself to the legumes. She opened her mouth and my mom spoon-fed her the lucky lentils. As Kelly chewed and swallowed, my mother looked on … victorious, while Kelly looked, well, disgusted.

“Brava, Kelly. That wasn’t so bad, was it?” Before Kelly could reply, Marcos came jogging into the kitchen. Apparently, he had been playing Uno and wanted to tag me in to take his spot.

“I need a break.”

“A break? Already?”

“I’m sitting between Auntie Mae and your Grandma … and I don’t know which is worse. Auntie Mae keeps giving me draw fours, skips and reverses. And she keeps chuckling while she does it. And Grandma! She has the best poker face I’ve ever seen, and she only breaks her silence to criticize my and Lisa’s plays. I thought your sister was going to cry at one point. I need a break. It’s your turn.”

“Yea that sounds about right … maybe we should get our own deck and play our own game. Where are Dan and Nicole?”

“Your dad is showing them this other game with these funny cards? There are cups and swords and stars … I dunno … I don’t get it.”

At that moment, I noticed the time: 11:44. I turned to my mom who was finishing Kelly’s soup.

“Mom, is it almost time for the Luck Cake?”

“Not until after midnight. But it is time for you to carry these dishes outside, so they are ready for us.”

Marcos and Kelly looked confused.

The dishes. How could I have forgotten?! At midnight, we break dishes. It is a way of saying farewell to the past, while simultaneously making room for the new. I explained the tradition to my friends and while they were understandably skeptical, they seemed excited as well. Marcos and I ran some dishes and mugs out to the backyard patio and made it back in time for the final countdown.

As the clock struck midnight, we cheered, celebrated and cin cin-ed. We ate more lentils and cut the Luck Cake; Auntie Mae won again … she always did. And then a few of us made our way to the backyard.

It was absolutely freezing as we each picked up an old plate and lined up, facing the grass so that the ceramic couldn’t ricochet off of any walls. My friends looked apprehensive, and no one wanted to be the first to smash a plate. And so my mom looked around at my friends encouragingly and took it upon herself to be the first to smash. With a smile, she threw the plate forward, the pink and purple floral pattern shattered to pieces as it hit the icy patio ground. She cheered and laughed, and in that moment, looked like a teenager herself. I wondered what long-forgotten memories she was replaying in her mind … thoughts of throwing old kitchen items off of her balcony in Corato with her mother and sister Rosalba. Did she wish she was in Italy right now? I was curious, but I didn’t want to ask in front of everyone.

piatti-rotti

Once my mom broke the proverbial and literal ice with the smashing of the first plate, everyone looked anxious and excited. Lisa threw hers next, and screamed as she did it. Within seconds, everyone was throwing and smashing and smiling. I watched the destruction of the old plates and the resulting empty, open hands and I was no longer worried what my friends thought of our traditions; I was suddenly very excited about what 1998 will bring.

Unfortunately, it was too cold to stay outside for that long. After a few minutes of lingering over the broken shards of ceramic, we trekked back into the house to find that the Uno game had been picked back up and Auntie Mae and Robson were battling for victory.

Amedeo Minghi’s voice filled the house as he sang, “La Vita Mia.” Lisa we eating leftover Chinese food — I liked where her head was at — and Nicole, Dan and Marcos were calling their parents for rides.

Kelly turned to me, “so what’s next? Any other crazy Italian traditions?”

“I think that’s about it … but if you like, I can fire up the Andrea Bocelli concert?”

“Is that the blind singer?”

“Yes! I remember how much you liked his duet with Zucchero.”

“Riiiiight. Yea. Haha … actually, I’m pretty tired, Danielle. It is wayyyy past my bedtime. I think I’ll cal my mom to come pick me up.”

About Danielle Festino

Danielle was born and raised in Stoneham, now resides in Medford, and has roots in Puglia. In 2004, she graduated from Wellesley College with a degree in International Relations and Italian Studies. She is passionate about telling stories and hopes to provide a glimpse into what it means to grow up Italian-American.