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My journey toward “la bella figura”

“Where do you think you’re going dressed like that?” my father demanded, his voice dripping with disapproval. He was seated at the kitchen table, reading the Sunday Globe.

I glanced down at my Wellesley t-shirt, worn sweat pants, and beat up Chuck Taylor sneakers. I ran my hand through my disheveled hair and answered back with the attitude of the 18-year-old-know-it-all that I was, “Ah, I’m going to the supermarket … is there a problem?”

He sighed, took a deep breath, and thought for a moment … as if he wasn’t quite sure how to turn his thoughts into words that wouldn’t push me into a teenage meltdown.

“Danielle, have I ever told you about “la bella figura”? And my rule about leaving the house?”

I had zero idea what he was talking about and so I stared blankly. My father accurately interpreted my silence for “no” and continued on without any encouragement.

“Well, I have two rules in life. Drink red wine every day and always look my best. No matter where I am going, I am prepared to see someone I know … because chances are, in this town, I will. I recommend you do the same. Do you really want to bump into an old classmate or teacher dressed in that T-shirt?”

My eyes flicked down once again toward the baggy, white all-women’s college T-shirt that boldly said in red cursive writing: “And on the 8th day, She created Wellesley.”

“What’s the matter with this shirt?”

“You know perfectly well that both your mother and I dislike that T-shirt.” Of course, “dislike” was a kind word for the complete and utter hatred my mother felt for the tongue-in-cheek V-neck. She found it distasteful and sacrilegious, and had threatened to throw it out the next time she was able to get her hands on it.

“But it’s just Stop and Shop! Are you saying that I need to get dressed to the nines to go buy some Nutella and toothpaste?”

“Don’t be a wise-guy. That’s not at all what I’m saying. I just always try to look neat and put together whether I’m going to church in a shirt and tie, or just out for a walk in a windbreaker. La bella figura … ya know? Right now honey, you look like you just rolled out of bed. I think 10 minutes and a different shirt would…really…change your vibe.”

I didn’t want to admit it, but the man had a point. Nonetheless, I was still a stubborn teenager and so instead of admitting defeat and agreeing with him, I merely shrugged my shoulders.

“Why don’t you go change your outfit and comb your hair before you head out? And while you are at the store, could you pick me up some Stella Doro cookies for breakfast tomorrow?”

I took the mustached man’s advice and not surprisingly, I was glad I did.  At the supermarket, I bumped into my friend Nicole’s mom in the freezer section, and my sister’s best friend in the cookie aisle. Vinnie was right again; he always was.

And in a completely predictable plot twist, I came home and couldn’t find my Wellesley t-shirt anywhere. My parents claimed they had nothing to do with it, but we all know better than that.

When I studied abroad in Italy a few years later, I saw the motivation of bella figura in my Bolognese roommate, Anna. I heard it in her voice when she burst into my room to tell me about un capo buono she had just purchased … the ensuing show-and-tell fashion show including details about the designer brands and names. La Bella Figura was apparent when she explained her strict rules and peculiar methods for cleaning the bathroom, and I suspect it also had something to do with her expansive designer shoe collection–which I wasn’t allowed to touch.

However, I also discovered that la bella figura transcends grooming, fashion and housekeeping, becoming a source of competition among friends and family. In fact, nothing embodied the motivation for la bella figura quite like the crafting, composition and display of a woman’s corredo or dowry. If she was lucky, a young woman’s parents began putting her dowry together as soon as she was old enough to talk; the corredo was complete with household items and linens — all pura sete and cotone puro, of course — and everyone would get the chance to see and hear about every single, hand-picked piece.

Over time, I came to realize that la bella figura is so much more than changing your T-shirt for Stop and Shop. It is literally the driving force in everything Italians do, for better or for worse. The elegance in our home, the strength in our coffee, the pride in our food. La bella figura factors into the loyalty in our friendships, the size of our weddings, and the respect for our elders.

Once I returned stateside, I noticed that my father hadn’t aged in years, and I surmised that there might be something to his rules — both his commitment to red wine and the life of la bella figura.

That, or he’s a vampire.

And so, as much as I hated to admit it, la bella figura began to drive me as well … I was not immune to its gravitational pull. It was in my sunglasses at night, the sleek silhouette of my winter coat, and the strategic swipe of my mascara.

A few weeks ago, my father gave me a ride to his house after yet another of the Polar Vortex’s cruel and unapologetic snowy attacks on our city. I was recovering from the flu and I looked like death warmed over. Actually, that may be too generous; I just looked like death.

Alex Britti was singing to us from the radio when my dad dropped a bomb on me. “Do you mind if I make a quick detour to Stop and Shop on the way home … I need a few things.”

“Ahhhhh … dad … have you looked at me?”

We were stopped at a traffic light and he turned to give me a once over. I wasn’t wearing any makeup and the signs of sleep deprivation and constant nose-blowing were as clear as the day is long. My eyes were glassy and my mouth hung open stupidly because, well … I needed to breathe from it.

“You don’t look … that bad. Your cheeks have a nice rosy glow to them.” He sounded as if he was trying to convince himself.

“That’s the fever, Dad. Do I need to remind you about the rule? YOUR rule, that is. Which is now my rule?”

“Point taken.”

“Okay, so as long as your remember.” I smiled as I reached for a tissue. “What do you need from the store?”

“I need blueberries and bananas for breakfast tomorrow.”

“My, my how things have changed. You aren’t concerned with la bella figura AND you’ve given up Stella Doro cookies for fruit. What kind of Italian are you?”

“The kind that is telling you not to be a wise guy.”

And with that, I shut my mouth … well not completely, I still needed to breathe through it.

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.