When Italy met Canada

The plastic-covered couches, the two kitchens—how migrants created new traditions unheard of back home
TORONTO, ON - AUGUST 24TH, 2011 - Pasquale Alati tends to the tomatos in his backyard garden in Woodbridge, On.
When Italy met Canada
Photograph by Andrew Tolson

Like any Italian nonna, Victoria Orlando relishes the chance to reminisce about the good old days, including her early years in the southern Italian village of Gagliato, growing up in Timmins, Ont., and settling in Toronto, where she raised two daughters with her late husband, Salvatore.

Unlike the nonnas who still live in the Calabrese village where she was born, Orlando’s stories feature houses with two kitchens, Christmas parties with 50 family members, and stacking the basement shelves with jars of homemade tomato sauce, preserves, sausages and wine.

At 79, she’s still a proud Calabrese, but she was only four when she left Italy. Though she arrived in 1937, a decade or two before the great wave of postwar immigrants, Orlando was the same age as the generation of trailblazers who created a transplanted culture of their own, filled with traditions either long forgotten or completely foreign to the folks back home. These include backyards given over completely to the growing of tomatoes and peppers, plastic-covered sofas and colossal weddings.

For recent immigrants, it is puzzling, to say the least. “My first reaction was to say, ‘No, these are not Italians,’ ” says Eleonora Maldina, a 25-year-old from the northern Italian city of Bologna, who came to Canada three years ago. A translator and language teacher, she spends much of her time working with third-generation Italian Canadians who want to improve their ability to talk to their relatives back home in their native language.

At first she didn’t like what she saw. Italian Canadians had an almost obsessive attachment to a stereotypical and old-fashioned idea of the country she’d grown up in. One student, she recalls, described the complex rules that determined how to name newborns after grandparents and other late relatives, a tradition most Italians have abandoned. At first, she made it her mission to correct them with the same zeal she reserved for banishing made-up Italian-Canadian words such as “insuranza”—a mash up of “insurance” and “assicurazione”—and “basamento”—the Italianized version of basement—from her students’ vocabulary.

She has since realized that, in a land where everyone is a cultural hybrid, these quixotic customs are a way for Italian Canadians to feel like they belong to the community. “Time seems to have frozen,” says Maldina, “but it’s beautiful that in one part of the world these things still live on.”

Some of the New World traditions were born out of a clash between rural and urban worlds, says John Zucchi, chair of the department of history and classical studies at McGill University and the son of immigrants who arrived in Toronto in 1951 from the northeastern region of Friuli. The ’50s and ’60s saw Canada’s biggest-ever influx of Italians, and in 1959 alone, as many as 25,000 Italians landed on Canada’s shores, surpassing British newcomers for the first time. And whether postwar Italian immigrants came from the south or the north, most of them were small landowners or tenant farmers, called mezzadri. In Canada, though, they settled in cities.

It helps explain why so many Italian Canadians are inclined to grow food in their backyards. Take a tour of the garden of Pasquale Alati, 84, a retired construction worker living in Woodbridge, a largely Italian suburb of Toronto, and you’ll see seven-foot-high tomato plants, bunches of red and green peppers—“the hot ones,” he warns—onions and garlic sprouts. There are also fruit trees onto which he’s grafted pears, apples and prunes. Each is surrounded by beds of arugula and radicchio. There’s enough to provide the five families of Alati’s children and grandchildren with a year-round supply of sugo (tomato sauce) and vegetables, some of which they freeze and consume in the winter. Once a farm boy in Frosinone, in central Italy, Alati says the gardening helps him stay healthy in body and mind. “I’m busy every day,” he says with a smile.

Much of the Italian-Canadian heritage was born from the culture clash that resulted when penniless Italians were exposed to the economic wealth of North America. The immigrants who arrived in the two decades after the war were chasing an “immediately tangible and practical” version of the American dream, says Umberto Manca, who’s been a host at Toronto-based, Italian-language CHIN radio for the last 40 years. The primary object of this collective fantasy, he says, was the family house, the ultimate symbol of “having made it.”

The poor immigrants’ almost religious respect for material property, coupled with their burning desire to impress one another, led to the creation of a set of domestic traditions that have little to do with what happens in the motherland. In a race to keep up with the Joneses, Italian-Canadian families would order expensive furniture from Italy—often baroque pieces of thick fruitwood or mahogany emulating those found in Italy’s antique, aristocratic residences—but would refrain from using them. Manca says “the necessity to preserve what one has managed to earn” meant costly sofas would be covered in plastic. Similarly, all the cooking had to happen in a second kitchen located in the basement, as the upstairs one, spotless and full of high-end appliances, was solely meant to be a status symbol, the highlight of the house tour every guest would be treated to.

Then there’s the busta, which means “envelope” in Italian, though in Canada it means more like cash-stuffed envelope. Originally meant to help moneyless newlyweds start their life together, today its purpose is to cover the cost of the ceremony itself, which must always be bigger and better than that of the last cousin who got hitched, according to Rose Marie Meleca. The second-generation Italian Canadian from Woodbridge has created an entire business out of designing custom-made busta boxes, the containers where bride and groom collect their due. She covers the cardboard containers with satin, finishing the rims with cording, beads and bijoux that match the colour theme of her customers’ flamboyant weddings. Renting one for the weekend can cost up to $200. Her showroom, in the basement of her home, is full of the sparkly boxes, including one shaped like a grand piano and another inside a carriage that resembles Cinderella’s.

The 31-year-old is quick with a joke about Italian Canadians’ love for big weddings and bling. The magnitude of the festivities never fails to shock the occasional relative who flies in from Italy. In the old country, things are more subdued. In Italy, they “don’t have acrobats hanging off the ceiling,” she says. And yet she loves this Italian-Canadian extravaganza. “I say we’re crazy,” she adds, “but I like being crazy.”

Nonnos and nonnas are happy to see the new traditions passed on. At her Etobicoke, Ont., bungalow, Orlando’s face fills with pride when she recalls how her great-nephew Joseph Sgro, a 28-year-old lawyer, showed up at her house two summers ago with baskets of “peppers and peppers and peppers” he’d grown himself. They spent a weekend together preparing hot-pepper oil, a zesty delicacy the Calabrese like to pour on everything from sandwiches to pasta. According to Sgro, these kinds of culinary get-togethers aren’t a matter of learning about southern Italian cuisine as much as preserving his sense of community. “Who knows if we’re doing it right,” he says, “but at least it’s something we can hand over to future generations.”