There’s an old Italian proverb that rings particularly true during the holiday season: A tavola non si invecchia (“No one grows old at the dinner table”). It’s a testament to the enlivening effect of a delicious meal eaten while surrounded by friends and family — and it’s a sentiment that Tiziana Alesci knows all too well.
As an Italian immigrant arriving in New York in the 1960s, Tiziana found herself instantly isolated — at 10 years old, she didn’t speak a word of English, and she felt a deep sense of loss for the close-knit neighborhood she and her parents had left behind in Rome. Throughout that time, it was food and family that gave her a sense of community: homemade pasta shaped by her mother’s instruction, sweet Italian sausage and prosciutto, green lentils with parsley and fennel, and, of course, Italian wine.
Now, up to 30 people will sometimes descend upon Tiziana’s Long Island doorstep for the holidays. It’s not an Alesci Christmas without a game of Scopa cards, one of two national card games in Italy, and handmade linens — crocheted by Tiziana’s daughter, Isabella, and her mother, Lidia — to cover the dining table. On Christmas, homemade pasta is a must, and lentils are served at midnight on New Year’s Eve for “good luck and prosperity” for the year ahead. Without fail, the holidays are marked by delicious food, and regardless of the ways the menu has shifted — and will continue to shift — the din of familial chatter is ever-present.
“I feel that traditions that revolve around food are rituals of love, engaging not only the eyes but also your senses,” Tiziana says. “I want my family to experience my childhood and the wonder and beauty that it holds for me. When you cook, part of you goes into the meal, and the taste, colors, and aromas are what you remember about the experience.”
Holding onto the Italian rituals of her childhood didn’t make Tiziana or her family rigid in routines, though. She’s never believed things have to be just as they’d been when she was younger; on the contrary, she’s more inclined to embrace the evolution of tradition. And because there is almost no ritual that’s off-limits for alteration in this household, everyone has the ability to help write the family narrative.
“I believe that all traditions should be somewhat spontaneous without becoming robotic and stagnant,” Tiziana, now 62, says. “Every day gives us the opportunity to create treasured moments. Traditions are born inside of us and unite us with a sense of belonging.”
The sensation of missing home that’s common amongst immigrants many decades after establishing themselves abroad isn’t lost on Tiziana, her mother Lidia, or any of her children — who were raised in the States but learned Italian before English. They never stray far from family, and luckily, connection in an era where technology reigns means that the gap (the Atlantic Ocean, that is) feels that much smaller. Tiziana happily embraces tools that bridge the divide like Portal from Facebook, a video calling device that can make it feel like you’re in the same room with loved ones even if you’re on the other side of the world.
“I remember when we would place a long-distance phone call — the connection was terrible, you couldn’t hear anything, you’d talk super fast for a few minutes, cry, then hang up!” she says. “That was just the way it was. Now, we can video call with Portal."
While they can’t share a meal over a video call, per se, they can share a recipe, cook together, communicate the ways in which they’ve adjusted an old family method — in other words, they can share an experience. Normalizing digital connection is how the Alesci family continues to nurture a sense of togetherness. For Tiziana, it’s simple: Time is simply too precious to waste being particular about how connection happens or the precise ways in which traditions get passed down from generation to generation. The important thing here is not the specifics of a recipe, a card game, or a crochet pattern, but the simple fact that her family continues to prioritize being together.