Wicked Good Italian Dialects

A recent visit to my father’s hometown of Abbadia San Salvatore in Siena gave me interesting insight into the concept of dialect. Family had taken me to a local restaurant, and the cousins who’d since moved out of town ordered “una latina di Coca Cola” or a can of Coke. Those relatives who still resided in town similarly ordered Cokes, but pronounced it much differently, dropping the hard C sound entirely, instead asking for “O’a-Ola.” As any native Bostonian knows, dropping a letter (like an R) gives the English language a certain flair all its own, and certainly gives the listener an indication of your proud heritage.

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A map of Italian dialects (click on image for larger version – courtesy zingarate.com)

As a native of Buffalo, where the words “merry,” “Mary,” and “marry” are pronounced the same way, and where “pop” means “soda,” and the word “hot” and “cod” take on a nasally, back of the throat twang, it’s clear to me that my husband, Jamie, who hails from north of Boston, speaks differently. When he says the word “pattern,” I must rely on context to determine whether he’s saying “Patton,” “pattin’,” or “patent.” When I first met my husband’s mom at the Cape, she suggested, “Go put ya shahts on [for the beach],” I merely stared back at her, confounded. Jamie translated, “Gina, my mom’s asking you to change into your bathing suit,” so I smiled and nodded, and she and I have gotten along swimmingly since then. The same is likely true for many Bostonians and their extended families. Their backgrounds – whether they were born in Boston or in Italy, or whether residing in the North End or Braintree – determine their particular pronunciation, grammar, or vocabulary. But just like Nonna’s minestrone, it’s the variety of the flavors that makes the mixture so delightful!

The factors that typically influence the development of dialects in a region or country include: geographical location (people living in close proximity to each other, as well as people living in isolation from others); socio-economic conditions; complex colonial history; movement of ancestry; strong regional loyalties; and the cultural influence of nearby communities. In such regions or countries, a dialect that is commonly used in the media (as in entertainment and news programming,) may be very different from the dialect used in official government business, in schools curricula, and in everyday street language. For example, a Boston news anchor may articulate the English language differently than a meter reader in Quincy. Either way, they both get their points across, perhaps one more colorfully than the other.

There are two major groups of Italian dialects -Northern and Southern, divided by the Spezia-Remini line. The northern groups are either: a) based in Veneto and speak a Venetic dialect; or b) of the Gallo-Italic group that encompasses most of the rest of the region, and is influenced by Celtic speech. As for the rest of the boot, the most common Italian dialects include: Tuscan (most of Tuscany); Abruzzese, Pugliese, Umbrian (near Tuscany); Laziale, Central Marchigiano (in and around Rome); those common to the southern part of Italy (like Napolitano); or those indicative of the outermost regions of the south, including Calabrese, Apulian, and Sardinian dialects. The rich variety speaks to the turmoil that Italy endured on the way to its unification in 1861. Only an official republic since 1946, Italy’s cultural pride is highly regional to this day. Where the Tuscan dialect is considered the national language or the “lingua italiana,” perhaps because the area is considered the birthplace of Italian literature (as in Dante, Petrarca, and Boccaccio,) still, different regions proudly embrace the differences that distinguish their manner of speaking from others in their country, much like Bostonians.

There are many other countries with multiple dialects of the same language, including Spain (10 recognized dialects), India (400 languages, and an estimated 2000 dialects), Asia (Japan has dozens, and China has at least 200 dialects), and many more all over the world. Dialects add color and diversity to language, and infuse flavor into one’s culture. After all, wouldn’t you rather have a “wicked good” cannoli than just a good cannoli?

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Open Air Market Treasures, in Italy and at Home

Just like fresh air revitalizes the soul, open air markets stimulate the senses. Rain or shine, tented tables regularly bring neighbors, tourists, and communities together from spring to fall, providing a taste of Earth’s bounty and a vast assortment of handmade collectibles and vintage wares. Grab your family and meet your friends at an open air market, because a visit is not always about what objects you procure but rather the experience you’ll savor.

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Crates overflowing with just-ripened fruits and vegetables, iced pallets of succulent seafood pulled from the water earlier that morning, and bunches of aromatic flowers at the peak of color abound in a random assortment of tables along the street or grass. Artisans and collectors mingle, too, celebrating hand-made works, like tapestries, pottery, jewelry, or paintings that are all unique among any other. Vendors also pile tables high with vintage items like leather goods, music, small appliances, shoes, ravioli cutters, or any odd thing — sometimes authentic and sometimes not. Here, one person’s “stuff” is another person’s treasure.

In Italy, one doesn’t have to venture far to find a local open-air market, but there are some in bigger cities that are worth noting for their size, variety, and ambience, such as Campo de’ Fiori, a fish and vegetable market in Rome dating back to 1869. Open from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., Monday through Saturday, the cobblestone piazza is filled with vendors even before the sun comes up. An Ape Piaggio (one of those compact, three-wheeled trucks) sits beside nearly every tent, piled high with crates of fresh food. Before it opens, restaurant buyers examine the selections for the highest quality ingredients, and by noon, tourists stare in awe at the shouting matches between the elderly locals haggling with vendors in preparation for their pranzo meal.

The Porta Portese market in Trastevere, Rome, open Sundays, showcases table after table of anything imaginable, including terra cotta, oil lamps, and toothbrushes. In college, that’s where I bought a cheap bootleg copy of Sting’s The Dream of the Blue Turtles cassette tape (yes, cassette tape!). When I got home, I was disappointed to learn that the B side of the “hot” tape featured an entirely other band, named Zucchero. Little did I realize that this was one of Italy’s hottest musical names, and that I would later watch both Sting and Zucchero perform at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico, spurred on by this bazaar treasure. The value of some things truly surpasses dollars and cents.

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A few years ago, my parents accompanied my family to Venice, where we hit the famed Rialto Market early enough that the garbage boats were still hauling away rubbish left by the overnight revelers. Vendors slapped enormous large fin salt-water monsters onto their tables of chopped ice, while my dad giggled like a kid in a candy store. My children’s eyes were almost as big as those of the enormous, multi-colored fish they ogled. After a couple hours, I spied my mom and youngest sharing a lovely moment beside a canal, legs dangling over the Adriatic inlet, red juice dripping down their fingers, their only market takeaway having been a quart of the juiciest strawberries sold beneath the Rialto Bridge. Some treasures are meant to be consumed without delay, and with abandon.

The town of Camucia, near Cortona in Tuscany, opens its market on Thursdays, cordoning off about 10 city blocks. Here, a delectable pulled pork sandwich is just as easy to find among its multitude of merchants as a new suitcase. And in Palermo, Sicily, one can peruse seaside tables of sea urchins and other such delicacies that are just as plentiful as oranges. The art of seeking out-of-the-way treasures may be just as decadent as the object itself.

But, one need not venture far for a great open air market. There’s probably one within driving distance from you, and it’s so worth the time and gasoline.

Growing up in Buffalo, my dad used to drive my grandpa to the Clinton Market whenever it was time to buy the perfect crops for their new gardens. Now, my brothers take my dad whenever they’re ready to plant theirs. Easter week, my family would head to the Broadway Market for freshly packed sausage, homemade bread, and the best fire-breathing horseradish around. We still go there, but now we also frequent the food trucks and vendors at Larkin Square and Canalside, among many others. The buddy-system always makes for a memorable market experience.

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Haymarket, Boston’s historic market near Faneuil Hall since 1830, is renowned for its produce and fish at bargain prices. Haggling here is a must-see tourist attraction in the city. Head over to Copley Place Farmers Market in the Back Bay for homemade apple pies, jams, and spreads, or armfuls of bright yellow sunflowers. Lose yourself for hours at the SoWa Market (“South of Washington Street”) for an eclectic mix of handmade items, like jewelry, crafts, pottery, shoes, and baked goods, as well as antiques and fresh produce. Other local open markets include the Salem Open Market, the Cambridge Open Market, the South End Art Market, the Greenway Open Market, and the South End Food Trucks.

If you’re like me, an Italian who loves to buy fresh and buy local, you’ll want to be sure to experience a glorious open air market near you, as the season warms and the treasures are ripe for the picking. Bring your family and friends, and revel in the spirit of “abbondanza!”