IDEA Boston 2019 Celebrates Italian American Culture

IDEA Boston 2019 Celebrates Italian American Culture

Digging into all things Italian American, from baseball to braciole

Taking place over the course of November 1-2 within Cambridge's Dante Alighieri Cultural Center, the IDEA Boston 2019 festival was a thorough celebration of Italian American culture and history.

The festival, which was started in 2018 under the direction of I AM Books co-founder Nicola Orichuia, was back in full force for its second year. The 2019 festival lineup boasted 24 panels, over 60 presenters, a performance of Luigi Pirandello's one-act play La Giara, and a grand finale party with music from the Boston-based band The Newtalians.

"The 2018 festival was incredibly successful, but we did learn a few things," said Orichuia. "For example, we didn't realize the full potential of the building hosting us (the Dante Alighieri Cultural Center in Cambridge). This year we added several elements, including an photo exhibition, and several sponsor tables that enhanced participants' experience."

I was only able to attend Day 1 of the festival, which started with a quick introduction from Orichuia. The North End bookstore owner thanked attendees for coming out, and explained that he immigrated from Italy only 11 years ago. Orichuia then introduced the first panel, "Beyond DiMaggio: The Influence of Italian American Players in Baseball."

Hosted by Italian American filmmakers Roberto Angotti and Karen De Luca Stephens, both of the panel's presenters shared clips from their respective documentaries about baseball-playing Italian Americans.

Angotti, who won the inaugural Russo Brothers Italian American Film Forum Award back in 2017 for his documentary Italian American Baseball Family, provided a holistic overview of Italian influence on America's favorite pastime. Angotti jumped from Tony Lazzeri to Vince Lasorda in order to trace the history of Italian Americans in baseball, before honing in on the unique case of Joe DiMaggio.

DiMaggio, born to a family of Italian immigrants who had been fishermen for generations, was one of baseball's biggest names for over a decade. But even though DiMaggio was an Italian American hero, his parents still lacked American citizenship: they were classified as "enemy aliens" during World War II and had their San Francisco fishing boats seized by the US Government as part of a wave of anti-Italian wartime suspicion.

Although Angotti has been working on his film for a number of years, he's still in the process of re-editing and adding new segments. He teased that he'll be adding a soon-to-be-filmed interview with baseball legend Mike Piazza when the two meet in Italy in early November.

Italian American Baseball Family hasn't yet been released publicly, but Angotti said that he plans to create a "PBS-friendly" edit of the film to show to streaming distributors soon. He hopes the film will be released in early 2020 and is also working on an Italian transcription — so that it can be shown to school children and other baseball fans back in Italy.

Opting for a smaller-scale look into Italian American baseball history, De Luca Stephens presented her documentary Hitting Home, which tells the story of the 1937 McKay Pals youth baseball team. Comprised of Italian American teenagers from East Boston's Maverick Street neighborhood, the Pals had a strong season and went on to win their league's championship game at Fenway Park.

De Luca Stephens, whose grandfather was on the Pals' roster, interviewed the remaining members of the team and other family members for the documentary. The historic season became a lifelong source of pride for the team of first-generation Americans, and for many of them it was the first time that they were able to explore other Boston-area neighborhoods.

A screenplay for a feature-length adaptation of the McKay Pals story has also been penned by De Luca Stephens, who hopes that her documentary will generate enough interest to get that project off the ground. Both filmmakers stressed that these are the types of Italian American stories that need to be told, since 60% of all movies about Italian culture are currently centered around the Mafia.

In the afternoon I attended a second panel, entitled "Italian American Women, Food and Identity: Stories at the Table." Presented by the mother-daughter team of Carol and Andrea Dottolo, the panel was centered around the duo's recently published book of the same name.

Hoping to better understand Italian cuisine's cultural and interpersonal significance, the Dottolos interviewed 24 middle-aged Italian American women from their hometown of Syracuse, New York as the basis of their research. From this, many common themes found: food as cultural ritual, food as part of the Italian imaginary, and food as power.

"Once [the family] sat at the table and there was foot at the table, the mother was in charge," Carol said.

The Dottolos found that Italian American women often cling to their ethnic cuisine as a means of showing off their "real Italianness," even though many of these popular dishes haven't been popular in Italy since the late 19th century. But just like in the North End, Italian food in Syracuse is a critical part of Italian American identity — even if it's only identity as a commodity.

This project meant a lot to the mother-daughter research team, but for drastically different reasons. Towards the end of the panel, Andrea revealed that she actually hates cooking, citing a fear of "messing it up." Conversely, Carol does enjoy the ritual, and explained that a number of their interview subjects were close friends that she knew as a lifelong resident of the Syracuse area.

As the panel was wrapping up, the women floated ideas for their next book, mentioning that they'd like to expand their exploration into food as power. They'd also like to study where men fit into the equation as well.

Whether IDEA Boston's panelists were talking about meatballs or baseballs, there was clearly a lot to discuss at the second-annual Italian culture festival. Overall, Orichuia said he was thrilled with how things turned out.

"We had an outstanding turnout for the Friday evening theater performance. Over 220 people showed up!" said Orichuia. "Also, we we very fortunate to have stellar guests such as Premio Strega-winning author Edoardo Albinati, translator Antony Shugaar, and many authors, poets and scholars."

If you missed this year's festival, don't fret — Orichuia confirmed that IDEA Boston 2020 is already in the early stages of planning and development.