By Gabriella Mileti, NIAF Director of Programs.
It’s safe to say, I cannot escape my Italianità. I speak the language, I cook the food, I sip espresso from a Bialetti Moka pot every morning, I read books about Italian history, I vacation in Italy, I watch Rai Italia, I only drink Italian wine, all my leather goods are Made in Italy, I drive a Fiat 500, I work at NIAF, and the list goes on and on.
So, growing up in an Italian household in Cleveland, Ohio with a mother from the province of Reggio Calabria, and an Italian American father of Sicilian, Abruzzese, Veneto descent, I spent every summer of my childhood (and adulthood) in Italy, visiting family. It was the one time of the year my family and I got to spend quality time together with our Italian cugini, and zii.
The summer was full of all the familiar sights, sounds and smells that one could imagine in Southern Italy. I remember landing in Rome and immediately being immersed in the aroma of espresso and the “puzza” of cigarette smoke (don’t forget – smoking in Italian airports was the norm up until a few years ago). We would later arrive at the one-runway Reggio Calabria airport, and I remember the sounds of families reuniting – kisses and joyful exclamations – and the buzz of vespas, the smell of sauce simmering at 9 a.m., the passeggiate at night, and, of course, the raw landscape of the mountains meeting the Mediterranean Sea. Summers in Calabria were the best on so many levels.
But if you’ve ever been to Italy to visit family, you know that no visit is complete without making the rounds of the paese to see your relatives. You know what I mean – the ceremonial procession to each and every relative’s house, with the entire family in tow. Oftentimes, I didn’t know half of the people I met, and my mother had to explain to me and my siblings numerous times how we were related to them.
Naturally, it’s customary in any Italian household that when guests come over, no matter who they are, you offer them food and drink. As a child, I was offered candy. And not just any candy: every household that I ever put foot in in Italy always had a bowl of Perugia Rossana candies. Fast forward a few decades and honestly, I can’t remember every single name of all the relatives in the paese, but the one thing I do remember are the bowls of Rossana candies that I was offered at each house.
Perhaps by name you don’t remember them, but if I described the little, rectangular yellow candies, hard on the outside but with a gooey soft core, and wrapped in a shiny red and gold wrapper, you probably know exactly what I’m talking about. It was like there was a cultural public service announcement that every house in Italy was required to have a bowl of Rossana candies in their house.
Indeed, the Perugina Rossana candies are a part of the cultural puzzle—they were as much a part of growing up Italian American as Werther’s Original are to Americans! The milky flavor was so genuine and simple, and they were a huge part of my experience in Italy as a little girl. In fact, when I try one as an adult, I am immediately transported to my childhood.
So today, I was sad to find out that Nestlé, the corporate giant behind Perugina, has decided to discontinue producing this 90 year-old tradition. The company is stating that they are not interested in producing historical products, but would rather concentrate on making the best Perugina chocolates. So much for having a diverse line of products! This is another blow to the Italian culture, thanks to big businesses taking over, as we are seeing more and more these days.
The point of this piece was not to start a tirade on corporate destruction of Italian culture. This is just my last love letter to a piece of my childhood that unfortunately we will all lose forever. And while those visits with the relatives were sometimes rather boring (no offense cuggini), Rossana candies made the visits sweeter and gave me something to look forward to when we left one house and moved onto the next one. It’s a shame that something that has been so dear to the hearts of Italians and Italian Americans for the past 90 years will now be lost and eventually forgotten.
While this piece won’t change Nestlé’s mind, I can assure you that on my trip to Italy this summer I will be bringing back a suitcase full of those shiny red-wrapper candies, and will savor the flavor of my childhood for a little bit longer, before it becomes just a memory of the past.