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  • Written by Rita Ciresi
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  • Sometimes I Dream in Italian
  • Written by Rita Ciresi
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Sometimes I Dream in Italian

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On Sale: December 10, 2008
Pages: 224 | ISBN: 978-0-307-49113-8
Published by : Delta Bantam Dell
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Angel Lupo grew up in a traditional Italian home — an exclusive club where Mama’s word was everything ... and where nice girls saved themselves for marriage. All Angel wanted was to be movie-star blond, change her name, and get as much attention as her prettier older sister Lina.

Now Angel is nearing thirty, penning Catholic greeting cards for a living, and still jealous of her sister, who has a house in the suburbs, two kids, and a husband who loves her. So Angel does the next best thing: She answers a personal ad.

Dirk Diederhoff is blond, teaches at Vassar, and is definitely not Italian. Nor is he the thrill-a-minute lover and soul mate Angel prays for. But as Lina, recklessly embarked on an affair of her own, would tell her: There are no perfect tens out there — only men who want you to talk to them in Italian during sex.

The award-winning author of Pink Slip gets the rituals and rhythms of domestic life just right in Sometimes I Dream in Italian, a bittersweet comedy about sisters, lovers, and a family that doesn’t quite translate.


Big Heart

He came out of the back, his apron bloody. The butcher Mr. Ribalta had the biggest belly I had ever seen. When he leaned into the case to grab a handful of hamburger or lop off a rope of sausage, his stomach grazed the meat. I wanted to poke his fat, to see if my finger would sink into it like pizza dough, or press my ear against him, to hear his insides sloshing and grumbling. But I hung back from the meat counter until he crooked a plump finger and beckoned me forward.

“Oh, Swiss Girl,” he called. “Yo-do-lo-do-lo-do-lay.”

I always eyed his Swiss cheese. I wanted to take a chunk of it home and slip it between a wedge of sharp pepperoni and a slice of salty prosciutto on a seeded roll. But Mama refused to buy it. “I don’t pay good money for holes,” she said. She frowned when Ribalta reached into the case to cut me a sliver.

People said Ribalta had a big heart, but Mama was convinced his heart longed for only one thing: to turn her into a big spender. Every Saturday morning before we left the house for the market, she armed herself with a black plastic wallet stamped with a picture of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, a shopping list, and a green pencil stub she had pocketed after playing miniature golf at Palisades Park. Since my sister, Lina, thought she was too old for such outings, Mama took me — a mere nine-year-old who didn’t yet know how to protest — as a witness. I was supposed to make sure Ribalta didn’t try any monkey business, like doubling the wax paper or pressing his thumb down on the scale. Although Mama had patronized Ribalta for years, she still didn’t trust him. “It’s not like he’s family,” she said.

The market stood on a corner, the front windows lined with white paper, lettered in blue, that announced the weekly specials. Above the shop, behind windows hung with yellowed lace curtains, Ribalta lived with his mother. Mama called her Signora. For years I thought that was her first name.

In cold weather or warm, Mama and I found Signora out front, sweeping the dirt and litter off the sidewalk with a ragged broom that had lost half its dirty bristles. Signora reminded me of La Befana, the skinny old Italian witch who rode her broom over the rooftops on the Feast of the Three Kings, leaving toys for good children and coal and ash for the bad. She wore a black cotton coat over a flowered shift and scuffed gray mules with no stockings. Her brittle ankles and calves were mapped with thin blue veins. Signora was practically bald, but what little tufts of gray hair she had left on her pink scalp she clamped around wire curlers fastened with big silver clips. She held her broom still just long enough to peer at us through her cat glasses. When she was satisfied she had recognized us, she resumed sweeping.

Ribalta’s shop officially opened at nine, but we always walked in a little after eight-thirty. Brass bells clattered as the door swung behind us. Mama headed down the first narrow aisle, stopping once or twice to inspect some canned goods that sat on the high wooden shelves. “Cheaper at the A&P,” she announced loudly.

At the back of the store stood the gleaming white meat case, lit with fluorescent tubes that made the unit hum and vibrate. Behind the case was a swinging door and, behind that, the mysterious room where Ribalta butchered his meat while Radio Italia played. Mama went up to the counter and hit the silver bell on top with the flat of her hand. The radio went dead. We heard water running. Then Ribalta came out of the back, his breath heavy as he wiped his hands on a clean white cloth. He pushed his gold wire-rimmed glasses up on his nose. He was the only shopkeeper in our neighborhood who ever smiled at Mama.

Mama nodded back, her eyes on the case. Ribalta stocked it so the contents ranged from the reddest and rawest meat to the cleanest, tidiest rolls of processed food. First came the organs — bloody bulbs of liver, tough-looking necks, and limp hearts — packaged in clear plastic containers. Then came ground beef pressed in an aluminum tray, rump roast and flank steaks, coils of sausage, and a quilt of overlapping bacon strips. Cuts of pale pork and veal were followed by moist chicken breasts and piles of stippled yellow legs and scrawny wings. In a separate section of the case, Ribalta kept logs of prosciutto, mortadella, Genoa salami, and blocks of cheese.

Mama checked each item on her list against Ribalta’s prices. Then she placed the list on top of her wallet and firmly crossed off some items with the pencil stub. “Here’s what’s left,” she said. It always took Ribalta a long time to fill the order. Mama made him display each cut of meat, back and front, before she allowed him to put it on the scale. And when she said she wanted half a pound of something, she meant eight ounces, no more and no less. Ribalta knew better than to ask Mama if a little bit over was okay. He patiently lifted chop after chop onto the scale, while Mama watched the gauge waggle back and forth until it settled as close to the weight she had asked for as it would ever get.

After Ribalta had wrapped the meats in stiff white paper, tied each bundle with red and white string, and marked the price with a black wax pencil, he crossed his arms and rested them on his big belly. He knew exactly what Mama was going to ask for next.

“Any scraps today?” she said.

“For the dog, eh?” Ribalta held up one finger, meaning Mama should wait. He disappeared into the back.

I never understood why Mama kept up this charade. We didn’t have a dog and never would. “Good for nothing except to bite and bark,” Mama said, whenever I pleaded for one.

“If you hate dogs so much, why do you tell Ribalta we have one?” I asked.

“I tell him no such thing.”

“But you let him think we do.”

“I can’t help the ideas he gets in his head,” Mama said.

She waited impatiently for Ribalta to return with the scraps. He came back balancing a pile of metal pans. He displayed the contents to Mama and the haggling began.

“Veal bones,” he said. “With plenty of meat. Chicken necks, close to ten of them.”

Mama rejected the necks and offered fifteen cents for a bag of bones.

“Make it a quarter,” Ribalta said.

“For those sticks?”

“These are beautiful bones. Juicy. Tender. Flavorful.”

“Twenty cents,” Mama firmly said.

Ribalta never said done, fine, or okay. He simply moved on to his next offering. “Giblets. Fresh this morning. And these hearts, I saved them just for you.”

They went back and forth like that, until Ribalta ran out of scraps and Mama was satisfied she had bled him for whatever she could get. Ribalta stacked the white packages in a box. Then he winked at Mama and peered over the case at me.

“Oh, Swiss Girl,” he said. “Yo-do-lo-do-lo-do-lay!”

He turned, wiped off a cleaver, and reached into the case to whack off a hunk of the cheese. He handed it to Mama. She frowned when she gave me the cheese. “Say thank you,” she told me, before I could even open my mouth. To Ribalta she said, “You’re too generous.”

“Why not?” he replied as he wiped the cleaver. “Life is short.” Then he came around the side of the case, carrying Mama’s box. We followed him up the aisle. The strings of his apron stretched tightly across his broad backside. They were tied in a simple knot because there wasn’t enough give for a bow.

Up in front, behind the squat glass counter, Signora now sat on a wooden stool. Ribalta lowered the box onto the counter and left Signora to figure the bill with a pencil and paper. Signora lifted out the bundles one at a time and wrote down each price, totaling as she went along. Mama kept her eyes on that rising sum. Signora counted out aloud: “Due più cinque? Otto. Mi scusi, sette. Otto più tre? Dodici. Mi scusi, undici.” Nothing would have made Mama happier than nailing Signora in a mathematical error. But Signora always caught her mistakes and confidently bellowed the sum the way a railroad conductor announced the next station: “Sei dollari e sesanta due centi, per favore!”

Mama opened her wallet and counted out the bills. Signora took them, recounted them, then reached below the counter for a rusty Maxwell House coffee can full of coins. With her gnarled fingers, she dug through the coins to make Mama change.

Mama left the market with a satisfied look on her face. But after a block or two, when the box grew heavy and she switched the weight from one hand to the other, she bit her lip and wrinkled her brow, convinced that Ribalta had gotten fat off her business and hers alone. “Grassone!” she said. “Thinks I don’t notice that diamond ring.”

On his right pinky, Ribalta wore a thin gold band studded with a diamond. Mama often remarked on it. “Who else do you know owns such a swanky thing?” she asked me. I shrugged. No other man I knew wore jewelry — not even a wedding ring — except the archbishop, who came to our church once a year to give Confirmation. He wore a huge gold ring on his right hand that was supposed to hold a sliver of Christ’s cross. On our way out of church, we all knelt down and pressed our lips against the cold, pale blue jewel. The archbishop wiped his ring with a little red cloth after each person had kissed it, the same way Ribalta wiped his cleaver before and after he cut me a piece of cheese.

Ribalta didn’t go to church. Sundays, my mother and my aunts gathered together on the sidewalk after mass and stared after Signora, who hobbled home alone. Then they turned back into a circle and began their attack against the butcher.

“What does the man eat, pasta e fagioli six times a day?”

“How can he breathe with a belly like that?”

“How does he move his bowels?”

“The size!”

“The smell!”

“They say he sings in a band.”

“Fat as an opera singer.”

“If he sings so well, why isn’t he in the choir?”

“Have you ever seen him at mass?”

“He should be there.”

“He’s a bachelor.”

“That’s his problem.”

“He’ll have a heart attack.”

“He’s unhealthy.”

They blamed Signora. They said she spoiled him, babied him, cooked him whatever he wanted. They said that after she died, he would lose a little weight. Find himself a girl. Get married and have children. Why not? He was still young enough. He had a kind face. Most important, he owned a family business. In our neighborhood, that was the ultimate sign of having done well for yourself. The only thing better was getting in with the post office or phone company.

Every afternoon when I fetched the newspaper off the front porch, Mama paused a few moments from her housework to scan the obituary page. One day she snapped the newspaper open and pointed to a picture with triumph.

“Ribalta’s mother,” she said.

I looked for the helmet of hair clips and wire curlers, the scraggly neck crisscrossed with lines, the silver cat glasses and pinched cheeks. But the hair was full as a wig and the face smooth, as if air had been pumped into it.

“That’s not her,” I said.

“Stupid,” said Mama. “It’s an old photograph.”

“The name’s wrong too.”

“What? Gelsomina Ribalta, that’s right.”

“But you called her Signora.”

Mama laughed. She spent the rest of the afternoon on the phone, repeating the story to my aunts. “Imagine, I had to tell the bimba it meant Mrs. How much more American can these kids get? I wonder who’ll sit behind the counter now. He’ll have to find some girl, and quick too. Yes, tonight, at the Torino Funeral Home. Burial on Tuesday, the paper said.”

For three days after the funeral, the shop was closed. A black ribbon hung from the door, and upstairs all the shades were drawn. The weekly specials remained the same. I made a sign of the cross as I passed on my way to school. I was frightened that Signora’s spirit still lingered in the world, that I’d hear the swish of her broom on the sidewalk and the clatter of her bony fingers, sorting through the Maxwell House coffee can to make change.

On Saturday morning I stuck close to Mama on the walk to the store. When we arrived, the front door was locked. Mama pulled at the handle to test it again. Then she peered through the door. The glass grew foggy with her breath. A boy stood in the front aisle, stacking loaves of bread on the shelf. He turned. Mama rapped at the glass. The boy held up his wrist, pointed to his watch, and then went back to stacking the bread. Mama was astounded.

“The sign says open at nine,” I pointed out.

“That sign has hung there for years. Signora always opened.” Mama bit her lip, then rapped at the glass even harder.

“Aspettino,” the boy called out.

Mama turned away. “Figures,” she said. “A real paesano. Speaks no English. Lazy.”

I could tell she wanted to knock even harder at the door, pull at the handle, and yell at him. But Mama held herself back out of respect for Ribalta. We waited two or three minutes in the cold before the boy came to the door. He was older than he seemed at first, about twenty, and short and erect, with muscled arms and a firm chest that swelled beneath the bib of his clean white apron. He had close-trimmed black hair and dark, liquidy eyes with long black lashes, high cheekbones, and a moist, pouty lower lip. A gold medal hung on a chain around his short, solid neck. I fell in love with him instantly.

“It’s about time!” Mama huffed when he let us in.

He looked at us as if he didn’t understand. Mama strode past him without even a nod. “Off the boat,” she muttered, as I followed her down the first aisle. I turned back to look at him. Maybe he didn’t understand English, but I was sure he caught the drift of Mama’s loud Cheaper at the A&P. He stood with one hand on the counter and watched as Mama hit the bell on the meat case. Ribalta came out slowly, wiping his plump, squat hands. Radio Italia continued to play.
Rita Ciresi|Author Q&A

About Rita Ciresi

Rita Ciresi - Sometimes I Dream in Italian

Photo © Marion Ettlinger

Award-winning writer Rita Ciresi returns to the spotlight with Sometimes I Dream in Italian. This poignant novel captures the essence of family and of the bonds we are born with?and those we create on our own.

Author Q&A

Q: What inspired you to write Sometimes I Dream in Italian?

A: About ten years ago I wrote a short story about two sisters whose lives were changed by the death of their grandmother (which appears as the chapter called "La Stella d'Oro" in Sometimes I Dream in Italian). The dynamic between the two sisters, Pasqualina and Angelina, continued to intrigue me. I decided I wanted to write a series of scenes from their lives.

On a more abstract level, this book grew out of my long-standing interest in American immigrant literature. I like the way that novels and memoirs such as Pietro di Donato's Christ in Concrete, Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club, and Judith Ortiz Cofer's Silent Dancing explore families who long to assimilate to the New World but still feel hopelessly attached to the Old.

Q: How does your book explore, in particular, the Italian-American experience?

A: Sometimes I Dream in Italian is a coming-of-age tale that traces the childhood and early adulthood of two sisters who dream of being anything other than who they are--which, in this case, happens to be Italian-American. Angel and Lina Lupo long to shed their parents' immigrant ways, but as they mature, they realize they long for their childhood and for a piece of the old country which even their own parents wanted to leave behind. Their attempts to "Americanize" themselves through their relationships with men fail precisely because they are so bound to their past.

Q: What is the significance of the title?

A: About three-quarters of the way through the book, Lina Lupo asks her younger sister Angel if she ever has weird dreams. When Angel replies, "Sometimes I dream in Italian--I'm talking but I don't have the least idea what I mean to say," she is trying to put into words the sheer "inarticulate-ness" of her own ethnic identity. She knows there's another language that she was meant to speak, but she isn't fluent in it. Angel feels Italian to the core, but when she visits Italy, she can hardly put two sentences together; her German-American boyfriend (a student of languages) gets taken for the true Italian.

Q: Describe the relationship between the two sisters in Sometimes I Dream in Italian.

A: Well, what can I say? Like all sisters, they love each other; they hate each other--sometimes both in the same moment. I hope that readers, no matter what their ethnic background, will be amused and saddened to see how sibling relationships bring us joy and grief.

Q: What are you currently working on?

A: I'm writing a novel that checks back in with some of the characters I introduced in my previous novel Pink Slip. Remind Me Again Why I Married You is set in 1992 and takes a humorous look at why a warring husband and wife might choose to stay together in the age of divorce.



“Poignant ... an old-fashioned tale about girls with old-fashioned dreams ... Angel and Lina will charm the reader.”
USA Today

“Simultaneously blunt and artful ... Ciresi has a lovely ear for dialogue and the ability to nail the details in descriptions that are both funny and painfully accurate.”
The New York Times Book Review

“Rita Ciresi has done it again. She’s written a book of fiction that wraps hopes and fears and lonesomeness and togetherness and gladness into one funny story after another.”
Tampa Tribune-Times

“Precisely crafted and compelling ... honest and witty.”
St. Petersburg Times

Also By Rita Ciresi:

Pink Slip
“This is Jane Austen in New York at the end of the 20th century.... Ciresi mixes the tragic and the comic aspects of love in hilarious fashion.”
— Tampa Tribune-Times

Blue Italian
“Biting humor ... tactile prose ... a vibrant tableau of marriage’s imperfections and redemptions.”
— Entertainment Weekly

Available from Dell

And look for

Mother Rocket

Coming in summer 2002
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions

About the Book

The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your reading of Rita Ciresi’s SOMETIMES I DREAM IN ITALIAN. We hope they will enrich your experience of this compelling, funny novel-in-stories that is an exploration of childhood, family, and the immigrant experience.

About the Guide

As adults, Angel and Lina Lupo debate what was the worst thing about their childhood. Why couldn’t they have just forgotten about being Italian and been “normal” Americans? As kids, they longed to flee their parents’ heavy accents and dowdy clothes for the glamour of New York and Hollywood. But now that they’ve grown up, they look back on the time they billed themselves the “Two Italian Hits!” wistfully. And as they grapple with their present-day problems, the past looms as close as their everyday concerns, and sometimes seems even more real.
Lyrical and bittersweet, SOMETIMES I DREAM IN ITALIAN is a story of family and love, of the bonds we are born with and those we struggle to create.

About the Author

RITA CIRESI is the author of Mother Rocket, which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, and the novels Pink Slip and Blue Italian. She lives with her husband and daughter in Florida.

Praise for RITA CIRESI'S heartwarming novels


“Reading this book is like simultaneously attending a wacky Italian family reunion and a sleep-over for grown-up women with great memories to share. What fun! And what pleasure!”


“A funny and poignant novel that charts the hazardous waters of work and love and where, for better and worse, the two converge. Ms. Ciresi’s wonderful prose and generous heart works together pitch perfectly here to render what we all hope for: a good love story.”BRETT LOTT, author of Jewel

“It’s refreshing to find a female narrator with an authentically lusty voice–someone who swears, talks back to tiresome relatives and doesn’t shy away from her own sexuality. It’s even more refreshing to find a heroine who can make a mean eggplant Parmesan yet disdains the humble domestic goals her old-world mother has set for her. Rita Ciresi has created just such a heroine in Pink Slip.”The New York Times Book Review

“A very romantic comedy light, yet complex. Even in the laugh out loud sections it has real gravity. It’s an amazing performance, start to finish.”STEWART O'NAN, author of A World Away

For more information about SOMETIMES I DREAM IN ITALIAN, and to read an excerpt, visit our website at www.bantamdell.com.

While there, drop by our Reading Group Feature to learn about other titles perfect for book clubs.

Discussion Guides

1. Why is Mama so money-conscious? How does this fear of extravagance shape her daughters’ personalities and expectations for the future?

2.Mama and Babbo are distrustful of anything that is too different from their everyday experience, and seem fearful of taking risks. Why is this? What could they have done to make their lives richer?

3.Catholicism has a strong influence on the family as a whole. How does it influence Lina and Angel as adults? How does it affect the choices they make and the lives they now lead?

4.Why does Babbo seem mysterious and remote to Angel and Lina when they are children? What changes that?

5.What was the turning point in Lina’s life? Why is she so unhappy today? What could she do to change that?

6.What is Angel seeking out of life that she doesn’t have? What could she do to change things? Why do you think she stays at a job she doesn’t like?

7.Do you think Mama and Babbo had a happy marriage? Overall, were they happy or unhappy with their life?

8.What kind of lives did they envision for their daughters?

9.Why does Mama remember her trip through Ellis Island differently every time she tells it? What does that say of her feelings about these memories?

10.When Lina realizes that the picture of the young woman in Babbo’s things is their mother, she becomes unhappy. Why? What does the transformation of this young woman into Mama mean to Lina’s vision of her adulthood?

11.Why do Lina and Angel have fantasies of being blond and pale-skinned?

12.What kinds of things could have happened to make Uncle Gigi and Aunt Pat different–and less traditional–than Mama and Babbo?

13.As adults, why do Lina and Angel imitate their parents’ dialogue? Is it only to make fun of them–or does it fill another role?

14.What keeps Dirk and Angel together? What do you think finally prods Angel to break up with him?

15.Why is Dirk so scared by the idea that family affects the way you behave in a relationship? What does this say about his feelings toward Angel’s family?

16.How does the story end? Is it on a hopeful note? Do you think Angel and Lina will be able to find the happiness they are searching for?

Don’t miss the previous two hilarious–and poignant–novels from Rita Ciresi:

Blue Italian

Rosa comes from a working-class Italian family. Gary grew up with swimming pools and overdone bar mitzvahs. So begins the funny, heartrending romance between two people who don’t quite add up to the ideal couple.

What makes Gary want to believe in God–even though it’s hard for him? Why does Rosa believe in God without really trying?

Although Rosa and Gary are rarely romantic in the traditional sense, there’s a lot of love in their relationship. Why is humor their main form of communication?

Why do you think Gary decided to die in the hospital instead of at home?

Pink Slip

Lisa Diodetto’s mother wants her to get married so badly that anything in pants will do. But when she falls for her boss, the ensuing affair makes Lisa wonder if this crazy, confusing thing called love is really worth it.

Why does Strauss retreat into boardroom speech when talking to Lisa about their relationship?

Lisa is usually a very direct person. Why isn’t she able to tell Strauss that she stumbled upon his piece about his father in the story collection she picked up?

What was the main reason for the disintegration of Lisa and Strauss’s relationship?

  • Sometimes I Dream in Italian by Rita Ciresi
  • November 06, 2001
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Delta
  • $12.95
  • 9780385334945

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