Cooking Up Culture: Meet Raffaella DiStefano

Raffaella with the statue of St. Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of Montefalcione, during a visit to her family’s hometown in 2019.

If you were to follow Raffaella DiStefano on Instagram (@raffaellasara), you would realize two things– number one, she’s extremely proud of her Italian heritage, and number two, her feed will make you hungry!

Raffaella grew up in the Boston area, which is known for having a heavy Italian American population. Her family is originally from Montefalcione and her love for her family’s ancestral town is evident in the very original, yet extremely traditional, recipes she prepares on a regular basis.

We recently had the chance to sit down with Raffaella  to discover more about how her love for her heritage permeates everything she does.

What does your Italian-American heritage mean to you?

My heritage means a number of things to me. Most importantly, I feel immensely fortunate to be part of such a rich culture. It is fun being Italian! It is all about food, family and love. We are people who are proud of who we are and where we come from. I am grateful for my parents who raised me to be proud and who made sure I always knew who I was because I knew where I came from.

What are some of the ways you work to preserve and promote your heritage?

Cooking is the main way I preserve my heritage. Food is such a big and vital part of the Italian culture– not just on holidays or once in a while, but every day, and everything from seasonal dishes to comfort food.  There are dishes for when you’re sick, dishes for religious traditions and the list goes on. I know the importance of food, so I have made sure to learn everything I could over the years from my mother, grandmother and aunts. I have learned recipes that go back generations, such as dishes my great-grandmother used to make. When you cook food the way your ancestors or loved ones who have passed used to make, it keeps their memory alive. It’s like they’re still there with you in the kitchen. It connects you with them in such a special way. These are the things I want my children to experience and know because you know who you are when you know where you come from. Plus, the food tastes so good!

When you cook food the way your ancestors or loved ones who have passed used to make, it keeps their memory alive. It’s like they’re still there with you in the kitchen. It connects you with them in such a special way.  — Raffaella DiStefano

I am also very involved in my local Italian community.   My mother is an Italian immigrant and my father was born and raised in Boston’s famous Little Italy, The North End, which is known for its summer-long Italian festivals celebrating patron saints. I am a proud member of the Padre Pio society and have volunteered my time with the Saint Joseph and Santa Rosalia Societies. Keeping these festivals and traditions alive is something I hold near and dear to my heart. I feel so fortunate to have very strong ties to these feasts and processions both here and in Italy. These processions and festivals were traditions brought to this country by Italian immigrants, most of them going back almost 100 years. These traditions made this country feel more like home to Italian immigrants. They brought a sense of community among strangers who all had the same thing in common; they left their home.  What I really love about these traditions is that they really make our Italian presence known in the United States. Italian immigrants did so much for this country, from building it to fighting in wars. Today, these festivals not only celebrate the patron saints, but they celebrate Italians in the United States. I am so proud to be a part of them.

Why should people discover more about their Italian heritage?

It is important to know where you come from, no matter what your background is. There’s a saying, “You don’t know where you’re going unless you know where you came from,” and it is so very true. Just knowing or learning your family tree or seeing your ancestor’s names or finding out what towns they came from and all the wonderful discoveries that come along with that is vitally important. Plus, the food and traditions — the knowledge of your heritage is priceless.

What’s next for you?

I’d love to do more with cooking. I love sharing the dishes I cook on social media. To go farther with that would be amazing. I’m so proud of the things I have learned and accomplished via cooking. Seeing the feedback from not just friends but also from strangers has also been wonderful. It just gives me goosebumps. One of my favorite things to share is the really old recipes I’ve learned that go back hundreds of years. There are people who have said they remember some of them from when they were a young child or they haven’t seen or eaten it in years and they thank me for sharing. To evoke nostalgia in others is such an amazing feeling. One of the saddest things to me is when culture is lost or forgotten, so my ultimate goal in anything I do is always to keep my culture alive in this country, not just for me but for every Italian American.

Do you have anything else you’d like to share?

The last thing I would like to say is this: Never be ashamed of who you are or where you come from. Being first-generation Italian American, growing up I was often made to feel like I didn’t belong because I was different. I wasn’t American enough. I had a very different name and very different hair. I brought different food to school and had a different outlook on life. Despite this — and I owe this to my parents (although I don’t think I had a choice in the matter)– I never allowed the words of others to change how I felt about who I was or how I was raised. I could have pushed that part of me away, which is easy to do. That is how culture can be lost over the generations.  As an adult today, I am very grateful for my pride, knowledge and advocacy of my heritage because my life is so rich and fulfilled with things that money cannot buy. Not everyone can say that.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Patti Flanagan says:

    Great story of hope and love for your Italian American heritage and love of cooking.
    I enjoyed reading about your passions for preserving your ancestors memories through cooking there Italian recipes.

    Like

    1. Thank you, Patti! I will pass this along to Raffaella for you– I am sure she’ll be thrilled! 🙂
      ~ Stephanie

      Like

  2. Oooooh, my friend Raffaella!!! Great interview! 🙂 Stephanie, you’re the best!

    Like

  3. Donna Solano says:

    Great article Raphael’s is a power house in everything she does. A real talent for cooking with so much love.

    Like

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