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So, in this land that inspired Casanova and spawned “the Italian Stallion,” how do American guys compete with Italian men for the hearts of Italian women?

It boils down to a few key words: sincerity, respect, spontaneity, understanding.

This story, though written from the viewpoint of Italians — mostly women — can really apply across the spectrum. And while it might be particularly relevant around Valentine’s Day, it can be useful any time of the year.

Nearly four decades ago, my Italian mom was swept off her feet by a dashing U.S. sailor. Back then, an American husband was generally viewed as a hot commodity, she said.

There was romance simply in the notion of marrying a U.S. servicemember: a hero who would whisk a damsel to a better world. Americans were mysterious and gallant, not to mention gainfully employed, world travelers and mature.

Oh, how a few decades — and a shrinking world — can change perceptions.

Today, women find men of many nationalities mystifying, alluring, brave and desirable — making the competition a little tougher.

But “real men” don’t need to rely on pick-up lines that often elicit groans or snickers from their intended targets:

“Do you have a map? I keep getting lost in your eyes.” (Those eyes will be hard to see because they’ve rolled to the back of her head.)

“If I could rearrange the alphabet, I’d put ‘u’ and ‘I’ together.” (She’s just thought of a few choice letters of her own.)

Italian Daniela Mazzarino, a 36-year- old hotel event organizer who lives in Rome, suggests: “Try being sincere. You can start by saying ciao.”

Notice the operative word: “start.”

“You had me at hello” might have been a great line from the Hollywood flick “Jerry McGuire,” but most men shouldn’t stop there.

Italian women hold to the notion that men should make the first move, said Louisa L., who didn’t want her last name used.

Once you’ve made the introduction, keep talking.

“Express yourself,” advised the 27-year-old Neapolitan, now studying financial health management in Milan.

“[American men] don’t express themselves very much,” said Louisa. “They are very silent. It goes beyond the language barrier. Americans, I guess, are just shy when it comes to talking. Share with us an extra word or two.”

Ask her out for coffee.

Ask her for a tour of the city.

And don’t be shocked, turned off, dismayed, alarmed or disgruntled if your first “date” includes a lot of her friends, cautioned one Italian man, Francesco Cirillo.

“Italian women don’t want to appear to be ‘easy,’ ” said the journalist. “Not the ones you’d want to bring home to Mom, at least. They want to be respected. They want to be courted.”

Gentleman, read that last sentence again, the one that ends with “courted.”

Now, that doesn’t mean you have to buy a woman flowers or dinner.

A woman wants a guy to be impulsive, creative — and communicative; to pay attention to her.

Louisa had a wonderful time with Petty Officer 3rd Class Luke Memmel. They dated for about a month before she reluctantly had to transfer to Milan for her studies.

“He was very easy to talk to, once he warmed up,” she said. “Americans are very spontaneous, very experienced. They leave their homes when they are much younger than Italians. But they’re very silent. We wish they’d speak more.”

Don’t make chatting a chore.

So what if you don’t speak each other’s language perfectly, she said. “We managed to communicate because we wanted to communicate,” Louisa said.

And if all else fails, you might gain a funny memory from the effort.

Memmel, for example, said he used to confuse the words dentro, meaning “inside,” and dietro, meaning “behind” or “in back of.”

Once, while shopping at the Ikea furniture store in Afragola, the young woman he was dating at the time lost sight of him. She called out: “Where are you?”

“Sono dentro di te,” he replied loudly.

“When half the store turned around and looked at me, I figured I used the wrong word. I meant to say ‘I’m behind you,’ ” Memmel said.

For Mazzarino, Italian men are more romantic, gentler and great lovers.

“I would want no other man than an Italian,” she said.

Perhaps. But she does not speak for all women. American gentlemen, here’s your edge: Some of us are not into “mama’s boys.”

I’m talking about Italian men who still live at home and are pampered by mothers who wash and iron their work clothes, fold their underwear, cook their meals, pay their bills. Men in their 30s.

Sure, there are cultural — and financial — limitations involved in getting your own place in Italy. But you shouldn’t let your mother take care of you.

“So, that’s true,” Mazzarino said, sighing. “That’s not really the most attractive thing about them.

“I think a lot of Italian women don’t find that very attractive. At least, that’s not what I’m looking for in a man.”

So there you have it, gentlemen. Maybe, when you’re out vying for the heart of that fanciulla, you can sophisticatedly exploit your upper hand.

Just don’t blow with a lame pick-up line.

It can work: True love, then and now

Mom married an American.

She blazed new trails, so to speak, within her family and among her friends. As the youngest of four Bombaci children, Mom was the first to marry, but she also broke my grandmother’s heart when she not only left Sicily, but also moved clear across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States.

I love their love story.

See, Mom wanted to learn to speak English, and an Italian friend of hers, Nello, worked at the U.S. Navy base at Sigonella. Though Nello spoke English perfectly, the little matchmaker figured he’d introduce Maria, 19, to this very nice, and very single, American sailor, a petty officer third class named David. What better way to learn to speak English than from a native speaker, Nello reasoned.

Dad says he fell in love the moment he heard Mom’s voice on the telephone.

Their first face-to-face meeting — after three months of talking on the phone — happened in front of the Jolly Hotel in downtown Catania. Dad was 24, kind of tall, and his pants legs were too short for his frame. Mom noticed him — and the highwaters — from down the street, and remembers laughing with her friend Loretta at the American sailor’s fashion sense, or the lack thereof.

She sort of chickened out at the last moment, for as they approached the sailor, she introduced Loretta as Maria.

Dad called her bluff. He knew who was whom. Love ain’t all that blind.

Back then, Mom says, young Italian women sought to marry Americans. “They thought it would be a better life for them,” she said.

It wasn’t something she sought, however.

“It wasn’t for me. I had a good family. Unlike your daddy, I didn’t fall in love with him at first. It was not until he left that I knew that he was the guy. I missed him.”

After three dates — three chaperoned dates — Dad was transferred from Sigonella to Japan. They maintained a long-distance courtship. More than two years later, Dad returned to Italy to seek permission from Mom’s family to marry her.

Nonna (grandmother in Italian) acquiesced.

It’s a marriage that has lasted 38 years.

They still hold hands. And kiss. He still opens the door for her.

Before he retired — rather traded in a military, and then gunsmithing, career — to become a full-time granddaddy, Mom would occasionally slip a love note into the lunch she prepared for him daily.

He still calls her his bride.

They love being in love — with each other.

So, how should an American go about conquering the heart of an Italian fanciulla?

“I don’t know. I had nothing to do with it,” Dad says. “It was God. I guess he got tired of baby-sitting me. He said: ‘I’m sending an angel to you. You pay attention to her and do what she says.’ Mommy is the angel that God sent.”

— Sandra Jontz


Stripes in 7

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