Just how “Italian” are Italian-Americans? This is a question that is of interest not only to the Italian-American community itself, but to those of us in academia and business whose job it is to determine how to appeal to that target audience. How do they identify themselves? What is their emotional relationship to Italy and America? What are they interested in? These are questions that as a writer for this newspaper I often think about. Not too long ago La Voce di New York published an excellent lengthy article on the impact of Italian language instruction in North America and the world and along the way, these fundamental questions were examined.
“Little Big Italy” is a very popular television program hosted by the restaurateur and celebrity, Francesco Panella. The program airs in Italy but you can also catch it on Youtube.
The premise of this program, which is a form of culinary tourism, is that Francesco travels the world in search of true and authentically “Italian” restaurants in various cities of the Italian diaspora. To be more precise, in the countless “Little Italies” that exist in Europe and North America. Having introduced the three contestants who each propose their candidate for the most Italian of the restaurants in their city, Francesco first submits them to a test to see “just how Italian” they have remained since they immigrated to their new home. The questions are not hard, “who is the president of the Republic?” has been one. Others may ask the contestant to identify some celebrity in Italy or to identify the region where some city may be located. Truly, Francesco’s expectations are not high yet frequently the answer from the contestant is “I don’t know”. At which point Francesco pointedly teases them about how they have lost their “Italian-ness” since they left Italy.
In the course of the program Francesco scrutinizes the menus, commenting on the “Italian-ness” of the plates on offer: local adaptations such as chicken francese, marsala or parmigiana in the US, for example, don’t pass the test. And let’s not even consider spaghetti with meatballs. He also notes the many misspellings that he finds on such menus: linguini for the more Italian “linguine” will not pass unnoticed. As the host of the program, he reserves the most important vote, the one that will determine the final outcome, for himself. This vote is based on what he considers the level of “Italian-ness” of the restaurant in all its elements from the décor to the taste of the dishes ordered. Given Panella’s stringent criteria for what is and is not authentically Italian in the diaspora, this test is not as easy to pass as you might think. Too much “Italian-ness” and he judges the restaurant “kitchy” – more like a theme park than a “real” Italian restaurant. Not enough Italian “references” in the décor or ambiance or the staff, and he deems it insufficiently “Italian”. In short, if you’re a restaurateur and want to win this contest you’re going to have to pass through the proverbial eye of the needle.
It’s a cliché to say that food is a primary indicator of culture. But what happens to an immigrant’s culture when they leave their home country? Do they stop being Italian because their cuisine, as well as their lifestyle, has undergone cultural adaptations? This is a sensitive subject for immigrants and even for their first generation offspring because while they may lay claim to their mother culture out of love and perhaps nostalgia, people in the mother country may not always be pleased to claim them as their sons and daughters. Indeed many sources, both academic and popular have made their career studying this difficult relationship. Scholar Flaminio Di Biagi quotes an Italian critic who boldly writes, “Gli italo-americani non sono italiani […] ci imbarazzano, sopratutto quelli che provengono dal Sud…” (Italian Americans are not Italians…they embarrass us, especially those who come from the South.”) (Italoamericani tra Hollywood e cinecittà: 142).
Felicita Ratti, Language Teacher, Translator and Interpreter living in Austria, is even more direct: “I am sorry some of you Americans with at least one Italian ancestor or grandparent were hurt or felt mistreated by us Italians, but the matter is that Italian-Americans represent a different culture with their own different (creole) language, that’s all. You have your own dignity, and I am sure you are interesting and all, but you are not Italian…” (emphasis in original). The irony here is that she herself is living in Austria, and thus equally a part of the Italian diaspora.
Di Biagi also notes that it is only since the 1990s that the Italian diaspora has been a subject worthy of study by scholars in Italy. In previous decades both the government and the academic world flatly ignored the diaspora. It wasn’t until the country started to become increasingly multi-cultural that it showed any interest in its cast-off sons and daughters.
Noted celebrity chef and restaurateur Lidia Bastianich has also opined on the subject. In a long interview that I did with her in 2007, “A Conversation with Lidia Bastianich on Terroir, Cuisine, Globalization and Culture”, Lidia commented on the evolution of Italian-American cuisine and its place in the diaspora, stating that, “Italian-American food is an example of the transportation of a culture—and what happened to Italian-American food certainly happens to a lot of today’s immigrants too…. The evolution of Italian-American cuisine, then, even though it’s fundamentally Italian, is part of the history of ‘Americana’, not of Italian cultural history.” (Columbia Journal of American Studies, Sprig 2007: 174-191).
Francesco Panella’s quest for purity and the high standards that he applies to achieve “Italian-ness” is emblematic of this attitude. Once transplanted, even after a short period of time as is the case for many of the contestants who appear on “Little Big Italies”, you become part of “Americana” and the most you can hope for is to come close to being “Italian”. The distinction implied by that hyphen is a cultural, psychological and emotional chasm that according to those who identify themselves as unhyphenated, cannot be breached.
Yet despite his quest for cultural purity, the online menu for Panella’s Brooklyn restaurant, Antica Pesa, is in English (https://www.anticapesa.com/#menus/fall-dinner-menu). Perhaps he has given some serious thought after all, to what it means to leave your country and face the reality of having to assimilate – or at least acculturate — to the adopted country in order to earn a living and become part of a new community? Even when the transplantation is by choice, as is his case, it must involve some level of cultural compromise. The arrogance, then, of those who consider that anything less than full Italian authenticity cannot exist outside of Italy – as if some such thing could exist even inside of today’s multicultural Italy – is to be taken with skepticism.