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Italian is a Living Language in the Big Apple: Take a Bite!

A lighthearted list, from A to M, of the Italian language in New York

Italian is out there, a spirit that supersedes national boundaries. Where do we see it or hear it in the greater New York area? Let's play with the ABCs of the Italian language that has become mainstream in NYC. This fun guide to Italy in New York is a linguistic and cultural journey of la bella lingua. This first episode will cover the alphabet from A to M. Next time, we'll conclude the alphabet, from N to Z


As I’ve written elsewhere, Italian is a very much alive  in academic and professional settings, so now it’s time to investigate the real world, language on a day-to-day basis –  Italian is out there, a spirit that supersedes national boundaries. So where do we see and hear la bella lingua in the greater NY area?

Italian food has become one of the most popular ethnic foods in the U.S. Americans have a rich food vocabulary, from products to dishes, from grocery stores to eateries across the greater New York area, and they are continuously exposed to la bella lingua and culture, albeit their pronunciation of these words have been contaminated by funky regional linguistic phenomena, to the point where purists like me cringe. For this reason, I’ll stay away from food vocabulary and the kitchen.

Plus, we all know there’s more to the Italian than just food. What “other” linguistic realities  have made their way into daily economic life in the big city? By other, I mean Italian words that aren’t the standard Italian fare, like Vespa or cappuccino. I also wish to exclude businesses that are named after their Italian family name. Let’s take a look at a sampling of la bella lingua, and identify words and expressions that have become a reality in the business marketplace.

This lighthearted guide to Italy in NY will be a linguistic and cultural journey of la bella lingua. This first episode will cover the alphabet from A to M (no H though, it’s  silent and used only in some Italian words in word initial position, verb “avere” conjugations). Next week, we’ll conclude the alphabet, from N to Z.

A – amore (love)

Love is king in New York, and the Big Apple’s motto, “I  NY,” proves it. There’s also amore for Italian. You can find Amore Opera for those passionate about opera, both well-loved and nouveau. There’s also a nail salon Amore Beauty & Spa offering manis, pedis and more in Hell’s Kitchen. Then if you head into Chinatown, you’ll also find Amore a cosmetics and beauty supply shop where you can discover the best of Korean beauty. Makes you somewhat curious about amore, no?

B – bello, bella, bellezza (handsome, beautiful, beauty)

Whatever makes you beautiful or shows your beauty is bello. From objects for the home (Sweet Bella), to clothing (Bella Bridesmaids), and bellezza (mostly women’s personal grooming needs, of course), you’ll find too many bel- derivatives to count: Salone D’Bellezza, Studio Bella Salon and Wellness, BellaVita Fitness & Wellness” (another important Italian B-word: benessere, but this one less common). Go to Bella Dental in Chinatown, but don’t forget to stop into Sono Bello on Madison Ave. (or any of their other 29 locations nation-wide) to transform your body and rejuvenate your face. After looking at the success stories, with a female/male ratio of 3:1, the professor in me asks whether it shouldn’t perhaps be “Sono Bella”…

C – ciao (hi, bye)

Often found together with the B-word above, ciao is for both greeting and leave-taking used casually with friends and family. During World War II, Bella ciao took on a special meaning – it is the song of the antifascist resistance in Italy. The cultural diffusion of ciao doesn’t stop with Romance languages, and it is remarkable to hear on the streets, read in our text messages – ciao knows no boundaries. Beyond a vast number of eateries and cafés that use this word, in the Village we find the play on words Chow Ciao Design, a marketing agency that caters to the food industry. Occasionally, even to man’s best friend we say Ciao Bow Wow at drop off and pick up from the dog day care center with locations in the financial district and Brooklyn.

D – dolce (sweet)

Ah, la dolce vita. Maybe we know Fellini’s film. Maybe we know Dolce & Gabbana. Ultimately, we all know how sweet it is. In Manhattan, you’ll find Dolce Vita Intimates on Madison Ave., Dolce Vita clothes and shoes at department stores or specific locations in the city. You can also have la dolce vita come to you: The classical string quartet Dolce Vita New York can be hired on for parties, weddings, anything and will play all kinds of music. Speaking of music, I would be remiss to not mention Il Divo, the male quartet classical crossover group, whose first concert at Gotham Hall in 2004 proved that if you can make it here, you’ll make it anywhere…

E – eleganza (elegance)

Without a doubt eleganza goes hand in hand with Italian style Eleganza Tailors on Lexington Ave., Eleganza Tiles with six branches in major U.S. cities, Eleganza Fashion Marketing & Consulting, to help clients work New York Fashion Week (among other activities), and Eleganza Jewels, Etc. on the outskirts of the city.

F – Ferrari

You’re wondering why I am using this renown name when I stated that I wouldn’t include family-named business, in this case even one that is synonymous with Italy. Indulge me please. Some clever NYC businesses have adopted the Ferrari name and created their own business, for example Ferrari Express, a forwarding company that moves jewelry, gems and valuable cargo (luxury products + speedy service). There is also a Ferrari Driving School in four boroughs (Queens, Long Island, Brooklyn and Bronx), but don’t get any ideas! They teach smart driving instead of speeding in easy to use, dual-controlled vehicles (sorry, no actual Ferrari).

G – grande (large, big)

If Starbucks has done anything for Italian, it has increased Italian language knowledge for cup sizes. A grande (large, but what we generally consider a medium coffee, 16 fl.oz.) is on the lips of every coffee beverage addict of New Yorkers and tourists alike. In Manhattan, every five blocks, you’ll finds someone pronouncing (or mispronouncing) an Italian word, ordering a grande caramel macchiato or a grande iced caffè americano, or maybe going really large with a ‘venti’ or ‘trenta’…

I – –issimo (-est, superlative meaning the best, ultimate)

Since we’re talking coffee, there’s also the best of a joint venture of illycaffè and Coca-Cola, coffee to-go, illy issimo, found just about anywhere in New York. Issimo Productions opted to name its media company with just the superlative suffix, and built its culture on three core values: Bellissimo, Bravissimo, Grandissimo.

L – lingua (language)

Lingua is recognized mostly when we speak of a lingua franca, especially if we think of English as the lingua franca of business. This term was coined when Italy dominated commerce, from late medieval times to the 19th century, and the language of communication was a simple Italian mixed with Romance languages, Greek, Arabic and Turkish. Today in a city that has over 140 languages spoken regularly, lingua is used frequently, as we find with translation, interpretation and global marketing companies, like Lingualinx, (on 5th Ave.) Omnilingua (in the Village), and Translingua (on 43rd).

M – Marco Polo

Why include a 13th century Venetian explorer in my Italian alphabet? Geico, with regional offices in New York State, recently revived this explorer and the Italian language enjoyably in one of its commercial series “It’s Not Surprising.” Marco Polo is standing fully dressed in a suburban above-ground pool in the middle of a game named for him (or at least given his name). Without subtitles yet requiring much negotiation of meaning – the viewer trying to understand the Italian language, and Marco Polo trying to understand the rules to the game – it is quite humorous. Native Italian speakers too will guffaw because the Venetian Polo speaks with an accent that seems to be Roman…

Next episode, from N to Z!

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