Publication Date: Oct. 2011
Maurizio Molinari is the author of “Gli Italiani di New York,” an Italian-language book that takes a look at the New Yorkers of Italian descent who have helped shape the city we know today. The book will be available in English from New Academia Publishing in Aug. 2012.
Molinari is also the U.S. correspondent for La Stampa, an Italian daily newspaper, and has written over a dozen non-fiction books.
Q: So what makes being Italian in New York special?
A: The truth is that for nearly 2.7 million Greater New York residents, there are many Italian-American identities, not just one, and all of them are present in New York. That’s what makes being Italian in New York so unique — there are more ways to be Italian here than in Italy itself.
Beginning in the early 19th century, Italy began a unification process that eroded the provincialism of previous centuries. However, many Italian New Yorkers descend from immigrants who arrived in America before that process was complete. That means today that there are Americans whose Italian identity is “frozen” in the 1800s. They share the city with recent Italian émigrés who behave, speak and eat as we do today in Rome and Milan.
Q: So how do those two or three generations removed from the “old country” express their Italian heritage?
A: Italians in New York, like many immigrant groups removed from their motherland, dedicate a huge amount of energy to debating their identity. Antonio Ciappina, a reporter for “America Oggi,” an Italian-language daily newspaper published in New Jersey, pointed out how Italian-Americans still form social groups around clubhouses named after their small villages in the old country.
Italians on Mulberry Street, the main drag of Manhattan’s Little Italy, present themselves not as “Italian” but as Calabresi, Siciliani, Napoletani or Pugliesi, making it seem as if nothing has changed over the centuries.
Q: It sounds confusing.
A: The John D. Calandra Italian American Institute at Queens College uses the term “American-Italians,” placing primacy on the latter generations’ integration into the new country. Retired U.S. Navy Admiral Edmund Giambastiani defines himself as an “American of Italian origin.” Pharmaceutical mogul Lamberto Andreotti and United Nations negotiator Gianni Picco speak about a “global identity with an Italian component.” The result is a universe of voices where contradictions abound.
In this clip from THIRTEEN’s Community Stories campaign, Staten Island Borough President Honorable James P. Molinaro discusses what it was like growing up the son of Italian immigrants in New York.
Q: Do you think that the media perpetuates unflattering stereotypes of Italians?
A: Some families forbid youngsters from watching films like “The Godfather” or television shows like “The Sopranos” because of prejudices they may spread. On the other hand, according to Dean Anthony Tamburri of the Calandra Institute, media portrayals of Italians like “Jersey Shore” are proof of how successfully Italians have integrated into the contemporary American working class. The behavior of the characters on the hit MTV show, Tamburri argues, is attributable to the working class background they share with people of diverse ethnic backgrounds, rather than their Italian roots.
Q: So, is there something that all Italians have in common? An Italian essence?
A: It’s an expression that Italians use to describe themselves: “siamo gente che lavora sodo” which translates as “we are hardworking people.” And where does this attitude originate? I asked the same question of former New York Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta, former NYPD Deputy Chief Charles Grasso and Matilda Cuomo, mother of Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Their answer was the same: “aiutare la famiglia — to sustain the family.”
Q: Are there any surprises when you look at how Italians have made their mark in New York?
A: Well, the Occupy Wall Street protesters who took over Zuccotti Park might not know it was named for Italian-American businessman John E. Zuccotti, who is a former City Planning Commission chairman and was first deputy mayor under Abe Beame. Then of course, there’s Lady Gaga, whose real surname is Germanotta — well, she leaves an impression of a different sort.