Q&A: New York, Italicized

Q&A: New York, Italicized

April 26, 2012 at 4:00 am

Author: Maurizio Molinari
Publisher: Laterza
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.

The San Gennaro festival on Mulberry Street, Manhattan's Little Italy, takes place every autumn. According to author Maurizio Molinari, although many Italian-Americans are generations removed from the old country, they often still lay claim to provincial identities. Photo by Maurizio Molinari.

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.

While many object to the portrayal of Italian Americans on shows like "The Jer­sey Sho­re," at least one academic has hypothesized that the program illustrates how Italians have integrated into the contemporary American wor­king class. Photo/Creative Commons.

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.



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