For some reason, it seems everybody wants to be Italian. “Who can blame them?” you ask. After all, consider the gloriousness Italians have contributed to art, medicine, literature, gastronomy, and politics (okay, maybe not politics). Look at the legions of spectacular Italians throughout history, such as Michelangelo, da Vinci, Dante, DeNiro, or the unparalleled Medici family (with the possible exception of Chet Medici, my incompetent former landscaper).
If these were the kinds of Italians to which people aspired, then I’d say, “Yes! Si! It all makes sense!”
However, these are not the kinds of Italians to which people aspire. Rather, most folks are going for the celluloid Italian, like the Balboas, the Romanos, and the Castorinis. Sure, these Italians are entertaining. They’re funny, loud, argumentative, crass, raucous, a little bit shady and a whole lot of pazzo. But, do you really want to come across as Paulie Walnuts when you could be all Marcello Mastroianni? If given the choice, why would you opt to stir your inner Snooki when Sophia Loren is simmering just beneath your surface?
If this sounds like you, my friend, I can help. I am an Italian-American woman who saw a need, and decided to fill it. That’s why I’ve developed TotallyClassyItalian!® With a few, easy-to-follow steps, I can transform you, from an ugly stereotype, into a chic quasi-European.
What’s that you say? You don’t have a single drop of Italian blood in your veins? Not a problem! I know plenty of Irishmen, for example, who have become TotallyClassyItalian!® just like their Aunt Ro on their mother Sophia’s side. You can, too! So, if you ever plan to venture closer to Italy than your neighborhood pizzeria, TotallyClassyItalian!® is for you!
Step 1: Attitude and Refinement. Real Italians, true Italians, have cornered the market on attitude and refinement. They are cool, suave, and do not yell or gesticulate (think of Michael Corleone, calmly telling Fredo not to take sides, with anyone, against the family again…ever).
I will give you two examples of how an Italian should conduct himself – one is right and one is wrong. Let’s see if you can spot the subtle differences.
First, I’ll set the scene: You and some friends are standing in line for zeppoli at the San Gennaro Festival in Little Italy. A guy pushes ahead of you, butting the line. You…
a. …turn to your friend and yell, “Hey Patsy, dat guy’s gotta some pair of calzones! Am I right?! Are yous kiddin’ me? What da f…” You give your girlfriend, Ang, your pinky ring to hold, so “it don’t get scraped” then you confront the line cutter, shove him into the next vendor’s stall (knocking over a display of bocce balls) and cause a street fight.
b. …toss your Armani blazer over your shoulder, take a deep drag of your cigarette, turn to your companion and sigh, “Honestly Pasquale, I told you we should have gone to Ciprianis…” followed by a condescending roll of your eyes and a subtle shake of your head.
If you chose “b,” then you’re practically a Venetian already! Venetians are bested only by Romans when it comes to making others feel inferior and wormlike. You’re well on your way, amico!
Here’s a follow-up question: When speaking, do you come across as Italian by simply adopting a Brooklyn accent, shaping your hands into lobster claws and waving them in front of your face (while substituting dees, dem and doe’s for these, them and those)? If you answered, “no,” then you’re learning fast! Wow, eccellentissimo!
Step 2: Italian Pop Culture. Here is a lightning round of questions about Italian pop culture. Don’t overthink them. Just pick the first one that seems right. You have 15 seconds. Go!
1. You can quote lines from The Godfather (Parts I – III), Goodfellas, and Fatso. This makes you 100%:
a. fun at parties
d. none of the above
2. Driving a Ferrari or a Lamborghini makes you really:
c. in need of totally classy Italian learning course to invest in
d. all of the above
3. If Chef Boyardee ravioli is your favorite Italian food, you:
a. were born without a tongue
b. prepare all of your meals in a microwave
c. are on the fast track to hypertension
d. any of the above
4. A hip Florentine:
a. speaks 3 languages fluently
b. has impeccable grace and manners
c. uses a spoon to twirl her spaghetti
d. answers “a” and “b”
And speaking of food, this brings us to our final lesson.
Step 3: Menu Italian. Language and food are the two things that really classy Italians take very seriously. The Italian language is arguably the world’s most beautiful, and Italian food is beyond compare.
This is beautifully illustrated in the movie, Big Night. Tony Shalhoub’s character, chef Primo, is talking to Allison Janney’s character, about his uncle’s Lasagna Bolognese. He describes it as so excruciatingly delicious that, after you’ve eaten it, “…you have to kill yourself! You cannot live!” In another scene, a restaurant patron asks for a side of spaghetti with her risotto. Primo calls her “a criminal” and “a philistine.” And in yet another scene, a competing restaurateur rages about Primo’s cooking, “This is so f—ing good, I should kill you!”
This deep attachment to their food, coupled with the pride they feel for their language, is why an authentic Italian restaurant can be a minefield for you. By trampling the names of the chef’s beloved dishes, and mangling his mother tongue at the same time, well…I don’t even want to think what might happen to you, or to your food.
To avoid this, here are three general guidelines you should memorize:
- When you come across a word that contains the letter “o,” it is pronounced “oh,” not “ah.”
- Never cut off the last vowel of an Italian word. If you see it, you say it.
- There is no letter “x” in the Italian alphabet.
With these basics in mind, now you know that biscotti is always pronounced bis-KOH-tee, not bis-KAH-dee, and never biz-GAHT (I beg of you).
Let’s practice with a few popular dishes:
You’re doing great! Fantastico!
After you’ve enjoyed your meal, you’ll want to top it off with something hot to drink. This is where most people commit the most egregious pseudo-Italian sin of all. Friendly reminder: there is no “x” in the Italian alphabet! Capisce?
Okay, go ahead. How would you pronounce that particular kind of coffee? Nooooo, not cappuccino. Try again. Yes! That’s right! Essssssssspresso! Bravo!
That’s it! See how easy? It’s all about a little bit of knowledge, and a whole lot of attitude. Congratulations! You’re officially TotallyClassyItalian!® Now, get out there and be magnificente!