Articles by: Joey Skee

  • Facts & Stories

    An Ex-W.O.P. Casts His Vote


    One theory holds that Italian immigrants were dubbed “wops” because all too many arrived in the States With Out Papers. Born and raised in New York City, I reclaimed my Italian citizenship in 2001. I was a wop no more. I have my papers. 
    My reasons for reclaiming Italian citizenship were varied and shifted over time: Italy was offering; I met the requirements; the imagined mischief of disrupting antiquated notions of “melting pot” Americanism; options in lieu of unforeseen political or economic turmoil; the Italian government’s historical accountability to its immigrant citizenry and its descendants; and because I’m Italian, with or without papers. The only practical benefit to date of being an Italian citizen is breezing through security at Fiumicino and Heathrow. 
    Requests for reclaimed citizenship are booming. I wasn’t able to find any data on the Web but the day my siblings and I finalized our paperwork at the Italian consulate in New York City, all the staff in the open office where we were sitting were dealing with the very same issue with other Americans. I couldn’t help feeling as if we born-again Italians were members of a new transnational confraternity, giving a 21st century twist to historical immigrant repatriation.
    What I never suspected was that I would be called on to vote. 
    I didn’t know what to do the first time I received ballots for the 2003 referendum. I had been taught you would lose your American citizenship if you voted in a foreign election, so I didn’t. (I saved the ballots because I dug the design.) I was mistaken: one can vote in the Italian election and not lose one’s American citizenship.
    I follow Italian politics as best as anyone can, enough to know what the big issues are. There are others, especially whose Italian is not proficient, who aren’t up on the issues or who don’t know Italians vote for a party and not individual candidates. In 2006, one Italian/American friend almost voted for the party that stood in opposition to her professed political beliefs because she was unaware of their platform. She was making a choice based on the attractiveness of the party’s logo. 
    I wonder how many votes are being lost because materials by the parties and the government are not bilingual (or trilingual in Canada!). I’ve received at least one email hoping that would be that place on the Web where people can get relevant information in both Italian and English.
    Why do I vote? 
    It can be argued that as an American/Italian what happens in Italy doesn’t affect me. But I voted in the 2005 fertility law referendum in a way that was in concert with my political beliefs regardless where I live. The following year I was one of those italiani all'estero who helped sway the parliamentary elections; our vote the political right’s strategic miscalculation. I don’t believe the candidates of any party will represent me in the Italian parliament in the same meaningful ways my American representatives do. That’s one of the many reasons why I’m excited by Stefano Albertini’s proposed candidacy. The voting process has helped me become more Italian.  
    Call me a wop or chiamami un americano, but in April, I’ll be voting with all the other Italians.

  • Op-Eds

    St. Joseph's Altar, Barese Style


    March 19th is the Catholic feast day of St. Joseph and in Sicily and through the diaspora, Sicilian devotees assemble temporary domestic altars often as a votive offering in thanks for heavenly intervention. In places like Detroit, New Orleans, and in the Brazo Valley in Texas descendants of Italian immigrants continue the devotional practice of creating elaborate domestic sacred space. I came to know this Sicilian tradition first in New York City, and then in Gloucester, Massachusetts.
    This Sicilian sacred art is characterized by its intense culinary component. The food- laden altars are known as tavole or tavolate (large table) due to its cornucopic spread of Sicilian specialties. Beginning in 1978, Giuseppina Maia of New York City created an annual altar consisting of an embroidered table cloth, flowers, candles, sea shells, religious statues, and a framed print of St. Joseph and the Christ Child. Her tavolata also held offerings of sculptured breads, vegetables like cardoons, fruits like oranges and pineapples, and trays of meatless Sicilian specialties such as spaghetti with hard boiled eggs and asparagus, cod fish, and rice with bread crumbs and sugar prepared by Giuseppina and her female relatives and friends over the course of two weeks.  They collectively cooked the fifty pounds of pasta, the twelve pounds of rice, and other dishes served to the scores of visitors who attended the sacro-gastronomic fete. It was only after her sisters-in-law developed various health problems did Maia stop preparing her domestic tavolata in 2001.
    In this country, it is the Sicilian tradition that has been best documented, while variations of this devotional art form from the continent as practiced in the United States have received less attention. For a quarter century, two families in Sheapshead Bay, Brooklyn create St. Joseph’s altars in their respective finished basements with a distinctly Barese flair, which I had the good fortunate of witnessing last night.
    Sister-in-laws and neighbors Angela Rizzi and Antonietta Vitucci, both from Grumo Appula (Bari province, Puglia) continue a tradition inherited from their respective mothers and grandmothers, in what folklorist Kay Turner calls “a matrifocal legacy of religious custom” (Beautiful Necessity: The Art and Meaning of Women’s Altar, 1999). The focus of both altars is religious imagery past down through the decades from mother to daughter. While these are not expressly votive altars created for a specific vow, they are none the less powerful sites of channeled religious sentiment. Antonietta choked up while explaining her deep belief in St. Joseph’s intervention in our mundane world. 
    Angela’s and Antoinette’s cloth draped, tiered altars are decorated not with offerings of food as in the Sicilian tradition but with numerous vases of cut flowers. They are up at 4AM to purchase the choicest roses, orchids, calla lilies, birds of paradise and other sumptuous flowers from floral wholesalers in New Jersey. Each year Angela receives two vases of flowers from an anonymous donor in the name of St. Joseph. The altars’ bilateral tripartite arrangement, what folklorist Henry Glassie noted is the classic European folk aesthetic, is shared with their Sicilian counterparts. 
    Loaves of blessed bread, some shaped as a staff and as a circle, were piled on a white cloth at the foot of both altars. These were distributed to friends and family (and the ethnographer) who paid a nocturnal social visit. We were all treated to a variety of homemade liquors and taralle, dried chick peas, and endless trays of cookies.
    A few months ago, I was talking with a young scholar of Italian-American history about my research on religious practices in Italian New York City and she was incredulous that Italian-Americans maintained altars, marched in processions, and prayed to the saints in hopes of a miracle in 2007. In a voice of utter astonishment and just a tinge of contempt, this scholar of Italian-Americans’ past ask me rhetorically, “They still do that?!” 
    Despite the statistics and surveys that inform us that the vast majority of Italian-Americans have long ago become assimilated Catholics (or Episcopalians, or Buddhists, or apostates), and despite the American implementation of the Second Vatican Council in which, as historian Robert Orsi notes, “the saints and the varied practices of sacred presence were repositioned in the firebreak between then and now to serve as gatekeepers for the otherness of the past”   (“‘The Infant of Prague’s Nightie’: The Devotional Origins of Contemporary Catholic Memory” U.S. Catholic Historian 21.2, Spring 2003, 1-18), Italian Catholics still continue to give creative expression to the sacred presence in the lives. 
    Italian-Americans’ relationship to the divine has not remained static but has changed in context and meaning over the past 125 years in a place like New York City. The rich legacy of Catholic folk art and vernacular sacred space of tenements, alleyways, and teeming festa streets of the immigrant slums has long been adapted to rented apartments and the overwhelmingly privately owned homes and property in the more suburbanized neighborhoods in the outer boroughs.  The historic economic deprivation has ended as Italian Americans journeyed from destitute immigrants to the (relatively) safe and resource-filled environs of white, middle class status. 
    It’s not useful to wistfully “celebrate” contemporary religious practices as quaint “folk traditions” from the Italian or immigrant past. (“They don’t even do this in Italy any more!” is a stock quote from visiting Italians that says more about them than it does about actual religious practices in Italy or the United States.) Listening to what people say about their beliefs and honestly observing what people actually do as part of their religious world provides a more accurate portrait of religion as it is lived in this historic moment at the onset of the 21st century. 
    Evviva San Giuseppe!

  • Life & People

    Tony Soprano Made Me Do It!


    Last month, mafia informant Francesco (Frank) Fiordilino, “former Bonanno crime family associate,” decried the mafia and its glorification in the media. According to the New York Daily News, Fiordilino’s statement read, in part:
    “I apologize as well, especially to anyone of Italian background, by conspiring and utilizing our culture in the same manner the entertainment industry does with its stereotypes.... Hollywood intensified my love for that life, and in the process blindsided what being Italian meant” (February 22, 2008).
    Italian-American spokespeople, activists, and scholars have been all-too quick to respond to this latest development.
    This is the smoking gun, no pun intended, we’ve been looking for,” said Vin Choocie, director of the Museum of the Italian Experience in America, who single-handily petitioned the U.S. Congress to issue a formal apology to him personally on behalf of “the Italian-American community” for decades of unspecified ethnic discrimination (Resolution HCR11099/HR42545). “My son couldn’t get on the Harvard polo team because his name ends in a vowel. (Choocie’s son Vin. Jr., a freshman at Westchester Community College, was unavailable for comment.)
    Professor Vanessa Longo-Murphy of Montclair State University and author of Strega: The Sorceress as a Mago Figure in Italian Literature asserted, “A Princeton study showed that 74 percent of Americans associated Italian Americans with organized crime. Why would they do this? Because of the way the media depicts us.”
    Ms. KaNèesha Leilani al-Jamil-O’Neil née Yamaguchi, Esq, of the Organization of Great Grandsons and Great Granddaughters of Ribottoli, frazione di Serino, of North Bergen, New Jersey (OOGGAGGOR,FDS,ONBNJ), reacted to Fiordilino’s statement, “My maternal grandfather’s paternal grandmother’s comare didn’t leave her mountain village just to be depicted as a suburban housewife in “The Sopranos.” We’re doctors, lawyers, and cinema studies scholars. How come we don’t see Italian-Americans depicted as cinema studies scholars on TV?”
    Dr. Charles Lombroso of the Melanocorypha Lark Foundation for Italian Diasporic Studies has been directing a team of researchers for two decades studying the long-term impact of mafia movies and television shows, said. “This [Fiordilino’s statement] only corroborates our findings. In one study [see data below], we proved conclusively that every time a ‘Sopranos’ episode aired, 6.5 Italian-American youths joined the mafia, or, at the very least, they thought about joining the mafia.”
    Poet Al E.Ghieri, who advocates for artistic expression on his blog “Sacred Farce,” characterized the “knee-jerk response” by Italian-American “self-styled leaders” as “a shuddering din of strange and various tongues, sorrowful words and accents pitched with rage, shrill and hard voices.”
    Since Fiordilino’s February 21st statement, other convicted mobsters have come forward with similar accounts linking negative media portrayals with their nefarious deeds. Peter Paulie (and Mary) Pietropaolo, serving 5-10 years in Attica Correctional Facility, explained,
    “I’ll never forget. It was 1976 and I was going for the paper, for the paper, and I heard Bob Dylan on the radio in Mrs. Cappa’s candy store. He was singing that song ‘Joey,’ you know, about Joe Gallo. And there’s that line, ‘When they asked him why it had to be that way, ‘Well,’ he answered, just because’.” WOW! I knew just what he meant! It was like there was no direction home. It was that song that made me the criminal I am today.”
    Juvenal (What’s his name?) Anniballa, convicted for perjury and joculari indiscretus gravamen, and alleged member of the Genovese crime family, recalled:
    “It was spring of 1980 and I was finishing up at Brooklyn College when I decided to take this class on Italian-American literature with this professor. What’s his name? I don’t remember now. Anyway, he had us read The Godfather. You can sort of say I took the gun and left the cannoli. Now, I regret ever having read a book. What was that guy’s name?”
    Reached for comment yesterday at Brooklyn College, Prof. Robert Viscusi, who has taught and written extensively on Italian-American literature, was surprisingly speechless. Seriously.

  • Art & Culture

    Italians in Hollywood


    The Film Forum, Manhattan’s premiere art house movie theater, just finished its retrospective on the great American director Sidney Lumet. The Philadelphia-born filmmaker is known for tackling the thorny issue of morality, especially for those on the front lines of justice in courtrooms, jury rooms, and most especially police precincts. Lumet has made a number of movies featuring Italian-American characters, like Find Me Guilty (2006), Prince of the City (1981), and one of my all time favorites Serpico (1973). Last week we were treated to a rare screening of two powerful films The Fugitive Kind (1959) and A View from the Bridge (1962) based on works by the playwrights Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, respectfully, and featuring the great Italian actors Anna Magnani and Raf Vallone, respectfully. 
    This screening of A View from the Bridge was so rare that a Film Forum employee introduced it with the caveat that the movie was an archival print that had two separate one-minute breaks and that audience members should refrain from grumbling in protest. But the audience did react, quite vocally, to the two films, but in the most enthusiastic of ways. Throughout the screenings I could hear people at times laughing, then gasping, and finally weeping. Both films were met with resounding applause. When the lights came up after both screenings, audience members ardently exclaimed their admiration. 
    Both films are concerned with misfits who simply can’t or won’t fit in. In The Fugitive Kind, lovers Lady Torrance (Magnani) and Valentine Xavier (Marlon Brando) are out of place in the backwater Louisiana town where ugly secrets about prejudice, hatred, and violence fester. Particularly disturbing is Eddie Carbone (Vallone) in A View from the Bridge whose egregious violations of the mores of his working-class Brooklyn neighborhood drive him to irrational and destructive behavior. Eddie covets his niece (an incestuous desire he neither fully understands nor recognizes) and derides her growing love interest Rodolpho (sic) (Jean Sorel), one of two brothers who are illegal Italian immigrants (remember them?) living in Eddie’s cramped apartment. He characterizes Rodolpho’s singing on the docks and his knowledge of the “feminine” arts of needlework and cooking as sure signs of Rodolpho’s homosexuality and proof that the carefree immigrant is using his niece Catherine (Carol Lawrence) to obtain American citizenship. When Eddie violently kisses first Catherine and then Rodolpho on the lips (considered the first same sex kiss on screen) we are aghast at Eddie’s destructive unraveling.
    These are dark, intense films, both of which end tragically. Immolation against the “dago” characters in The Fugitive Kind is white Louisiana justice administered furtively in retaliation first for transgressing Jim Crow and then for believing in the possibility of love and redemption. (Williams returns to the subject of conflagration as retribution in Eli Kazin’s sexually charged Baby Doll (1956), in which arsonists set ablaze a thriving cotton-gin owned by Sicilian Silva Vacarro (Eli Wallach) who is seen as both an economic and sexual treat.). In A View from the Bridge, what begins as a duel of honor with cargo hooks, a sort of Western shootout displaced to the rain-drenched streets of waterfront Brooklyn, ends with a proletarian hara-kiri after the utter lost of face. 
    Magnani’s and Vallone’s journey to Hollywood (this was Magnani’s third American film) resulted in riveting portrayals of Italian-Americans that exposed the sordid lives of provincial America.

  • Art & Culture

    The Indiscreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie


    This past week I made my way to the Frick Collection, a private museum located at Fifth Avenue and East 70th Street in Manhattan, to see the one painting exhibition of Parmigianino’s Antea (c. 1531–34), on loan from the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples. At the end of a long inner courtyard, hung the single canvas naturally lit by the skylight in the parquet-floored “Oval Room.” The near full-length portrait is of a sumptuously dressed woman who audaciously confronts each gawking visitor with her arresting gaze. Like her better-known counterpart hanging in Paris at the Lourve, Antea’s trace of a smile adds to her lasting allure.
    She’s an odd one this Antea, a mystery of various sorts. Her disproportioned body, with its tiny head resting on acutely oblique shoulders and a massive torso, creates a disquieting effect. The wall text attempts to unveil her anonymity, unpacking the historical speculation to her identity as a noble bride, a famous Roman courtesan, or the artist’s daughter, servant, or mistress. We are told that Antea’s dress and accoutrements, from the marten fur stole draped across her shoulders to the gold chain she touches with her ungloved hand, are sixteenth century symbols of fertility, lust, and eroticism.  
    For me, the painting wasn’t the only unsettling thing I encountered on this my first visit to the museum. The shadow of coke-and-steel industrialist Henry Clay Frick loomed large that day as did the ghosts of the immigrant workers he suppressed. The Italian paramour and the Italian laborers were brought together in the problematical intertextual web of this “art world,” what sociologist Howard Becker identified as “an established network of cooperative links among participants . . . that radiates out from the work in question” (Art Worlds, University of California Press, 184, p. 34-35). 
    It is all too easy to be seduced by the ostentatious Beaux-Arts mansion and its impressive collection of canonical artworks, including some of my all time favorites like Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert (1480), Holbein the Younger’s Sir Thomas More (1527), and Ingres’s Comtess d’Haussonville (1845), among others. But I could not shake the idea that these works were bought with the blood, sweat, and tears of nameless men and women struggling as part of America’s industrial labor.
    Frick’s business acumen, his connoisseurship, and his grand benevolence in bequeathing his Gilded Era palace and collection are the highlights of the museum’s hagiographical narrative. What remains untold within the rarefied context of aesthetic appreciation is the death of approximately 109 coal miners ("mostly Polish, Hungarian and Italian immigrants") in the 1891 explosion at the H. C. Frick Coke Company in Mammoth, Pennsylvania, the ferocious manner he suppressed workers during the infamous 1982 Homestead strike, and his culpability and then suppression of the investigation (along with his wealthy cronies at the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club) of the Great Johnstown Flood of 1889. All of this cursory information was found with just a few mouse clicks. 
    Images from the 1982 Homestead Strike.
    Writing about Antea’s ambiguous physicality, Holland Cotter of The New York Times stated, “this is an image of a figure as a thing of contradictions.” The recontextualization of this incongruous and intriguing image in the house of Frick sparked my profane illumination, to use Walter Benjamin’s term, releasing the specters that haunt America’s past.

  • Life & People

    Uncovering My Mafia Roots


    Last week’s mass arrest of some eighty odd mafiosi in the United States and Italy has prompted me to come clean on my own mob connections. 
    Strange as it may seem to some, I’m a “Brooklyn Italian” (born in 1955) who never experienced any mafia presence growing up. On my block, there was no mobbed-up social club, no wiseguy wannabes congregating on street corners, no annual street festa to the Virgin Mary with the ritual passeggiata of the neighborhood Don and his family. Part of that had to do with the fact that my post-World War II immigrant parents chose not to settle in any of New York City’s established or emerging Little Italies like Harlem or Bensonhurst. The lack of any significant Abruzzese and Lazio communities in the city left them free to explore mixed (white) communities in Brooklyn’s Flatlands area well beyond the entrenched ethnic enclaves. It was only as a young scholar beginning my ethnographic research on Italian-American vernacular culture in New York that I encountered mafiosi of various stripes.
    Imagine my surprise when I uncovered a relative associated with the Genovese crime family in a 1969 New York Times article titled “5 Reputed Mafiosi and 11 Others Indicted Here for Criminal Contempt.” I had long been using the online database of The New York Times to search for historical materials pertaining to various Italian-American communities, practices, and historical events. It’s truly a phenomenal tool. (I look forward to the day we’re able to search online the treasure trove that is the old Il Progresso Italo-Americano.) 
    On a whim, I typed in “SCIORRA” for articles dating from 1851 to the early 1980s when my actress sister Annabella and I started being cited or quoted in the paper. The first article, “BUISNESS TROUBLES” from October 10, 1908, was a list of judications which included $60 paid to G[iuseppe] Sciorra by debtor R. Natale. For nine years my father’s Uncle Albert (translation into American: his cousin twice removed) dominated the published accounts, from the purchase of a diner at 184th Street and Broadway in 1947, to his charitable contributions to the needy in 1952 and 1954, to the death of his one-year-old daughter Cathy Rice in 1956. 
    And then, on April 10, 1969, there he was:
    Enrico Sciorra, 59, wholesaler, 2465 Tratman Avenue, the Bronx.
    The reporter’s lead sentence stated that “sixteen defiant witnesses,” including “reputed Mafiosi” Carmine “Mr. Gibbs” Tramunti, John “Gentleman Johnny” Masiello (you can look ‘em up), among three others, were being held on contempt charges after refusing to answer questions of a grand jury about “loansharking, gambling, and the inroads of organized crime into legitimate business.” 
    I was shocked to find my father’s name listed in the paper even though I knew it wasn’t him. My dad was a 47-year-old veterinarian living in Wethersfield, Connecticut at the time. 
    I asked him about his criminal doppelganger and he confirmed it was a relative, in fact, Uncle Al’s brother. My dad recalled his uncle bemoaning the fact that he repeatedly was called to the police station to post bail for his connected sibling. My father told me of starting work as a federal veterinarian for the Department of Agriculture at a Manhattan meatpacking plant when a slaughterhouse butcher queried him about his name: “Hey doc, you related to Enrico Sciorra, the bookie?” The plant was a regular stop where my dad’s relative collected bets.
    While I knew Uncle Al and Aunt Alice – visiting them in their pristine Washington Heights apartment was insufferable childhood torture – I never met or heard of the other Enrico Sciorra. My father never hid the fact that we had a connected relative; he simply wasn’t a presence in our lives. And now here he was making his presence known in the digital world.
    In their success in leaving the slums, the previous generation of Italian Americans struggled to rid themselves of the taint of such social pathologies as hyper sexuality and criminality. Given that background, it’s understandable that mediated mafia like The Sopranos drives older Italian Americans, especially professional ethnics, apoplectic. But that’s not my reality. I was never denied a job or advancement because my name ended in a vowel. I never has some corporate representative in some southern state ask me if was in the mafia after spelling my last name. 
    Why blog about this disreputable relative? I’m certainly not compelled to honor some ethnic code of silence, burying my family’s complicated and occasionally unsavory past for the celebratory cult of personalities of inventors, sportspeople, and businesspeople that is Italian-American ethnic boosterism. I’m inspired by the director Alex Halpern’s documentary film Nine Good Teeth and Karen Tintori’s memoir Unto the Daughters, in which sexual peccadilloes, honor killings, and mafia affiliations of family members are revealed to the general public. This is not about exhibitionism or titillation but about being honest about the past, our individual and collectives histories, and creating something new out of old wounds. 

  • Op-Eds

    Decidedly Not Italian Enough

    The first thought I had after reading James Barron’s “They Kind of Knew It Wouldn’t Work” in the New York Times was, “Here come the crybabies,” those over sensitive Italian-Americans peeved by every perceived media slight and denigration. While I certainly don’t think my colleague (and Calandra Institute supervisor) Anthony Tamburri falls into the category of whining media police by any stretch of the imagination – on the contrary, he is constantly offering intellectually stimulating challenges to our understanding of Italian-American cultural production – I have to admit I was somewhat taken aback by his recent “too Italian” Giuliani post. The phrase “too Italian” unquestionably raises intriguing questions about perceptions of Italianità in the public sphere that I am thankful Anthony explored on this site and that I would like to augment. Yet I would argue the specific case of this Times article is a non-issue and certainly not worth a letter to the editor. 

    My reading of the Times quote of “retired jewelry designer” and Giuliani supporter (“I love Giuliani . . .”) Dorothy Kaliades was that this was a succinctly astute assessment of the failed Giuliani campaign, albeit missing one crucial component, i.e., 9/11 tedium. Her statement was a political reading of America beyond the Hudson River. I was left with the impression that Kaliades, a(n assumed) white ethnic (Greek American, by birth or marriage) from a much-maligned, “outer” borough neighborhood long identified as Italian-American, was sympathetic to the issue of Giuliani’s ethnicity within the sphere of national presidential politics. 
    In addition to Giuliani being “too Italian,” Kaliades lists several key factors that need to be considered collectively if we are to understand her position and the ruined Giuliani candidacy.
    She raises the specter of Giuliani’s personal family relationships and, ultimately, character (“he had too many wives” and “his kids won’t talk to him.”). It wasn’t only his two divorces that were deemed political liabilities but the particularly nasty ways he separated from his wives: the contested annulment from his first wife; the philandering while in office on the city dime; his second wife learning about his filing for divorce from a news conference announcement; his attempts to evict her from Gracie Mansion so as facilitate moving in his lover, etc. For many, it was Giuliani’s sleaziness that did him in. It seemed like Ms. Kaliades called it right. 
    Another observation Kaliades made was the very simple fact that Giuliani was a New Yorker, which conservative Christian Republicans associate with other despised groups, in particular, Jews, gays, liberals, and others. The fact that he was the former mayor is not insignificant. I’ll never forget my high school history teacher discussing Teddy Roosevelt’s failed 1886 bid for the city’s mayoral race as a good thing because, as he pronounced, “No former mayor of New York City ever became president.
    A quick google search for “Giuliani + too + Italian” simply leads back to the Kaliades quote. Giuliani’s “Italianness” doesn’t appear to have been an issue this election year. The possibility of it being raised had Giuliani won his party’s candidacy is a moot point now.
    (It seems that the political left’s association of Giuliani with Fascist leader Benito Mussolini might have been more cause for Italian-American activists to speak up but I didn’t hear any raised voices on that issue.)
    As Anthony notes, the phrase “not black enough” has plagued Barak Obama’s candidacy. This issue was brought up by such national figures (and not just one person in a nail salon, excuse me) as Jessie Jackson and Al Sharpton, themselves previous presidential hopefuls deemed “too black” and ultimately “too radical.” The African-American barometer of racial politics was also directed at the recent mayoral runs of Cory Booker in Newark and Michael Nutter in Philadelphia. (Even rumors of New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg’s possible presidential bid have raised the issue of him “being too Jewish”.) This is a historically important issue within the black community, especially as it concerns integration, education, and even violence among the youth.
    It seems to me that the question of being “too Italian” or not is one that needs to be posed inwards. The objection of Italian-American leaders to mediated mafiosi like The Sopranos is imbued with what I call the fear of the gavon’. Middle class and upper middle class strivers take offense at the HBO show, the Scorsese opus, and countless other mob-related cultural products because they depict characters that are to a large degree just too damn Italian, stained with the mark of marinara sauce on their sleeveless “guinea Ts.” The Italian-American abhorrence of community-based, déclassé gavons is brilliantly addressed in The Sopranos episode “Marco Polo” in the show’s fifth season, in which Carmela confronts her mother Mary De Angelis’s self-hatred when her mobster son-in-law, bedecked with a necklace of Italian sausages for the grill, shows up at a backyard barbecue attended by her “cultured Italian” friends, Russ Fegoli, Ph.D. in international affairs and a retired “assistant to the Ambassador to the Vatican.” Tony is just a tad bit too Italian for her taste.  
    Five years ago, Johhny De Carlo posted an email with the subject line “Confessions of a Goomba” to the list serve H-Itam, challenging upper middle class decorum and ways of being Italian:
    I’m proud to be Italian-American and proud to be a goomba. And I’m real. I'm happy in my neighborhood and with my family and friends and my car and my clothes and my local job and my Church and everything else. I don’t need to go be a politician or an activist for some cause. I don’t see how that makes me a bad person or how that makes me bad for Italian-American society. We are simple people who know where our ancestors came from and know where we come from and live and have pride in that.
    De Carlo represents one of those people deemed “too Italian” by some members of the Italian-American community. 
    When I was a kid, my father told me what amounted to a morality tale, one I would hear from other Italian Americans as I got older. This account involved Frank Sinatra’s now infamous torpedoing of Jimmy Roselli’s singing career over perceived insults. For my father and the others who tell this mythic tale, Sinatra was a bully who abused his power as when he berated a female croupier during the height of his fame. His abusive and often misogynistic behavior was anathema to what my father understood to be the proper Italian-American male. 
    Giuliani is often cited for his bullying and mean-spiritedness. This candidate made much of being a Catholic in his pandering to the religious right, but anyone who endured his mayoralty knows that he was anything but Christian in his public and political behavior, especially as it concerned the poor, the downtrodden, and people of color. The Kaliades quote was followed by another from Richard Martin, 58, a retired cabdriver residing in Harlem: “‘I have been asking myself, how could Giuliani ever have the audacity to run for president,’ said Mr. Martin, who is black. ‘His governing style would be considered mean, indifferent and, I would have to say, racist or prejudiced’.” From my father’s perspective and mine as well, Giuliani, like Sinatra, was not “too Italian” but not Italian enough.

  • Life & People

    The Cultural Politics of Coffee


    As a born and bred New Yorker, I should know better than to go public with secret culinary information. But I just can’t take it any more. Everyday after lunch, I search in vain for a shot of coffee, for a simple cup of espresso.
    Unfortunately, I work in midtown Manhattan, where a simple caffè is as hard to find as someone who knows what the IRT is. (Yes, the “green” line.) Why is it that scores of local and international travelers can walk into any “bar” around Rome’s Termini train station, or anywhere else in Italy for that matter, and be served a simple, perfect cup of coffee within a minute of ordering it while at the “center of the universe,” we’re forced to wander the teeming urban canyons in desperate search for our afternoon fix?
    While there are plenty of places in midtown selling Italian-style coffees, the problem is they’re offering pitiful facsimiles. A “solo” at Starbucks, the McDonalds of caffeine, is a watery, burnt brew served in a paper cup twice the size of a regular espresso tazza.   
    But we New Yorkers have been informed there’s hope. “Artisan baristas” are here to save the day! Over a year ago, The New York Times featured some of “the best cafes in New York” and I was surprised to read that one such establishment exists a mere two blocks from my Brooklyn apartment. I had seen the 20-somethings congregating there on my way to the supermarket but I never seriously considered checking it out. It seemed more hipster haven than a place to get a cup of Joe. 
    Coached as “geekiness,” New York barista speak is a tad bit pretentious, with its attention to “provenance,” “dosing,” “tamping,” and “28-leaf rosetta."  Photobucket Yet the rave review the paper of record gave the shop piqued my curiosity. The key to this “artisanal” coffee we are told is the “triple ristretto” preparation, which makes for a Williamsburg version of Turkish coffee, calling for an ice water chaser to wash the tick concoction down. Disappointed, I felt I had been sold a bill of trendy goods that was more hipster hype than substance, prepared at 198 degrees and under thirty pounds of pressure. Whatever.
    While no supporter of cultural proprietorship, I can’t help but sympathize with Paulie Walnuts’s whining tirade about culinary highjacking.  
    It’s simple food. If they could only get it right.  And you’re still wondering why he stole the Moka coffeepot?!
    I should have known better after a 2004 restaurant review made a Brooklyn eatery sound like some Italian-American fantasy of Sunday dinner in nonna’s basement kitchen. The reviewer appeared to have gorged on one too many mob movies with her description of “the long-nailed women mopping their plates with bread, the tough teenager barking a request for more" [. . .] gravy. I discovered that while the food was good, it was just another trendy but small Italian restaurant frequented by regular New York foodies, and hardly some old neighborhood eatery. (I’ll take you to my favorite Italian restaurant when you’re in town but until then, zitto zitt’!)
    After my caffeinated adventure, I returned to my regular haunt, Sal’s Pizzeria at the corner of Lorimer and Devoe Streets. Named for its previous owner, the pizza parlor is frequented by burly cops from the 90th precinct, hipster moms and their kids, neighborhood teenagers, and artists of various stripes. Run by Mimmo Lepore from Rutigliano (Bari province, Puglia), the place dishes up some of the best New York-style pizza. (Don’t get me started about the general decline of pizza in Manhattan!) 
    For a $1.50, Mimmo (or Alonso aka “Niño” from Puebla, Mexico) serves una bella tazza di caffè without the fancy flourishes of simulated fern fronds. The next time you find yourself in Williamsburg checking out the art galleries and in need of a caffeine kick, skip those other touted places and head to Mimmo’s. Refreshed and back on the L train, you might actually think you’re heading for la fontana di Trevi by way of the Empire State Building.