No, We're Not That Family
From the July 26, 2002 Wall Street Journal: Italian-Americans have a problem, and it's not "The Sopranos."
12:00 AM, Jul 29, 2002 • By VICTORINO MATUS
ITALIAN-AMERICANS are speaking out. They are complaining about a stereotype they just can't stand. One that they find inaccurate and misleading. One that is constantly shown on television, much to their disgust. They are unhappy. They are at their wit's end. They are fed up.
No, I'm not talking about "The Sopranos." When that notorious series returns to HBO--after the longest hiatus in the history of Mafia-themed TV--the debate over its characterization of Italian-Americans will no doubt break out again, with much finger-pointing on both sides. But who cares? "The Sopranos" is not the problem. Not at all. The show's images are benign compared with the real menace in our midst.
I am referring to the Olive Garden restaurant chain, whose commercials blanket America for hundreds of hours each month, ruining life for Italian-Americans with any sense of their origins.
It has been said--accurately and not altogether insultingly--that the Olive Garden is the McDonald's of Italian-American cuisine. The restaurants dot the vast American subculture of shopping strips and mini-malls, presenting cheesy cuisine, in the nonmacaroni sense, and cheesy d cor that appeals to a broad, middle-class, New World idea of Italian cooking, especially to people who are not Italian. Alas, the commercials are drenched in an ersatz Italian-ness that may cause indigestion.
In one spot, a nephew says that when his uncle from Italy visited him for the first time, he took him to the Olive Garden. (His first time in America, and he is taken there?) The same thing occurs with an elderly man--the Italian family patriarch--who is brought to the Olive Garden to celebrate his birthday. (The man appears to be in his 90s and probably doesn't have many birthdays left; surely he would prefer something a little more . . . authentic.) One Italian guy jokes about how his sister can't cook, so he, too, skips out to go to the restaurant.
And then there is the spot with the large family gathering at the Olive Garden, everybody laughing and having a good time, Dean Martin singing in the background, while someone, in that thick, unmistakable New York Italian accent, says that the food tastes as good as mamma's. (In real life, mamma would drop dead at such a comparison.) As they say at the Olive Garden: "When you're here, you're family."
An unofficial Italian-American survey of opinion on this pressing subject conveys some of the pain. "That Italian relative who comes over to the U.S. and is taken by his family to the Olive Garden, that's just hilarious," says George Guattare, a graduate student in Chicago. "I mentioned this to my mother-in-law, Bruna, from Italy, and she totally died laughing. That would be the last place I would go, unless of course I hated her."
Thad Ficarra, who works on a congressional staff in Washington, employs an Italian phrase to capture his feelings: "To say 'When you're here, you're family' is a brute figura"--that is, a bad omen. "Suppose my Uncle Silvio from Sicily was coming to visit me in D.C. (May he rest in peace.) If I took him to my local Olive Garden on Rockville Pike, he'd try to throw me out of the family!"
Joe Scafidi, a banker in Washington, notes that the Olive Garden's parent company is Darden, which also owns Red Lobster. "It appears as though there's not one Italian on the board. Either that or Lee, Rose, Smith, Erving [as in Julius], Blum and Wilson are pseudonyms for former wiseguys in the Witness Protection Program."
There is even a comedian, Nick DiPaolo, who savages the Olive Garden ads in his routine. "I'd rather be portrayed as a mob boss who owns a strip club and cheats on his wife," he riffs, "than some guy who takes somebody from Italy to the Olive Garden."
"What we might resent," says John Salamone, the executive director of the National Italian American Foundation, "is being used in these ads. They imply that this is Italian cuisine."
But how bad can it really be? I recently went to the Olive Garden in Toms River, N.J. The line to get in was out the door and around the corner. I asked an elderly woman what she thought of the restaurant: "I just love the Olive Garden," she says eagerly. She is Marlene Ferguson, of Lancaster County, Pa. "The commercials don't bother me at all. And what I love best are the salads."
I am actually here with my friends, the Palladino family, to find out what all the fuss is about. Todd Palladino, a camera operator at a network in New York, is already annoyed: "The commercials make us look like a bunch of buffoons. That all we do is sit around a table and eat whatever's in front of us."