“I’ll-a have-a da spaghetti wit meatball!” Such an incomprehensible mixture of an “urban” inflection paired with a 1950s impersonation of an Italian (see: the I Love Lucy episode “Visitor From Italy” in which Mario—pronounced like Mary-o—displays this accent in full effect) has been the norm in media for far too many decades. Beyond merely the enunciation of an Italian as egregiously interpreted by an American is that other completely fabricated stereotype made permanent and iconic by Lady and the Tramp in 1955: a giant plate of spaghetti topped with meatballs. And let’s not forget the waiter who served them, Tony, an insanely exaggerated parody of an Italian in accent and physical expression.
It’s impossible to know who brought this fabricated food intelligence to the United States, but one likes to imagine he (it was invariably a he) is quite contrite in his grave right now for having single-handedly misrepresented an entire culture. For all we know, this bastardization of regional cooking could have been invented by a New Yorker or a New Jerseyan, two races (yes, races) infamous for distorting what an Italian is. In large part, traditional Italian cuisine evolved as a result of immigrants using what was available to them in grocery stores in the States to re-work a recipe as best as possible. Because polpette, or meatballs, were consumed as main dishes on their own—without pasta—in Southern Italy, Americans suddenly got the notion that altering the mold to fit their own without specifying that the transformation was distinctly non-Italian would be just fine. Thus, whoever or whatever initiated this spaghetti and meatballs exemplification of an “average” Italian will never know the havoc they have wrought.
Famed restaurateur of the 40s and 50s, Niccoló de Quattrociocchi, a Sicilian who wrote the trailblazing cookbook Love and Dishes, said it best when he noted, “I was introduced to two traditional American specialties called ‘spaghetti with meatballs,’ and ‘cotoletta parmigiana,’” further noting he thought these recipes were “just for fun called Italian.”
While there is no doubting that the American restaurant industry would be an incredibly different landscape (i.e. less lucrative for the falsifiers of a culture) without its tainting of Italian fare, at least there would be some shred of honesty to it. And though some will offer the consolation, “But Americans do that to every heritage–look at Mexican food,” it is not assuagement to Italians who are represented by a single scene from a children’s movie–topped off in stereotypicalness with a red and white tablecloth, some breadsticks and a Chianti bottle. To be blunt, it’s tantamount to blackface in its offensive caricaturization. But because Italians are white, no one will ever see the transgression in such a harsh light. Plus, Americans think it just tastes too fucking fantastic to care, even though that much meat and red sauce on anything is vomit-inducing/distinctly catered to a U.S. resident’s palate.