Ahhh. To be Italian in South Philly.
For anyone not familiar with South Philadelphia, let me just say that it's ethnic to a large degree, with the most prominent group being the Italians. It is South Philly Italian Market that is wholly responsible for turning my niece into a quasi-almost-complete-and-definitely-not-lamb-eating vegetarian. I had the grand idea of taking my sister's suburban raised offspring to the market at delicately young age only to run directly into a shop window where three, count 'em three fully skinned -but-heads-still-on-baby lambs were hanging by the back paws. It turned out not to have been such a stellar idea, my wanting to bathe the kiddies in a bit of our own ethnic culture. Culture?
South Philly, I discovered, is Italian American at its most basic, its most primeval. It's the Italian American stereotype grabbing at its own crotch with a crooked grin, and thumbing its nose at the rest of the world.
But who am I talking to here? Clearly you have all seen at least one episode of "Jersey Shore". You get what I'm talking about, don'tcha?
South Philly Italian American also has its own vernacular, which, for the uneducated, can be disconcerting. Mine is mayan, yeah, like the Indians, and water is wurder. That place with the big ocean where you are dying to have a condo is da shure and the red stuff that goes on spaghetti is gravy. Graeeevie, to be exact. Now, you can find this dialect pretty much all over the Delaware basin. But when you're in South Philly, the speak has something to do with being Italian. Don't ask me what, exactly, but you have to go there to get the feel.
Tony asked me to marry him! He's mayan. We're going to da sure for our honeymoon and we'll eat a lot of wurder ice! I hope I can make graeevie as good as his mom!
Now, that's Italian.
My husband, doing his rounds for the company, stopped in for a while at the Staples store in South Philadelphia many years ago. One of the girls working there was named Dawn (let me put that into South Philly Italian for you ---Duoowwn). Dawn was working the register when a family of four Italians, I mean the kind from Italy, walked up to pay for their purchases. Attractively dressed, polite and real. Italians.
From the boot. Not from the 'hood.
Dawn, catching that the family members were speaking to each other in a foreign language, asked them, "So. Where are you from (weeeeer ya from)?
From Italy, the father of the family replied. EET- AH-LEE!
"Huh," said Dawn skeptically. "Funny. You don't SOUND Italian."
Perception is everything, isn't it?
It's like using ricotta and mozzarella in lasagna. You think that's Italian? The white stuff in lasagna in Italy is bechemel sauce, not cheese! Or meat sauce. In Italy, meat sauce is comprised of, well MEAT! Tomatoes are just added to make it a bit spreadable; the sauce is barely even red.
Back in the day, before I actually spoke Italian, I was sitting in a restaurant in Liguria, by myself. The Italians next to me struck up a conversation. During the course of the conversation, they asked me if we had an Italian dish made of pasta and beans in America. I said, sure! Of course we do! Pasta FAZOOL.
The entire restaurant broke out laughing. Ok, there were only four tables in the place. But I still turned beet red.
Pasta e fagioli is the actual name of the dish. Pasta FAZOOL, we figured out that evening, some arcane Sicilian or otherwise southern Italian dialect watered down by three generations of Italian Americans who COULD NOT SPEAK ITALIAN!!!
I love being Italian. Except that I'm not. I'm clearly Italian American. And that's a completely different thing than being Italian. Except that it isn't.
If Italian American had a Facebook page, it's relationship status would be "It's Complicated."