Last Wednesday, on “National Sandwich Day” (yes, there is such a thing), I had an interesting exchange with Vincent Scordo, a facebook foodie friend.
Vincent commented on a post written by another friend of mine who remarked on my wall that her favorite sandwich was “Proscut and Mozz.” His reply was: “What’s ‘prosut’ and ‘mozz’?” He then followed that by saying the usage of such terms are one of his pet peeves. “Prosciutto is an Italian word for ham and mozzarella is the Italian word for any generic cheese made using spinning and then cutting; ‘mozzare’ means to cut…I’m thinking of starting a movement to end the shortening of Italian food terms,” he concluded.
I answered back by saying: “Paisan, I know such terms have been referred to as bastardizations of the Italian language or less than authentic words, however I often find it’s the uptight Italian ‘scholars’ (generally not from the East Coast) who don’t understand this particular Jersey slang and protest it because they oddly equate it only to the Mafia or the low-class. But this is a very true and real language in itself.”
I stand behind those comments. This speech pattern (although certainly used by fictional and real Mafiosos) isn’t relegated to just wiseguys or buffoons. It exists in show-biz and regular life—although both worlds parallel and play off each other.
Now notice how I said “paisan” and not paisan-oh in my response. Not to mention I referred to “sandwich” as “seng-weech” in my initial status update, showing how these slang-ifications and amalgamations equally happen with English words. In all of the various discussions about the “authenticity” of certain Italian-American foods and the place of the real American-Italian “guido” (goomba / cugine), what’s often lost when dissecting the similar clothing styles, cigar/espresso/vino affinity and the shared music bond (to name a few traits—yes traits—not stereotypes) is the usage of this whole other “Goomba-Italiano” vernacular. Vincent went on to say that “the use of slang is definitely part of any sub-culture, but it’s kind of empowering and cool if you first get the formal language.” To that, I completely agree.
I’ve had this conversation with my man Tony Mangia before as well. He prefers to always use the formal words, but he’s still my paisan. Then take my goomba, Louis Azzollini. He speaks in “Hoboken Moofie,” which he calls “an interesting dialect of Molfetese with American added.” That old saying “Tomato, Tomato” (Tuh-may-toe / Toe-mah-toe) fits in perfectly here if you ask me.
See, I feel that the word-shortening thing is a whole dialect that shouldn’t be shunned, rather understood, examined and legitimized. When we use it, it connects and reminds a lot of us of our humble roots—of which we should never be ashamed. Even though this is a popular subject these days, this isn’t some new phenomenon. It goes way back, even before the “Tony Manero” ’70s. Dean Martin famously sang the words: “When the stars make you drool just like a pasta fazool” on “That’s Amore,” released in 1952. “Fagioli” just isn’t as catchy. Please note: this sort of thing occurs in all nationalities. “Spanglish,” for example, is a big part of the Hispanic sub-cultures throughout neighborhoods in my area.
Changes in other letters of these Italian words often occur, usually from ‘c’ to ‘g.’ See: “ga-nole” (cannoli). Or take sah-loo-tay (salute), where the ‘te’ becomes the letter ‘d’ and is said as sah-lood. Incorporations of other English words besides the slang-ified Italian ones are also a big part of this Goomba-Italiano hybrid dialect as well. Some are recognized and understood within the sub-culture more than others (“gravy” or sauce debate anyone?) Incidentally, my good friend Lorraine Ranalli included a three page glossary on this topic in her “Gravy Wars” book where she breaks down South Philly-isms (which are very similar to North Jersey) compared to the formal Italian speech (for example: marinara = ma-dee-na’). Also, this happens not just here in America, it’s the same throughout Italy. When I write recipes or order such foods in a formal establishment, I do indeed say “prosciutto di parma.” This is not because I’m embarrassed or anything, it’s just to save time in having to explain what I’m talking about to those who may not get it. But with my boys down at the corner deli, I always say, “pro-shoot.” Either way, it’s DELICIOUS stuff—and that’s what counts.
See, it’s definitely helps to know both sides, but my only point is that it’s harmful to discredit one or the other or try and distinguish which is more real. Empower both. When I went to Italy, in certain places “thank-you” (grazie) was pronounced “grot-zee” and other spots it was the more theatrical “grot-zee-yeh.” It’s also generational and how you were raised. This will all be in my book and I even wrote a song about it (soon to be on I-Tunes called “The Meatball Song”) which highlites all my favorite foods—sang in my cugine phonetics…
In the meantime, you can hear me singing it and also hear me using such verbiage every Monday night at 9pm on the new Vh1 series, “My Big Friggin’ Wedding.” And yeah, I do personally occasionally use the word “friggin’” myself. But I do not apologize to anyone out there who may call me the slang words for unintelligent because of it. Nor will I apologize for my gelled-up hair or pinkie ring. I will admit, while most of the show feedback has been positive, there have been some haters out there critiquing me. One interesting review from the New York Times said I “gave a performance of goombahness so seemingly studied that it would not be a surprise if we all eventually learned that Johnny is really a graduate student at the Yale School of Drama who comes from Colorado. He appears to have internalized Joe Pesci in ‘Goodfellas’ the way previous generations looked toward Richard Burton’s “‘Hamlet.’” I’m taking that one as a compliment. If you follow my blogs on here, you will find that I can cohesively express my thoughts and do indeed have something of substance to bring to the table. Ok, I’m nowhere near the intellectual level of many writers on this site, but just having this blog alone should also show I did okay in grammar as a kid. At the end of the day though, only my family and The Man Upstairs matter to me.
Oh, and just one more thing (to quote the DeNobili-chomping Columbo—a silly yet sharp character who you can’t judge by the cover), us cugines aint just working class folk, we can hold professional careers and still embody all that is goomba. As it was discussed at the guido colloquium, the gold-chain, leather jacket-wearing, “Vinny Gambini” was another perfect example. Granted, that was a character in a movie, but there are indeed goombas in law enforcement and law out there. It was reported that even Vinny of “Jersey Shore” was set to go to law school before he hit reality TV fame.
Below is a partial re-posting of the “Goomba-Italiano 101” humor column I contributed to Steppin’ Out Magazine in 2003, which has now become a popular internet-circulated e-mail. Oddly, I never get the writing credit for it though.
Come stai? Molto bene. Buon giorno. Ciao. Arrivederci. Every Italian from Italy knows these words and every Italian-American should. This takes us to the Goomba speech pattern. Those words and phrases that are a lil Italian, a lil American, and a lil slang. Words every paisan and bacciagaloop has heard. This form of language, the Goomba-Italiano, has been used for generations. The goomba says ciao when he arrives or leaves. He says madonne anytime emotion is needed in any given situation. Mannaggia, meengya, oofah, and of course, va fungool can also be used. Capeesh? He uses a mopeen to wipe his hands in the cucina, gets agita from the gravy and loves his famiglia. There are usually plenty of mamalukes and the girls from the neighborhood with the reputations as a faccia-bruta, puttana or schifosa. Also don’t forget to say per favore and grazie and prego. So salud’ if you have any Italian blood in you and you understood anything written here! Then you are numero uno and a professore of the goombas. But if you don’t get this at all, then you’re a disgraziat.’ Scuzi , mi dispiach, I didn’t mean that... just fugheddaboudit.
To conclude my thesis here, I think we all take this stuff a tad too seriously. Don’t forget, accents play into pronunciations too (comparing Boston and New York is quite fun—and funny). To me, the “holier than thou” types out there should be protesting the Italians who pronounce manicotti as “man-uh-COT-ee” and ricotta as “ri-COT-uh,” not arguing over whether it’s supposed to be “ri-gawt-uh” or just plain “ri-gawt.” As far as I’m concerned, we are all paisans (or paisanos). By the way, I enjoyed a gabigol’ (capicola) sandwich and a Manhattan Special last Wednesday.