Cugine Corner - The Johnny Meatballs Blog
Cugine Corner - The Johnny Meatballs Blog
Addressing My Critics
The very first Cugine Corner blog I wrote was back in March 2010 entitled “More Than Meatballs: Encounters With Celebrity Chefs, Foodies and the Universal Italian-American Bond of Our Cuisine.” In it, I spoke about how food brings people together, especially those of Italian ancestry. I talked about meeting my culinary idol, Guy “Guido” Fieri when I recommended he visit White Manna in Hackensack on his New Jersey diner tour for
I am the type of person who puts it all out there—the good, the bad and the ugly—and I never say “go F yourself” to anyone that may disagree with my choices. Since meeting Guy, I have met dozens more big-time and small-time celebrity chefs and celebrities. I myself have gained a certain level of fame, and have done dozens of radio shows, multiple TV spots and various other things that have put me in the public eye. From my social media sites including facebook, twitter, youtube, my blogs which have been running consecutively every Tuesday since that first entry in 2010 on i-italy (and also for the past six months on EatItalian.com), it’s safe to say that I am constantly promoting and networking. I’ll repeat, it’s all out there—professionally and personally—because I have nothing to hide and nothing to be ashamed of.
Now the title of this particular edition of Cugine Corner is a catchphrase that my new friend, Giovanni from TLC’s “Mama’s Boys Of The Bronx” likes to use. He’ll tell you straight out, he’s a regular guy from the neighborhood who knows his roots and is proud of them. I love that phrase, and it applies to me too. I’ll be a proud Jersey goomba until I die. “Haters Are Motivators” is another phrase I like to use, got that one from Tommie of Discovery Channel’s “Carfellas,” a guy I’ve gotten to know well via facebook and on several phone conversations. The reason I am discussing these phrases is because I feel that they are very applicable to what I’m going through right now.
My meatballs are the best around, they have won contests at Chef Central and I will put them up against anyone’s. They are the only commercially-produced meatballs made of veal, pork and beef. I explained in previous blogs that unless you get a chance to taste them, you would never know how they are. And by getting to know the man behind the meatballs, one has more of a desire to try them. This holds true with any product or service. Giovanni sells cannolis and Tommie sells cars. But they also sell themselves. There are jealous people out there who like to keep them down and as I said, recently I have found myself in the same boat.
You have to sell the sizzle as much as the steak. That’s a line I use a lot too. Hey, I’m a showman. I am silly sometimes. I have a song and t-shirts that say “Got Balls” on them. But there’s substance behind all that, and that’s the meatballs themselves. I’ll admit, I always wanted to be an entertainer as a kid, but instead of going into the movies I got into the food business. Nowadays, food and entertainment are intertwined. I don’t have my own cooking show (not yet anyway) but I was on a major reality show that aired for 10 episodes. That’s really where the Johnny Meatballs character was first born and established. “My Big Friggin’ Wedding” on Vh1 was my springboard and has led to many opportunities for me. But my whole world was a stage long before that show, and it has been long after.
Most of my followers are very loyal and I consider many to be friends, even if we’ve never met, and they offer a great support system in whatever I do—personally and professionally. Now and then I do get messages from people giving me unsolicited business advice, some are fellow food industry workers or entrepreneurs, others are just random folks…they ask me why I don’t “tone down” my “Jersey Italian-centric” persona to appeal to a more “mainstream” clientele/audience and say I’d be more successful if I was more “generic.” I am always open to all advice and comments (as long as they aren’t mean-spirited), so I am never rude in my replies, but I do always make it clear that I am very comfortable with who I am and how I run the Johnny Meatballs Empire.
As I’ve stated before, my company has many branches to its tree—I don’t just sell meatballs, I sell myself—and I am part of the food AND entertainment world. I am not a “celebrity chef,” but I am a “food personality,” and like any theatrical production (yes, that’s what I consider my life to be), the character evolution of Johnny Meatballs (where I’m from and where I’m going) is always at the forefront. I sell the Johnny Meatballs experience equally as much as the product and the entire New Jersey / Italian-American backstory is not something I ever plan to get away from. Everything that comes with that is made public, and whether it’s just a “niche” crowd that gets it, or whether it does have mass appeal is beyond my control. I do what I do and I am what I am and that’s that.
With all the Jersey (and New York) Italian themed reality shows that have been on TV over the past five plus years—some which have been good and some which have been bad—many viewers may get a skewed view of just what’s “real” and what’s not. What’s truly displaying the East Coast Italian-American sub-cultures with some accuracy and what’s merely an exaggerated ratings-fueled freakshow by some production company out of Los Angeles.
When I was a cast member of “My Big Friggin’ Wedding” on Vh1 with my wife, I made a very calculated move to begin the Johnny Meatballs Empire and maintain total control over it. And whatever other projects I have done since then have also been under my own control. Thousands of men and women—young and old—in my region of the country as well as across America and different parts of the world understand me. They get it. Others do not. And that’s ok. Not everyone has to like what I do. I will be the first to admit that I am not perfect. We all have flaws and maybe when we are in the public eye we deserve to be picked apart. But a lot of the time, criticism is unwarranted and downright disgusting. This isn’t just about me, I am speaking for everyone who decides to expose their personal world to the rest of the world and I scratch my head when I read some of the things that appear in print that are just so mean-spirited and uncalled for.
A lot of my counterparts who sell food products cater to a “gourmet” customer base. That’s fine for them, but that’s never what Johnny’s Meatballs In Sunday Gravy has been about. I represent a modern-day nonna, as my pal Peter put it “there is nothing, I mean nothing more Italian than Grandma cooking over her banged up pots, frying sausages in a cast iron skillet with the meatballs, sitting under her grape arbor, drinking iced espresso laced with fresh oranges and sugar...eating cannoli...and lasagne as she learned from her mother in Sicily...” He is so right and that type of simple, endearing, nostalgic scene is what it’s all about to me.
I am a hard-working, middle class paisan, I am the everyman, that’s what I mean by the cugine from the neighborhood. The way I talk, the way I dress and the way I live my life may seem over the top when it’s showcased outside of my family and in front of a camera, but it is still me at heart. It shows that people of all nationalities can relate to it when I get approached by a nationally known shop-at-home TV network to do an infomercial on my meatballs with a setting of a Sunday dinner scene in a New Jersey household. Some may call that stereotypical, but a lot of these stereotypes derive from true practices, beliefs and ideals from previous generations.
Some may say I am “exploiting” myself and trying to take advantage of the current popularity of the East Coast Italian heritage. The fact is, as a born and raised Jersey paisan, I was part of this population long before cameras decided to document it. And as a businessman, why wouldn’t I want to capitalize on an ethnicity and region that’s popular—especially if I have been representing it since I was a bambino? I can’t tell you how many people are in awe of my invention, Johnny Meatballs On A Roll – The World’s First Mobile Meatball Cart and honk at me on the highway when I’m driving my box truck with my picture and “GOT BALLS” plastered across the back. I’m all about fun and humor, I am not doing anything wrong, I’m trying to make a living.
Now I talked about the advice-givers who aren’t really anything I am too concerned about but then there are the real haters who never have anything nice to say. Usually these are the “holier-than-thou” types who are insecure with themselves and put down their own fellow Italian-Americans to feel better about themselves. I have said many times how I am caught in the middle. I will never go to either “side,” of the spectrum—I would consider that selling out. This blog is about staying true and that’s always what I will do. I am not highbrow and don’t preach formal Italian language and sophisticated points of the culture like opera or history. I am not a buffoon who likes to go out and get drunk, have sex with random people and party all in the name of the “guido” like the MTV gang.
I guess the fact that I was on a reality show that happened to be made by the same producers as “Jersey Shore” immediately set me up for criticism. But “My Big Friggin’ Wedding” was not about any of the “Shore” guido stuff; yes it obviously wasn’t about Rennaisance art either. However, as I have repeatedly stated in so many of my Cugine Corner blogs, there is a middle ground and that is me. To deny the goomba speech and the style is being a fraud and I am proudly part of a hybridized Italian-American sub-culture, just as previous generations were. No matter what anyone says, it is not dying out and there are plenty of us who identify with it—and there is nothing hurtful or shameful about it. Still, these activists chose to single me out specifically when I had my Vh1 run and it really is baffling to me and I never backed down from offering to have a one-on-one interview with any of them. I am a family man who runs his own business, yet by their standards if I say “ga-nole” instead of cannoli or if I wear too many gold chains and use too much gel in my hair I am bastardizing my heritage. I identify with “Rocky Balboa,” more than Leonardo da Vinci. Does that make me a bad person?
Being part of the reality show world, I have come to get to know other Jersey and New York reality show participants. You sort of enter into an exclusive club when you get your taste of national TV exposure. It doesn’t matter if the show aired for many seasons, one season or one episode, we all tend to travel in the same circles and have many mutual friends and followers. This summer I will be organizing a meatball eating contest with the “Carfellas” crew among other things in the works. Just this past Thursday I spent a good part of the afternoon and evening with the aforementioned Giovanni Paolo (“Mama’s Boys Of The Bronx”). We shared a cigar, swapped cannolis for meatballs and had a great time hanging out on The Carlucci Show.
Last year, I brought meatballs to “Jersey Housewives” cast members Teresa and Joe Giudice when they had their grand opening of Joe’s pizzeria. I also went to the birthday party of Tracy DiMarco and got a visit to my meatball cart from Anthony Lombardi (both of “Jerseylicious”) at the feast of St. Donato in Montclair. We all cross-promote each other and I have collaborated with dozens of famous and up-and-coming food and entertainment personalities. I go out of my way to give free publicity to anyone running their own business like I am on a daily basis to my over 4,950+ facebook friends. That’s what it’s all about to me, never burning bridges and always having and showing respect—which all goes back to how I was raised.
I am not saying any of the above to impress or to simply namedrop, I do want to say that every one of those people were incredibly nice and down to earth. People who may not be from this area may not “get them” and simply look at our entire Jersey Italian world as some sort of made-up media creation. It needs to be explained that we are all real people with feelings. Giovanni and Anthony were the two that truly seemed to be the most genuine and rooted individuals of all. Like me. And even if I become a multi-millionaire someday, I will still remain the same. Not too many people can make that kind of a statement, but that should be respected, yet my haters still chastise me from time to time.
I was really surprised when Bill Russo of Centanni Broadcasting made it a point to write an i-italy article about me where he called me endearing in one sentence yet degrading in another. He even went so far as to somehow compare me to the “Mob Wives.” Really? They are famous because of their criminal backgrounds, I make meatballs! Anyway, we’ve agreed to a meeting on his show and hopefully the gap can begin to get bridged. It’s funny how so many of the people who want to put me down never mention the good things that I go out of my way to do. Like all the gift baskets I donate for churches and schools or the events I take part in where a portion of the proceeds go to cancer research or diabetes or animal adoption to name a few. I’ve straight donated my meatballs on many occasions such as to the Toys for Tots just a week before Christmas last year. Not to mention the UNICO Charity di Vino gala. Yes, I did serve up meatballs for this event sponsored by UNICO, the very organization who called me out for being a “negative stereotype.”
The other real funny thing is that I was recently recognized with a certificate of merit by the University of Gastronomic Studies in Italy. It was a thank you for me having them at my meatball cart last summer as part of a study about Italian-American foods in New York and New Jersey. And when I went to Italy five years ago, I felt so welcomed and was treated so incredible by everyone I met there. They could care less about this trivial nonsense that most of these protestors on their high horses are screaming about day and night. I will repeat this point again just as I did in my “Searching For Tony Micelli” blog: There’s something quite ironic about the Italian-Americans who called the show “Mama’s Boys From The Bronx” a disgrace simply because it was about grown men living with their mothers since in Italy, the “Bamboccioni” (those between the ages of 18-34 who still live at home) now make up 60% of the population! The Italians in Europe just want to live their life over there and enjoy it. And that’s what I want to do, too.
I would like to say something I’ve said before which I truly feel that all Italian-Americans should unanimously agree on and that is how we should stamp out these horrendous depictions of Italian-Americans in Olive Garden (and similar chain “Italian” restaurant) commercials. Being in the food business and the entertainment business, I am offended by the actors involved in these ads with their overwhelmingly clear lack of any knowledge of Italian-Americana. The menu items those places try to pass off as “Italian” are completely made-up dishes which look as appetizing as a TV dinner. Their attempts to fool the majority of the country into thinking that visiting such eateries replicates some sort of Italian-American experience is laughable. I am all for protests on those ads as I think they cause much more damage than any of the antics seen on “Jersey Shore” and I am more embarrassed by the OG than MTV.
I’ve been writing this blog for over 2 years and I will continue to do so in the way I see fit. I have published a book and have been published in many magazines and websites so obviously people enjoy what I write. And as everyone knows I am very proud of my song (which I doubt Bill Russo approves of, and probably doesn’t respect the work of Lou Monte—my direct inspiration for “The Meatball Song,” since probably to him, only opera is acceptable.) I will continue to make youtube videos and continue to market myself in the fun and humorous way I have been doing from day one. I’m not grabbing my crotch or cursing, I’m not out cheating on my wife or going out until all hours of the night. I am home every night and tuck my kids in to bed. Again I will say, not everyone loves everything I do, and that’s ok. But there is no need for rudeness or hostility.
The day I hurt someone physically or verbally is a day that I should be called out. It takes BALLS to put your life out there for TV cameras day and night and people think they know everything about you from watching edited scenes on a reality show and then they think they can pass judgments. Truth is, we’re all people and until you meet someone and get to know them FOR REAL, you shouldn’t act like you are any better or put them down. You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover and you should form your opinion on someone based on how they treat you. I live by the Golden Rule and I always will.
More people should do that, especially those within a shared nationality. Because life is too short and everyone has their differences. To hide from the differences or pretend something doesn’t exist is detrimental. I will never be silenced. Johnny Meatballs is here to stay, sporting my Fila tracksuits, driving my Caddie with KTU playing, puffing my Perodi…and of course, rollin’ meatballs ova here – ova here!
As of this writing, I am scheduled to appear on The Bill Russo Show on July 9th broadcast live from Umberto’s Clam House on Mulberry Street. His other guest in studio will be Dr. Anthony Tamburri whom I’ve met previously when he was one of the hosts at the “Guido Colloquium” held at the Calandra Institute two years ago. In case you don’t remember, I was an invited speaker at that event and this was BEFORE I was on Vh1 and even before Johnny Meatballs became my nickname. I was running Bonnie & Clyde’s Catering and was asked to weigh in on Italian-American youth as a 29 year old at the time. I explained to the crowd the differences between the real guidos and goombas I know compared to the “Jersey Shore” bunch. My comments were featured in articles published in the New York Times and even in newspapers in Italy. It’s funny how this is still a topic of discussion today. Now that I am 31, I have learned a lot and have been through quite a bit since then. I am not sure what type of interview this is going to be with Mr. Russo, but I will say it’s going to be MUST LISTEN radio. Stay tuned.