The Depiction Of Italian Cuisine In American Television And Cinema

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For any Italian, there is no place more sentimental than the dinner table. The place, which is a constantly changing place of scenery, is so sentimental it borders holiness. From prosciutto to tiramisu, everything has been served in cinema and for a number of occasions. The family meal is always symbolic in Italian-American cinema, but the range of meanings demands an investigation. At one moment, Tony Soprano is at peace and tranquility surrounded by his family enjoying his wife Carmela’s breakfast, the next he is celebrating the killing of a man with his brothers in crime over dinner at Vesulvio’s. Throughout Italian culture and cinema, food has been at the center of it all. Why is it that one aspect of culture remains so symbolic for everything from love to guilt? When an aspect of one’s identity is so close to them and one of significance and influence, it is easy to take its reputation for granted. I want to inspect the reputation and stereotype that is Italian-cuisine through its depiction in American television and cinema. In order for us to investigate this, we are going to have to take a flight, east-bound, headed to Newark International Airport.

Here, in North Caldwell, New Jersey, is where the Sopranos reside. The Sopranos was one of the biggest sensations of television history. When it was on air, I was between the ages of two and ten years old. On Sunday nights, The Sopranos meant bedtime for me. I remember my parents talking about it Monday mornings, especially the last Monday. They talked about it so much, that when I decided to watch it myself, my parents had already spoiled for me who died and it stuck with me all those years. With the era of streaming already among us, The Sopranos was one of the last landmark moments of television and its influence can’t be underscored enough. All that being said, much of The Sopranos revolves around food. Over in Kearny, New Jersey, lies the one and only – Satriale’s Pork Shop. Aside from being a standard butcher shop, Satriale’s is the home of Tony’s numerous business meetings. If things are going well, Tony and his partners will sit at tables right outside the building, often in a territorial manner. Some of the shows most remembered scenes would be Sunday dinners back at The Sopranos house. Sometimes intimate, other times extravagant and celebratorial. On the matter of dinnertime in Italian-American cinema, Daniel Golden writes, “mealtime in popular film can be stereotype time… overflowing plates of the food the outside world expects to find. But no matter what the menu, family mealtime is also a critical time for emotional transactions and plot foreshadowing.”

No, Mr. Golden was not writing about The Sopranos, but about The Godfather among other movies. In the first Godfather film, Marlon Brando’s iconic character dies at peace. Eating fruit, playing with his grandson, surrounded by tomato plants – he collapses of a heart-attack. The scene starts solemn with him indulging in food, then it ends with him dying in the shadow of food. He dies peacefully, but leaves behind a dynasty of a family, along with the trail of hard work, tears, and blood. “Take the gun, leave the cannoli,” my high-school headmaster once said to me when I arrived to his office in a Ferrara’s of Little Italy T-Shirt. Nowhere on my shirt did it say those words, but that instance is a testimony to the power at which cinema has on the representation of Italian-American culture. Some of the most memorable moments of The Godfather trilogy involve food. The Godfather trilogy uses food as a motif like The Sopranos does. Golden writes, “is in the kitchen, teaching novice Mike how to make spaghetti sauce, for the family is at war and the women are displaced as kitchen becomes command post.”

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Writer/Director Francis Ford Coppola added the scene to give everyone ‘a great red sauce.’ Another case of certain filmmakers looking to tell a personal and authentic Italian-American story. Smaller moments like these contributed to The Godfather being more than a stereotype. As with The Sopranos and the many mobster flicks to follow The Godfather, they use food symbolically and as a way for the audience to resonate with such fictional characters. It skillfully weaved the stereotypes of a mob-classic like Little Caesar with the experience of real Italian-Americans.

Unlike Little Caesar, The Godfather was the epic novel of Mario Puzo adapted by Francis Ford Coppola, both Italian-Americans. The Godfather, at 177 minutes in length, was one of the first films to reach a mass audience which represented such psychologically-complex characters, embracing the stereotype of the mobster. Mr. Coppola’s film would pave way for the aforementioned Sopranos and the success of many mafia movies both at the box office and award shows. Among the most successful filmmakers of all time, Martin Scorsese has always made an effort to tell personal stories. Another Italian-American himself, Scorsese’s best known films Raging Bull and Casino to newer films like Silence and The Irishman, tell Italian-American stories. In his 1993 epic, Goodfellas, food is used in similar ways as The Sopranos and The Godfather. One of the most memorable scenes in Goodfellas is when Henry Hill, the protagonist, takes his soon-to-be wife on their first date. He takes her to the Copacabana club in New York and, to impress her, he nonchalantly guides her through the employee’s entrance which leads them from the kitchen to their seat in the club. The shot sticks with so many people not only dance in and out of frame saying hi to Henry, but it is one long tracking shot. This clip is less about food, but celebrates the inner workings of the kitchen itself when so many mob movies take place at the table. A true moment of food celebration in Goodfellas comes when Jimmy and Henry are sent to prison. During their sentencing, they live like kings. There is a dinner sequence in which the family that is in prison cook a meal together. They are without a proper knife set or broiler, but they manage to cook each other some nice steaks with pasta and red sauce behind bars. Before they sit to eat, a crate of lobsters on ice for the following dinner come in, as well as some fresh bread for that night’s meal. The short scene is ridiculous in all the right ways, but it shows how meticulous Italian are when it comes to cooking. The late chef and author Anthony Bourdain wrote in his first book “Please, treat your garlic with respect. Sliver it for pasta, like you saw in Goodfellas, don’t burn it. Smash it, with the flat of your knife blade if you like, but don’t put it through a press.”

From then on, I, myself began referencing Goodfellas’ prison dinner scene when preparing garlic. While the topic of Italian food in cinema has been a stereotype since Little Caesar, it takes a deeper portrayal and understanding of Italian culture to move past the stereotype. Something that all three aforementioned works – The Sopranos, The Godfather, and Goodfellas – have in common is they were made by people whose parents and grandparents immigrated from Sicily and Italy. The role of food in all these works represents gathering family and following the traditions of their ethnic roots.

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