When your typical American pictures anything related to Italy, oftentimes what comes to mind are a plethora of stereotypes. The American perception of Italian life, food, and culture in general is usually viewed through a very blurry, and sometimes controversial (looking at you, mob wife aesthetic), lens.
From taking in bits and pieces of Italy through movies, TV shows, music, and vacations their friends may have posted about on Instagram, it’s easy to understand where these misconceptions may come from. Not only are they perpetuated in various forms of media, but within real-life interactions with others who also may not understand what true Italian culture is like.
Spoiler alert: your friend who visited the Amalfi Coast and stayed in the most expensive hotel in Positano for a week probably doesn’t have the best grasp on what Italy is really like on a day-to-day basis for the majority of Italians. As someone who shares an identity with both Italian and American culture, these contradictions and misinterpretations often frustrate me, so I’m here to set the record straight once and for all.
Italian-American culture is NOT the same as Italian culture
These two things are not to be confused with one another. Italian-American culture is a sub-culture within its own right and may share some things in common with Italian culture, but they certainly aren’t one and the same. For one thing, many Italian-Americans are 3rd, 4th, or even 5th generation and don’t know how to speak the language. Traditions that have been passed down from their family members have been changed, misconstrued, and thus “Americanized” over the years. For example, many Italian-Americans in the Northeastern United States will refer to sauce as “gravy”, when Italians do not do that themselves. The word “gabagool” is actually capicola. One of the best illustrations of these differences can be seen in the episode of The Sopranos called “Commendatori” where a few of the characters travel to Napoli and experience different levels of culture-shock.
Italians don’t eat spaghetti and meatballs every day
Do Italians eat spaghetti? Yes. Do Italians eat polpette? Also yes. Do they eat a dish that is called “spaghetti and meatballs”? Absolutely not. In fact, this dish as interpreted in Italian-American culture does not even exist in reality in Italy. There are literally dozens of pasta dishes that are made with spaghetti that Italians enjoy quite often, but that being said, it’s not the only type of pasta (or food in general) that is enjoyed. You’ll find different parts of Italy have their own regional cuisines, and the variety of dishes can change even from one town to the next. Some parts of Italy prefer risotto, polenta, pizza, or another type of food altogether. Italian food is sometimes viewed as very simple to the outside world, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Not everyone in Italy speaks (only) Italian
Many Italians, and Europeans in general, are bilingual at the very minimum. It is far more common for Italians to learn another language and be able to confidently speak it than it is for Americans to speak Italian. Other than the vibrant immigrant culture that is within the United States where people grew up speaking multiple languages, typically many American kids aren’t even introduced to the idea of learning the very basics of another language until middle school. Even so, it’s not required to take more than a year or two of classes and usually the mechanics of it are soon forgotten. Additionally, every region in Italy has their own dialect that is usually quite different from the formal Italian language. Sometimes words and phrases for certain things can change if you were to drive 20 minutes in one direction vs. another. Southern dialects tend to have a more similar sound compared to Northern dialects which sound more alike in their own way as well. That being said, younger generations in general aren’t speaking in the dialect half as much in comparison to generations of the past, and this part of Italian culture is struggling to be kept alive in some ways.
All Italians are not in the mafia
This is probably the most detrimental stereotype that many Americans have of Italian people. Through perceptions in media through American movies like The Godfather and Goodfellas, and TV shows like The Sopranos, this idea is further engrained into the minds of many people in the US. The mafia and organized crime in general is still present mainly in the Southern regions of Italy and has destroyed countless lives and communities. The wide majority of Italian people are not affiliated with it whatsoever, and assuming that all or most Italian people are criminals only further harms everyone.