Sicilian Culture

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(February 28, 2001)

The Washington Times

'Sopranos Mob Scene' - - NIAF Not Amused
By Jennifer Harper

On a tide of ziti with red sauce, the third season of HBO's "The Sopranos" begins Sunday - a clarion call to would-be goombahs who relish the gutsy pathos, the quirks, the very New Jerseyism of it all.  

Fans will celebrate with Soprano-theme parties and on-line chats. They will wear official " Mafia -style" bowling shirts and visit old film locations of the show, which has won a whole Cadillac full of Emmys and Golden Globes.   Not everyone is a fan, however.

For the third year in a row, the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF) is fed up with the show's portrayal of " Italian Americans as an undereducated people who are either criminals or in blue-collar jobs," said chairman Frank Guarini, a former New Jersey congressman.

"The characters bear no resemblance to the average Italian American , who is a law-abiding citizen working in a white-collar position," he added. "Sopranos" creators have gone to great pains to ensure the visceral quality of the show, shot throughout northern New Jersey and teeming with local extras. Last spring, 14,000 hopefuls showed up for an open casting call, which called for "Italian looking" people. Fearing a riot, police shut it down.

This year, the NIAF has gone to statistics to support its case. Among other things, the foundation found that Italian Americans made up only 5 percent of the fugitives on the FBI's Most Wanted List in the last 50 years. "No Italian Americans are currently on the list," Mr. Guarini said.  

The group also found that two-thirds of Italian Americans are employed in "white-collar positions," according to Census Bureau classifications.  Mr. Guarini also cited a study from the New York-based Italic Studies Institute, which reviewed 1,078 films to find that almost three-quarters portrayed Italians in a "negative light."

"Thirty-three percent were boors, bigots or bimbos," he said. "Characters involved in organized crime accounted for 40 percent. But of the films Hollywood has made of Italian American criminals, only 14 percent were based on the lives of actual people. The remaining 86 percent of the films featured entirely fictional characters."

The pull of "Sopranos" culture remains strong. New Jersey itself seems to  embrace the show; New Jersey Online, the state's busiest Web site, features a glitzy "Soprano Spotlight" and will offer a post- show "live chat" on Sunday.

Other fan Web sites sell " Mafia -style" bowling shirts, ashtrays from the fictional "Bada-Bing" club and promote local celebrations, like a "Premiere Gathering at Mae's Pub in Clifton." Another Web site is a shrine to "Mobster family" food, complete with photos of pastas and semiautomatics.  Which gives others pause.

"In both the best and worst sense, food is a part of portrayals of Italian - American life," said John Mariani, who wrote "The Italian - American Cookbook" and saw fit to include a page of famous film scenes of the ethnic goodies.  "There's the despicable aspect of these depictions, too," Mr. Mariani said."A lot of Americans see us nice `Eye-talians' as goombahs with red spaghetti sauce all over our faces. In that context, it's not an attractive thing. And it puts Italian - American food in a rut."


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