Growing up as an Italian American in New York puts a lot of pressure on a kid. You're not allowed to say mozzarella unless you pronounce it mutsa-dell. Your mother sequesters herself in the kitchen all Sunday morning making meatballs and "gravy" for the two o'clock family dinner, presumably scheduled to perpetuate the rumor that your household has remained faithful to Italy's time zone. God forbid you don't make the sign of the cross when you drive past a church -- even if you never actually enter such a building. And removing the stereotypical red horn pendant hanging from your car's rearview mirror? Fuhgedaboudit.
New York, like the rest of our vast country, is a melting pot. Occasionally, though, its flame isn't on quite so high. Culturally homogenous areas like Little Italy helped preserve a sense of community and slow the assimilation of immigrants into the broader American culture. But it also allowed the formation of a new set of cultures -- rituals, foods, language, and a sense of identity that, come to find out, has more to do with Little Italy than the real Italy.
My world crumbled when I found out that you can't order marinara sauce on your pasta in Italy -- even if you pronounce it mad-e-nada like I did at home. Those real Italians call it pomodoro. And the more time you spend in Italy, the more you realize that so many of the icons we Americans associate with Italian culture have nothing to do with the old country. We think of Tony Soprano when we should be thinking of Dante or da Vinci; those Jersey Shore idiots instead of Michelangelo and Ennio Morricone.
Worse, we think Cadillacs and Lincolns instead of Fiats and Piaggios. Of the twenty best-selling cars in Italy, none is bigger than a Volkswagen Golf. If Tony Soprano, or even Luigi down the block, were really Italian, he'd be driving a Fiat Punto. So what will Italian Americans think of Italy's fourth-best-selling car, the Fiat 500, when it arrives this spring? We took the little Italian to Little Italy to find out.