When Adriano Piazza opened Pronto Italian Deli, he imagined everything but learning a new food lexicon. A graduate of the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy, with a thesis on the opening of a slow fast food in the USA, Adriano Piazza has recently opened a place in San Clemente, California, which is a modern revisitation of the classic Italian deli, a combination of rotisserie, deli, restaurant, the Italian “tavola calda”, market of Italian gastronomic products and Italian beers and wines.
A deli with a restaurant mentality as he likes to say. Working at the deli, we love to sit down with guests in the same style as in an Italian “osteria”, tavern, recreating the atmosphere typical of the Bel Paese where the host is also a friend with whom to chat about life and love, between a plate of spaghetti and a glass of Chianti.
There are many Italian Americans and since we opened we are learning a new lexicon. Capocollo becomes gabagool, zucchini are gagootz (obvious offspring of the Sicilian cucuzza), prosciutto is prujoot, prozhoot or brosciutt’, and pasta e fagioli (pasta with kidney beans) becomes pastafazool.
The successors of early Italian immigrants to the USA have preserved dialectal words and also kept the original accent. One day a customer asked if we had spoygadell’. We appeared totally lost, so she changed word and said sfoojatell’, incredibly in the pronunciation of that word she kept a Neapolitan accent, although her Italian origin must have been quite distant, and we figured out she was asking for sfogliatelle.
If one is familiar with Neapolitan and Sicilian dialects it is much easier to understand such pidgin words. For example, eggplants are moolinjohn (from the Sicilian mulinciana), mozzarella is mootsarell’ or mootsadell’ and banelli are panelle. Manicotti become manigawt and soppressata is soopersahd or supersod, while in coffee one dunks bisgott’.
Some argue that truncating words by cutting off the final vowel could be explained as a desire to create a more English sound. It is more realistic, it is rather an Americanization due to listening to words with a strong Southern dialectal inflection. In fact, in Neapolitan dialect, the end vowel is barely pronounced, and to the ear that does not know the dialect it is almost inaudible so ricotta becomes ricott’ and mozzarella becomes mozzarell’.
A gentleman ordered some sauce and when asked about quantity, he answered with a Sicilian-American accent: “A guppin, capeesch?”, which for us Sicilians it is immediately recognizable as cuppino, that is ladle. When he was served, “asodida”, he said smiling, “you understand”. We have to admit that asodida was difficult but, thinking in dialect, it is easy to understand this term derives from the Neapolitan “a soreta”.
Italian-Americans use pidgin, a simplified language learned in the mostly Southern immigrant communities of the American North-East where it has been passed down the use of words which today have often disappeared from modern dialect. As, for example, the Sicilian buffetta, of clear French origin, to indicate the dining table, but also ammuccaturi, another Sicilian dialect term from the French mouchoir, handkerchief.
In relating with an Italian American clientele, it is of fundamental importance to understand these terms which derive from dialect and are based on the transposition of the sound into written word according to the rules of the English language (that is double “oo” which is read “u”, etc).
Cavatelli become gavadeel and onion, from Sicilian cipudda, is giboode, schoolabast is scolapasta (pasta drainer) and when an Italian American eats a lot wants to feel “panzajin”, that is with a full belly, a term that certainly derives from the Sicilian dialect where, for the same meaning, it is said “panza china” (read pahntza keenah), that is full belly.
With no exaggerations otherwise one risks to have “agita”, from the Sicilian “acitu”, that is acidity. For appetizer, says Adriano Piazza, we are asked “broshettas”. Avoiding to translate the term and instead imagining how it must be written in order to produce this sound, we understand it must be bruschetta (read broosketteh), while cannoli di ricotta become rigawt or rigott’ ganol or cannellonis.
The hardest word we have had to understand, although not really Italian American but American in general, is what it sounded like “gunotchi” to indicate “gnocchi”.
Free of linguistic changes is tiramisu which in English loses the accent but, differently from the traditional preparation, gains a large quantity of whipping cream in its composition. As a matter fact it is the same that happens to cannoli which are often filled with a cream that is made of ricotta and whipping cream and, sometimes, ricotta and mascarpone, marscapone, as it is often pronounced.
The funniest thing which has happened was caused not to an Italian American lexicon but to the influence of a big chain. During the first few days we were open, two customers asked a latte, said in Italian, and a macchiato, also an Italian word. We thought it was because they wanted to show their knowledge of some words in Italian, like those who say “gratzee” for grazie, thank you. Little did we know they were referring to the terms of the well-known coffee chain. So we put some milk, latte in Italian, in a glass and we served it. She looked at me with astonishment and she said: “That is not latte”. Oh yes, it is, we replied, of course, it is milk. In the meantime, we asked the second customer if she wanted a cold or hot macchiato, she said hot, ok, done. We put in front of her an Italian macchiato and she too was astonished. “That is not macchiato”, she said. Of course, it is.
It would have been a never-ending conversation if we had not understood that, after the spreading of Starbucks terminology, latte has the meaning of what in Italy is called caffelatte and Starbucks’ macchiato is an at least 150 ml drink, both often sugared with flavored syrups, and not what is intended in Italy where macchiato is an espresso “stained” (that is the meaning of the word macchiato) with milk foam”.
Many are the modifications of the words related to food, not of Italian American but simply American. For example, the word panini, used in the plural even though it refers to a single sandwich, which refers to a hot pressed sandwich. These differences have nothing to share with the terminology that has been forming in the Italian American enclaves of the Eastern United States which is still very common in New Jersey.
A definite contribution to the diffusion of these terms is due to The Sopranos Tv series broadcast between 1999 and 2007, where the protagonist’ comfort food is capocollo or, as Tony Soprano said, gabagool.
In an inverted process, the media diffusion of terms has contributed to creating curiosity and interest for the products in an environment outside of the original Italian American community.
A curiosity for products like rigott’, mootzarell’ and gabagool, which are authentic Italian gastronomic products and contribute to keeping alive old traditions.