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  • Italy 101 with Professor Tony Soprano
    You might be shocked to discover that The Sopranos can teach you a thing or two about the Boot
    Our Paesani

    by Francesca Di Meglio

    I have a confession to make, and it's a big one. You might want to sit down. My name is Francesca Di Meglio. I'm an Italian American reporter from northern New Jersey, and I'm a big, huge, super fan of HBO's The Sopranos. That's not all. I also happen to think that, in his own way, Sopranos creator David Chase has a similar mission to my own: to bring Americans - especially those with an Italian heritage - in touch with Italy, not just my beautifully gritty and wonderfully zany New Jersey.

    Liberated, I know unleashing this demon secret was the right thing to do. When The Sopranos final season debuts - ironically on Easter Sunday when most Italians will be celebrating the resurrection of Christ and the victory of good over evil - many Italian Americans will be turning off their TV in protest of the show as they have done since its inception eight seasons ago. A writer for numerous Italian American publications, I have received countless pleas from Italian American organizations and coalitions urging me to quit watching The Sopranos, arguably one of the best dramas on television, a veritable work of art that is created, run, and played out almost exclusively by fellow Italian Americans (many of whom come from my home state of New Jersey or at least the tri-state area).

    In fact, many groups have encouraged me to stand firm in print against such programs and actors who take on roles that re-enforce stereotypes of Italians as Mafiosi. As a writer, I simply can not do that. Chase might very well be a genius - and he is on our side despite what these Italian American activists think. I'm not in the mafia. No one in my family is in the mafia. And very few Italian Americans today have links to organized crime. But Americans are fascinated by the mafia lifestyle, and Chase uses it as a vehicle to teach us a thing or two about Italian heritage.

    Chase went so far as bringing the audience directly to the mother ship, Italy. Tony and the crew spent time in Napoli in an episode that gave viewers a rare glimpse of Italy's underbelly, something Italian Americans would rather forget but something they'd be wise to admit. There's a reason many of us left southern Italy. As beautiful as it is, the south faces a slew of problems that include corruption, poverty, and crime families. We wanted a better life, and many of us made one living honestly and decently in other parts of the world. But to truly stay in touch with our homeland, to truly make a difference, we must go home again and face southern Italy's reality. Things are not perfect there even if tourism is up.

    The Sopranos forced us to see the truth. They gave us Furio and a look at Naples' beauty and beast. Now, we can decide for ourselves if we have the courage to do something about the problems in Italy. At the very least, we're aware of the fact that the homeland is not all Tuscan sun and good food with some vino.

    Of course, just as the show has shown us the good and the bad in its characters and the good and the bad in ourselves, it showed us the good and the bad of Italy. Among the good was the country's music. Songs by Italian stars such as Jovanotti and Madreblu have appeared in the show. You might have heard the voice of opera singer Cecilia Bartoli. Even Antonio Vivaldi has found himself on a Sopranos compilation CD.

    In one of the first episodes I remember watching, Paulie Walnuts gets up in arms at a Starbucks-like coffee bar that usurped a bit of Italian culture by selling really expensive espresso pots. The dialogue was meant as levity, however, it made a clear case for "made in Italy" products, many of which feel slighted in the United States. Early in the show's history, there were more than a few episodes where the family gathered around the table on Sunday; Carmela made lasagna and meatballs, some of the few truly authentic southern Italian dishes that Americans know. Tony introduced the world to capicola, and Artie most recently cooked us a rabbit (that he shot himself), which is a dish most famous in Ischia, the small Neapolitan island that is the home of my ancestors.

    To be truly authentic, the show's characters had to throw in a few words of the bastardized Italian American version of the Neapolitan dialect. Frankly, the words are part of the vernacular, especially for Italian kids from Jersey. What does this have to do with Italy? Not much because the Neapolitan dialect has changed since Tony's ancestors made their way to America. However, Italians, especially in southern Italy, find it delightful when Italian Americans travel to Italy and try to speak in dialect. They don't understand what we're saying, but they appreciate our effort. Our words bare some resemblance to their own, after all. For Chase, doing things like naming Tony's boat “Stugots” is like sharing an inside joke with Italian America - and paying homage to Napoli and its slang.

    Italians in Italy can see The Sopranos in all its glory. They don't understand all of the Italian American dialect, and it's received mixed reviews. Some love it. Some hate it. Some just don't get it. My boyfriend Antonio, who has lived in Ischia all of his life, recently watched it in the United States, and he started to get interested. Now, he wants me to fill him in on the last season before it airs in Italy. Because he's been to New Jersey and New York, he feels a sense of nostalgia as Tony drives past northern New Jersey's local symbols with the New York skyline in the distance at the start of every episode.

    One of the reasons The Sopranos captivated me was because Chase comes from the same places as I do - Napoli and northern N.J. And he makes those places as much a character in the show as Tony himself. He realizes that to love a place - as to love a person - you must love it both for its perfection and its flaws. We come from two perfectly flawed places. Chase gets that. So do I. How about you?

    For more information on Di Meglio, visit www.francescadimeglio.com

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