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Only Italians Will Understand This

Identity in an age of viral caricature
A grid of six photos, counterclock wise from upper left: a cross section of a sandwich, a man pointing at the camera, a slice of pizza, a man in sunglasses, a cross section of a sandwich, a long-haired man holding a sandwich.

From their perch in Brooklyn, Sabino Curcio and Rocco Loguercio have become something like unofficial arbiters of Italian culture online. As the hosts of the podcast Growing Up Italian, which boasts a huge online following, as well as a robust array of merchandise, the cousins—along with their occasional cohost, Sabino’s sister Michela—have made a name for themselves discussing the finer points of cannoli, cornicellos, The Sopranos, as well as the correct pronunciation of gabagool.

But Curcio and Loguercio are not alone; they spring from a sprawling ecosystem of online content creators whose fame came from acting the part of the stereotypical Italian. There’s Big Joe Gambino, Cugine, Lil Mo Mozzarella, Big Time Tommie, Numba1Guido, and QCP, among others. Largely based in New York City, you can find them hanging around pizzerias and panini shops, shouting their catch phrases, smoking cigars, pinching their fingers, cooking, and, of course, eating.

In a world tipping towards monoculture, it’s not hard to understand the nostalgic appeal of regional accents, local food, and traditions. But when exaggerated to the point of caricature, Italian American culture becomes little more than engagement bait. While Italian Americans have long been generally integrated in the United States, the internet cannot resist the cultural cachet—and hearty follower counts—that comes with emphasizing difference.

The notion of a unified Italian culture in America is something of a recent invention. The primary waves of Italian migration into the United States took place from the late 1800s until the 1920s, while the process of Italy’s unification as a single country was still ongoing. Arriving in the United States, immigrants from different parts of the peninsula spoke distinct dialects and identified with particular regions, which ethnic enclaves in New York like East Harlem and the area around Mulberry Street (now known as Little Italy) often reproduced, each with their own exclusive mutual aid and fraternal groups. Southern Italians, Sicilians especially, were viewed as lesser than northerners, and faced discrimination even in Italy.

On Instagram and TikTok, Italian culture, as with everything else, gets flattened to the lowest common denominator.

For many, the first experience of a shared Italian identity was facilitated by the experience of prejudice in the States, where Italians were viewed as one homogenous ethnic group, as evidenced by the Census in the early twentieth century, which clumped numerous identities under one nationality. Immigration quotas enacted in 1921 and 1924, as well as subsequent anti-immigration legislation, further dissolved differences as new immigration slowed.

A more unified Italian American identity began to form as regional identification waned and Italian Americans asserted a claim for their full integration. Historian Danielle Battisti writes in Whom We Shall Welcome: Italian Americans and Immigration Reform, 1945-1965 that Columbus Day is just one example of Italian American revisionism in support of their claim to integration after World War II. In this case, Columbus was recast as the first immigrant to the Americas, which therefore meant that Italians were as American as any protestant. Battisti continues, “But in framing the Italian immigrant experience in this light, Italian Americans did not use Columbus Day to advance appeals for universal immigrant equality . . . They merely asserted Italian access to the pantheon of ‘desirable’ immigrant groups.”

In the time leading up to the Civil Rights Movement, many Italian Americans dispersed into the suburbs and joined the white-collar workforce. As subsequent generations rose in economic stature, attention turned from economic integration toward combating misrepresentation in the media. Groups like the Italian American Civil Rights League protested films, TV shows, and even commercials that encouraged Italians’ association with organized crime (even if some, such as the League led by Joe Colombo, were themselves directly associated with organized crime). Colombo, for instance, was successful in striking the words “mafia” and “cosa nostra” from the script of The Godfather. In the early 2000s, the Order Sons of Italy in America and the National Italian American Foundation protested The Sopranos, with the latter unsuccessfully demanding that HBO include a disclaimer before every episode that said it was “not representative of the 25 million Americans of Italian heritage.”

Consistent across these organized efforts to counteract stereotypes was the idea of a collective Italian identity. But now, those same stereotypes are often embraced on the internet.

In 1979, sociologist Herbert Gans coined the term “symbolic ethnicity” to describe the way that third- and fourth-generation ethnic groups relate to ethnic identity in the absence of direct experience with their familial country of origin or affiliations of necessity. “As the functions of ethnic cultures and groups diminish and identity becomes the primary way of being ethnic,” Gans wrote, “ethnicity takes on an expressive rather than instrumental function in people’s lives, becoming more of a leisure-time activity and losing its relevance, say, to earning a living or regulating family life.” Contrary to the myth of American assimilation, he observed how ethnic identification persisted even in suburban areas through “a nostalgic allegiance to the culture of the immigrant generation, or that of the old country; a love for and a pride in a tradition that can be felt without having to be incorporated in everyday behavior.”

Today, as Italian Americans continue marrying non-Italians, and membership in ethnic/fraternal organizations has declined, social media often facilitates the performance of a shared identity. But on Instagram and TikTok, Italian culture, as with everything else, gets flattened to the lowest common denominator; in this case, stock catchphrases and references to TV shows like Jersey Shore and Growing Up Gotti. Caricature becomes a shortcut to virality.

Take Lil Mo Mozzarella, who has over five hundred thousand followers on TikTok and a website offering an astonishingly wide variety of branded coffee cups and T-shirts, many of which threaten violence with loaves of semolina. Decked out in a Sergio Tacchini tracksuit, Lil Mo’s videos feature him stopping by local Italian spots in New York, loudly announcing, “Nobody moves, nobody gets hurt,” and then commencing to wolf down food while dragging out his vowels as long as possible. On an episode of Growing Up Italian, he recounts how he began his journey to niche internet fame after learning the decidedly non-Italian Bostonian and Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy fancied himself an authority on pizza.

Or consider Cugine, who has racked up over 2.4 million followers on TikTok for peppering his cooking videos with a healthy sprinkling of “how ya doin’” and one-liners about “ya sister.” Explaining his rise to the New York Post, he notes, “I don’t know why I did it, but I was talking like a gavone, and people liked it. So I ran with it.”

Some of these online personalities are associated with New York businesses keen to attract online attention. TikToker Anthony Demonte’s family owns Defonte’s Sandwich Shop in Red Hook, Brooklyn, which is frequently featured on his account alongside videos of him making his own decadent paninis, mostly made up of familiar ingredients: prosciutto, olive oil, tomatoes (from the garden), chicken cutlet, mozzarella. Growing Up Italian’s Sabino is of Anthony and Son Panini Shoppe in Williamsburg, which recently undertook a huge brand refresh to appeal to a younger, richer clientele in pursuit of “authenticity.” Their new logo of a boy driving a sandwich is done in a style meant to evoke a time well before 1994, when the shop opened. They’ve also unveiled a line of merch that includes Croc charms and a rolling tray. Sandwiches featured on their Instagram appear as dramatic cross sections of cured meats and melted mozzarella sandwiched between a hero. Customers are all too happy to replicate these images on their own feeds.

What it “means” to be Italian becomes increasingly meaningless, as participants grasp for broader and broader potential for identification. Things that are perceived as authentic, whether it be the Roast Beast Special at Anthony and Son’s or a line from Goodfellas, become the raw material of a semi-ironic performance put on by influencers. Repeated ad nauseum, these already familiar phrases and foods begin to stand in for the culture at large, making Italianness easier to recognize—and easier to sell.

Lowest common denominator identity-based content has been a staple of the internet since at least the Buzzfeed days of 21 Things That Every Bengali Is Terrified Of. Today, content about the experiences of different immigrant groups abounds. However superficial, it can produce a sense of camaraderie over what could feel like an isolated position within American society.

What does it mean to be Italian in an age of viral hyperbole and caricature?

The difference for Italian Americans is that the stakes are much lower. In the process of integration, it was often strategic for Italian Americans to hide their ethnicity to avoid typecasting (see: Tony Bennett, born Anthony Benedetto), but those negative connotations no longer hinder Italians, and in fact may now be an asset in some contexts. They can selectively draw attention to ways in which they differ from other white people, while never quite giving up the privileges of being white themselves. Aware of ethnic content that resonates online, Italian American influencers are encouraged to mine stories of their own persecution, emphasizing this as something essential to their experience.

On Growing Up Italian, guests recall being made fun of for eating exotic foods like salami or Nutella for lunch in school. QCP complains about being called “meatball” on the school bus for having an Italian first name. Conversely, Danielle Bregoli, AKA Bhad Bhabie of Dr. Phil fame, asserts that her Italian heritage proves that she’s not just a “backyard honky tonk white bitch” like people think, turning her misidentification as non-Italian into a slight. Among some Italian Americans, there’s perhaps still a generational memory of a time when Italian people were not accepted as part of American culture, encouraging knee-jerk resentment that can make for good fodder for content.

Meme pages such as Hardcore Italians, which has more than five hundred fifty thousand Instagram followers, embodies the indiscretion of this approach. Much of the content is par for the course: jokes about getting hit with a wooden spoon, videos of Italians losing their temper, and references to dads watering the driveway. But the stereotypes aren’t entirely harmless. Replicating the gender roles of a mob movie, most of the male characters featured in Hardcore Italian memes are either stubborn old men or hypermasculine goombahs, and when women appear, they’re either wise nonnas sharing how to make pasta or are temperamental grudge-holders (these memes are often accompanied by a picture of Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny). In addition to selling shirts that say things like “Sundays are for Sauce,” Hardcore Italians hints at a reactionary politics: they also sell stickers that appear to be a riff on a thin blue line flag with the Italian colors and an Italian variation on the punisher logo.

An account run by Hardcore Italians called stopantiitalianism details examples perceived discrimination in the present. One post about Trump’s “Meatball Ron” nickname for Ron DeSantis reads, defensively, that “meatballs are a staple in Italian cuisine, beloved by Italian Americans. However, using them derogatorily can be offensive and perpetuate negative stereotypes.” Another labels New York City councilmember Chi Ossé as having anti-Italian bias after a New York Daily News article accused Ossé of discriminating against a contracting company because of their last name. Meanwhile, another account in the Hardcore Italians portfolio, Mafia Chronicles, trades in exactly the stereotypical portrayal of Italians that stopantiitalianism rails against—to much greater success.

So what does it mean to be Italian in an age of viral hyperbole and caricature? If the short history of Italian Americans in the United States is any indication, that’s subject to change; over the years, traditions have been rewritten, heritage has been selectively deployed as necessary, and media has both distorted and influenced cultural practices. For now, the best use for that identity might just be selling T-shirts.