Last month, a lady in Chicago walking past the trendy food emporium Eataly spotted a poster she found to be sexist: “Bring Home an Italian. Great Legs, Better Body.” The cutesy ad was only for wine but the spotter, Brittany Pape, wrote to Eataly that the ad was “tone deaf” considering the sexual misconduct scandal then swirling around Eataly partner Mario Batali.
For those not familiar with the Eataly chain, it was founded in Italy in 2007 to market Italian food products. Media chefs like Mario Batali and Lidia Bastianich became partners in the venture which now has stores in Manhattan, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Every Italian food product under the sun is sold or served up in mini-deli/cafeterias under its roof. Prices, as you can imagine, are as upscale as the products.
Brittany Pape’s complaint to Eataly somehow reached the Chicago Tribune and a reporter contacted her as well as Eataly’s PR chief Sara Massarotta. In no time, this tempest in a teapot grew to an investigative report by the Tribune after they noticed another sidewalk poster urging customers to “Bring Home an Italian Worth the Smell.” The product this time was truffles.
The Tribune reporter smelled a controversy and contacted our Chicago representative Bill Dal Cerro and an associate of the Italic Institute Lou Rago, who has his own Italian American non-profit. Both were asked if they considered the posters offensive – clearly, the reporter himself saw a double meaning in the phrasing of the posters. Both said yes.
The easiest way to determine if something is offensive is to substitute another ethnic group for Italians. For example,“Bring Home a Jew Worth the Smell.” suddenly becomes less amusing and more problematic. Substitute “an African” or “an Indian,” and it only gets worse.
But this story becomes more interesting.
Sara Massarotto, the Eataly PR person, is an Italian native now living in New York City. She was hired by Eataly in 2016 and brags that “being a communicator is part of my core DNA.” (If she created or approved these posters she may unknowingly have some Don Rickles genes as well!) With the Chicago Tribune on her back, Massarotto went into crisis mode – interoffice emails flew around Eataly concluding that Brittany Pape’s complaint would go unanswered and the posters would remain up.
Unfortunately, these internal emails were accidently copied to Brittany Pape who forwarded them to the Tribune. Now, a second Tribune article hit the newsstands. Massarotto and Eataly were exposed as not only defamers of Italians but as internet oafs. Immediately, all the posters came down.
What can we learn from all this?
Despite the Tribune stories, Eataly only suffered two days of embarrassing press – no boycotts, no public outcry, and no apologies. Frankly, the entire episode was stage-managed by the Chicago Tribune, rather than any Italian American organization. We certainly have bigger fish to fry in the negative image department.
The media has always treated our complaints as over-reactive or overly sensitive, be they outcries about The Godfather, The Sopranos, or sitcom stereotypes. Unlike more organized ethnic groups we can never manipulate the press nor gain its sympathy.
Our reality is that the sun will come up tomorrow and the Italian image will be exploited by some corporation or filmmaker for fun and profit. -JLM