Last January, I reported in a blog titled The Joke that Backfired an incident in the Chicago branch of the Eataly food emporium chain. A questionable window poster advertising “Bring Home an Italian Worth the Smell” became a news item in the Chicago Tribune. Our Chicago associate Louis Rago called the local Eataly manager to insist that the poster be removed and that the chain apologize via a Tribune ad. However, his calls, and others, went unacknowledged. That’s when Rago asked me to help get through to Eataly’s headquarters in New York.
I wrote to Lidia Bastianich, celebrity chef and co-owner of Eataly, advising her of the flap and how “fellow Italians” were refusing to talk with us. Although she never wrote me back she took my letter to heart and made overtures to other Italian American organizations – organizations that were not involved, had not written her, or even knew of the Chicago posters.
Last week, Louis Rago gave me a 20-minute synopsis of the results of Lidia’s end-run. Lidia actually flew out to Chicago for a conclave with the prominenti of our community in Chicago. Lou Rago was invited as an afterthought by the prominenti (not Lidia directly). As for me, the letterwriter, I wasn’t invited at all.
Lidia’s strategy was to tap into the power brokers of our multi-layered community – that level of gala planners situated between Hollywood celebrities and those of us without expense accounts – to wine and dine them at Chicago’s Eataly and let them calm Rago down. Rago reluctantly attended the pranzo but couldn’t bring himself to let Lidia off the hook, even for a free meal and an autographed copy of her new book.
Suffice it to say, Lidia wasn’t going to publicly apologize for the posters or fire the lady who created them and later stonewalled our community. What she wanted was validation from our prominenti that Rago and the Italic Institute were just outliers in a docile community.
In my original letter to Lidia, I stated that the Italic Institute was not looking for donations as penance but rather her support on important issues like Columbus Day and discrimination at La Casa Italiana at Columbia University. Her name might open doors. If there is one thing that is lacking in our so-called community it is celebrity power.
The major organizations have yet to recruit celebrities in the anti-defamation fight or even in defense of Columbus Day. They are content to invite politicians and celebrities to galas to spur ticket sales and photo-ops, but never seem to inspire them to come out of their cocoons on issues of importance.
When I write of levels within our community my point is that there are multiple missions and mixed messages. For instance, do you know there is a Conference of Presidents of the Major Italian American Organizations? Modeled on the Jewish umbrella organization which wields real power, our version can’t stray too far from the live-and-let-live philosophy of its members.
There is also a layer of monarchists called the American Foundation of Savoy Orders. Predominantly Italic, the Foundation hosts a Chivalry Awards gala. (Institute associate and Grande Ufficiale Joseph Sciame is the Board President.) It would be nice if the news media spotlighted this side of us. But even this noble aspect was parodied in Coppola’s Vatican “knighthood” for Michael Corleone in Godfather III.)
Between our upper and lower crusts sit the Italian Studies academics – language teachers who lovingly spread our culture as well as those self-absorbed professors who play their fiddles while we burn. Buried near the bottom are the yeomen organizations – the cash-strapped cultural centers, the filial lodges who keep italianita` alive, and our Italic Institute which tries to make sense of it all and produces the tools to preserve and defend a priceless heritage.
I wish we could all work on the same level. -JLM