Instant Italian

It’s a simple question really, but one your friendly bartender finds elusive. And of course amusing. So while you’re sitting there enjoying your Martini, dear reader, and trying as best you can to forget your day, ponder with me if you would this little imponderable. Do you mind? Good, now here’s our dilemma…

What is it about the word “calamari” that makes a regular Joe… a Joe not even close to a “Yo, Joey”… immediately go “Yo, Joey” when he orders that dish?  Do you know? Any ideas? For “tomato and mozzarella” doesn’t do it, “Margherita pizza” keeps him sane, but add a plate of calamari to the mix and your man is immediately an extra in a Martin Scorsese film. He’s Mambo Italiano from the Ravenite Club. Yet he belongs to the Yale Club.

Yes there’s something about the word “calamari” when spoken by a male in public, that transports his very soul to the set of The Sopranos. For no male, it appears, can say that word without accent. Or at least not this guy….

Neil: When you get a chance?

Me: Of course, Neil, sorry to keep you waiting. You wanted to order some bar food?

Neil: (In precise elocution at home in the halls of Ivy) Ah… yes, my good man, thank you very much. Okay, we’ll have an order of your chicken wings, blue cheese dressing on the side. Two shrimp cocktails, one for the lady and one for me (a smile and a wink at the lady). Hmmm, let’s see, what else? A small order of french fries and… oh, of course, how could I forget? (Cue the theme from The Godfather) And let us have an order of fried c-a-l-a-m-a-a-a-h-h-h-r. (accent obviously on the “m-a-a-a-h-h-h-r”, no “i” in sight)

What the fuck? Is that you, Neil, or did the spirit of Lucky Luciano just do a “walk-in”? While I was looking down at my pad just now and recording your request for “french fries”, did someone sneak in and make you a “made” man? What just happened here? Maybe I should have you repeat it to see if I’m dreaming.

Me: I’m sorry, Neil, what was that last part again? It’s a little noisy in here.

Neil: (music up, cue the don) C-a-l-a-m-a-a-a-h-h-h-r,  c-a-l-a-m-a-a-a-h-h-h-r!

Me: Oh, calama-re-e-e-e, calama-r-e-e-e-e! (accent, in my case, on “r-e-e-e-e” just to rub it in) But it made no difference.

Neil: Yeah, ca-l-a-m-a-a-a-h-h-h-r!

And as I walked to the kitchen to place the order I was sure I would hear, “Capish?”, or at least the distant strains of mandolins. Ciao, ciao, Bambino!

But what really is going on, dear reader, and what the hell is this thing about ordering calamari? I mean I’d like to compare it to that thing in the Eighties when “croissants” first hit the fast-food scene, when people who couldn’t do the Daily News crossword were  suddenly subjects in the court of Louis the Fourteenth. Remember?

“I’ll have a fresh craw-s-a-a-h-h-h-n-t,” they would say, mouths agape like  baby robins’, butchering their accents in cartoon fashion while sporting a coif that was piled as high as King Louis’s.  Yes I’d like to compare it to that Francophile mess but I can’t. This thing is different. This is gender specific. For women know how to say “calamari”… they add that final “i”… where men take care to avoid it to become “made men”.

Yet I do understand how “Italian” can be cool, even enviable in certain situations, and I certainly did as a fair haired boy back in Pittsburgh. Like in the summer when all my Italian friends were frolicking at poolside with tans, while I was hunkered down safely in the shade with enough zinc oxide on my nose to be spotted from the Space Shuttle. Or as an adult when I first hit the after hours clubs, blinded by white hi-boy collars and cuffs with glittering cuff links poking through them, owned by tutta-leone’s with a doll on each arm. Yes that, I admit, I thought was “cool” in a Dean Martin kind of way, but I never because of that fact tried to be that guy. Which brings us to the present.

If your friendly bartender was ever in a restaurant and pronounced the word  calamari as “c-a-l-a-m-a-a-a-h-h-h-r“, he’d fucking blush. And he’d be waiting for the Dialect Cops to roll in and bust him. “All right, pal, let’s go. You can’t just drop your vowels like that and get away with it. You have the right to remain silent, in fact we demand you remain silent til you get a hold of yourself.” And then off he’d go!

Oh well, no sense in beating this to death, dear reader, I guess this is one of those things we’ll have to put up with… men seeking Tony Soprano in a bowl of squid. Like those assholes who seek Noel Coward in the word “mah-ve-lous”. Or those jerks who seek Jerry Seinfeld in, “Do the math”. Or those full-blown fucking idiots who… woops… I’m sorry, you have an empty glass there. Would you like another Martini? What’s that? You’d much rather have a cup of cappu-c-h-e-e-e-n?

Over and out from Sorrento… see ya’ next week-end.

27 Responses to “Instant Italian”

  1. 1 JSaw October 10, 2009 at 9:02 pm

    Oh man! What a pleasure to come back to this after a week in Orlando! Thanks Scrib — am reading this out loud to friends right now.

  2. 2 scribbler50 October 10, 2009 at 9:53 pm

    Thank you, JSaw, and be sure to do this thing justice. Breathe from the diaphragm and speak to the back row.
    Welcome back.

  3. 3 Donna B. October 11, 2009 at 4:29 am

    Don’t worry, we southerners have picked up all the dropped vowels and put them to good use.

  4. 4 scribbler50 October 11, 2009 at 7:26 am

    Donna B: Now that’s what I call recycling!

  5. 5 Anonymoustache October 11, 2009 at 7:59 am

    I’ll have the battered fried moh-tzaah-rehll-uh with a glass of your finest chee-aahhn-tay.
    And could you please change the music and put on something nice, like maybe Dino singing Vo-laar….hahaha…
    Grazi, paisan.

  6. 6 scribbler50 October 11, 2009 at 8:40 am

    Prego, prego, Anonymoustachio, prego!

  7. 7 Comrade PhysioProf October 11, 2009 at 11:18 am

    Gimmee an order a’ tomayto mootz!

  8. 8 physiobabe October 11, 2009 at 11:19 am

    Late morning for me Scrib, bad night (or good, depends on how you look at it).

    As an Eye-talian, love the post. I’ve always been partial to rick-cotta.

  9. 9 scribbler50 October 11, 2009 at 11:49 am

    Physioprof: Well, said, Tony, now check your gun at the door!

    Physiobabe: Now if you can also cook “Eye-talian”, you’re the whole package. Hope you enjoyed your bad (good) night. 🙂

  10. 10 Scicurious October 11, 2009 at 1:48 pm

    Ok, I’ve never heard the “calamaarrrrrrrr” thing. But I DID have a guy who used to come into the coffeeshop I worked in asking for a “cappucheen”. He was not Italian, unless having a Roman nose makes you automatically a member. We teased him unmercifully. You don’t get away with such things in coffeeshops full of snarky indie chicks.

  11. 11 scribbler50 October 11, 2009 at 3:38 pm

    Scicurious: And good for the “indie chicks”, he should’ve been nailed “roman nose” or not. But in a nice way of course. I don’t know what it is all of a sudden but everybody wants to be Italian.
    Til next week… Ciao!

  12. 12 Stephanie Z October 11, 2009 at 9:16 pm

    Come visit Minneapolis, Scribbler, when you need a break from it. Nobody here thinks they know the first thing about speaking Italian. Except the Italians, and they don’t advertise.

  13. 13 scribbler50 October 11, 2009 at 11:45 pm

    Hah! I’m sure they don’t advertise, Stephanie, no surprise there. And hey, I may just come to Minneapolis some day when I have to, as the wise guys say, “go on the lam”.
    Glad you stopped by.

  14. 14 Jennifer October 12, 2009 at 8:54 am

    Very funny, however, I can say that Grizzled and I were in an Italian restaurant yesterday with G. ordering calamari and he’s even half Italian and yet he did not sound like he had just stepped out off the set of The Sopranos or The Godfather.

    However… having gotten that out of the way, what to pack, the gun or the cannoli, did come up on Saturday…

  15. 15 d-a-p October 12, 2009 at 10:08 am

    this is one of your best..really laugh out loud…thank god i don’t even like squid…tony soprano would have enjoyed this one…
    all the best..

  16. 16 scribbler50 October 12, 2009 at 10:12 am

    Jennifer: Very funny back at ya’.
    And you make my point, my friend. Even as only a half-Italian Grizzled had the right to give it that old Italiano spin, yet he didn’t. It’s the totally non-Italians… the wannabe’s… those Neil’s and Brian’s of this world who go nuts with this thing.

    And for what it’s worth, I say pack the gun AND the cannoli. One never knows!

  17. 17 scribbler50 October 12, 2009 at 11:36 am

    d-a-p: Thanks, old buddy, but knowing you as I do… even if you did like this thing called squid you’d pronounce the dish using all four of its syllables. I’m just sayin’, gumba!

  18. 18 serendipity37 October 12, 2009 at 11:54 am

    My husband goes into an Italian dialect when we play Mexican Train Dominoes. I know, makes no sense,he should be doing Freddie Fender. I asked him once if Louie Prima was channeling through him.

  19. 19 scribbler50 October 12, 2009 at 12:25 pm

    serendipity37: Now that’s a head scratcher. But if he sounds even close to the great Louis Prima, that’s a game of dominoes I could sit in on. I absolutely loved those Louis Prima / Keely Smith albums.

  20. 20 Kewalo October 12, 2009 at 1:35 pm

    It is all your fault I hurt the feelings of the NFL watcher in my household. After reading your column yesterday I turned and asked him what was the Italian word for squid. And he said c-a-l-a-m-a-a-a-h-h-h-r. He did say the “i” but by the time he got to it I was rolling on the floor in hysteria. And I have to admit that the hurt look on his face then put me in stitches. Naturally then I had to read the column to him. I’m not so sure he thought it was as funny as I do.

    Honest to God, I was still chuckling this morning when I thought about it. Thanks so much for the good laugh.

  21. 21 scribbler50 October 12, 2009 at 1:44 pm

    Kewalo: And thank YOU for telling me that. That’s hysterical, man, I’ll gladly take the blame!

  22. 22 Ken October 12, 2009 at 7:26 pm


    Real Italians pronounce it “cal-ah-mar-e”. I know this because I live in a heavily Italo-American community with many, many fine dining establishments.

    I also know this because I married an Italian girl, the daughter of Luigi and Maria, who immigrated here in 1948 and 1937, respectively.

    Anybody who asked Maria to pass the “calamarrr” would be looked at like they had two heads.

    BTW: What was it about Tony Soprano and company that made them so irresistable to soft, middle-aged white guys?

  23. 23 scribbler50 October 12, 2009 at 8:35 pm

    Ken: Who am I to argue with Luigi and Maria? I’m sure the added “e” is correct which is precisely why these guys I’ve described have “two heads”. They say “m-a-a-a-h-h-h-r” like they think it’s supposed to be said by the (so-called) tough guys. They heard it somewhere. Perhaps it was Stallone’s Rocky or Cher’s portrayal in Moonstruck… cartoon versions of a real Italian accent… that put them on this road to grunt and “Yo”.

    And as to your “BTW”, I’m no sociologist so what the hell do I know except that movie gangsters have always been secretly admired by soft-bellied white guys (lean white guys too), all the way back to Bogart and James Cagney. And this James Gandolfini (to me the real item) was no cartoon in doing Tony Soprano. He was brilliant in that role and so I guess guys probably thought (like the fans of Bogart and Cagney), “Damn that guy is cool, I’ll act like that!”

    Plus, there’s the identification factor. James Gandolfini in real life is actually bald and fat, yet a hell of a lot of women find him sexy. So perhaps your soft-bellied white guys think, “Shit, if I act like Tony who cares that I’m bald and fat?”

    Hey, thanks for the Italian lesson, Ken, you’ve shed some light!

  24. 24 Peter VE October 13, 2009 at 9:53 am

    I have to disagree with Ken. “Real Italians” are in constant dispute as to what constitutes a real Italian. Pretty much, real Italians think that the only real Italians are those from their city/region/town, and the rest are imitations. Following from that, Italian pronunciation varies from region to region. In Torino, where the Italian state was constructed, it’s pronounced “cal-ah-marr-i” with a rolling “r”. I speak Torinese Italian well enough to have a Roman ask me if I’m from Torino ( my wife Chiara is Torinese), but I often have to ask Romans to repeat what they said before I can understand it. Regardless, Gandolfini is a brilliant actor, and I’ll have a Manhattan on the rocks.

  25. 25 scribbler50 October 13, 2009 at 10:32 am

    Peter VE: Being an Irish guy originally from Pittsburgh, I’m staying out of this one. But a co-worker of mine who’s been out sick whom I’ve written about in the past… 85 year-old Tony the walking malaprop… is from Torino and speaks it fluently so when he gets back, just for the hell of it, I’ll get his take on it. He may butcher the English but he damn sure knows Italian.
    In the meantime, Pete, I’ve poured you a Manhattan on the rocks and I made it with Maker’s Mark. I hope that works for you.

  26. 26 Toaster October 14, 2009 at 2:43 pm

    Down where I come from calamari is usually pronounced “caylamahri” and confused for crawfish.

    Coming here reminds me that it’s been too long since I’ve drank anything but tea and water. I think it’s time for a neat whiskey.

  27. 27 scribbler50 October 14, 2009 at 3:30 pm

    Name your brand, Toaster, we’ve missed you.

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