Why Are Americans So Obsessed With Italian Culture?

From delicious food to picturesque landscapes to pop culture ubiquity, Italian culture makes Americans say: ‘That’s amore!’

It’s Friday night and you’ve decided to stay in (we don’t blame you). You order spaghetti bolognese for delivery from a local restaurant. You pour yourself a generous glass of Chianti and pull up an episode of The Sopranos. Or maybe you want something a little less stressful after your long work week. Under the Tuscan Sun should do the trick. Mid-movie, your mind starts racing: The scenery is sooo pretty! I should move to Italy. Or at least plan a trip. Look at those views! I should probably just book my flight now…

This scenario is, admittedly, a bit embellished, but it serves to illustrate some of the many ways Italian culture influences our lives and our most whimsical desires. Its sway is so ingrained in our everyday lives, we may not even notice it. But it’s there. Let’s examine the ways in which Americans are obsessed with Italy and its culture, and how these infatuations came to be.

Immigration And Heritage: It’s In Our Blood

Little Italy

Perhaps the most obvious reason for our attachment to Italian culture is that Italians are all around us. They’re our neighbors, our friends, our relatives —
and sometimes even ourselves. According to the Census Bureau, there are approximately 17 million people of Italian ancestry living in the United States. That’s thanks to our country’s rich history of immigration.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Italians came to the United States in a wave known as “New Immigration,” which saw a surge in the arrival of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe and from Asia. The primary impetus for this large-scale immigration was widespread poverty across Italy, which left many Italians eager for a chance at prosperity. Diseases and natural disasters, as well as a government not equipped to handle them, drove many Italians to flee to the United States.

Many of those Italian immigrants had children, and those children had their own children, and so on. Now, there are a large number of Americans with Italian heritage, which means there are a lot of people celebrating Italian culture (and running Italian restaurants).

The Ultimate Comfort Food

Speaking of restaurants, the part of Italian culture Americans probably love most is the food. One survey found that when dining out, more than one in five Americans preferred Italian food, putting it in second place behind “American” food. And approximately one-eighth of U.S. restaurants serve Italian food.

When the mass Italian migration began in the late 1800s, eating Italian food if you weren’t Italian was considered “slumming it.” This was probably because the Italian immigrants were poor, and people were less likely to pay good money for something if they saw a lot of poor people eating it. In addition, pseudoscience claiming Italian food increased cravings for alcohol was widespread during the 1920s — a time when alcohol consumption was already a major concern. Later in the 1900s, as Italians began to climb the social ladder and reach the middle and upper classes, they had enough money to open more Italian restaurants, and enough social standing to have a chance at success.

Whether it’s with pasta, pizza, calamari or wine, we love to (over)indulge when it comes to Italian cuisine. It’s comfort food at its best and its worst (i.e. when you’re so full you can’t move). But if you want authentic Italian dishes, you may want to read up on what counts as real Italian and what’s the product of Americanization.

One of the clearest markers of Americans’ keen interest in Italian cuisine is the rise of Eataly, a chain of enormous Italian supermarkets featuring retail goods, restaurants, food and wine counters, and even cooking classes. Eataly has stores in several major U.S. and international cities (including 13 around Italy), and the locations we’ve visited in the States are always unbearably crowded. So it’s pretty apparent how Americans feel about Italian food.

Do It For The (Pop) Culture

The Sopranos
Courtesy of HBO

“When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore!”

No matter what generation you’re in, you most likely know this 1953 classic performed by Dean Martin. The song has been featured in commercials for UPS, eBay and more. If you didn’t catch on, amore is Italian for “love,” and the ubiquity of the song is a prime example of Americans’ love for Italian culture.

“That’s Amore” includes its fair share of stereotypes about Italians, but it’s fairly harmless when contrasted with the ever-popular mafia storyline, which has essentially become its own genre of American film and television. Despite the small percentage of Italian immigrants involved in organized crime, the mobster aesthetic was the one that stuck in U.S. pop culture. Real mafia bosses like Al Capone and John Gotti gained on-screen fame, along with their fictional contemporaries, like Tony Soprano and The Godfather’s Vito Corleone.

Interestingly, while gangster movies started to become popular in the 1930s in response to Great Depression-fueled economic frustrations, they were soon replaced by World War II-era Nazi films. But the mafia obsession didn’t fade for long. Mobsters were thrown back into the spotlight during a series of Senate committee hearings on organized crime in the 1950s. From then on, all the way until the early 2000s, Italian-American gangster movies and TV shows never really lost steam.

It’s worth noting that the popularity of mafia storylines has been met with some criticism from Italian-American groups, who do not approve of the negative stereotypes these media reinforce. In 2001, an Italian-American group in Chicago sued Time Warner over the hit HBO series The Sopranos, saying it violated the Illinois Constitution’s individual dignity protections by depicting Italian-Americans as having criminality in their DNA. The suit was unsuccessful.

It’s not all crime and violence, though. Popular movies like Under the Tuscan Sun and Eat, Pray, Love focus on the beauty of the Italian countryside, which brings us to our next section: travel.

A Travel Hotspot

The Vatican

From the classical architecture of Rome to the canals of Venice to the scenic hilltops of Florence, it’s no surprise tourists flock to Italy in droves. In a 2015 survey, 43 percent of Americans named Italy as their dream travel destination, making it the top place to visit for people from the United States.

And who could blame them? Italy has 53 UNESCO World Heritage Sites — more than any other country on Earth.

It’s not always a brief visit, either. Italy is the second most popular destination for American students studying abroad. Nearly 11 percent of U.S. students studied in Italy in the 2015-16 school year, topped only by the United Kingdom (12 percent).

One of the Italian locales Americans love to visit is the Vatican. While it’s technically a separate state, Vatican City is still very much a part of Italian culture, and it’s a part with which Americans are extremely enamored. Located near the middle of Rome, Vatican City is the headquarters of the Catholic Church and home to the Pope — a religious leader revered, or at least respected, by millions of Americans. In fact, the current pontiff, Pope Francis, has an incredibly high approval rating: 7 in 10 American adults view him “very” or “mostly” favorably. Those poll numbers include Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

Why are Americans so intrigued by the Vatican and its leader? For starters, Catholicism is fairly widespread in the United States. Approximately 20 percent of Americans identify as Catholic. For other Americans, the appeal of the Vatican lies in its rich history and captivating art and architecture. Many tourists visit simply to gaze in awe at the ceiling of Sistine Chapel, the elaborately painted masterpiece by Michelangelo.

If you decide to visit, keep in mind that there will be a few other people there. Here are some tips for avoiding the crowds and making the most of your experience.

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