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The Italians Have a Word For It

Updated on December 3, 2012

My wife and I were watching the last 15 minutes of The Lost World, the sequel to Jurassic Park in which a T. rex rampages through San Diego, tearing up a gas station mini-mart and stomping cars, Godzilla style.

"This is really an Americanata!" she said.

An American-what?

"An Americanata," my wife, who is Italian, repeated. She was fine with the movie about reanimated dino DNA until that point. But when it turned into a comic book, a cinematic cartoon of itself, that, she explained, is an Americanata (AMERICAN-OTTA), an Italian term describing anything that is exaggerated, overdone, garish, pompous, boorish or just in plain bad taste -- in a uniquely American way, whether it's a 60-ounce Big Gulp, patriotic underwear or a fully loaded Hummer.

"But that was cool!" I protested. She rolled her eyes.

Since that moment, I've come to understand the concept of an Americanata, aided by the pointed observations of my wife, our Italian expatriate friends here in Washington and our Italian friends and family back in Italy. Walt Disney World is an Americanata. The breast-pounding State of The Union is an Americanata ("We're No. 1 everybody!!!") And the attempt to ennoble that commercial orgy known as the Super Bowl with both patriotism and religion is a mega-Americanata (What exactly does the minister say when he "blesses" the players before kickoff -- "May the Prince of Peace guide these fine, young men as they proceed to bash each other senseless"?)

Americanate (the plural of Americanata) are as plentiful as McMansions here, so we decided to compile a list of them, based on an informal survey of Italians. Now presenting ... The Top 10 Americanate:

10. THE QUANTUM SLEEPER -- A post-9/11 throwback to the 1950s nuclear bomb scare, this panic-room-in-a-bed promises to protect you from bullets, biochemical attacks AND stalkers. And it comes with a reading light and a DVD! This Americanata, courtesy of an Italian web site, could be quickly dismissed as mere tackiness if just five years ago, amid fears of an al-Qaeda WMD attack, Americans hadn't been rushing out to buy plastic sheeting and duct tape in what would have proved to be a futile attempt to protect themselves from bioterrorists. The tendency to find answers and salvation in technology led to bomb shelters 50 years ago; it's still producing them, albeit more upscale ones. And if a bioterrorism attack does occur, the Quantum Sleeper makes a great, low-cost double casket!

9. EATING IN PUBLIC -- A college student brings a piece of pizza to class and sits there eating it, oblivious, while the professor lectures. "In Italy, we would never do something like that, "one Italian says. Why? The professor-student relationship is more formal, for one. Eating is taken more seriously. And Italians have better manners. You're not likely to see anywhere in Italy a family of Italians rolling down the highway while they each eat their fast-food dinners. The culture of la tavola -- the table -- demands more respect for a meal.

8. RECORD MANIA -- Hot dog-eating contests, amassing the biggest ball of twine in the world, flying around the world in a balloon -- the lure of setting a world record drives many Americans to extremes of accomplishment -- and bad taste. That summertime tradition, the pie-eating contest, may win Bubba a bask in the spotlight at the county fair. But when Italians see boys burying their faces in blueberry pies and scarfing them down come porci -- like pigs -- using food as a toy -- they add another Americanata to the list.

7. FESTIVAL OF COSMAS & DAMIAN -- The cherished annual "Italian Festival" found in many U.S. cities, especially in the Northeast, is a rich vein of Americanate. Italians brought to these events find them hilarious. One of these in particular is a treasure trove of Americanate, The annual Italian Festival of the Healing Saints Cosmas & Damian in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The festival boasts the usual menu of Americanized Italian foods, bands and raffles. The centerpiece, however, is a procession in which statues of Cosmas and Damian are paraded through the streets while the crowd tacks bills onto them. As the procession winds on, the hapless saints are gradually covered by the money. But the bills just keep on coming, until at last the saints are turned into hulking Money Monsters, and you can barely see their heads popping out of the cash pile.

Now processions of the saints are common in Italy, especially Southern Italy, our friend Maurizio from Gaeta, south of Rome, tells us (and who supplied this particular Americanata). But no one ever sticks money onto the sacred figures, such depictions by Hollywood movies notwithstanding. To do so, Maurizio says, is offensive, even profane. "This is an Americanata," he says, smiling politely. So are centurions in Oakley sunglasses playing banjos.

6. MISUSED ITALIAN FOOD NAMES/FOODS -- My wife and I stared at the colorful poster advertizing Pizza Hut's latest delicacy, "Tuscani Pastas."

"Delicious pasta dinners in Meaty Marinara or Creamy Chicken Alfredo. Finally, restaurant quality pasta delivered right to your door!" She wrinkled her face in distaste. "Oh. My. God!" Then she asked the question millions of Italians who come to the USA still want answered: "Who's Alfredo?"

"Tuscani Pastas" ... never mind that neither word exists in English (pastas?) or Italian (it would be paste Toscane). Creating a lasagna-like dish out of rotini and chicken, then covering that with a glutinous blanket of cheese and cream sauce and baking it into a hot, oily mush, well ... any native Italians seeing the ads will likely be retching. A third-degree -- or make that a 350-degree -- Americanata.

Misused Italian food names are a rich source of Americanate, one that will never run out as long as there exists a single food company executive somewhere in the USA hoping to market the latest glop churned out by his factories by sticking an Italian-sounding name on it.

Pizza Hut is only the latest offender in the misuse of Italian terms. My wife and I used to walk past an Italian restaurant -- it has since closed -- in my former home state of Delaware whose sign out front proudly advertised "insulata" (insalata -- Italian for salad). Then there are those signs in upscale delis and coffee shops touting "Our new panini sandwich!" Panini means sandwiches -- plural -- in Italian, so they're actually selling people their "new sandwiches sandwich!" And Italian customers silently register another Americanata.

Then there's Dunkin Donuts' warm-weather drink, the "Coolatta." In Italian, culatta -- pronounced COO-LOTT-UH, just like the drink -- is a buttock. So if you see Italians giggling and pointing at the menu in DD, now you know why.

5. YOU WILL OBEY -- I was on a chair drying off after a swim at the public pool in Georgetown when a teenage lifeguard approached the young women listening to her iPod just in front of me and waved to get her attention. "Excuse me, Miss." Then louder, "EXCUSE ME, MISS." She removed the ear buds and looked up at him. "I'm sorry but no listening devices are allowed here." She looked puzzled. "Huh?" He went on to explain that it's an official pool regulation because someone might not hear an emergency announcement. She turned off her iPod. Probably not realizing she may have just saved her life because she'll be able to flee the inevitable attack by the Sept. 13 Martyrs of The Swimming Pool Jihad 1 second faster.

A pool I used to go to in Virginia -- what is it with pools and rules? -- would order everyone out of the water every 15 minutes of each hour for a "safety break." No matter the entire pool was surrounded by lifeguards in their chairs; apparently, if people were left on their own for more than 45 minutes, they would swim and swim and swim until they began to gradually lose consciousness, then somehow manage to slip gurgling beneath the 4-foot-deep waters unseen, determined to keep their date with Death.

The town of Isle of Palms in New Jersey recently proposed a law that would fine vacationers for leaving sandcastles on the beach. Yes, a fine for sandcastles. Town leaders say they're a threat to the beach. And council members in Friendship Heights, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C., unsuccessfully tried to pass a law banning smoking outdoors within their boundaries.

Italians witnessing the Nanny State in action are truly perplexed. "Incre-DEEB-ilay" they mutter. Maybe having experienced two world wars on your soil, a lengthy fascist dictatorship and countless occupations puts things in perspective. Or maybe they're just more civilized and secure with themselves. They find such patronizing micromanagement ... well, incredible.

Of course, the misused words are just the surface covering the real horror - the food itself. Most Italian-American dishes sold here are cheesy, oily, caricatures of Southern Italian cuisine, whether it's Tuscani Pastas or that big plate of spongy pasta topped with a brownish, tannic-tasting red sauce and mealy meatballs you get at your local Mama Whatever's ("serving fine Italian food since 1957"). Often these are the creations of food company marketers, like the horrendous "stuffed crust pizza" now being touted by several pizza chains. Olive Garden's website currently boasts its latest specials, "Five Cheese-stuffed Rigatoni with Shrimp" and "Five Cheese-stuffed Rigatoni with Sausage." But ... the essence of real Italian food is simplicity and quality. Filled pasta like cappelletti is made with either ricotta or mortadella and served in a simple but delicious chicken broth. Period. And regular pasta is typically served with a few herbs, vegetables and olive oil, or with a simple red sauce or béchamel. There are Italian rigatoni dishes that include ricotta, bits of sausage and a sprinkling of pecorino, but the star of the dish is still the pasta; they don't stuff the rigatoni with five cheeses, drown it in oil and then bury the resulting mess under sausage and shrimp.

4. LOOK AT ME! Whether it's appearing on American Idol, Dance War, or The Biggest Loser, becoming a YouTube sensation or the star of your local karaoke night, the desire for public attention, for that 15 minutes -- or even 15 seconds -- of fame, is a top Americanata. Or, as our friend Giampiero e-mailed, via translation, "The mania to astonish people, at all costs, and in all ways -- and on TV if at all possible." So we have brides and grooms saying their vows while skydiving, or wearing scuba masks, fiancés pledging their love on billboards, or, as the newswires recently reported, an "artist" in Orlando, Florida, marking Feb. 29 (Leap Day) by devoting himself to leaping off a platform for the entire 24 hours "to get people to think how they spend their day."

3. SUPERSIZE NATION -- Italians like Americans but often joke about our love of living large, a love that has spawned various Americanate. Used to small cups of espresso quickly downed while standing at a bar, they gape at workplace coffee cups the size of small buckets; accustomed to ultra-compact Smart Cars, they are stunned by SUVs so large they are a threat to anything that gets near them and actually require small-truck license tags. Now Americans themselves have become the gag. After a generation of Whoppers, Big Macs, and foot-long hoagies, Leon is getting LAAARGER, so large department stores have added an 18-plus to men's shirt sizes, car mileage is dropping and highways are being redesigned to accommodate the excess poundage. That rumbling you hear? It's Americans -- and they're headed this way. RUN!!!!

2. THESE COLORS DON'T RUN -- The presence of the flag at the football pre-game ritual -- and everywhere else you look -- is a quintessential Americanata; no other country in the world waves the flag quite so tirelessly as Americans, whether it's in ads for patriotism-injected pick-ups, blue-collar beer, or power tools, on T-shirts or underwear, a lapel pin -- lawmakers, don't get caught not wearing one! -- or a house-size Old Glory looming perilously over a car dealership parking lot. Italians marvel at this, the pride and pomposity of it all. Maybe they're more jaded when it comes to nationalism -- their last embrace of it didn't end so well. And national identity in Italy is a relatively thin veneer over much more deeply rooted allegiances to family, town and region. Whatever the reason, watching Americans shouting "Yoo-Ess-Ay! Yoo-Ess-Ay! Yoo-Ess-Ay!" or wearing their patriotism on their sleeves -- and sneakers, and beer wraps and briefs -- makes Italians laugh. And groan.

1. OVERKILL -- And No. 1 ... An Italian web site that looks at Americanate past and present includes this video of a vintage Americanata, one that taps deep into the American soul. If ya can't figure any other way to do something, just blow it up!

The Exploding Whale


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    • profile image


      3 years ago

      After taking a closer look at the two cultures

      the only thing that match is the PRIDE.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      absolutely... yesterday I went (happily) to McDonalds, I use to celebrate Halloween, I learned how to cook pancakes because I love them so much... I go crazy for peanut butter, smooth (Not so easy to find in Italy) I dont' like italian movies (I LOVE american movies like the classic catastrophic "americanate") I know more things about USA than the things I know about Italy... mmm.. start to think I'm in the wrong country... ahah! at the end we all live on the same planet so it's good to share our "americanate" and "italianate" as well... Hugs to all american friends. Fabio.

    • danielmybrother profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from D.C.

      Fabio, I enjoyed your reply. "Dirty water" -- that's a good "batuta"!

      the ironic thing about "Americanata" is, I'm told by my wife and other Italians, the word is fading from the Italian language because Italia seems to be adopting many of these Americanate! go figure

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Finally someone explaining to americans what "Americanata" means. It's always difficult to explain your own culture to another one, completely different... about the food, what you call "food" we call it "Trash" most of the time, what you call "coffee" we call it "dirty water" the coffee in Italy it's only espresso or moka cofee... there are plenty of question that an american should ask to an italian and even an italian have some ancestrial question to ask to americans like: why do you build house made of wood? I would never live in a house made of wood (in my head wood+people living inside, sound like: FIRE!!!!!) it's a strange point of view, but every country have some strange things... we build house on the side or near vulcanoes like Vesuvio even after a tragedy like Pompeii... that's why they say "history repeat itself"...

      I'm sorry for my low quality english... ;)

    • danielmybrother profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from D.C.

      hey thanks Barry. glad you enjoyed it


    • barryrutherford profile image

      Barry Rutherford 

      10 years ago from Queensland Australia

      great hub !

    • danielmybrother profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago from D.C.

      thanks CoffeyTalk. you make a very good point. You can't really expect the original Italian version in a culture as radically different as ours, and the melting pot certainly offers up some good things of its own. but still think I'll steer clear of Tuscani pastas :)

    • CoffeyTalk profile image


      11 years ago

      This was a funny one. I enjoyed it very much. That's what we as Americans do, though. We are a melting pot of all cultures, so we borrow from other cultures and make it our own. Unfortunately, some things get butchered along the way. But consider we had to change it enough to make the melting pot enjoy it, however offensive it might be to the Italians. Nah, your wife would probably say "Butchered is butchered, I don't care who likes it." ;) Happy to be a fan.

    • danielmybrother profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago from D.C.

      che ridere!

    • stefanaccio profile image


      11 years ago from Teramo Abruzzo Italy

      I miei parenti abruzzesi usano questa parola ogni volta che metto un po di formaggio sul pesce...

    • profile image


      11 years ago

      thanks Lgali! glad you enjoyed it

    • Lgali profile image


      11 years ago

      This is a hilarious, yet nice article

    • danielmybrother profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago from D.C.

      thanks, Zeke! I love Italian culture too. Of course, I'm biased. But Italians have their own share of cultural travesties, and some Italians think I should write an "Italianate" article! I'm going to read your piece.



    • profile image

      Zeke Brett Tyrus 

      11 years ago

      Great piece. I am going to start using that word. Read my piece about losing a fistfight w/ an Italian-American. Despite some the terms used & descriptions, I love Italians & their culture. My Italian pals think it is funny.

    • danielmybrother profile imageAUTHOR


      12 years ago from D.C.

      "Cineseria" -- too funny! thanks for your comment.

      yes, the biker world seems to be full of motocyclisti americanate. the other day driving on the Beltway to work I saw what looked like the back of a Mercedes coupe. But it was making a loud noise. When I passed it,I saw it was actually some bizarre three-wheel car motorcycle hybrid, with the shell of the car placed over the bike and the driver in some sort of cockpit!


    • profile image


      12 years ago

      Ahaha I didn't believe to my eyes when I saw your blog!

      I'm an italian motorcicle rider, sometimes I partecipate in american forums for Harley or Triumph riders, and I see strange and exagerated customization of that motorcycles. In that forums you can see the horrific violations of a wonderfully designed motorcycle made by amateurs with a questionable taste.

      When I call that job "Americanata" to the authors of the customizations and explain the meaning of the term they become disappointed. They became so disappointed that many times I was banned from the forum. Yes americans riders have poor self-hirony. ;-)

      Ah in Italy we have another word to explain a kind opposite of americanata, when something is small, crap, poor quality and importance, we call it "Cineseria" (chinoiserie).

    • danielmybrother profile imageAUTHOR


      12 years ago from D.C.

      too funny! mmmm, can't wait to get my hands around one of those.

    • profile image


      12 years ago

      Great Article Dan. I went to Burger King the other night for a hamburger. I told the lady I wanted a BK Stacker, she responded . . . single double triple or a quad-stacker. I should have told her I wanted the Ultimate-Mega-ATA-Stacker !

    • danielmybrother profile imageAUTHOR


      12 years ago from D.C.

      Grazie Ercole! I'm happy to know an Italian likes my Americanate. And thanks pjd --pj? -- and sweeiepie. a mid-life crisis because you DON'T like Big Gulps -- now that is funny

    • SweetiePie profile image


      12 years ago from Southern California, USA

      I love your comment about the big gulp. Once a guy told me I must be having a mid-life crisis because I did not like to drink big gulps and go fishing. This was a funny hub.

    • pjdscott profile image


      12 years ago from Durham, UK

      This is a hilarious, yet utterly insightful hub. Great work and thumbs up!

    • profile image


      12 years ago

      As a native Italian who has lived half of his life in USA I could not agree more with your "list". You have explained very well!


    • danielmybrother profile imageAUTHOR


      12 years ago from D.C.

      exactly! bada bing bada boom

    • PaulieWalnuts profile image


      12 years ago from Chicago

      Of course in Tony Soprano, Jerseyesque-Siciliana- "Da Meddygon!"

    • profile image

      alice severance 

      12 years ago


      Great article. Loved the exploding whale and Cosmos/Damian girls wrapped in what looked aluminum foil/bubble wrap. Glad to see the Mummers made it into the parade!


    • rolf profile image


      12 years ago from Washington, DC

      Great piece, Dan! Your wife's "Americanata" is so right!

      Of course back home they have to put up with Berlusconi !


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