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10.1177/0196859904267337 ARTICLEJournal of Communication InquiryCommodified Identities
Commodified Identities: The Myth
of Italian Food in the United States
This study approaches the phenomenon of ethnic food—in particular, Italian
food—from a semiotic perspective, keeping in mind the notion of food as com-
munication. The restaurant chain Fazoli’s is used to exemplify some of the com-
municative strategies employed to promote the association of a company and its
products with Italy. These communicative strategies serve the ultimate goal of
commodifying the Italian ethnic identity and promoting its symbolic consump-
tion. Through a semiotic analysis, the article identifies a core group of seven
themes that constitute the basic structure of the myth of Italian food in the United
States. The analysis highlights an unobtrusive use of stereotypes, a mass phe-
nomenon of identity construction, and the depletion of a cultural capital. At the
same time, it is recognized that the myth has some positive aspects—namely, the
celebration of personal relations (romance and family) and the enjoyment of a
more expressive and slow-paced lifestyle.
Keywords: Italian food; Italian restaurants; Italian identity; identity construc-
tion; semiotics; postmodernism; Barthes’s theory of myth;
Barthes’s theory of signs; consumer culture; commodity-sign;
visual communication; stereotypes
The ethnic and cultural identity of Italians and Italian Americans is at the cen-
ter of increasing attention among the American media and public. The popu-
larity of the HBO series The Sopranos is probably the most recent example of
such mass phenomenon. The myth of the “mafioso” is part of the American
popular culture—to the chagrin of most Italians and Italian Americans—and
many books and articles have been written on this topic (Barreca, 2002;
Browne, 2000; Lavery, 2002; Messenger, 2002).
Author’sNote: A previous version of this article has been recognized as a Top Two Student Paperby the Pop-
ular Communication Division at the 2003 ICA Convention in San Diego, California. This research was par-
tially supported by a grant from the National Italian American Foundation. The author is grateful to Clint
Baldwin, Raj Gaur, Adel Iskandar, Divya McMillin, Shayla Thiel, and three anonymous reviewers for their
helpful comments on earlier versions of this article and for their support and encouragement. You may con-
tact Girardelli at email@example.com.
Journal of Communication Inquiry 28:4 (October 2004): 307-324
© 2004 Sage Publications
Food is another area where the “Italian style” is increasingly fashionable. If
years ago Italian food had a strong ethnic connotation (Gabaccia, 1998), the
success of national chains such as Olive Garden, Romano’s Macaroni Grill,
and Fazoli’s—and the recent NBC reality show The Restaurant—demonstrate
how Italian food has impressed an indelible mark not just in the America’s
mainstream appetite but also in its collective imagination. It does not come as
much surprise then that 44% of American teenagers say that they would most
expect an Italian American to be cast in the role of crime boss in a movie or
television show, whereas 34% of them said they would expect Italian Ameri-
cans to play restaurant workers, according to a recent national survey
conducted by Zogby International (2000).
The market of Italian food sold in grocery stores in the United States
reached $8.5 billion in 1994, showing a 3.7% growth from $7.4 billion
recorded in 1990 (“Retail Sales,” 1995). An NPD/Crest report (Johnson, 1997)
found that Italian restaurants had a 123% increase in traffic between 1987 and
1997. A research survey prepared for the National Restaurant Association in
1996 (“Americans more enamored than ever with Italian cuisine, research
shows,” 1996) found that “customer counts at Italian restaurants have nearly
doubled since 1990 and show no signs of slowing. Traffic at Italian restaurants
surged a remarkable 15 percent in 1994 and is continuing on its growth track in
1995” (p. 34).
According to the same research, two aspects of Italian food appear to strike
a positive responsive cord in the American consumers: Its “simplicity” (or
“rusticity:” Fresh ingredients, good portions, and good value for the money)
and its “authenticity,” namely, “a growing appreciation among consumers for
authentic foodstuff over ‘Americanized’ substitutes” (“Americans more enam-
ored,” 1996, p. 34). However, if terms such as “authentic” or “real” are buzz-
words in the Italian food industry (Brumback, 2001), this leverage on Italian
ethnicity may merely reflect an astute marketing strategy. In an article titled
“When Is Italian Food Not Italian?” (Hooper, 2003), the Financial Times
reported the progress of a certification project by the Associazione
Internazionale Ristoranti d’Italia (ARDI, International Association of the
Italian Restaurants). According to the ARDI (Hooper, 2003), a restaurant can
obtain a certification of “Italian Restaurant” if it meets the following
1. The ingredients have to be Italian, although derogations will be allowed country by
2. at least three-quarters of the wine in the cellar has to be of guaranteed Italian origin;
3. at least one of the waiters must speak Italian and the others all have to be able to explain
the dishes on the menu, both their composition and original; and
4. the chef does not need to be an Italian. However, he or she does need to have had proper
training in the preparation of Italian cuisine.
308 Journal of Communication Inquiry
ARDI’s initiative, which may be regarded as a form of “gastronomic national-
ism” (Hooper, 2003, paragraph 24), constitutes a naive answer to a series of
deep-rooted issues about the role and the meaning of an ethnic identity and
opens the problem of its legitimization and ownership: When is Italian food
“really authentic”? What does “Italian food” mean? Who has the right to
define what Italian food is?
This article deals with Italian food in the United States, focusing primarily
on the popular food chain Fazoli’s and its representations of “Italianicity” in its
marketing and advertising campaigns as well as within the restaurant’s overall
dining experience; the article discusses how these constructed representations
of Italians and Italian food contribute to an overall (and often false) American
understanding of what it means to be Italian. In the following introductory sec-
tion, I will outline the theoretical rationale of this research, focusing primarily
on Baudrillard’s (1970) idea of “commodity-sign” and Barthes’s semiotic the-
ory as well as Barthes’s theory of contemporary myth (Barthes, 1972, 1977a,
1977b). In a nutshell, I believe that some important aspects of contemporary
food practices share significant traits with the notion of consumer society
(Featherstone, 1991), such as a tendency toward symbolic consumption,
homogenization, and commodification. Although slightly broad in its scope,
this theoretical perspective on food could stimulate further research by com-
munication scholars as our discipline has lagged behind others in this particu-
lar field. Leeds-Hurwitz (1993) notes that anthropology, sociology, history,
and folklore are producing the bulk of the research that goes beyond the mere
biological implications related to nutrition. Instead, these disciplines focus on
food, food practices, and their relationship with society and culture. Leeds-
Hurwitz argues that communication scholars should also offer their contribu-
tion to this field: “Food clearly serves as a form of communication, thus it is an
appropriate topic for communication research” (p. 87).
Fazoli’s is used here to exemplify some of the communicative strategies that
are employed to promote the association of a company and its products with
Italy. I believe that these communicative strategies serve the ultimate goal to
commodify the Italian ethnic identity and to promote its symbolic consump-
tion. With the use of a semiotic analysis, I have singled out a core group of
traits and values that constitute the basic structure of the myth (Barthes, 1972)
of Italian food in the United States.
Eating Food, Eating Signs
Since the era of hunters and gatherers, the production, storage, and distribu-
tion of food has undergone radical transformations that parallel broader soci-
Commodified Identities 309
etal and cultural changes. Anthropologists have been among the first to
emphasize the role of food not only as a primary human need but also as a
social phenomenon, a strategic field in which “nature” and “culture” come into
contact (De Garine, 1998). Claude Levi-Strauss’s (1969) seminal book The
Raw and the Cooked has been one the most influential texts to point out the
social and cultural dimensions of food practice (De Garine, 1998; Sheridan,
2000). Levi-Strauss wrote (1969), “A society’s cuisine acts as a language
through which it unconsciously expresses its structure” (cited in De Garine,
1998, p. 226).
Throughout the centuries, different cultures’relationships with food and its
value to them have been radically transformed. Hunter-and-gatherer societies
had a strikingly different experience with food in relation to contemporary
Western societies. In prehistoric societies, food was scarce and obtained
through an intense and often dangerous labor. In contrast, “it is possible to con-
sume ...anykind of food, in any quantity, at any time of the year” in modern
Western postindustrial societies (De Garine, 1998, p. 254). Far from beinga
mere means of sustenance, there is a dominant tendency in Western societiesto
consider food not only as a pleasure but also as an expression of one’s individ-
uality and sociocultural identity (Leeds-Hurwitz, 1993). As Domzal and
Kernan (1993) note, “The phenomenon of eating, of dining, is replete with cul-
tural meaning. That we put food in our body is important, but how we do this is
the principal source of semiotic significance” (p. 5). The authors list a series of
metaphors associated with food:
it is a companion (popcorn with movies), a rejuvenator (Gatorade), and a source
of fun (M&Ms). It is safety (our favorite ice cream flavor), love (a romantic din-
ner; the “aphrodisiac” potency of chutney, goose brains, oysters), or adventure
(some exotic ethnic specialty). (p. 5)
Roland Barthes (1977b) approaches food as a “signifying system” and sin-
gles out significant features that food and language share. The association
between food and language opens the opportunity of studying food from a
communicative perspective to explore its sociocultural dimension (Leeds-
Eating the “Food-Package”
A promising but not yet fully explored perspective on food has been offered
by Featherstone’s (1991) idea of “consumer culture” and Baudrillard’s (1970)
“commodity-sign.” Featherstone noted that contemporary Western societies
attribute great value to consumption; therefore, he argued that ours is the soci-
ety of consumers or the “consumer culture.” The term consumption does not
310 Journal of Communication Inquiry
merely apply to the physical depletion of a durable good, but it also invests
forms of “symbolic” consumption, such as the consumption of the images and
dreams that advertising is able to invoke in consumers’ minds even with the
most mundane objects.
In consumer cultures, imagery has become an inseparable part of any prod-
uct, and the same system of production encompasses resources dedicated to
the symbolic manipulation of tangible goods, such as marketing and advertis-
ing. Baudrillard (1970) introduces the idea of “commodity-sign” to indicate
this tight connection between the tangible (commodity/good) and intangible
Keeping in mind contemporary food practices as a concrete manifestation
of Baudrillard’s concept, it becomes important to investigate the relationship
between food and the package that wraps it. In this view, it is not merely by
chance that the initiation of a meal in Western societies is almost invariably
signaled with the breaking of a “package.” A package not only functions as a
protection for the food, but it also acts as a symbolic vehicle in the processof
attributing symbolic values to the food contained in the package. This sym-
bolic value generally is a consistent element of a flow of messages that is gen-
erated from traditional mass media and proceeds downstream to the supermar-
ket shelves and into the homes of the consumers. As for restaurants, I suggest
that the consumption of the meal takes place “inside” the package. In this case,
the “package” is the carefully constructed symbolic environment, often named
as the “atmosphere” or the “dining experience,” offered to the diners, and these
are important considerations in the restaurants’ appeal to customers.
The “package” is never neutral or meaningless, and instead, it may consti-
tute a powerful ideological vehicle, as the case of McDonald’s Golden Arches.
McDonald’s Golden Arches can be interpreted as an important Freudian sym-
bol: a pair of large breasts, or “mother McDonald’s breasts” (Schlosser, 2002,
p. 98). At the same time, they may also be perceived as an ultimate symbol of
the American way of life and its core values (Barber, 1996).
Therefore, using Baudrillard’s idea of commodity-sign, I propose that in
contemporary consumer societies, the food and its package should be regarded
as one unique and inseparable entity that is consumed in both a concrete and a
symbolic manner. I define such an entity as “food package.”
The Mass Media of Taste
Supermarkets and restaurant chains have never been listed among the tradi-
tional mass media. However, in examining how classical definitions of mass
media may be applied to nonmedia sources, their characteristics do fit closely
enough to associate restaurants and supermarkets as types of mass media.
According to McQuail (2000), “the term ‘mass media’ is shorthand to describe
Commodified Identities 311
means of communication that operate on a large scale, reaching and involving
everyone in a society to a greater or lesser degree” (p. 4). Janowitz (cited in
McQuail, 2000, p. 4) explained that “mass communication comprises the
institution and techniques by which specialized groups employ technological
devices (press, radio, films) to disseminate symbolic content to a large, hetero-
geneous and widely dispersed audience.” Mass media have a profound effect
both on the political and the cultural sphere of a society. With respect to cul-
ture, mass media “constitute a primary source of definition and images of
social reality and the most ubiquitous expression of shared identity”
(McQuail, 2000, p. 4).
In a consumer society characterized by mass production, the distinction
between commodities and mass media is blurred, and consequently, it is possi-
ble to observe a multiplication of media (Eco, 1986). Mass-produced artifacts
are charged with symbolic meaning; their capillary mass distribution therefore
supports the spreading of their symbolic content. The food packages reflect
the logic of multiplication of media: Supermarkets and restaurant chains,
being the primary distributors of food packages, play an active role in defining
and disseminating symbols and meanings in our society, thus operating as
nonconventional mass media.
Similar to traditional mass media, supermarkets and restaurant chains also
act as agents of homogenization because they offer the same symbolic content
in thousands of locations around the country, from Alaska to Florida, from
Maine to California. In the case of supermarket chains, we can also observe a
phenomenon of concentration of power typical of traditional media. The sales
of supermarket chains accounted for 78% of the supermarkets’ total sales in
1996, up from 54% in 1976 (Carini, 1998). As in the case of traditional media,
fewer players are taking a bigger share of the market.
Fazoli’s: Marketing (and Eating) Italy
Marketing the “Other”
Ethnic food is an adventure (Domzal & Kernan, 1993) and a form of inter-
action with the “other” (Sheridan, 2000). Ethnic food is usually a marker of
ethnic identity for a well-defined group of people. However, when the popular-
ity of an ethnic food becomes a mainstream phenomenon, those who are will-
ing to profit from an emerging business opportunity can easily commodify the
food’s ethnic component. Communicative strategies are implemented to cre-
ate the right food package, which is able to deliver to the consumers the idea
that the food is an authentic product of the other.
312 Journal of Communication Inquiry
Sheridan (2000) offers a good example for this process of symbolic repre-
sentation of the other in her discussion of the introduction of some new Kraft
products in Australia:
American companies such as Kraft had been established here [in Australia] for
decades, but in the post-war years some of their staples were “ethnicised.” For
instance, building on its long-popular tinned spaghetti in tomato sauce, Kraft
took the risk of making it more “authentic” by inventing a cartoon mustachioed
chef, recognizably “Italian,” to sell new lines like ravioli and spaghetti dinners,
which included separate packets of sauce mix and parmesan to go with the
pasta. (p. 322, emphasis added)
Barthes (1977b) highlights a similar semiotic process in his reading of an
advertising of Panzani, a brand of Italian food products in France. Barthes
(1977b) points out some communicative strategies in the ad—for instance, the
use of a specific combination of colors—intended to signify to the consumers
the Italian nature of Panzani’s products—namely, their “Italianicity,” using
Barthes’s definition (p. 34).
“Italianicity” in the Fazoli’s Restaurants
Fazoli’s has been chosen to exemplify a case of construction and commodi-
fication of the Italian ethnic identity. Fazoli’s is a successful restaurant fran-
chise based in Lexington, Kentucky, that offers the same dining experience—
in terms of both menu and general “atmosphere”—in its more than 400 units
spread across the United States. The chain leverages its Italian appeal exten-
sively (Farkas, 2001), and its integrated communication strategy (meaning its
use of various kinds of communication, including marketing and public rela-
tions) requires the appropriation of catchy slogans (such as “Everyone’s Ital-
ian!” or “Real Italian, Real Fast!”), ad campaigns (Griswold, 2001), and a din-
ing environment with a “down-home” Italian slant.
Although one of Fazoli’s primary critical points of differentiation is its
Italianicity, this strategy for promoting it should be understood not as a result
of self-expression of an authentic ethnicity but, instead, as a staged symbolic
construction of the other. The company has not included any Italian or Italian
American people to take part in the development or management of the chain.
On the contrary, both the chain’s ownership and its financial capital are
The Fazoli’s chain aims to provide a casual, lower cost Italian dining option
compared to the more sophisticated and somewhat more expensive dining
Commodified Identities 313
experiences offered by the Olive Garden or Romano’s Macaroni Grill chains.
Nonetheless, the strategies used by Fazoli’s to communicate and commodify
the Italian ethnicity are similar to the ones implemented by its more sophisti-
In this article, I ask the following research questions:
Research Question 1: What specific communication strategies are implemented to repre-
sent Italianicity in the Fazoli’s food experience?
Research Question 2: What are the constitutive traits and the overall image of Italian food
that is represented in the Fazoli’s restaurant chain?
For my investigation, I conducted a semiotic analysis of a Fazoli’s franchise
located in a large Midwestern city. I have employed this particular methodol-
ogy because it allows me to abstract overarching themes from concrete arti-
facts. I also built on the traditional Saussurian dyadic conceptualization of sign
as the unity of signifier and signified. Using the terminology developed by
Hyemslev and Barthes (Nöth, 1990), I distinguish between a denotative mean-
ing—a first-order, referential semiological system—from a connotative
meaning—a second-order, more abstract semiological system (Barthes,
1972). My analysis proceeds from the denotative to the connotative meaning.
To formalize my research questions in semiological terms, I consider the
“communication strategies” as the signifiers of the connotative level, which
refer to a common and more abstract signified at the connotative level (the
“myth of the Italian food”). I consider the “overall image” as the constitutive
semantic traits of the common signified at the connotative level.
To prepare the semiotic analysis, I conducted background research to better
understand Fazoli’s overall business concept, market position, and communi-
cation strategy. I collected and analyzed promotional materials (on-site pam-
phlets, television ads, radio commercials, and the Fazoli’s Web site) and arti-
cles published in specialized magazines (such as Nation’s Restaurant News,
Progressive Grocer, and Chain Leader) dedicated to Fazoli’s. I also visited the
selected Fazoli’s franchise 10 times (5 times alone and 5 times with two other
colleagues), taking notes and pictures of the environment.
Semiotic Analysis: Communicating Italianicity
One of the most obvious strategies to communicate the Italian nature of
Fazoli’s products is to use Italian words or other words that may sound Italian.
314 Journal of Communication Inquiry
For instance, “Pasta,” “Spaghetti,” and “Pizza,” which are displayed in three
bended red neon signs left to the entrance, are real Italian words. In addition,
the Fazoli’s menu presents numerous Italian words, such as “Ziti” and
“Lasagne.” The sandwich section of the menu is called “Panini,” an Italian
word that actually means “sandwich.” In this last case, the use of the most
exotic Italian word clearly reflects the intention of adding an additional Italian
“flavor” to the products, which would be otherwise absent if the original
English word was used.
Other words, such as “Fazoli” and “Submarino,” are not true Italian words.
They instead are derived from two different linguistic strategies. One strategy
consists of simulating the sound of Italian words with syllabic chains thathave
a basic “consonant plus vowel” (CV) structure (for instance, the structureof
the word Fazoli is CVCVCV). Such structures try to imitate the “musicality”
that is perceived in Italian words. Another strategy consists of modifyingan
English word with the addition of a vowel oor aat the end (for instance, “Sub-
marine” becomes “Submarino”) to simulate the endings of Italian words.
Other words or expressions that are associated with Italian food are “fam-
ily,” “authentic,” and “capische.” The first two are key words in the Fazoli’s
golden-framed mission statement posted at the main entrance. The mission
Quality without compromise, service without question, authentic Italian favor-
ites served fresh, hot and fast by friendly associates in a relaxed, family atmo-
sphere. Delivering the Fazoli’s experience is not only our goal but our promise.
Terms such as “authentic” or “real” are classic buzzwords in the Italian food
business segment (Brumback, 2001). These terms seem to be necessary in
reassuring the consumers that the “ethnic experience” is simulated into the
minutest details. The word “family” refers to the strong family ties that charac-
terize the stereotypical Italian family.
The expression “Capishe?”—reminiscent of the Italian word Capisci(?),
meaning “Do you understand?”—is mentioned in the recruitment poster
located near the entrance alongside the mission statement. This term belongs
to the stereotypical Italian American mobster lingo as portrayed in movies
such as “The Godfather” or in TV series.
Nonverbal strategies are paramount in the construction of Italianicity in the
Fazoli’s restaurants. Nonverbal signs tend to be ambiguous, but at the same
time, they are intended to stimulate subtle associations in the consumers’
Commodified Identities 315
minds. Overall, I have categorized the nonverbal strategies into the following
1. The green, white, and red color combination. This combination reflects
the bright colors of the Italian flag, and it can be found in Fazoli’s logo andin
other decorative elements—such as borders and dividers—in the Fazoli’s Web
site and other promotional materials. The combination of colors may signal
the consumers’ entrance into a new and exotic reality, an “Italian world.”
Barthes (1977b) also points out that the color sequence of the Italian flag is a
basic strategy to communicate the Italianicity of a product.
2. The use of vegetables. Vegetables are observable in Fazoli’s logo (a
plump tomato) and in a promotional poster outside the building. The poster
portrays four pictures of green leaves of salad, white garlic cloves, dry pasta,
and red plump tomatoes. Interesting, the color combination of the vegetables
in the poster may remind consumers of an Italian flag. Besides the clear con-
nection between tomato and tomato sauce, an omnipresent ingredient of the
classic Italian cuisine, these representations are probably intended to commu-
nicate to the consumers the idea that the Italian products offered in Fazoli’s are
“uncontaminated” and “fresh.”
3. The rustic theme. This theme is closely linked with the previous one, for it
is in rustic environments that one can get fresh and genuine produce. The
ordering area reflects the rustic theme with several strategies. First, the area is
covered by a plastic trellis sustained by a tendril. The ordering area, made with
crate-like bricks, has a station that is furnished to make pizzas and a counter.
The counter, which vaguely resembles a stand at a farmer’s market, has a glass
display, which contains empty blue bottles, olive bottles, decorative blue jars
filled with multicolored dried pasta (white, yellow, and green), desserts, and
salads. The salads are displayed in large-sized white plates contained in wicker
baskets. Overall, the rustic theme appears to reinforce the idea of the freshness
(the counter, the use of glass, where one can “see through”) of the products.
4. The kitchen/bistro theme. As seen in the mission statement, a functional
part of the food experience at Fazoli’s is the enjoyment of a “relaxed, family
atmosphere.” Elements evoking a “down-home” feel are placed in the dining
area, including a cupboard that is not functional but only used as a decorative
artifact. Also, a green wooden wall is placed in front of the ordering station.
The wall, which resembles a cupboard, serves as a self-service station with
fountain beverages, tableware, and condiments for the salads. Blue and sepia
lamps illuminate the interior with a soft, dim light. The windows on the sec-
ondary entrance have a caisson wood element on the inside, which runs along
316 Journal of Communication Inquiry
the entire window and displays a line of empty, blue bottles. The empty bottles
and the plastic tendril are intended to symbolically represent the idea of wine,
which cannot be sold at the restaurant, but that is present in the consumers’
ideal notion of the wine-loving Italians.
Also noteworthy is the presence of two elements that are not usually found
in closed environments but, instead, on the outside. The two elements are the
above-mentioned trellis and a mural painting with big plump tomatoes and the
word “Fazoli’s” on a white background. These solutions are consistent with
the myth of Italy as a country full of little restaurants and open bars, where the
slow-paced dining experience sharply contrasts with the get-in-get-out way of
consuming a meal in fast-food establishments. This “outdoor atmosphere” has
been symbolically recreated on the inside.
5. The old-world theme. The walls of the Fazoli’s restaurants are decorated
with black-and-white photos. However, most of the pictures do not seem to
represent Italians or to have a direct link with Italy. For example, the architec-
ture of the houses in the pictures, and particularly their use of large wood pan-
els, does not follow the traditional Italian one, where bricks are more com-
monly employed. Moreover, there are signs in English (“Clearance Store”)
included in these photos. Despite the incongruence, the overall themes of
“time” and “nostalgia” (use of black-and-white pictures) constitute a strong
association with Italy.
6 & 7. The romantic and expressive themes. These last two closely inter-
twined themes also emerge from the pictures that decorate the restaurant.
These themes encompass connotations such as “family” (a group of children
with their parents), “openness” (an outside party), “romanticism” (a newly-
wed couple; a woman kissing a sailor), “togetherness,” and “expressiveness”
(people cheering at a table).
One of the photos is particularly interesting because it represents a common
imagined stereotypical Italian occasion—a wedding banquet. The table is
abundantly covered with food and beverages. Both the bride and the bride-
groom have black hair. An old woman dressed with a traditional black wid-
ower dress sits to their left. In the background, a man plays a guitar, while a
couple of kids run around. The scene seems to have been taken in a rural area.
This single photograph summarized several elements that are associated with
the myth of Italian food: the openness (the meal is consumed outside in a gar-
den), the rusticity (the farm and the field that are in the background of the pic-
tures), the family (several generations are at the table), the expressivity (laugh-
ing and singing people); love and romance (the marriage); and, eventually, the
large amount of food located at the center of the table that unifies all the
Commodified Identities 317
“Everyone’s Italian!” Analysis of a TV Commercial
As mentioned in the introductory section of this article, restaurant chains
often work in a synergetic manner with traditional media to construct the
imagery that is part of the food packages offered to their consumers. In the case
of Fazoli’s,I have chosen an ad from the 2001 “Everyone is Italian!” campaign
(Griswold, 2001) to further exemplify the construction of Italianicity and, at
the same time, to show an interesting process of identity transformation.
The TV spot shows a group of people in a circle in an empty room. The
group is comprised of diverse people: an Asian male, an African American
woman, a Caucasian woman, a Caucasian man, another Caucasian young man
with an “alternative” look, and a moderator, who speaks with an identifiable
New York/Italian American accent. The moderator asks the group, “So, what
have you learned today?” The African American woman, gesticulating, says,
“Bada-bing, bada-bum!” The Asian man, jumping from his seat, sings,
“Figaro! Figaro! Figaro!” During the performances, the rest of the group
cheers or looks impressed. Then the young, alternative-looking man says with
an unsure voice, “Mamma maya?” At that point, the moderator, corrects him,
moving his hands with emphasis and talking with a reproachful tone, “It’s
mamma mia!” Then he asks the young man whether he went to Fazoli’s lately.
The young man does not reply and, instead, laughs and looks embarrassed as if
he did not complete his “homework.” The Asian man bursts again in a“Figaro!
Figaro! Figaro!” and the moderator reminds him to go “easy with the
breadsticks.” The spot ends with the tag, “Fazoli’s: Everyone is Italian!”
To decode the ad, a consumer needs to share the specific code that governs
and defines the constitutive traits of what is “Italian.” What does it mean to be
Italian? Basically, being Italian means buying into a series of stereotypical
behaviors. The moderator is recognizably Italian because he has a stereotypi-
cal Italian American/New York accent. He looks like an Italian because he has
rugged, hairy features. While speaking, he takes on a passionate and expres-
sive temperament and gestures with his hands. After having eaten regularlyat
Fazoli’s and completed their transformation into Italians, the people portrayed
in the ad begin to use stereotypical expressions like “bada-bing, bada-bum” or
“mamma mia” or sing opera.
Despite being so charged with stereotypes, the transformation into Italians
is nonetheless exciting for the people in the ad. In fact, why would one join an
“Italian group for dummies” if he or she does not buy into the whole Italian
myth? After their transformation into Italians, the people in the ad become
loud, happy, expressive, and charismatic. Interesting, becoming Italian is por-
trayed as an attractive transformation because in some way, it empowers peo-
ple to be alive and passionate.
318 Journal of Communication Inquiry
In conclusion, the transformation that is suggested by the “Everyone’s Ital-
ian” campaign is possible for two different reasons. First, because most of the
people share the code of what “being Italian” means, the consumers are aware
of the constitutive traits of the stereotype. Second, the values that are conveyed
by being Italian are not foreign or alien; instead, the consumers can easily rec-
ognize, agree, and share them.
The “Ingredients” of the Myth of Italian Food
Figure 1 summarizes the traits that constitute the myth of Italian food as it
emerges from the verbal and nonverbal communicative strategies employed to
represent Italianicity in the Fazoli’s dining experience. This web of associa-
tions, although obtained through a single case study, is not exclusive of
Commodified Identities 319
The myth of
Figure 1. The Constitutive Traits of the Myth of Italian Food in Fazoli’s
Fazoli’s; it can also be found in other restaurant chains such as Olive Garden
and Macaroni Grill, and it is, therefore, mass-marketed in the United States.
The Myth of Italian Food: So Far Yet So Close
Barthes’s concept of “myth” is functional in interpreting the role and the
implications of the myth of Italian food in contemporary American society.
Barthes (1972) defines a myth as a type of speech, or a “rhetoric:”“Myth is not
defined by the object of its message, but by the way in which it utters this mes-
sage” (p. 109). The role of myth is to cover and justify with an aura of “reality”
what is, in ultimate analysis, a social and ideological construction.
“Identification” is one of the principal figures of the rhetoric of myth.
According to Barthes (1972),
The petite-bourgeois is a man unable to imagine the Other. If he [sic] comes face
to face with him, he blinds himself, ignores and denies him, or else transforms
him into himself. In the petite-bourgeois universe, all the experiences of
confrontation are reverberating, any otherness is reduced to sameness. . ..
Sometimes—rarely—the Other is reveled as irreducible. ...Howcanoneassim-
ilate the Negro [sic], the Russian? There is a figure for emergencies: exoticism.
The Other becomes a pure object, a spectacle, a clown. (pp. 151-152)
The concepts of “exoticism” and “identification” are often regarded as direct
opposite. For instance, when most of European American customers visit an
Indian or Chinese restaurant, they may feel like being immersed in an exotic
environment because they often have no frame of reference for interpreting the
cultural messages encoded in such places. In this case, the other is pure object
because it cannot be decoded. On the other hand, many American consumers
would probably consider dining at McDonald’s as a very “reassuring” and
“familiar” experience. The environment is built through a clearly identifiable
code for the American consumer. In this second case, the other is virtually
absent. With the myth of Italian food, it is possible to observe a complex inter-
play between exoticism and identification. The myth is attractive becauseit
encompasses elements that are not only far and exotic but also close and some-
how familiar. The cultural messages and the connotative level conveyed by the
verbal and nonverbal elements of Fazoli’s are not esoteric but, instead, easily
accessible and identifiable by the American consumers. The construction of
these picturesque and somehow unusual environments is based on a well-
codified mythological locus, and it leverages on some basic stereotypes about
a supposed Italian lifestyle present in the consumer’s cognitions.
Another figure identified by Barthes is the “deprivation of history.” This
second figure plays an important role in the representations of Italy in restau-
rants like Fazoli’s. Italy is depicted as a place inhabited by huge and fertile
320 Journal of Communication Inquiry
families, a country that is “frozen” in a rural preindustrial reality, where the
produce is still handpicked and delivered to the closest market. This imagery
does not take into account the reality of contemporary Italy. Far from beinga
rural country, Italy is one of the countries with the highest gross national
income (World Bank, 2002) and is a member of the Group of Seven, an inter-
national organization among the world’s most industrialized nations (Bergsten
& Henning, 1996). Far from having large families with several children run-
ning around the house, the Italian population is gradually decreasing because
of its low fertility rate—in fact, one of the lowest in the world (United Nations
Population Division, 2003).
A third rhetorical figure that characterizes myths is the use of tautology—
namely, a recursive figure that consists of defining a concept with the concept
itself (e.g., “War is war”). The construction of an ethnic identity is character-
ized by numerous recursive elements. For instance, the decorative pictures on
the walls of Fazoli’s no longer refer to real memories of some real person or
place in Italy.Instead, their meaning is in the surface, in the form, in the black-
and-white coloration more than in a historical and real memory of an emigrant,
who may use those photos to show his or her ethnic identity, family roots, or
the world that the emigrant has left behind. In this case, the myth reverberates
in a feedback loop into deep-rooted cognitions in the consumers’ minds
because it reifies some stereotypical elements to allow their easy
The meaning of buzzwords such as authentic or real can be also interpreted
in a recursive fashion. If Disneyland “is presented as imaginary in order to
make us believe that the rest is real”(Baudrillard, 1983, p. 25), the mass-
marketed myth of Italian food introduces itself as real, authentic, and genuine.
But what does “authentic” mean? If the ethnic products that are offered are nei-
ther made with ethnic ingredients nor made by people who share that particu-
lar ethnic identity, in what sense are these products “authentic”? Sometimes,
they cannot even be recognized as “authentic” by the same members of the eth-
nic group they are claiming to represent—for instance, the “traditional
alfredo’s sauce,” which cannot be found anywhere in Italy.
One possible solution is that these terms have a performative function. They
“make” these artifacts authentic in the eyes of the consumers; they act like
“markers”following MacCannell’s (1983) definition. According to
MacCannell, touristic attractions need “markers,” such as plaques or descrip-
tion in guides, to attract the attention of the tourists. An attraction without its
marker is not usually considered worthy of attention. It loses its status of
attraction. Therefore, MacCannell observes that the marker paradoxically
makes the attraction because it allows the tourists to recognize the special
status of a particular object.
Commodified Identities 321
Another solution is that these products and environments are “authentic”
because they reproduce the myth into the minutest details. As seen above, the
role of a myth is to hide under an aura of reality what is, instead, authentically
fake, a construction made of dream and papier-mâché. For instance, the empty
bottles of wine in the Fazoli’s restaurant make sense in that environment
because of the strong association between Italy and wine, even if alcoholic
beverages are not sold in Fazoli’s. The consistency with the code governed by a
myth eventually allows the result of a symbolic construction to be perceived as
nonproblematic, as real.
Scholars and consumers should look with a critical eye on certain unobtru-
sive mass phenomena that construct standardized ethnic identities and deplete
cultural capitals, mummifying the other in an identity that the other has no
voice in defining. As we have seen in the introduction, mafia and food play a
big role in shaping the image of Italians and Italian Americans in the United
States. Therefore, the mythic construction of Italy through U.S. chain restau-
rants risks forcing another cultural construction on the Italian community,
which is already recipient of an increasing number of stereotypical representa-
tions in the traditional media. From a purely theoretical perspective, future
research should also investigate further the implicit message that equates a cul-
tural identity with its external manifestations, hence, oversimplifying and rei-
fying a long and sometimes painful process that etches one’s self in an
The “myth” of Italian food that is reproduced in Fazoli’s and other restau-
rant chains may be regarded in ultimate analysis as a hodgepodge of authenti-
cally fake Italian artifacts. However, beyond the negative aspects pointed out
so far, this myth also has positive components. It is true that we are not one
“panino” away from being Italian, but it may require some more demanding
activities, such as a class—or two—of Italian language or history. Nonethe-
less, eating the food of other cultures is a form of acceptance of the other, a first
unthreatening approach to another culture that may generate curiosity and
appreciation into the consumers.
Moreover, if the construction is not real, the values that are celebrated
through the myth of Italian food are nonetheless real in the heart of the con-
sumers. Beyond the mere taste, the linkage that connects Italian food and Latin
hedonism has traditionally been appealing to the American consumers. The
experience of the Gonfarone’s Restaurant in New York’s Greenwich Village of
the beginning at the 20th century exemplifies this linkage. Gonfarone’s was a
successful restaurant famous for its variegated guests, from businessmento
322 Journal of Communication Inquiry
students, clerks, lawyers, and bohemians. What was the reason for this suc-
cess? The appeal of the restaurant was not just in the food but also in its pecu-
liar atmosphere. Everybody in the restaurant in fact “spoke and thought and
acted ‘Italian.’This little Italian world was friendly, pleasant and gay”
(Gabaccia, 1998, p. 101). The people at Gonfarone’s were communicating to
their guests that “life was not all hard and earnest” but “an adventure to be
enjoyed” (p. 101). According to Gabaccia (1998), “these were precisely the
values that appealed to bohemian eaters, in their rebellion against the self-
restraint and moral probity of the Victorianism” (p. 101).
One century later, the mainstream consumers of the nationwide Italian res-
taurant chains are still celebrating an alternative lifestyle with the Italian food.
For the duration of the meal, they may consider the advantages of a lifestyle
not always conducted in the fast lane. If materialism characterizes our Western
societies, the myth of Italian food is still a reminder of the importance or the
human relations, a celebration of both romance and passion, and, at the same
time, a celebration of the importance of family values and of the thread that
connects several generations. In conclusion, the contemporary myth of Italian
food may have a heart of papier-mâché, but it is nonetheless a heart.
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Davide Girardelli is a Ph. D. candidate at the University of Kentucky, Lexington.
324 Journal of Communication Inquiry
I hope you enjoyed reading my article “Commodified identities: The Myth of
Italian food in the U.S.”
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