Italy Says We Should Stop Naming Foods and Restaurants After the Mafia. Italy Is Right.

Slate's Culture Blog
March 25 2014 11:30 AM

Italy Says We Should Stop Naming Foods After the Mafia. Italy Is Right.

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This picture taken in 2004 shows a pizzeria burned by a local mafia in Naples.

Photo by CARLO HERMAN/AFP/Getty Images

Bad news for the Kitchen Consigliere, Capo’s Speakeasy (described on its website as “mafia-chic”), and Herman Cain’s erstwhile chain Godfather’s Pizza: Italy is not happy with your mob-themed edibles. The Telegraph reports that an Italian agricultural trade group called Coldiretti is calling on other countries to cut it out with the mafia cookbooks, mafia peanuts, and mafia dipping sauce.

The controversy began last month, when Italian newspaper La Repubblica ran a story criticizing a Spanish restaurant chain named, subtly, La Mafia, and Italian politicians spoke out against the chain. Now, Coldiretti has unearthed dozens of other mafia-themed foods from around the world, and the group's president gave the Telegraph a pretty airtight argument against the trend:

“Our research has uncovered a real market of horrors which is making money out of one of the most painful scourges of our society,” Mr Moncalvo said.
“These sorts of unacceptable commercial practises damage the image of Italy abroad, but above all have a profound impact on the many Italians who have been, and who unfortunately continue to be, victims of organised crime.”
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When you realize that mafia killings are still very much a regular occurrence in Italy, that café Mafioso you're sipping might begin to taste rather sour. (And it’s not just violence—crime syndicates still control much of Italy’s food production, so much so that Coldiretti actually has a “mafia” category in its archive of press releases.) Unfortunately, in the U.S. and elsewhere, the first thing that comes to mind when people hear the word “mafia” isn’t, for example, the two-year-old boy who was recently shot to death by the mafia in Taranto—it’s The Godfather, Goodfellas, or The Sopranos. Although both those movies and that TV show earned their fair share of criticism for perpetuating Italian-American stereotypes, they at least tried to grapple with morality via their portrayals of mafia communities. The same can’t be said of a Godfather’s Pizza commercial promising “a pizza you can’t refuse.”

Americans’ ignorance of ongoing mafia violence in Italy isn’t the only reason restaurants can get away with naming pizza varieties after real-life mob bosses: Good old callousness plays a role, too. If familiarity with the social ills caused by the mafia were the only issue, we wouldn’t have foods like “crack pie” and “meth-covered doughnuts”—after all, the average American has been hearing about the drug epidemic for decades. Yes those offensively named sweets exist. Many Americans seem to have trouble grasping the idea that while movies, books, and TV shows can be complex enough to illuminate the evils of the drug war (or of organized crime), appetizers, entrées, and desserts cannot. “Crack caramel ice cream” and “Lucky Luciano pizza" communicate only contemptuousness to anyone whose life has been negatively affected by drugs or crime.

And if your response to Coldiretti’s statement, and my defense of it, is to roll your eyes and cite creative license, I say: Naming a pizza chain after a forty-year-old movie is the furthest thing from creative. Coming up with a restaurant menu or snack food that doesn’t rely on tired stereotypes or tasteless jokes—now that requires imagination.

L.V. Anderson is a Slate assistant editor. She edits Slate's food and drink sections and writes Brow Beat's recipe column, You're Doing It Wrong.