When Irish Eyes Aren’t Smiling, It’s Because They’d Rather be Italian


Every Thursday night, I rush to finish my article for The Observer in time for the latest “Jersey Shore” episode at 10 p.m. Yet when “Jersey Shore” premiered over a year ago, I refused to watch it. I felt it was an insult to Italian-Americans. Why? Because I think I’m Italian, when actually, I’m not.

Colleen Thornhill, FCLC ’12, browning a butter sauce as she prepares a recipe from Giada de Laurentiis’s cookbook. (Salma Elmehdawi/The Observer)

Instead, I’m an Irish-Catholic who’s a quarter Polish. I definitely have Irish pride, but I couldn’t tell you anything about my ancestors except that their homeland is green and they like Guinness. As for my Polish roots, well, the closest I’ve ever come to embracing those is eating pierogies from the frozen food section of the grocery store.

If I felt the need, I’m sure I could do some research on my family and figure out what it truly means to be Irish or Polish. The thing is, I’m not all that interested. I don’t feel like anything is missing. Why not? Because I’m having too much fun embracing another culture—Italian.

Consider the following: one of my favorite movies is “The Godfather.” The most-played songs on my iPod are sung by Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. And when I say I’m busy on Thursday nights, it’s because I have to watch “Jersey Shore” (I quickly converted to fandom when I realized the wisdom of The Situation and the subtle wit of Snooki. And when I remembered I wasn’t really Italian.).

All right, all right, so you might be thinking, “Everyone loves ‘The Godfather.’ Everybody listens to Frank Sinatra. Who doesn’t watch the ‘Shore?’” But wait, there’s more. I bought myself a “Teach Yourself Italian” set that includes three CDs, a dictionary and a workbook. I watched the movie “Moonstruck” multiple times, so I could better understand what it’s like growing up in an Italian-American family. And whenever I meet someone of Italian descent, I tend to grill them for a solid half-hour on the particulars of their Italian traditions.

I noticed my penchant towards all-things Italian from an early age. I grew up in the South, but I was born on Long Island and both my parents grew up there surrounded by Italian neighbors, along with Italian restaurants, bakeries and delis. Those were few and far between in South Carolina, and as a result, when we moved, my parents brought what they’d known with them.

The first movie I remember watching is “My Cousin Vinny,” a film whose humor stems from its leading characters, two Italian-American New Yorkers who find themselves failing to blend in in an Alabama town. As I got older, I hated that everyone in my town was blond and tan. My Irish coloring didn’t make it easy to blend in, so I found inspiration in the characters of “My Cousin Vinny”: in Mona Lisa Vito, who didn’t tone down her Brooklyn accent but made it thicker, and in Vinny Gambini, who wore a leather jacket to court even if it was unconventional and bound to get him in trouble. Sure, they’re both New Yorkers and not every Italian-American hails from one of the five boroughs, but they were still Italian, and my obsession with the culture had begun.

Then in 2003, the Food Network premiered a show called “Everyday Italian.” The chef, Giada de Laurentiis, made Italian cooking easy and approachable. My favorite dish at the time was baked ziti, and when I told other kids this, they looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language—they’d never even heard of it. Yet there was Giada, making the dish available to everyone. If TV says baked ziti is okay, then I couldn’t have been that crazy, right? Giada’s food was nowhere to be found where I lived, and soon I rattled off her creations to my mom, in the hopes she’d make them.

My mom was pretty good about trying Giada’s different Italian recipes, even though I could be annoying about it. In fact, both my parents were more than obliging with my Italian culture obsession. My dad’s go-to music collection mainly included Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett and Bobby Darin, all of whom were of Italian descent. Like other Irish kids, I memorized the words to “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” but not before learning the Italian opening to “On an Evening in Roma” and remembering it better than the latest song on the radio.

I’m grateful I had a family brave enough to venture over from Ireland and Poland multiple generations ago, but I just wish there had been someone to keep their traditions alive. As I begin to learn more about what it means to be Italian, I want my own family to embrace our background. We may be born and bred in America, but my mom wouldn’t bake Irish Soda Bread every St. Patrick’s Day if someone in the family hadn’t left us that recipe. For now, I’m too concentrated on pretending to be Italian, but someday I’ll look into it all. I owe it to those who came before me, mia famiglia, at the very least.