Noah Brier | November 13, 2020

Why is this interesting? - The Pruh-Zhoot Edition

On culture, Italy, and the words we use to describe food

Noah here. When I was working in Soho and feeling like a real treat, I would occasionally walk down to Aleva, an Italian meat and cheese shop on Grand Street in Little Italy that dates back to 1892 famous for making sandwiches that can easily weigh in at two or three pounds. Like any good Italian deli, one of their specialties is their prosciutto and fresh mozzarella sandwich. 

Or, as they say it in Little Italy, pruh-zhoot and muh-tza-rell. 

Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

If you grew up in something like a 100-mile radius of New York City, you are undoubtedly familiar with these Italian words. They’re mostly food-related and almost always involve dropping the final vowel (amongst other linguistic transformations): a cal-zone ordered with extra ree-goat (ricotta), an appetizer of cal-a-mar, or even some slices of sopra-sot (soppressata) and gabagool (capicola). I grew up hearing many of these and didn’t think much about them until much later in life. 

Why is this interesting? 

Something reminded me of all this yesterday, and I dug back for a New York Times article from 15 years ago that laid out some possible explanations. “In some parts of Italy,” the piece explains, “the dropping of final vowels is common. Restaurant goers and food shoppers in the United States ended up imitating southern and northern dialects, where speakers often do not speak their endings.” It’s strangely something I think about a lot: mostly because it’s become a running joke anytime we have prosciutto, which happens to be a favorite of my five-year-old.

The story, as laid out in this excellent Atlas Obscura piece “How Capicola Became Gabagool: The Italian New Jersey Accent, Explained,” goes deeper into Italy’s history:

The basic story is this: Italy is a very young country made up of many very old kingdoms awkwardly stapled together to make a patchwork whole. Before 1861, these different kingdoms—Sardinia, Rome, Tuscany, Venice, Sicily (they were called different things at the time, but roughly correspond to those regions now)—those were, basically, different countries. Its citizens didn’t speak the same language, didn’t identify as countrymen, sometimes were even at war with each other. The country was unified over the period from around 1861 until World War I, and during that period, the wealthier northern parts of the newly-constructed Italy imposed unfair taxes and, basically, annexed the poorer southern parts. As a result, southern Italians, ranging from just south of Rome all the way down to Sicily, fled in huge numbers to other countries, including the United States.

In the end, the story of pruh-zhoot and gabagool is like a lot of stories in the United States: lots of people immigrate here from some area, and, over time, various home customs and language start to merge and reshape. That’s then passed down through the generations, losing bits of context along the way. In the end, you get something that is theoretically rooted in some other place in the world but is mostly just American. (NRB)

Sandwich of the Day:

Quickly checked my photos to track down a shot of an Aleva sandwich. This looks like a few kinds of meats and mozzarella from 2017. Stop by and grab one (plenty of food for two) next time you’re in Little Italy. (NRB)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

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