Tour of Italy


Any author appreciates a good review. And when it comes from Martin Scorsese … well, it doesn’t get much better.

The famed director gave his thumbs-up to editor Bill Tonelli’s The Italian American Reader in a press release issued by Tonelli’s publisher, Harper Collins.

Scorsese called the collection of works by three generations of Italian-American authors "an essential and fascinating book not just for Italian Americans but for everyone who cares about good writing."

If it wasn’t already official, Scorsese’s approval made it so: Tonelli, 49, has hit the big time.

The former Esquire and Rolling Stone editor lives in one of Manhattan’s nicest suburbs, West Chester, with wife, Lisa; 7-year-old daughter Lucia and 5-year-old son Willie.

Tonelli moved to Manhattan in 1989 from 16th and Moore streets, where he was born and raised. Some of his relatives still live in the neighborhood.

After graduating from Central High School in 1971, Tonelli earned a degree in journalism from Temple University.

His hometown paper — the South Philly Review — allowed just the place for Tonelli to cut his teeth as a reporter from 1974-76. >From there, he became an editor at Philadelphia Magazine before saying arriverderci to the City of Brotherly Love.

But South Philly is paid tribute in the pages of The Italian American Reader, a collection of 70 pieces from some of the best Italian-American writers in the country.

W.S. Di Piero, for example, offers up a poem about Oregon Avenue.

Oregon Avenue on a Good Day begins, "Some nights I dream the taste of pitch and bus fumes and leaf meal from my old exacting street … "

"There’s a lot of Philadelphia in this book," Tonelli notes. "I didn’t engineer it that way. It just worked out that a lot of great stuff is written by writers from Philadelphia."

The editor approached Harper Collins Publishers with the idea for the anthology. The publisher gave its blessing and Tonelli began compiling pieces. He wrote the heartfelt introduction.

"It was a great chance for me to get in touch with all these writers, many of whom I had admired from afar for years and others whom I had never known before, but turned out to be really terrific, talented writers," he says.

Tonelli categorized the poems, short stories, memoirs and essays under headings that truly capture the Italian-American ethos: "Home," "Mom and Pop," "Love," "Sex and Good Looks," "God," "Work," "Death," "Food," "Each Other" and "Everybody Else."

Released last month, The Italian American Reader is at times funny and clever; other times, touching and sad.

"I think that most Italians — who either write or who are in some expressive business like film or music — feel the need to express that [ethnic] part of themselves," Tonelli says. "In America, we all have our teams and our tribes. And we’re [Italians] lucky enough to be in a tribe that is distinct enough that we still have things to say and ways to say them that feel unique to us. We’re not all WASPs yet. We haven’t melted yet. Italian-American culture is stubborn, and it has proved resistant to melting."

Mario Puzo, Camille Paglia, Gay Talese, Don DeLillo and Beverly Donofrio are among the popular Italian-American authors who speak their minds through their stories.

But some of the more entertaining selections in the book are from writers who aren’t household names.

Maria Laurino’s Clothes extols the glory of Italian fashions and most Italian women’s flair for dressing to the nines. Ever notice how the greatest fashion designers of all time are Italian? Valentino, Versace, Armani, Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana — the list goes on. Laurino talks about how her own mother instilled in her at a young age the importance of looking one’s best, but not dressing like a gavone (pronounced gah-vone) — Southern Italian dialect derived from the Italian word cafone, or ignorant person. The word has come to mean "lower class" to many Italian Americans, including Laurino. "Gavone outfits combined a sexiness and tackiness that left me awestruck in their excessive splendor," she writes.

Tonelli says he tried to include as many forms of Italian-American writing in the book as possible. The only criteria was that every author had to be of that ethnicity. But there are selections in The Italian American Reader that have nothing to do with ethnic origin. For example, the book contains science fiction, Tonelli points out.

"Italians write about everything, not just macaroni. I wanted it to feel contemporary. I didn’t want it to feel nostalgic, sentimental. I wanted it to feel real, so I tried to get everything," he says.

Tonelli debuted as an author with 1994’s The Amazing Story of the Tonelli Family in America.

Once again, South Philly provided inspiration, as the author interviewed his aunts and talked about growing up here.

"It was kind of amazing growing up in South Philly, where you knew all your relatives," he notes.

The book contains a state-by-state directory of more than 300 Tonelli households in North America. After researching the Tonelli surname, the author drove around the country for two months, interviewing the more interesting families for his book. "I kind of pieced together a path around the country, including Alaska," he says.

Remarkably, outside of his aunts, the author found he was not related to any other Tonellis.

Several years ago, Tonelli wrote an article on The Sopranos that appeared in the New York Times Sunday "Arts and Leisure" section. The piece ran on the premiere of the HBO drama’s third season.

The writer, who describes himself as "pro-Sopranos," talked about how, while some Italians feel the show is insulting and defamatory, many others have embraced it. The writer believes Italians enjoy Mafia movies like The Godfather and Goodfellas and The Sopranos series more than anyone else.

"We see beyond the depiction of criminality that there is something alive and admirable about our culture," he explains. "All these shows are really love stories about family."

Author Bill Tonelli will hold a reading/book-signing for his anthology, The Italian American Reader, with writers Denise Gess, J.T. Barbarese and Tom Cardella tonight, 6-7:30, at Borders, Broad and Chestnut streets. For more information, call 215-568-7400.