Feeling Italian

The Art of Ethnicity in America

256 pages

10 illustrations

May, 2005

ISBN: 9780814727478



Also available in


Cultural Studies

Part of the Nation of Nations series


Thomas J. Ferraro is Associate Professor of English at Duke University. He is the author of Ethnic Passages and editor of Catholic Lives, Contemporary America.

All books by Thomas J. Ferraro

2006 American Book Award, presented by the Before Columbus Foundation

Southern Italian emigration to the United States peaked a full century ago—descendents are now fourth and fifth generation, dispersed from their old industrial neighborhoods, professionalized, and fully integrated into the “melting pot.” Surely the social historians are right: Italian Americans are fading into the twilight of their ethnicity. So, why is the American imagination enthralled by The Sopranos, and other portraits of Italian-ness?

Italian American identity, now a mix of history and fantasy, flesh-and-bone people and all-too-familiar caricature, still has something to teach us, including why each of us, as citizens of the U.S. twentieth century and its persisting cultures, are to some extent already Italian. Contending that the media has become the primary vehicle of Italian sensibilities, Ferraro explores a series of books, movies, paintings, and records in ten dramatic vignettes. Featured cultural artifacts run the gamut, from the paintings of Joseph Stella and the music of Frank Sinatra to The Godfather’s enduring popularity and Madonna’s Italian background. In a prose style as vivid as his subjects, Ferraro fashions a sardonic love song to the art and iconography of Italian America.


  • “Ferraro maintains a breezy, journalistic style that has produced an easy and entertaining read. His work may give hope to people of other ethnicities who presently suffer from isolation and alienation on the part of the general American public.”

    Multicultural Review

  • “Ferraro traces the 'evolution and persistence' of an identifiable Italian American identity, from the time of widespread Italian immigration in the late 1800s through popular mediated portrayals of Italian Americans such as those found in The Sopranos television series. The book is an important contribution not only to Italian American studies, but to the understanding of ethnicity in the 21st-century US.”


  • Feeling Italian is a smart book, one that makes the reader think beyond the usual ways of looking at what’s Italian about the US.”

    American Book Review

  • “This inspired, sophisticated, provoking book should command the attention of anybody interested in American Italianness in particular or the cultural consequences of ethnicity in general. Joseph Stella and Frank Sinatra, Maria Barbella and Giancarlo Esposito, Madonna and the good people who brought you the Corleones and Sopranos—;they and others appear here, often seen in startlingly fresh ways, as creators and exemplars of the aesthetic Tom Ferraro calls ‘feeling Italian.’ Wise, funny, contagiously enthusiastic, Ferraro takes us far beyond the narrow pieties of the identity police or anti-defamation types as he traces the development of a widely accessible American cultural style that still bears the marks of distinctively Italian ways of making do and making sense.”

    —Carlo Rotella, author of Good With Their Hands: Boxers, Bluesmen, and Other Characters from the Rust Belt

  • “Original and deeply right. There is no other book that digs so deeply into the matter at hand, and does so with such eloquence and ferocity of intellect.”

    —Jay Parini, author of Passage to Liberty: The Story of Italian Immigration and the Rebirth of America