From Atlas Obscura, by Dan Nosowitz
“Don’t eat gabagool, Grandma,” says Meadow Soprano on an early episode of The Sopranos, perhaps the most famous depiction of Jersey Italian culture in the past few decades. “It’s nothing but fat and nitrates.” The pronunciation of “gabagool,” a mutation of the word "capicola," might surprise a casual viewer, although it and words like it should be familiar to viewers of other New Jersey-based shows like the now-defunct Jersey Shore and The Real Housewives of New Jersey, where food often drives conversation. The casts are heavily Italian-American, but few of them can actually speak, in any real way, the Italian language. Regardless, when they talk about food, even food that’s widely known by the non-Italian population, they often use a specific accent.
And it’s a weird one. “Mozzarella” becomes something like “mutzadell.” “Ricotta” becomes “ree-goat.” “Prosciutto” becomes “pruh-zhoot.” There is a mangling of the language in an instantly identifiable way: final syllables are deleted, certain consonants are swapped with others, certain vowels are mutated in certain places.
Most immigrant groups in the U.S. retain certain words and phrases from the old language even if the modern population can’t speak it. But for people outside those groups, and even, often, inside them, it’s next to impossible to pick out a specific regional accent in the way a Jewish American says “challah” or a Korean-American says “jjigae.” How can someone who doesn’t speak the language possibly have an regional accent?
Yet Italian-Americans do. It’s even been parodied; on an episode of Kroll Show, comedian Nick Kroll’s character Bobby Bottleservice, a Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino-type, describes his lunch in this thick accent, eliminating the final syllable of each item. “Cap-uh-coal,” he says, pointing at capicola. “Mort-ah-dell,” he says, as the camera pans over a thin, pale arrangement of mortadella. “Coca-coal,” he finishes, as the camera moves over to a glass of Coke. “Capicola,” made famous in its mutation by The Sopranos, gets even more mutated for comedic effect on The Office, where it becomes “gabagool.”
I spoke to a few linguists and experts on Italian-American culture to figure out why a kid from Paterson, New Jersey, who doesn’t speak Italian, would earnestly ask for a taste of “mutzadell.” The answer takes us way back through history and deep into the completely chaotic world of Italian linguistics.
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