There is something endearing about The Show with Vinnie, the purposefully trashy and low-tech MTV talk show, the most recent spin-off of the Jersey Shore reality TV hit. Hosted by Vinny Guadagnino, a former protagonist of the now defunct Jersey Shore series, each episode is taped in Vinny's Staten Island family home or in the surrounding area.
The show's opening title runs on the cheesy soundtrack from Febbre da Cavallo (Horse Fever), an iconic Italian comedy from the 1970s. In the movie, virtually unknown outside of Italy, a band of losers from the Roman lower classes tries to make it to the big time by betting on horse races. They are low brow and crass, but relatable and funny. A subtle hint of what's to come?
Besides Mr. Guadagnino and the celebrities he entertains in his bedroom, living room, and garage-turned-man cave (which he joyously defines as "really ghetto"), family and food play a crucial role, providing entertaining but stereotyped vignettes of a particular strand of Italian-American culture, Staten Island style. The interviews, mostly shot in very close and cluttered spaces, give viewers the impression they are peeking into the private life of the protagonists. We are introduced to Vinny's overbearing but affectionate mom Paula, his sisters Antonella and Mariann, and his uncle Nino -- Nino's shirt open with no undershirt and a big golden chain with a cross on his chest.
Not surprisingly, food plays an important role in the way Vinny's family members communicate and express themselves. This theme previously emerged in the Jersey Shore series, where the roommates made a point of cooking and eating their Sunday dinners together. They often consumed dishes brought over by Vinny's mother, Paula (whose use of chicken parm and fried delights as an umbilical cord replacement to tether her son was far from discrete). Paula's first on-camera scene in the new series comes when she is busy preparing for the visit of their first guest, rapper Lil Wayne. While she places what looks like Sicilian style rice arancini in aluminum trays, she reminds Vinny that the food needs to be microwaved for two minutes. Her priorities could not be any clearer.
When the celebrity arrives, everybody sits in the living room around a low table full of food. Paula needs to make sure that everybody eats, including the crew. Her children make fun of her desire to be everybody's mother, but they clearly appreciate her culinary concerns, both as a form of emotional nourishment and an expression of their culture. They proudly introduce Lil Wayne to mozzarella, broccoli rabe, and antipasti, making for a hilarious exchange.
Vinny: Have you ever eaten Italian food before or not?
Lil Wayne: My fiancée is Italian.
Paula: What part of Italy? Like Sicilian? Neapolitan?
Lil Wayne (with a glazed look on his face): Arizona.
When uncle Nino appears, he offers a wine bottle from his own production to the celebrity. Vinnie hints that the uncle pushes his wine on anyone he meets. This may be an attempt at product placement, but the fact that uncle Nino makes wine harks back to countryside life in Italy, where in the past, farmers who could afford it bought grapes to make their own wine, of which they were extremely proud. Il vino del contadino (the farmer's wine) enjoys an almost mythical place in Italian traditions as the nostalgic symbol of a genuine and simple approach to food--even if everybody is quite ready to admit that those wines were often badly made and tasted horrible.
When Lil Wayne leaves, all Mom can think of is to prepare doggie bags with sausage and pepper, for which the rapper reportedly expressed appreciation. She packs the food and literally runs after Vinnie's car to give it to the rapper and his slightly embarrassed son, all packed with forks and cookies.
Only the first episode has aired. From the previews of the following segments, it does not seem that the presence of food is just a fluke. MTV producers are bent on squeezing the typecast to the last drop, banking on the interest of viewers in the Jersey Shore excessive version of Italian-American culture. This time, however, they have moved their focus from self-proclaimed guidos and guidettes to "authentic" Staten Island life. In the MTV world, every Sicilian mother gets to share her broccoli rabe with international celebrities.