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A Giant Gesture

How a Montclair professor’s piece about Tommy DeVito’s Italian hand motion sparked a cultural conversation

Posted in: Coccia News

Mark Rotella
Coccia Institute for the Italian American Experience Director Mark Rotella’s article about Tommy DeVito’s modern twist on an old-school Italian hand gesture struck a chord with many.

When Mark Rotella saw rookie New York Giants quarterback Tommy DeVito make an old-school Italian hand gesture in celebration of throwing one of his first touchdowns, he was a little dismayed and concerned that it would conjure up images of cultural stereotypes. After learning of DeVito’s explanation that it was an homage to “old Italians,” the director of  Coccia Institute for the Italian American Experience at Montclair State University decided to talk with his team.

What resulted was a robust discussion about the mixed emotions and Rotella, also a professor of creative writing, pitching an opinion piece to The New York Times. “They thought it had enough legs, and even after Tommy DeVito was benched for the next few games, they decided to go with it,” he says.

Rotella wrote about his initial ambivalence-turned-pride about Italian-American culture in “The Hand Gesture Heard Round the World” in The New York Times on January 6. Ultimately, Rotella liked that DeVito had given an old-school gesture a modern twist and made it his own, coming to the conclusion that the gesture is “proof that my culture is as robust and relevant as it’s ever been.”

After publication, the professor’s inbox and phone were flooded with emails and texts. “I couldn’t believe how much it had resonated with Italian-Americans and even non-Italian Americans,” Rotella says. “This is something that even within the Italian-American community or any immigrant communities, you’re going to have different people feeling different ways about their culture. So, I’m glad to have this open conversation about it.”

While the majority of the feedback was positive, there were a few people who felt his piece perpetuated Italian stereotypes.

He took it all in stride. “An opinion piece is an opinion piece,” Rotella says, “It’s meant to spark conversation.”

The piece not only sparked conversation but it scored Rotella multiple media touchdowns, including features and appearances on NY 1 and NPR’s Here and Now, ultimately coming full circle with a video on the Times Opinion TikTok account.

The NPR segment resulted in a much deeper conversation “about the history of anti-Italian sentiment in the United States,” Rotella says.

While Rotella is no stranger to being published — he’s authored several books, written dozens of newspaper articles and served as senior editor of Publisher’s Weekly for almost two decades — he’s glad an article about a fellow Italian-American’s hand gesture struck a chord and garnered media attention.

“Part of my mission is to bring the Coccia Institute into a larger, general conversation,” he says, “Also, I’m always thrilled when Montclair is entered into the conversation.”

Meanwhile, DeVito and his hand gesture even made it to the Super Bowl — in a pizza ad, of course.

Next up for Rotella is his annual Red Sauce, a docuseries on food which he produces in collaboration with faculty and film students in the School of Communication and Media. The next episode will air March 4 at Presentation Hall.

Story by Staff Writer Sylvia A. Martinez. Photo by University Photographer Mike Peters.