Globe photos/David L. Ryan
Forty years ago this summer, 12-year-old Anthony Martignetti was walking with friends near Pizzeria Regina in the North End when three men approached and asked for directions to Commercial Street.
His friends didn’t like the outsiders in their neighborhood – “long-haired, hippie types,” as Martignetti remembers – so they told them where they could go, and it wasn’t to Commercial Street. But Martignetti felt bad, so he stayed behind to give the men directions.
Two weeks later, Martignetti saw the men again. They remembered that he’d been nice to them, and perhaps most important, they liked his name. So the men, who were developing an advertising campaign for Prince Pasta, a company founded in the neighborhood, asked him a question that would change his life: Would you like to be in a TV commercial?
At first he said no, but after discussing it with his friends – who believed this was their ticket to getting girls – he consented and ran home to tell his mother.
“I said, ‘Ma, I’m gonna be on TV,’ ” he recalled. “And she slapped me. She thought I was in trouble and I was gonna be on the news.”
What he was going to be was an icon. Anthony!
That commercial, the award-winning “Wednesday Is Prince Spaghetti Day” spot that ran nationally for 13 years, would become a symbol of Boston’s North End. Its famous opening scene – an Italian woman leaning out of a window on Powers Court, yelling for her son (“Anthony! Anthony!”) to come home and eat spaghetti -- made his first name a part of American pop culture, like “Stella!” in “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Adrian!” in “Rocky.”
Martignetti, who had immigrated from Italy three years before the commercial was shot, lives in West Roxbury now and works as an associate court officer in Dedham District Court. But when he goes back to the North End, as he did on a recent Monday with a reporter to revisit the spots from the ad, he still gets the celebrity treatment from the fellas on the street, who, naturally, call out his first name.
“Look at all these restaurants,” he said on Hanover Street, gesturing with his hands, which he does quite often when he speaks. “I think that commercial changed the lifestyle of the North End. Before that, nobody had ever heard of it. Rent was $60 a month. Everybody knew everybody. If you had four restaurants, it was a lot.”
Martignetti believes the 30-second commercial, which was both a stereotype of and a homage to Italian America – mother, family, pasta, yelling – may have hastened the gentrification of the North End, where high-priced condos have chased out many of the older families. At the least, he thinks an argument could be made that the warm glow of mass media softened the image of the fiercely parochial neighborhood and made it more appealing to outsiders (see: South Boston after “Good Will Hunting”).
But a lot has changed since that tumultuous summer of 1969, those hot months of Woodstock and the moon landing, the Manson family murders, and Chappaquiddick.
“The '60s and '70s were the last gasp of the North End families,” according to Anthony V. Riccio, the author of “Recollections of the North End.” “There was some truth to that commercial at that time; it was the typical Italian family situation. But things change. Now that commercial has gone from being a stereotype to something that’s quaint, something that you can look back on that no longer exists.”
|Mary Fiumara, with window she yelled out of at upper left.|
“It was so real,” she said. “I used to do the same thing with my two boys. I’d hang out the window and call them home for dinner,” she said from her home, two blocks from that iconic window. “But you don’t see that anymore.'' (For the record, neither of her boys are named Anthony; and no, she will not yell “Anthony!” for you.)
As Martignetti continued his tour of the spots where he was filmed running home to his fictional mother, he took a detour out of the neighborhood and across the Rose Kennedy Greenway (then the Central Artery) to the spot where he began his run, on Blackstone Street, among the pushcarts of the Haymarket.
“People who know the area say, ‘How’d you hear your mother calling you from Powers Court?’ ” which is nearly a half-mile away. “ ‘What’d you get, bionic ears from eating all that pasta?’ ”
While Martignetti, like many locals, laments that the North End has become a mix of an Italian neighborhood and a theme park of an Italian neighborhood, he says he has no regrets about making the commercial, even if it may have contributed to that transformation. It didn’t make him rich – he thinks he got about $1,500 for the commercial – and though he doesn’t have to wait for a table in the North End, he’s not exactly famous.
But his name is.
Michelle Topor, who leads the North End Market Tour, says that at least half the time, the people on her culinary expeditions will break into cries of “Anthony!”
Anthony Martignetti likes this. Five years ago, when he had a son, you can guess what he named him (he thinks that the two should do a commercial together).
And little Anthony is just like his dad. They both eat Prince spaghetti all the time.
“Wednesday, yes,” big Anthony said, when asked the obvious question. “But also Thursday, Friday. Every day. I love spaghetti. You open my cabinets and all you see is Prince spaghetti. What can I say? I’m Italian. And no one cooks spaghetti like my mother."
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