When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie … that’s amore
Joe stumbles into his own surprise party, wearing a sport coat and boxer shorts. “Ma, will you sew a button on for me?” he asks, not yet aware that the room is filled with family and friends. The lights switch on.
There is food on the table, bottles of wine on the counters, wide-brimmed hats hanging from nails on the walls. Laughter surrounds the beloved and still pants-less son of Italian immigrants.
“Hurry up with the cake,” says Joe’s father, and a skinny younger man in a comically oversized chef’s hat — he’s apparently the only non-Italian here — trips into the room.
“Hey, what’s going on here?” asks Joe with a smile, his pants finally on.
The skinny friend points to the cake and emits a sort of nasal squeak: “It says, ‘Welcome home, Joe. Amore.’ That means… ”
“Love,” says Joe.
The friend looks at Joe. “It’s Italian,” he says in that same squeak, “how’d you know?”
Replies Joe in a practiced deadpan, “I used to work here.”
The scene is from the 1953 Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis comedy The Caddy, with Martin playing Joe Anthony, a tournament golf player, and Lewis playing his friend Harvey Miller, who taught Joe the game but gets brushed aside while Joe pursues fame and romance, until an inevitable final-reel reunion.
As with all Martin and Lewis comedies, such a homecoming moment requires a song. Joe — like so many children of immigrants — carries his family’s hopes wherever he goes, and he lets the weight of that burden show for a moment when he’s asked to sing for his own party.
The request comes from his mother. “Like old time, you sing a song for mama, si?” she begs, and when Joe protests that he can’t perform in front of so many people, his father looks at him sharply under raised eyebrows. “You sing-a for mama,” he commands. Joe hits a glass with a breadstick. Right on cue, family members appear at his side with an accordion, guitar and violin.
The song that follows will be “That’s Amore,” and it will become an Academy Award-nominated tune and Dean Martin’s first hit recording. Of the many Italian-accented songs to appear on the pop charts in the 1950s — including Louis Prima’s “Buona Sera,” Rosemary Clooney’s “Mambo Italiano” and Domenico Modugno’s “Volare” (later recorded by Martin) — “That’s Amore” will endure the longest, in no small part due to the irresistible, sing-along simile that starts things off:
When the moon hits your eye
Like a big pizza pie
In what would be the first of countless performances of this song, Martin croons the lines in The Caddy as if they are an incantation of his family’s culinary joys, each line seemingly inspired by the food being set before him. It begins with the “Amore” in the cake decoration, then moves onto pizza pie and finishes with pasta e fagioli, or “pasta fazool,” which Martin sings just as Joe’s mother emerges from the kitchen carrying a large bowl of the traditional pasta-and-bean soup.
It’s a scene of great sentiment, but as we are in a Martin and Lewis picture, it doesn’t remain sentimental for long. Before Martin croons his final note, Lewis jumps in with an instant parody, singing:
If you still kiss your goil
After garlic and oil
If you call her your pet
Though she’s shaped like spaghet’
This, ultimately, is the story of “That’s Amore,” a song with contradictions baked right into its crust.
It is a tale of both ethnic pride and self-ridicule, of sentiment and satire, and of a hit song that its singer didn’t really care for. Along with other Italian pop songs of the decade, “That’s Amore” also helped to fog over wartime images of Benito Mussolini with more benign images of steam rising from pots of pasta and pans of bubbling tomato sauce.
Finally, this song of love also contained the seeds of one of the severest breakups in history — not of star-crossed lovers but of a comedy team.
Premiering in 1953, The Caddy was the 10th of 17 movies that the team of Martin and Lewis made over their 10 remarkable years together. Their act had started on stage seven years earlier, based — like many comedy acts — on the premise that the duo made an unlikely pair.
Martin, nearly 10 years Lewis’ senior, was the child of Italian immigrants from Steubenville, Ohio. He quit school in 10th grade during the Depression. Before he began singing professionally, he worked in a steel mill, dealt cards, ran whiskey and fought as a welterweight boxer.
The gangly, rubber-faced Lewis was the New Jersey son of vaudeville performers. Like Martin, he came from an immigrant family, and like Martin, part of his process of Americanization included adopting a new stage name. (Martin was born Dino Paul Crocetti; Lewis was Joseph Levitch.) When they met, Lewis’ act was mainly performing funny lip-synching routines to popular records. They struck up a friendship and started goofing around at each other’s shows — Lewis might show up dressed like a busboy during Martin’s act, dropping dishes everywhere. Their first date as an actual comedy team was in Atlantic City in the summer of 1946.
It didn’t take long for the performers to click. The manic nightclub show found an audience with a post-war America looking to let its hair down and order another round. Martin played the straight man; comic bits often revolved around Lewis conducting the orchestra behind Martin, making grotesque faces behind the debonair older crooner. Lewis would later say, “I thought, my God, there hasn’t been a comedy team where one is a handsome man and the other a monkey.” Martin and Lewis next helped to pioneer comedy on television when they took a cleaned-up version of their act to Ed Sullivan’s first show, Toast of the Town, in 1948. They made their first movie the following year.
It was a remarkable merging of two great currents in American entertainment: Italian-inflected popular music and Jewish comedy. Martin embodied what writer Mark Rotella, in his affectionate book Amore: The Story of Italian American Song, identified as la sprezzatura a centuries-old Italian practice of making hard work look easy. Martin, drink in hand (on stage it was usually apple juice), nonchalantly crooning about love and pizza, was pure la sprezzatura. And for the 10 years they were together, it was Lewis’ job to litter Martin’s path with banana peels, while slipping on many of them himself.
Accounts differ on just how “That’s Amore” came to Dean Martin. “We just gave him a song to sing, he’d look it over and start to sing,” one Capitol Records executive told Dean Martin biographer Michael Freedland. But years after Dean Martin’s death, Jerry Lewis took credit for the idea, saying he’d noticed his partner was getting restless in the act, and he thought a hit song might help. “So I went to the great Harry Warren, the Oscar-winning writer of such songs as ‘Forty-Second Street,’ ‘You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby’ and ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo,’ and his lyricist Jack Brooks, and paid them $30,000 out of my own pocket,” Lewis wrote in his autobiography. “I didn’t want Dean to know I hired them, and I never told him. But I knew that Harry Warren could write hits, and I said to Harry, ‘I want a hit for Dean.’ And he wrote one.”
Although Brooks, born in Liverpool, is credited as lyricist, it seems more than likely that Warren was responsible for some of the song’s evocations of Italian food and romance. Growing up in Brooklyn as Salvatore Antonio Guaragna (his father was ), Warren would have been served pizza long before much of America discovered the dish. By the time “That’s Amore” appeared, newspapers announced that “Pizza popularity in America is at an all-time high!” — in part due to returning soldiers hungry for the food they’d enjoyed while stationed in Italy.
The other dish referenced in Warren and Brooks’ song — pasta e fagioli or “pasta fazool” — might have been chosen for the rhyme with “drool,” but the meal would also play a special part in Dean Martin’s own family. His daughter, Deana Martin, recalled in her memoir how her grandmother taught her to make Dean’s favorite: “I remember vividly her taking me into the kitchen and tying an apron around me,” she wrote. ‘“I’m going to teach you something very special, Deana — your father’s favorite dish, which was given to me by my grandmother,’ she told me. ‘I’m not going to write it down. You’ll have to remember it and the secret ingredient, and you must not tell anyone, not even your sisters. One day, when I’m gone, you can make it for your Dad and you will make him very happy.’”
Despite this family culinary connection — and despite “That’s Amore” becoming his first million-selling record — Dean Martin didn’t care much for the song, at least at first. Maybe the jokey references to his Italian heritage rubbed him the wrong way — after all, this was a kid whose first language was Italian, and who was beaten up by other kids in school for his halting English. But joking about such things was a mainstay of the act. Martin never explained his reasons, whatever they were.
Two performances of “That’s Amore” just a few months apart offer perhaps the best indication of Martin’s conflicted reaction to the song and the role it played in the history of Martin and Lewis. The first broadcast was in late 1953, when “That’s Amore” was just hitting the charts. Martin is the picture of la sprezzatura, smiling easily and gesturing to his audience as if he’s a maitre’d at the world’s coolest Italian cafe. At the end of that song, he calls Lewis out to the stage. “You know what you’re going to do for me now,” Martin tells Lewis. “You’re going to conduct the band.”Lewis dances around in excitement. “What number, Dean?” he asks eagerly.
“Do you happen to know what kind of number it is?” Martin asks, just as eagerly.
Martin then launches into the Tony Martin hit recording “There’s No Tomorrow,” based on the 19th-century Neapolitan song “O Sole Mio,” with Lewis creating chaos behind him, landing with a crash in the orchestra’s woodwinds, then getting back up to cry out, “Get your pizzas here!” By song’s end, the two partners collapse in each other’s arms, the fitting end of a letter-perfect routine.
Things are not so harmonious the following year on the same program. After presenting Martin with a gold record for “That’s Amore,” Lewis bursts in unannounced while Martin is performing the song. “You can stop warming up now,” Lewis squeaks. The bit soon goes off the rails. While Martin sings, Lewis waves stacks of cash at the camera operators so they will wheel their rigs right up into Martin’s face. By the end, Martin is pinned by a circle of cameras with Lewis on top of him, slapping him in the head and shouting, “I’ve conquered him! All mine!” “You’re overacting, Jerry!” shouts Martin at one point, breaking character with momentary fury as Lewis grabs his thick hair and boxes him in the ears.
It would be two years before the final dissolution of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis’ lucrative comedy partnership — as well as their friendship — but the dynamics behind the breakup were all starkly visible and right on stage, played out for a television audience as Martin tried to sing about the moon and Napoli.
For the next 40 years, Dean Martin continued to perform “That’s Amore” as his signature song. In 1988, Frank Sinatra, hoping to revive Martin’s spirits following a tragic plane crash that killed Martin’s son, launched a “Together Again” tour. Martin only performed six shows before quitting the tour, but he always closed his sets with “That’s Amore.” At the show in Oakland, California, he introduced the song with a joke: “Here’s a song that started me and I hope it don’t finish me.”
“That’s Amore” would also enjoy a varied life beyond Dean Martin, including in movies. Most prominently, the song opened the 1987 comedy Moonstruck, establishing the movie’s setting in an Italian-American community in Brooklyn Heights, New York. “That’s Amore” also showed up in the Disney movie Enchanted, where it was used, not surprisingly, in a pizza parlor scene. Perhaps the most unexpected appearance was in Alfred Hitchock’s 1954 voyeuristic thriller Rear Window, where it can be heard while Jimmy Stewart gazes into the window of neighboring newlyweds.
The self-parody that is baked into “That’s Amore” can be heard in other versions, from a typically frantic, circa-1950s Spike Jones performance to a polka version warbled by John C. Reilly in the 2007 comedy Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. It has been a particular favorite in the animated television show The Simpsons, where it’s been sung by a gondola operator as well as by Homer Simpson himself, while playing “chair gondola” in his workplace. Dean Martin’s original version shows up in a memorable show-opening “couch gag” about Homer Simpson’s undying love for his own couch.
In her memoir, Deana Martin describes the most unforgettable performance of her father’s hit song. In 2002, the state of Ohio declared that Dean Martin’s birthday, June 7, should be “Dean Martin Day.” When the resolution came to the state’s House of Representatives, lyrics were passed around the chambers. After the bill passed, the entire body stood up, and voices joined to sing of the old country, of pizza pie and pasta fazool, and of the Italian ways of love.