Anthony Martignetti kisses his wife, Ruth, goodbye and opens the door of his second-floor apartment in West Roxbury. “I’m not coming home for lunch today, so no pasta,” he says with a wink.
They were married just two years ago, and photos from their wedding fight for space on the walls of his small living room with photos of his teenage son from his first marriage.
He hustles down the stairs and next door to his parents’ house to check on them. They’re 91. His mother has Alzheimer’s, and he gives her a quick kiss, then goes looking for the drops he has to put in his father’s eye each morning. He’s running late, but his father insists on showing him some massive zucchinis he just pulled from the garden.
From there it’s a short drive to Dedham District Court, where he works as an associate court officer at the security screening station just inside the front door. He’s 62 now, small, with gray hair cropped short, and none of the strangers who pass through his metal detector each day recognize him. No one does anymore, at least not by face, and his uniform does not include a name tag, which is probably a good thing because for people of a certain age, his name is still capable of causing a minor commotion.
Anthony Martignetti. That name. When people recognize it, there’s always a pause, he says. A hesitation.
Then they’ll take a second look at his face.
“You’re not the Anthony Martignetti?” they’ll ask. “The kid from the spaghetti commercial?”
When he confirms that he is indeed that Anthony Martignetti, they’re going to do it. They always do it. It’s been happening for 50 years.
They’re going to yell his first name.
In the summer of 1969, when he was 12 years old, Anthony Martignetti, whose family had emigrated from Italy just three years before, was plucked from the streets of the North End and chosen to star in a television commercial that became a phenomenon, one that ran nationally for nearly 14 years and turned his name into an Italian-American icon.
It opens with his “mother,” played by fellow North End local Mary Fiumara, yelling from a tenement window on Powers Court for her son: “Anthony! Anthony!” Next, we see Anthony running home, dodging the pushcarts of the Haymarket, through a schoolyard, and finally up Powers Court, as a narrator intones:
“Anthony Martignetti lives in Boston, in the Italian North End, the home of the Prince Spaghetti Company. Anthony knows a lot about Prince, because it’s something that grows you. Most days, Anthony takes his time going home, but today is Wednesday, and in the North End of Boston, Wednesday is Prince Spaghetti day.”
Martignetti never said a word in his role. And he has lived a quiet life since, a way of respecting what those few seconds of screen time came to symbolize. The spot ran for so long — from Woodstock to MTV — that the scene it depicted, a free-range childhood in an old-school neighborhood, became a diorama of the way things used to be. Something quaint. Something beloved. Something lost.
“I always understood that it was larger than me, that I had a responsibility to preserve what that commercial meant to people,” Martignetti says. “I knew that if I got in trouble, little Anthony from the spaghetti commercial would be all over the paper.”
The one time his name appeared in the news was in 2004, in a court case in which he accused his supervisor at a Stop & Shop distribution center of constantly berating him with Italian ethnic slurs like “meatball.” The matter was settled out of court.
The only other bump came in 2013, when New World Pasta, a Pennsylvania company that now owns the Prince brand, remade the commercial, in which a new little “Anthony” runs home, and when he opens the door he’s all grown up. The commercial ran only a short time. Word got out that they had cast an actor to play grown-up Anthony, and did not give the part of the young Anthony to Martignetti’s son, even though he auditioned for it. The son, who is now 15 and lives in New Jersey, is also named Anthony Martignetti.
Ruth, who is from the Dominican Republic and missed the heyday of the commercial, marvels at the way her husband handles his role as caretaker of this memory.
“When we first started dating, I’d see strangers freak out and hug him, and I’d say ‘Why do you let them do that? They don’t know you,’ ” she says.
“But Anthony would always say, ‘They’ve known me for a long time.’ ”