On an afternoon in June, Erica Scalise was walking through Little Italy in Manhattan when the window of a kitschy souvenir shop gave her pause. Hanging in the display was a white T-shirt with a phrase printed in the red and green colors of Italy’s flag: “Daddy’s Little Meatball.”
“It was 15 bucks,” Ms. Scalise said. “I was like, How can I not pick this up?” She bought the shirt and has felt no buyer’s remorse.
Ms. Scalise, a 25-year-old writer who lives in Chicago, was visiting New York to scope out apartments. She had left the city abruptly when the pandemic started in 2020, so she was excited to return.
The “Daddy’s Little Meatball” T-shirt “felt like this totem that I can bring back to Chicago,” she said. “I can wear it and tell people, ‘I got it in New York and I’m moving back there, and I love New York!’” When she sports it now, people often stop her on the sidewalk to ask about the shirt, she said. She wears it proudly, but she said she wouldn’t want her ex to catch her in it.
The shirts usually cost $10 to $25 and have become a sort of twist on the iconic “I ❤️ NY” tops. But while “I ❤️ NY” appeals mainly to tourists, “Little Meatball” — which comes in Daddy, Mommy and Nonna’s varieties — is often worn in a campy way, like an inside joke among New Yorkers.
Rainer Turim said he considered buying one a few weeks ago, as he wove through tourists on Canal Street. “I want one as an artifact of New York City,” said Mr. Turim, a 23-year-old writer and artist who lives in the East Village.
“I wouldn’t catch myself dead wearing an ‘I Heart NY’ shirt,” said Mr. Turim, who grew up in New York. “But wearing a ‘Mommy’s Little Meatball’ shirt, I feel like there’s a New York City pride in wearing that. Those are a little more ‘if you know, you know’ kind of shirts.”
Though the shirts have been sold primarily in gift shops in Little Italy, they are spreading to stores in Chinatown, Times Square and other neighborhoods.
The shirts are easily found online as well. Their product descriptions often read as overly earnest; according to one site, “This shirt isn’t just a garment; it’s a statement of love, a symbol of the strong and unbreakable connection between a father and their little meatball.”
For Ms. Scalise, the shirt is a cheeky nod to her heritage. “I’m 100 percent Italian,” she said. “I think it’s so funny to also make fun of Italians. We’re so dramatic and proud to be Italian. But I also feel like I would love everybody to wear this shirt because it’s a hilarious way for people to embrace the culture.”
The shirt “seems to be both stereotyping and not, at the same time,” Marcel Danesi, an emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto, wrote in an email. “It is a pithy, but highly connotatively charged, one-line joke.” He said that the shirt’s memelike nature added to its strength, as humor can often be more effective at communicating identity, personality or aspiration than other, grander displays.
Several employees at souvenir shops in Chinatown said that the shirts were a relatively recent addition. They started carrying them after noticing their popularity at stores in Little Italy.
One employee at a Chinatown gift shop said that the store started carrying the “Daddy’s Little Meatball” shirt just two months ago. It has sold “Mommy’s Little Meatball” for the past couple of years, he said, but he has noticed sales for both increasing this summer.
Ajit Biswas, who works at a gift shop on Canal Street, said that the store sold about 10 to 15 of the shirts every day, adding that “Mommy’s Little Meatball” is the more popular option.
But shopkeepers were tight-lipped about the origin of the shirts. When asked where they bought them from, this New York Times reporter was quickly shooed out the door.
Nikole Lubov Naloy, 23, first noticed the “Daddy’s Little Meatball” shirt in Little Italy in April.
“I envisioned wearing it in a raunchy way, tight on top with a bit of the belly showing,” said Ms. Naloy, a strategy manager for TikTok and photographer who lives in SoHo. She bought the top in a size children’s small. “It’s a perfect homage to N.Y.C. high-low styling. Pair a $10 street vendor T-shirt with a $900 pair of Guccis.”
It has proved to be the perfect going-out top for Ms. Naloy, who recently wore it to a party on the Lower East Side. “Here is the N.Y.C. girl, living on deli sandwiches by day and caviar by night,” she said. “That night I was called ‘the little meatball’ by many.”
“The ‘I Heart NY’ shirt has had its moment,” she added. “The meatball is peaking now.”