So you wanna be daddy’s little meatball?

One afternoon in June, Erica Scales was strolling through Manhattan’s Little Italy when a comical souvenir shop window stopped. Hanging on the screen was a white T-shirt with the words “Daddy’s Little Meatball” printed in the red and green of the Italian flag.

“It was $15,” Ms. Scales said. “I was like, How can I not catch this?” She bought the shirt and had no buyer’s remorse.

Ms. Scales, a 25-year-old writer living in Chicago, was visiting New York to scope out apartments. She had left town abruptly when the pandemic began in 2020, so she was excited to return.

She said the “Daddy’s Little Meatball” T-shirt “felt like this totem I could bring back to Chicago”. “I can wear it and tell people, ‘I got it in New York and I’m going back there, and I love New York!'” “When she wears it now, people often stop her on the sidewalk to ask about the shirt,” she said. She wears it proudly, but said she didn’t want her ex-husband to catch her on it.

T-shirts usually cost between $10-25 and have become a sort of variation on the iconic “I ❤️ NY” T-shirt. But while “I ❤️ NY” mainly draws tourists, “Little Meatball”—which comes in Daddy, Mommy, and Nonna varieties—is often dressed in a campy way, like the inside joke among New Yorkers.

Rainer Torrem said he thought of buying one a few weeks ago, while wandering among the tourists on Canal Street. “I want one as an antique from New York City,” said Mr. Turim, 23. writer And artist Who lives in the East Village.

“I’m not going to die wearing an ‘I Heart New York’ shirt,” said Mr. Torem, who grew up in New York. “But with the ‘Mommy’s Little Meatball’ shirt on, I feel like there’s a New York City pride in him wearing that. These are a little more of a ‘if you know, you know’ kind of T-shirt.

Although the T-shirts are sold primarily in the gift shops of Little Italy, they are also popular in stores in Chinatown, Times Square, and other neighborhoods.

T-shirts can be easily found online as well. Their product descriptions often read as overly earnest; according to one location“This T-shirt is not just a garment. It is an expression of love, a symbol of the strong and unbreakable bond between dad and his little meatball.”

For Ms. Scales, the T-shirt is a cheery nod to her heritage. “I’m 100 percent Italian,” she said. “I think it’s also funny when we make fun of Italians. We’re so sexy and proud to be Italian. But I also feel like I’d love for everyone to wear this T-shirt because it’s a fun way for people to embrace the culture.”

“The T-shirt appears to be stereotyped and not at the same time,” Marcel Danisi, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Toronto, wrote in an email. “It’s a pithy joke, but it’s charged with high semantics, from one line.” The T-shirt-like nature adds to its strength, he said, as humor can often be more effective at communicating identity, character, or ambition than other great shows.

Several employees at souvenir shops in Chinatown said that T-shirts were a relatively recent addition. They began carrying it after noticing its popularity in stores in Little Italy.

An employee at a gift shop in Chinatown said the store only started carrying a “Daddy’s Little Meatball” T-shirt two months ago. She’s sold “Mommy’s Little Meatball” for the past two years, he said, but he’s noticed increased sales of both this summer.

The store sells 10 to 15 shirts a day, said Ajit Biswas, who works in a gift shop on Canal Street, adding that “Mommy’s Little Meatball” is the most popular option.

But the shopkeepers were giddy about the origins of the shirts. When asked where they had bought it from, a New York Times reporter was quickly kicked out the door.

The “Daddy’s Little Meatball” shirt was first noticed by Nicole LeBeouf-Naloy, 23, in Little Italy in April.

said Ms. Nalloy, Director of Strategy at TikTok Photographer who lives in SoHo. I bought the top in a small child’s size. “It’s a perfect homage to New York City’s high and low style. Pair a $10 street vendor shirt with a pair of $900 Guccis.”

It proved to be the perfect going-out shirt for Mrs. Nalloy, who recently wore it to a party on the Lower East Side. “Here’s the girl from New York City,” she said, “living on deli sandwiches by day and caviar by night.” That night a lot of people called me their “little meatball.”

She added, “The ‘I Heart New York’ jersey has had its own moments. ‘The meatball is peaking right now.'”