Rob Truglia says I have the aura of cavatappi. He’s deduced this by looking through my Instagram, and by asking me a few quick questions about my life and habits. My curly hair determined the shape, but my image of myself as a help and support to those I love confirms that I’m a pasta with some heft to it, that can stand up to looser sauces and big flavors. Truglia began being able to see people as their corresponding pastas while on a trip to Italy. He has diagnosed himself as gemelli (“a short, twisted pasta, and that’s all you really need to know”), and his business partner Jeff Petriello as rigatoni (“they’re just loud, amazing, jovial; everyone loves rigatoni”). It is through his and Petriello’s shared understanding of the spiritual nature of pasta, and the ways a simple image of ziti can evoke intense emotions, that has led to their Pasta Tarot.
The Pasta Tarot, currently raising funds on Kickstarter, is a new interpretation of the classic Rider-Waite-Smith deck. Illustrated by Lindsay Mound, it translates the four suits (swords, wands, cups, and pentacles) into four pasta shapes (long pasta, short pasta, stuffed pasta, and minuta). The Magician becomes a Nonna in her kitchen. The Tower is the leaning Tower of Pisa. The Wheel of Fortune, a lazy suzan full of bowls of pasta-bilities.
But the Pasta Tarot isn’t just a visual gag that replaces spiritual imagery with noodles. “We designed each card to reference our shared queer Italian-American experience,” Truglia and Petriello explain on their Kickstarter. Through collaborating with Mound on the art and meaning of each card, Truglia and Petriello created a deck that challenges mainstream assumptions about Italian-American culture, whether it’s gender roles or the Roman Catholic church.
I spoke with Truglia and Petriello about the practice of tarot, the importance of pasta, and what it means to bring a modern, queer sensibility to something so steeped in tradition. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Eater: What was your relationship with tarot before starting this project?
Jeff Petriello: Currently I’m the producer at Glow Up Games, and I actually teach card and board game design at NYU Game Center. But my relationship to the tarot started while I was in high school. I remember getting a Celtic-themed tarot deck from Barnes & Noble, mostly because I fancied myself a witch. I started reading for my family when we would go down to Cape May for the summers on the beach. It was something that I kind of held onto as just a hobby. And then it wasn’t until I started working with animators a little later in my career where it really became a much bigger part of my life. I used it because I was finding myself having trouble articulating notes basically, and used it to practice that cycle of seeing an image, feeling a feeling, and then being able to articulate that feeling.
Tarot is a bit of a spiritual practice for sure, but it’s way more practical, honestly. Then when I met Rob, and saw him doing the pasta-aura readings on Instagram, I was just blown away by his instinctual knowledge of the spiritual properties of pasta shapes. Tarot at that point had become my go-to sort of metaphysical brainwork for sort of anything, and any time I would run into something like that I would be like well how could tarot deal with this? And I was like, we could really combine these two spheres of knowledge into something new, and different, and unique, and also that speaks to our Italian-American backgrounds.
Rob Truglia: I’m from Connecticut, from a big Italian family with all my cousins around. But around two years ago I took a trip to Italy with my friend and started seeing people as what type of pasta shape they were while we were on this trip. There was this hot, hunky Italian man on the beach and I was like, “He is clearly a gnocchi, it just makes so much sense.” So when I came back from that trip I turned it into this thing that I would do for all of my friends on my Instagram story, and I developed this encyclopedic knowledge of pasta shapes and I sort of apply that to people and their personalities, and maybe what they look like.
The Pasta Tarot has been this really wonderful labor of creativity and connecting our shared experience as queer Italian-Americans into this deck, and going through each card in the tarot and thinking what pasta shape does this represent. I also do drag, and my drag persona is very rooted in Italian-American camp glamor. I’ve done spaghetti and meatball looks, and shrimp cocktail looks. So food is very connected to everything I do.
Tell me a little bit more about adapting this very iconic imagery from the Rider-Waite-Smith deck with pasta in mind, because some of the art is fairly faithful and some of it gets really playful. How did you go about assigning pastas to the suits?
Jeff: For us, pasta is almost a universally loved dish, and it was important for us to match that up with something as universal as possible. We just love how the Rider-Waite-Smith deck has been so lively and so recognizable, and it’s such an accessible entry point for people who might not be familiar with tarot or tarot reading. We want you to pick up this deck and hopefully have it be an entrée into your own journey with tarot.
The design process was basically like a tri-force if you will. It was me breaking down what I felt were the essential elements of each card, both energetically and visually. Rob and I came up with what the suits were going to be, then we listed out all of the shapes within those categories, and we would go through that list with this energy and this essential visual information that we knew we wanted to preserve, and cross-referenced those things to pair them up as best we could with the pasta that communicated that energy.
Once we did that, we then had a discussion about what’s our spin on it? We pulled all of these references from culture and our own lives, and our own families, and we threw them in as visual references and wrote a description of how we think the card illustration should look. And then Lindsay [Mound] would pick up that information and make a draft. It was basically all three of those parts coming in at different stages, using the Rider-Waite as DNA to grow into something new.
Rob: Take the Nine of Swords which represents nightmares, and fear, and foreboding. We were like, “It needs to be squid ink pasta.” Or, the Eight of Swords is about being blindfolded and trapped in a situation, stifled. We sort of put a spin on it like, let’s actually put capellini there, which is the thinnest of all the pastas, but have it look like it’s like death by a thousand cuts — what’s holding me back is the sum of all these decisions.
Or on a more positive note, for the Ace of Cups, we asked ourselves what ionic stuffed pasta represents this joyful new cycle and openness to creativity? Ravioli, it has to be a ravioli, because when you break open a ravioli all that cheesy goodness flows out and that’s what that card’s about.
In the process of creating these images, did you learn something new about any of the cards and what it meant or represented?
Rob: Well, I think one of my favorite cards in the deck is the Ten of Minuta, which is a card that is a familial celebration across generations. We decided we need this to be like our family at the beach. We’ve never been to the beach with our families together, but it sounds like we have similar experiences, so it’s just like every type of person — there’s a dog, everyone’s passing food. It’s so core to our being.
I think also the Hanged Man is a card that I really love, and it was actually inspired by Lindsay’s thought process. But just something so simple and beautiful in this uncomfortable position is the meaning of that card, and we’re like, “Okay, let’s throw some spaghetti at the wall but it still looks gorgeous.” I think that was an interesting one that we sort of were able to get our minds around.
Jeff: The Three of Minuta is also one that really changed for me. It’s an analog for the Three of Pentacles, which normally is a card about apprenticeship and showing your work, traditionally depicted with two patrons of the arts looking at what this mason has done in their church. We were inspired by the pasta window in front of Misi in Williamsburg. It has a little kid pressed up against the glass, looking in on a younger woman rolling some pasta, and there’s an older chef woman looking over her shoulder. The way that we depicted it made me pick up more on the passing of tradition as a part of the Three of Pentacles. And also the fact that we have the third onlooker on that card; it’s a reminder that even when you’re learning something, you also are unwittingly setting an example for the people who haven’t had the chance to start their apprenticeship. Now when I read another deck and I see that Three of Coins come up, those elements come to mind. What tradition are you adhering to when you’re working, and how is that work going to be looked at by others after you?
Rob: Also the Seven of Swords, which is typically a card about questioning whether you represent the trickster or the person that’s being tricked. We thought, what if we made it this dog who stole a bowl of bucatini from the table, making you have empathy towards this being that has committed this bad act. Because the dog just needed bucatini!
You explicitly center queerness in this project, and you talk about what it means to be a queer Italian-American. What does it mean for you to center queerness within an Italian-American identity, and specifically within Italian-American food culture?
Jeff: I grew up in northern New Jersey, basically in an episode of The Jersey Shore. There’s so much of that that was amazing and that I had a lot of fun with, and was really culturally engaging. But as a queer person, one fact of the matter was that there were no other queer people on that side of my family. So I felt completely ostracized from that. There’s so much modern Italian-American culture that’s steeped in toxic masculinity, so as I grew as a queer person, I just got further and further away. I left the Roman Catholic church after being an altar boy for seven years. I was like, “This is something that I visit now when I go back, but it’s not mine.”
And I think through this project, working with Rob, I have realized that first of all, I am not alone, which was something that I did feel. And also, I actually am Italian-American. In a way it’s empowered me. This summer I went to Cape May, which is the lighthouse in our Ten of Minuta. That’s where I grew up going with my big Italian family during the summer. We went back this year and it was the first summer that I walked out in my Speedo, giving no fucks. And I really think that working through The Pasta Tarot helped me have the confidence to do something like that, because queer Italian-Americans exist. We are not a visible part of the culture that we grew up in, so increasing that visibility became a really important part of the project.
Rob: I feel very lucky in that my family has always accepted me. I’ve been very involved in queer activism and trying to stand up for the rights of the queer people that don’t have them. But if we could basically design a queer Italian utopia, to me that is this deck. We challenge the gender binaries in a way that presents a spectrum of gender representation. And we redid traditional male roles in the cards as female roles. I think a lot of the queer Italian identity is referential to really high femme, sex goddess, Sophia Loren-style essences. And that I think comes across in a lot of our deck. I think it presents such a range of body types and genders and how they speak to each other in a way that just feels like status quo. It’s not even questioned, and it feels accepted, and everyone is in a community together.
Jeff: I think one of the emblematic cards of the subversion that we’re going for is The Pope. The Hierophant used to be called The Pope before a lot of the occultists rehashed the tarot, so we actually went back to that. So how do we have a card about an institution that put down homosexuality, which is a core tenant of our value system, in this deck without it being contradictory?
We have the Pope at a baptism, and it’s clear that the godparents are queer. So you have this godfather who has long hair, a John Waters mustache, and is wearing a gold-pleated bralette over his dress shirt, holding his nephew or his niece as the Pope takes a shell pasta shaped container and pours the baptism water over their head. So it was like okay, that’s the situation we were in. You still have to show those contradictory things are what our lives have been, so let’s just depict it.
Is there anything that you hope people have in mind when they’re using this deck?
Rob: I would hope that people see the pasta component as an entry point into all the beauty that comes in being part of tarot, and not being closed off to this spiritual stuff that maybe scares some people. They’re like, “I don’t believe in psychic readings.” But that’s not what this is, it’s storytelling through a design system. So I hope that using pasta, which is so universally loved, will help bring in more people to the practice of tarot and help people better connect. Because by giving readings, it has allowed me to connect to people on an emotional level more easily than I was able to in the past.
Jeff: I think that’s the same thing that food does. Food is present in both the darkest moments of our lives and the happiest moments. And so to bring those two things together in a way that comes across as both lighthearted and profound as we mean it, I hope that that is communicated.