Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Italian American cuisine

The concept of Italian cuisine in America is heavily influenced by the first Southern Italian immigrants that got to Ellis Island at the end of the 19th century, and especially between 1900 and 1924. These were mostly very poor people from tiny little villages from Sicily. Some of them probably didn't even know that they were "Italians", since the Italian unification had taken place in 1861, and the news hadn't made it everywhere in Italy yet...These immigrants brought with them food traditions and "dishes" that shaped forever the image of Italian cuisine in America. But most of these dishes were - and still are - completely alien to the rest of Italy. 

The Spaghetti meatballs!
There is a look of incredulity, almost of shock, that often appears on the face of my American friends, when we talk about what they consider Italian food and I tell them that I have never eaten it. When I say that the stuff they mention either doesn't exist in Italy, or it comes only from a specific part of the country (mostly Sicily), I am not sure they believe me. This issue has come up a few times already on the blog: about the braciole/braz'hul, about the sandwich called muffoletta, and more recently on my Facebook page speaking of Italian meatballs in tomato sauce (which I cooked yesterday for the first time in my life).

Now, to be honest, the first lasting Italian American communities had been founded by Northern, not Southern, Italians in Northern California in the 19th century. They had migrated there to get involved in the starting Napa Valley's wine business, and in the San Francisco's fishing fleet. However, the image of Italian American cuisine - and of Italian Americans - was provided by the Southern immigrants that moved to the East Coast: the red checked tablecloth, the tomato sauce on a huge plate of spaghetti, the meatballs, all these elements came from the South. A traveler to Italy of the 19th century would have had a very hard time to find these things North of Rome.

Yet, the image stuck.

Obviously Southern Italian cuisine adapted to the new American surroundings. The fast pace of the American life seems to be the major driver behind many of the now iconic Italian American dishes. Italian meals were normally a three/four course affairs, taking a good chunk of time out of your day. This couldn't work in the US: hence, the meat and the pasta dishes - originally separated in two courses - had to be merged into one single dish, with a salad as a side. Things needed to be faster. And here you are your spaghetti meatballs, your seafood fra diavolo, your meat dish with some pasta on the side.

The importance of meat in Italian American cuisine is very interesting. Back home, very few of these poor immigrants could afford to eat meat more than once a week (IF they could afford it at all). In the US, perhaps as a sign of a newly found prosperity, meat - and in particular beef - became a very important part of Italian cuisine. This desire to put as much meat as possible on the table lead also to the creation of a couple of typical Italian American dishes: the eggplant parmigiana, for instance, was modified and made with veal, becoming veal parmigiana. Something still unknown in Italy as of today.

Pizza, which is now as American as a cheeseburger, had some catch up to do: it really became popular only after WW2, when the US military came back home after having occupied the South of Italy for some time. During the occupation, soldiers had the chance to try the local pizza, and they loved it. And that's when pizza parlors started to pop out in the US like mushrooms after a rainy day in September.

At least until the end of the 1980s, Italian restaurants continued to be associated with cheap eateries with red checked tablecloth serving pasta dunk in red tomato sauce. It was in the '90s that a different perception of Italian cuisine started to appear. In parallel with the fall of elaborated French cuisine, which had dominated fine dining for two centuries in America (read my story on the rise and fall of French cuisine here), a different type of Italian food started to appear and be appreciated.  Northern Italian, Tuscan food, started to achieve wider appeal. And now some of the most renowned US celebrity chefs are either of Italian origins or serving Italian food.

But if you still want to find your red checked table cloth, Lombardi's in New York city is still there.


6 comments:

studiareinuk said...

very interesting post!

Tuscan foodie in America said...

Thanks, studiareinuk!

Trobairitz said...

Very interesting and educational.

I love reading your blog.

Tuscan foodie in America said...

Thank you Trobairitz!

Claudio said...

While I was reading your post I realized that italians have no problems with "american" cuisine but the real problem is "italian american" cuisine, which they assume as the "real" american cuisine. It's a matter of point of view, I suppose (and a bit of ignorance about american cuisine).

Tuscan foodie in America said...

Claudio, you are spot on. It is exactly like you say: Italians come to the US, eat "Italian", they have bad experiences because most of what is called Italian is not Italian, and go home saying that you can't eat well in America.

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