September 25th, 2007
This development of a neighborhood restaurant culture marked a significant shift in thinking about what constituted “Italian” food. Among non-Italians, spaghetti with meatballs, a dish that seemed to symbolize Italy (but wasn’t Italian at all), became wildly popular. Eventually one truly authentic Italian offering eclipsed even spaghetti as the gastronomic icon of Italy—pizza.
As more restaurants opened and menus expanded, it was la cucina casalinga, home-cooking, that made them so popular with non-Italians. Paradoxically, this was the very reason that Italians didn’t patronize these first restaurants, even though they had opened within their own neighborhoods. The first generations of Italian-Americans stayed home or ate at the homes of family members.
Despite this lack of community support, Italian restaurants became successful enterprises because they were located in quaint neighborhoods; they offered novelty to their non-Italian diners; and the food was delicious, inexpensive, and abundant.
It was that abundance, abbondanza, that finally assured neighborhood Italian restaurants their central place in mainstream American dining. At the height of America’s engagement in World War II, nationwide food shortages often made it more practical for people to eat at an Italian restaurant than to cook at home. Going out had more appeal than using precious household ration allotments for groceries of dubious quality. The War certainly gave the commercial pasta industry a boost, as housewives of all ethnic heritages discovered the economy and versatility of semolina pasta, a commodity not subject to rationing.
Efficient railway transportation enabled Italian restaurants to offer diners fresh vegetables like broccoli, fennel, and zucchini long after the relatively short Northeast growing season ended. Only thirty-six hours after leaving the produce farms of northern California, the legendary Great American Lettuce Train would be at Pennsylvania Station in New York City.
Customers learned that Italian restaurants offered far more than a filling meal of pasta with tomato sauce. There was always the crusty bread, candles in Chianti bottles, maybe a nip of Papà’s homemade grappa, and more often than not, a Victrola playing Rossini or Verdi.
Then then there was La Nonna, the matriarch…