September 30th, 2007
Exhorting happy patrons to Mangia, mangia, Eat, eat! there was La Nonna, the matriarch. She presided over the kitchen and the dining room, which may have been the family’s front parlor by day. The famous Mama Leone set the standard for Italian-American hospitality in 1906 when she opened a restaurant in her New York City apartment to feed twenty diners each night.
Following World War II, returning veterans, including many maturing first-generation Italian-Americans, joined the migration to the suburbs. Taking with them what now had become “old family recipes,” the new suburbanites assured that “Mom’s Sunday Gravy” became as much of a staple on Long Island as it had been on Mulberry Street.
In the small satellite towns within shopping distance of urban Little Italy communities, pizza parlors and mom-and-pop Italian restaurants sprang up. The proprietors of these suburban businesses relied upon the large urban suppliers, so it was shopping that ensured the vibrancy of the Little Italys, even as Italian-Americans moved out of cities. In the late 1940′s and 50′s, the evolving cuisine still depended upon traditional ingredients, many of which were imports not readily available elsewhere. Parmesan cheese, olive oil, dried porcini mushrooms, salt cod, and cured meats were key components of Italian-American kitchens everywhere. Suppliers, however, remained in the cities.
This was also the period during which new Italian-American chefs—particularly those who had seen action in Italy or France during the War—began to push out the boundaries of what had already become a traditional repertoire of Italian-American dishes. Perhaps their most radical departure was their introduction (or invention) of dishes without tomato sauce.
For non-Italians, it became trendy to go to Little Italy to eat pasta simply tossed with garlic, olive oil, and crushed red pepper flakes—aglio, olio, e pepperoncino (a preparation that really was Italian). The restaurant owners marveled that the dish that had seen them through years of poverty had become fashionable.
Chicken—rarely eaten in Italy until the development of modern poultry production—found its way onto the menus of neighborhood Italian restaurants. Appearing in dozens of guises, chicken proved extremely profitable for restaurateurs because it allowed them to expand their menus and made a wider variety of “Italian” food available to their clientele. Suddenly, the full panoply of Italian recipes previously cooked with veal became chicken dishes too.
Back in Naples or Palermo, most people couldn’t afford chicken. And even those who could afford it didn’t eat it often because at the time, Italian chickens were scrawny, sinewy, unappetizing birds better suited to egg production and soup.
In fact, according to a 1956 report from the Italian National Union of Aviculture (more than fifty years after my own forebears came to Connecticut) the average Italian ate fewer than five pounds of poultry (including turkey and duck) per year. Clearly, that wasn’t a lot of Chicken Cacciatora per capita.