I can’t think of a contemporary portrayal of Italian-Americans that doesn’t involve food. I believe that if you engaged someone in a word association game and said, “Italian,” the response would be “spaghetti.”
How did this association develop?
Between 1860 and 1917, four and a half million Italians emigrated to America. Of that number, three million arrived in a single decade, between 1904 and 1914. In 1904—the year my grandmother, Carmelina Amenta, arrived—575,000 Italian immigrants settled in New York City alone. Others spread out across the continent, settling in major cities as well as in hundreds of smaller towns across North America.
Eighty percent of the Italians came from “south of Rome”—a slightly derogatory term used by Italians who came from “north of Rome.” Most of the southerners were poor contadini and giornalieri, sharecroppers and day-laborers, from Abruzzi, Campania, Calabria, Puglia, and Sicily. Many of these immigrants were also skilled artisans, but the language barriers, prejudice, and licensing restrictions they encountered often prevented them from working at their trades. So, initially, most worked at the same menial jobs as their paesani, countrymen.
Even among themselves, the new immigrants had no common language. Some fifty years following the political unification of Italy, 97.5% of all Italians continued to speak the dialects of their native provinces rather than the “national language,” Florentine Italian. Think of the charming scene in the recent film, Nuovo Mondo (released in the U.S., as Golden Door): It’s apparent that the Sicilians, from different parts of the island, hardly think of themselves as Italians. In steerage on their voyage to New York, they are amazed to discover that they share a dialect.
Not only did most Italians lack a common language, they had no common interpretation of “Italian cuisine.” Having been sharecroppers and tenant farmers, the immigrants had become accustomed to living on the foods they grew, hunted, or foraged. Of course, these varied from region to region, and there was no single style of cooking that typified the newly-arrived Italians.
However, one foodstuff that all Italian immigrants had in common was pasta made from soft wheat flour, water, and salt. At the time, semolina pasta, made with prized durum wheat, the starch that would later symbolize a national cuisine, was a staple for only the Italian upper classes. But that would change once the newcomers found housing and steady incomes here.
As they began to form communities in America, the Calabrese settled with other Calabrese; Sicilians with other Sicilians, etc. They cooked the dishes they remembered from Italy, whenever possible with ingredients close to those they knew from home. Later, economic and social forces encouraged them to fan out beyond their provincial neighborhoods. In the larger world, they encountered immigrants from other countries and began to develop new identities as Italians, regardless of their regional origins.
Nonetheless—Sicilian or Puglian, Tuscan or Roman—most Italians tended to settle together. These pan-Italian neighborhoods became the ‘Little Italy’ communities in the major cities of the United States. Among the better known are the North End in Boston, North Beach in San Francisco, The Hill in St. Louis, the Bella Vista neighborhood in Philadelphia, Federal Hill in Providence, and the Little Italy quarters of Chicago, Baltimore, and New York.
Commercial pasta production—on a mom-and-pop level—began with the first waves of immigrants. Many set up shops, some in the front parlors of their apartments, to sell their artisanal products to neighbors.
Although many worked as laborers and longshoremen, Italians found that even with a $10.00 weekly wage, one could enjoy the semolina pasta and salume, cured meats, they had been unable to afford back home. With their indomitable spirit and jocularity, it wasn’t long before they began referring to their new diet as “carrying on the old ways.” Tenement living may have been crowded and unpleasant, but semolina pasta—even simply dressed with olive oil, garlic, and red pepper flakes—gave them a sense of liberation from their past, the oppressive poverty they had known in Italy.