But American chickens—even decades before Frank Perdue—were physically superior to their Italian cousins. So even though they had only limited experience cooking poultry back in Italy, the first Italian-American home cooks were quick to adapt their recipes to such an affordable and abundant protein.
Meanwhile, Italian-American chefs in the Little Italys began paying tribute to their homeland with new creations such as Chicken Sorrentino, Chicken Sorrento-style; Chicken Margherita, Chicken dedicated to Queen Margherita; and Chicken Siciliano, Chicken Sicilian-style.
By the early 1950’s, Eggplant Parmesan, a classic Italian dish born in poverty, had inspired the upscale Chicken Parmesan.
Despite their creativity with chicken, most chefs were content to continue cooking the traditional pasta recipes from home. However, the most popular pasta dish ever—Spaghetti with Meatballs—was invented here. Prior to its invention, Italians who could afford meat, certainly ate their share of spaghetti and meatballs, but they did so in separate courses.
The tradition was—and remains—for Nonna to make a batch of meatballs and to braise them (often with sausages from the neighborhood butcher) in her signature tomato sauce. While the meat and sauce were bubbling on the stove, she would appropriate a few ladlefuls of sauce to serve over a dish of spaghetti as a first course. Then she would bring the meatballs to the table, as a secondo, to be served with bread and salad.
Until the early 1950’s, neighborhood Italian restaurant menus were in English only and featured classics like Pasta in Tomato Sauce and Pasta with Tomato Sauce and Cured Pork. Restaurants that had changed their checked table covers for starched white linen began to offer diners sophistication on the menu as well as in the appointments of the dining room. Dishes were listed in Italian first, followed by English translations, so one began to see Pasta alla Carbonara, Pasta with Eggs and Pancetta. But the complex subtleties of Pasta al Ragù eluded the translators, and it consistently appeared as nothing more than Pasta with Italian Meat Sauce.
By the 1970’s, Italian restaurants were firmly anchored in America. Chefs felt secure enough to tinker with pasta dishes, if for no other reason than to differentiate their menus from those of other Italian restaurants. Two of the most famous creations from the 70’s remain popular today. Pasta alla Vodka, Pasta with Tomato-Cream Sauce infused with Vodka, was part of a marketing campaign by Smirnoff Vodka. Pasta Primavera, Pasta with Spring Vegetables, was an impromptu creation of Tuscan-born Sirio Maccione, owner of Le Cirque, once among the most fashionable French restaurants in Manhattan.
Another dish, one that was authentically Italian, gained huge popularity here. In 1917, Roman chef Alfredo di Lelio had wanted only to prepare a soothing meal for his uncomfortably pregnant wife. He could never have imagined that the creamy pasta dish he created would sire a veritable menagerie—Chicken Alfredo, Turkey-Vegetable Alfredo, Shrimp Alfredo, and even Crayfish Alfredo. Even more noteworthy is that the Italian-American versions are now sometimes served as main-dish casseroles with pasta as an optional “side dish.”
Lobster Fra Diavolo is perhaps the most luxurious seafood adaptation and stands among the classic dishes of the Italian-American repertoire. Meaty North Atlantic lobsters were plentiful and readily available—expensive, but as affordable as the prime cuts of beef for which there was a steady demand. Italian-American restaurateurs, who had known success with Lobster Fra Diavolo, attempted to emulate steakhouse Surf-n-Turf platters. Lobster or shrimp in tandem with a steak became Mare e Monti.
Having all but vanished from contemporary menus, Mare e Monti seems to have gone too far beyond what was expected. The clientele of Italian-American restaurants had a threshold for experimentation…or perhaps price? But Lobster Fra Diavolo lives on and has been joined by Shrimp Fra Diavolo, Chicken Fra Diavolo, and yes—Tofu Fra Diavolo!