Tag Archives: Italian restaurants

Introduction: Part VI

During the halcyon days of supper clubs, clams on the half-shell were dressed up as Clams Casino and Clams Oreganata, appetizers that became popular with the dinner-show crowd. Dishes like Pasta with Clam Sauce and Clams Possilipo had already become fixtures on the menus of nearly all neighborhood restaurants, but the supper clubs served their clams as starters rather than as entrees.

Dining Out in the Fifties
Dining Out in the Fifties

Over time, neighborhood Italian-American restaurateurs took a lesson from their uptown brethren and began offering separate antipasti courses on their menus. While this generated larger dinner checks for patrons and, thus, greater revenue for restaurants, it really was a natural extension of Italian home dining. Families often ate “just a little something” while the pasta water was coming to a boil.

The more upscale Italian-American restaurants went a step further, dividing their menus into separate pasta courses and entrees, but neighborhood places continued to serve their main dishes on a bed of pasta or with pasta as a side dish.

By the 1970’s, cookbook authors like Marcella Hazan, Giuliano Bugialli, and Ada Boni were making us aware of the tenacious regionality of Italian food and cooking. American chefs riding the Northern Italian wave began serving dishes cooked with butter! Suddenly, everything North of Rome was “in.” Sine qua non ingredients like balsamic vinegar and sun-dried tomatoes defined a new class of Italian restaurants. Gnocchi, polenta and risotto supplanted pasta on many new menus. Restaurateurs from Tuscany and other northern provinces, notably Sirio Maccioni and Pino Luongo, presented Americans with a more refined version of Italian food.

But through all these changes, the neighborhood restaurants continued to serve their chicken Parmesan, shrimp scampi, and pasta with red sauce, as though unaware of the phenomenon taking place around them. Gradually, more of them replaced their red-and-white tablecloths with white linens. Rough wines in raffia-clad bottles were pushed aside by more carefully crafted Italian imports as more Americans began to appreciate and order wine. Antipasti had boosted profits, but vintage Barolos and Chiantis made even greater contributions to the bottom line. Yet even with these refinements, the spirit in which Italian food was prepared remained the same.

Despite encroachment from adjacent neighborhoods, dwindling Italian populations, and rising real estate prices, the urban neighborhood restaurants continue to thrive. Their culinary legacy is now more than a century in the making. Most tellingly, their clientele remains largely unchanged—students, artists, tourists, businesspeople, lovers, potential lovers creating a first-date memory, neighborhood regulars… and ever fewer who remember Nonna presiding over the dining room saying, Mangia, mangia!

Next: The recipes…

Introduction: Part V

Various Chickens

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.

O Sole Mio Restaurant

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!

to be continued…

Introduction: Part IV

Italian-American Restaurant
Italian-American Restaurant

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.


Introduction: Part III

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.

Ciro's Italian Village
Ciro’s Italian Village, Washington, D.C. (1930)
Photo courtesy of Bill Walsh, copy editor at The Washington Post.

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…