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…

7 thoughts on “Introduction: Part VI

  1. Farid


    I found your blog through Charles Perry’s post on the Daily Dish.

    I just wanted to tell you that I find it fascinating. Very interesting information about the semolina pasta.

    I know that semolina pasta is traditional to Algerian cooking and that type of hard wheat (we use it to make couscous) is the staple grain for rich and poor. However, I always assumed that more large scale semolina pasta production in Algeria was an Italian influence (southern Italian farmers and artisans came with the French colonials to Algeria around the same time that many were coming to America).

    However, after reading on your blog about how durum pasta was a staple for the upper classes I am reconsidering my original idea. It’s obviously more complicated.

    Anyway, sorry for going off on a tangent.

    a bientot

  2. Holly Chase

    Salaam, ya Farid–

    Regarding soft vs. hard wheat…we LOVE tangents vis a vis couscous or anything else! I’m Skip Lombardi’s editor (and write frequently on culinary cultures of the Muslim world,which is my own specialty).

    There’s a lot of writing on semolina and its use in couscous and pasta. Some recipes for couscous describe starting with semolina and rolling it with “flour” and water– but what flour? More finely ground hard-wheat flour? or soft-wheat flour, what is usually employed for fresh pastas? I’ve even found a Sicilian-American couscous recipe that uses only farina (which,in the US might be from either soft or hard wheat).

    For pasta, the point of using hard-wheat semolina is that it although a dough made from it requires considerably more mixing or kneading labor, the resulting pasta, usually sold as a dry product, is more resilient, a better conduit for sauces. Italian home-made pastas are most often ordinary flour and eggs; these pastas meant to be cooked shortly after the dough has been made.

    Which Italians used which flour seems to have been determined not so much by where the wheat was grown, but by who could pay afford the more costly durum wheat. Soft wheat grows well in northern Italy. Southern Italy had a better climate for durum wheat, but its impoverished work force could not afford that grain as a staple. Southerners made and ate their own soft flour pastas, while more well-to-do Italians in the northern and central provinces could afford the commericial durum wheat pastas that were made industrially from the early 1800’s onward.

    I suspect that the southern Italians who emigrated to North Africa were delighted to find they could not not only grow– but also afford to enjoy– durum wheat.

  3. farid

    Salaam Holly!

    “I suspect that the southern Italians who emigrated to North Africa were delighted to find they could not not only grow– but also afford to enjoy– durum wheat.”

    I made a blog post about this. I did some research after reading this blog and your hunch is correct. The Italians in Algeria found that it was a staple grain for poor and rich there. They also claimed land (and also took it) for growing durum semolina flour. Europeans also built pasta factories.

    Not surprisingly Italians were primarily concentrated in Bone and Constantine. If you think about the Roman Empire, Saint Augustine, Numidia and Carthage and the obvious geographic proximity it all makes sense… The history of these two Mediterranean countries in terms of trade, invasion, counter-invasion, etc… is all very fascinating, I think.

  4. Holly Chase

    Sabah al khayir, Farid–

    Yes,speculation about the development of cuisines is downright seductive.

    Re reshta/rishta: Soft-wheat flour pasta usually uses eggs. This is true today in Italy— and in Turkey, where we call homemade egg and soft flour noodles ‘erishte.’

    Are eggs always used for North African rishta?

    Even northern Italian pizzoccheri (buckwheat noodles)include eggs. Here’s as good a place as any to diverge on what buckwheat (a fruit rather than a grain) is called in Italian (grano saraceno) and French (ble de sarassin/ble noir). Though the names might suggest that buckwheat came to Europe with the Saracens/Arabs, it’s much more likely that the reference is to color: a grain that is dark, like many of the Arabs the Europeans first encountered.

    Through trade, techniques, and language, it’s indisputable that the culinary cultures of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East are as intertwined as strands of vermicelli.


  5. farid

    In Algeria reshta is made with or without eggs. To make a distinction reshta bel beid specifies an egg dough.

    We us buckwheat flour to make noodles too and bread. Very bled (countryside)and also rustic, mountain “Berber” cooking. We use barley flour to make noodles too, I wonder if that is done in Italy?

    I had a pasta dish of grano saraceno made by an Italian friend. He told me that it was a very rural dish. Buckwheat pasta, potatoes, greens and fresh cheese. And yes, it was explained to me that the saracen reference could be to the dark color.

    But you are right, this is “Almost Italian” not “Almost Arab” (or Berber). But it is fun to think what a PhD student might make of Italian immigrants from a specific period in history taking different paths- one group to the States, the other Algeria and the different experiences and legacies they left on food.

  6. julie

    Thanks for this fascinating history of Italian-American food culture. As someone interested in both the US and Italy, this has been very interesting reading.

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