Turkey Tetrazzini


On the day after Thanksgiving, we thought we’d share with you an excerpt from our new book. Turkey Tetrazzini is what home cooks of the Mad Men generation did with their turkey leftovers.

Buon appetito e felice ringraziamento.

Luisa Tetrazzini
Luisa Tetrazzini

Recipes are never static; they spawn imitations and adaptations. And they travel—around a neighborhood or between continents. Sometimes the “original” recipe—which may never have been written down—is lost. A good post-Thanksgiving example is Turkey Tetrazzini.

Named to honor the Florentine opera diva, Luisa Tetrazzini (1871-1941), the combination of boneless turkey, mushrooms, and pasta in a white sauce, was supposedly created by the French culinary doyen, Auguste Escoffier.

This dish and its permutations highlight yet another aspect of “Almost Italian”—namely, how the popular American notion of Italian food expanded to embrace dishes that did not include “red sauce.” Whether they had troubled themselves to make a simple béchamel, velouté, or had taken an all-too-easy short-cut with a can of cream of mushroom soup, sometime in the 1950’s, cooks across America began to confidently turn Thanksgiving leftovers into something that seemed sophisticated and “Continental.”

Donna Luisa sang before enthusiastic audiences in San Francisco, and murky sources claim the dish first appeared there between 1907 and 1910. The coloratura’s most flamboyant appearance was not on stage, but on the street, in front of the San Francisco Chronicle building. Barred from opera houses in New York because of a contract dispute, Luisa Tetrazzini swept into San Francisco, proclaiming (long before the flower-power fests of the 1960’s), that “the streets of San Francisco are free” and that she would “sing in the streets.” Indeed, she performed on Christmas Eve 1910, for a crowd estimated to have exceeded 200,000.

Turkey Tetrazzini’s only connections to Italian cuisine seem to be spaghetti and the dish’s name. While Escoffier had a propensity for naming his creations to honor opera stars (Tournedos Rossini, Peach Melba), there is no published evidence that he created Turkey Tetrazzini any more than there is corroboration that he ever visited San Francisco.

Domesticated poultry have never figured heavily in the cuisines of Italy. Nonetheless, a turkey might appear on a Christmas table. As European turkeys tend to be leaner than the mega-birds bred in America, holiday turkey leftovers would probably have ended up as ingredients in a soup stock or minced as stuffing for tortellini or ravioli.

Here in America, what to do with left-over turkey has given rise to thousands of recipes. In the tradition of operatic hyperbole, one could claim that there are hundreds of Turkey Tetrazzinis. And though more than a few of them appear in modern European Italian and Latin American cookbooks (Luisa Tetrazzini also toured South America, which had large Italian immigrant populations), the recipe seems to have first “happened” here in North America.

Turkey Tetrazzini


1 Lb. Spaghetti
12 oz. Button mushrooms, thinly sliced
7 Tbs unsalted butter
1/4 Cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 Cups whole milk
1/4 Cup heavy cream
2 Cups chicken broth
1/4 Cup dry white wine
4 Cups coarsely chopped cooked turkey
1 10 oz. Package frozen baby peas, thawed
2/3 Cup freshly grated Parmesan
1/3 Cup unseasoned bread crumbs
1/4 tsp. Nutmeg, freshly grated
Salt & freshly ground black pepper
4 Tbs Flat-leaf Italian parsley, finely chopped


Preheat oven to 375° F.

Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil and then add the spaghetti. Cook until the pasta has reached the al dente state. Drain in a collander and reserve.

Meanwhile, heat a large sauté pan over medium-high heat and add 3 Tbs butter. When the butter has foamed and the bubbles have begun to subside, add the mushrooms, lower the heat to medium and sauté for approximately 10 minutes, until the mushrooms have given up their liquid and it has evaporated. Remove from the heat and reserve.

Heat a 2 – 3 quart saucepan over medium-high heat and add 3 Tbs butter. When the butter has melted, stir in the flour and cook the mixture over low heat, stirring constantly, for approximately 3 minutes.

Gradually stir in the milk, cream, broth, and the wine. Raise the heat to medium-high and cook, stirring constantly, for about 5 minutes or until the sauce has thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon.


In a large bowl, combine the pasta, the mushrooms, the turkey, the peas, and the sauce. Season with salt and pepper, and grated nutmeg. Stir in 1/3 cup of the Parmesan and transfer the mixture to a buttered ovenproof casserole, at least 2″ in depth. (The shallower the casserole, the greater the amount of golden and crispy topping you’ll have to share.)

In a small bowl combine the remaining 1/3 cup of Parmesan, the bread crumbs, salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle the mixture evenly over the pasta, and dot with the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter, cut into bits.

Bake the casserole on the middle rack of the oven for 30 to 40 minutes, or until it is bubbling and the top has browned. Remove from the oven and allow the casserole sit for 10 minutes before serving.

To Serve:

Divide the Tetrazzini equally among six to eight dinner plates and garnish each with the chopped parsley.

Serves 6 to 8.

Book Launch

At last, we’ve finally published Almost Italian in full color for Kindle. It’s now available on Amazon, and the Nook & iPad editions will be out very soon. So, start a pot of water boiling for your pasta, choose a red sauce recipe from the book, and help us celebrate the launch of Almost Italian: A Cookbook & History of Italian Food in America.

Poster for the Fabre Shipline
The Fabre Steamship Line
brought Italian immigrants to ports in North and South America.

What if you could channel an Italian grandmother, your own nonna or that lady across the street who showed you how to make cavatelli? Suppose you could cook from her time-tested recipes while hearing the back-stories of your favorite dishes and their originators, the immigrants who created and shared the abbondanza of Italian-American cooking? What if you could serve these with sides of luscious contemporary color photography and vintage Polaroids from the family album? Almost Italian: A Cookbook & History of Italian Food in America offers all this—and much more.

In our new book, we’ve expanded our popular culinary blog, AlmostItalian.com, as we examine the evolution of Italian cookery outside Italy.

Beginning with Italians who arrived in America during the huge waves of immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, we turn our insatiable curiosity to the culinary diversity of Italians and trace traditions from the Old World to the New.

We decode Italian-American dialects and slang, the mystique of Sunday Gravy, and the cult of cucuzza. With the world’s first photo essay on how to clean and cook scungilli, to the racy origins of Valentine’s Day, and our unvarnished opinion of Lobster Fra Diavolo, Almost Italian has the snap and freshness of the first shoots of wild asparagus foraged by Skip’s Sicilian grandparents.

Skip's grandmother Carmelina's lasagne
Skip’s grandmother Carmelina’s lasagne

Here in America, Italian immigrants found a gastronomic landscape of both limitation and opportunity. Initially, some of the basic ingredients we now associate with Italian cooking—olive oil, sheep’s milk cheeses, and even pasta—were not readily available to the newcomers. But at the same time, the Italians were amazed to discover the affordability of other foods that had been out of reach for them back in Italy They were particularly struck by the enormous quantities of meat and chicken, and, surprisingly, by pasta made from durum wheat. We challenge the widespread—but mistaken—idea that pasta was the staple food of poor Italian peasants. (In fact, most European Italians would not enjoy pasta as an everyday dish until the 1960’s.)

It was both this lack—and abundance—that inspired an entirely new cuisine here in the New World, what we have come to know as Italian-American. From antipasti to dolci, Almost Italian tells the story of how cucina casalinga, the immigrants’ home cooking, became “Italian” restaurant fare.

From the Connecticut kitchens of our grandparents and the pizzerie of our teen years to the restaurants and home kitchens where we, too, have cooked—we have watched, listened, chopped, and stirred our way to a profound appreciation of the “red sauce” cooking too often dismissed as “not real Italian.”

In addition to analyzing the Stuffies sold from clam trucks on the Rhode Island shore and recreating the ephemeral Cioppino of San Francisco’s North Beach, we have made pilgrimages to dine in red sauce shrines with maitre d’s and to sit at the lunch counters of grocery stores in Little Italy neighborhoods. Documenting our experiences between bites, we have persisted, like archeologists, working to collect recipes, tales, and delectable bits of trivia.

The final book cover
Now available for Kindle on Amazon.com

Heavily illustrated, Almost Italian includes scores of our own color photos, including shots of Eggplant Rollatini, Escarole and Beans, and Pizza Rustica, which share the electronic screen with nostalgic postcards, posters, family snapshots, and menus.

Whether your taste runs towards Spaghetti with Meatballs or to Pasta Primavera, towards Enrico Caruso or to Louis Prima, we know you’ll enjoy this richly anecdotal and wry commentary on the culture and evolution of Italian food in America.

Almost Italian is an all-American story, one that belongs to us all.

eBook available for Amazon Kindle,
iPad & Nook versions available, too.

For all media inquiries: info@almostitalian.com

Wish You Were Here…

The charming 2006 Italian film Nuovomondo (released in the U.S. as The Golden Door) is a mixture of images and themes—gritty southern Italian poverty and superstition softened by romance, magic realism, and hope.

Very large poultry
Photo courtesy of http://cardcow.com

The film begins with Sicilian peasants awaiting a sign from heaven as to whether they should emigrate from their impoverished village. Tipping the balance in favor of exodus are a few postcards from paesani who have already made their passage to the New World (Nuovomondo). On one, enormous coins hang from the branches of a tree. On another, gargantuan vegetables dwarf farmers trying to get them to market.

Very large cucumbers
Photo courtesy of http://cardcow.com

We wondered if the postcards were a contemporary product of Photoshop or if cards like those had ever been printed, sold, and sent.

Very large onions
Photo courtesy of http://cardcow.com

Seek and ye shall find…and we found hundreds printed between the 1890’s and the end of the First World War. Since all are labeled in English, it’s quite clear that they were made to indulge domestic regional pride and the American taste for whimsy and “tall tales.” (Think of the giant pumpkin and livestock competitions that persist today at state fairs.) The growth of private motorcar ownership and American tourism also expanded a market for these cards.

Very large almonds
Photo courtesy of http://cardcow.com

We can only guess how many of these images were mailed abroad. But as we’ve noted, the Italian immigrants had a sense of humor. Expressing themselves through food as they did, might they have thought colorful chrome prints of farm bounty could tempt the rest of the family back in the Mezzogiorno to get on the boat and join them here in America? We’ll never know for sure, but it is no wonder that an Italian film-maker found images like these irresistible.

Marilyn Monroe: Almost Italian?

Marilyn Monroe at Stove
Photo: Source Unknown

If you’ve been reading AlmostItalian.com for any length of time, you know our penchant for analyzing dishes—deconstructing their names, techniques, and ingredients while tracing their geographic origins. But we’re not the only cookery writers doing this…

Last week Matt Lee & Ted Lee, better known as the Lee Brothers to fans of fare from south of the Mason-Dixon Line, reminded us that Italian culinary influences in America are sometimes more subtle than we suspect.

We were delighted to read their New York Times article, an exhaustive but light-hearted examination and remake of a complex poultry stuffing recipe once jotted down by Marilyn Monroe. The Lee boys managed to trace the probable origins of the recipe back to the thrice-wed starlet’s second set of in-laws—the Sicilian family of first-generation American and baseball legend, Joe DiMaggio. Joe and Marilyn were married in 1954, a union that lasted less than a year but whose culinary effects seem to have persisted.

Among the ingredients that gave the Lees some clues were oregano (not too common an American ingredient in the 1950’s unless you had an Italian connection) along with the combination of pine nuts, chestnuts, and raisins—very Sicilian (as well as very eastern Mediterranean: Greek and Arab influence lives on in Sicilian kitchens).

The casual addition of a “1 handful” of “Parmisan” [sic] cheese reminds us how our grandmothers measured and that U.S. food manufacturers were catering to Italians with ready-to-use products. What better way to enrich a holiday stuffing than to toss in grated cheese? Most Siciliani would never have tasted Parmigiano; southern Italian grating cheeses (such as pecorino) were almost always made from sheep’s milk. But Progresso and Kraft gave cooks with roots in the impoverished southern provinces opportunities to express their pan-Italian soul with one of America’s most abundant agricultural commodities.

What reinforces the Sicilian link for us is the use of bread as the main ingredient in the stuffing. This wouldn’t seem unusual, except that sourdough bread (in this case, from San Francisco) is specified. Of all the Italians who landed on American shores, none revered bread more deeply than the Sicilians—many of whom left Sicily too destitute to have ever considered pasta a staple.

In 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement *, a book we’ll discuss in more depth within a future post, author Jane Ziegelman highlights this point in her profile of Sicilian New Yorkers who would have been contemporaries of the immigrant DiMaggios:

“When Sicilians described America as the land of bread and work, they imagined a country without hunger, which, in their experience, was just as miraculous as a city paved in gold.”

Finally the Lee Brothers clinch their argument in favor of Italian influence by pointing out that Marilyn’s recipe begins with the scrawl: “No Garlic”—an omission that stands as a poignant testimony to how immigrants might forgo a favorite flavor as they struggled to assimilate into mainstream America.

While we think Marylin Monroe’s stuffing recipe sounds pretty good, in our heart of hearts, we know that we (along with the DiMaggios) would have preferred to add some garlic and peperoncini sautéed in a little olive oil. But don’t take our word for it—read the recipe and decide for yourself.

We think you’ll agree that it’s almost—but not quite—Italian.

* 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement by Jane Ziegelman

* Publisher: Harper Collins; 1 edition (June 1, 2010)
* Language: English
* ISBN-10: 0061288500
* ISBN-13: 978-0061288500b