Tag Archives: Italian-Americans

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 I

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.”

Italian Family
Photo courtesy of Len Roe

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.