Tag Archives: Italian immigrants

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…


Introduction: Part II

Kids eating pasta
Sharing Pasta in Naples.

In 1912, three Sicilian immigrants—Michele Cantella, Gaetano LaMarca, and Giuseppe Seminara—recognized the growing demand for semolina pasta and founded the Prince Macaroni Company, naming it not for deposed Sicilian nobility, but for their location on Prince Street, in the very heart of Boston’s North End. Three years later, Emanuele Ronzoni started the Ronzoni Macaroni Company in New York.

Another Sicilian, Vincente Taormina, who had begun importing foods to New Orleans in 1905, moved to New York in 1927 to join forces with his cousin and fellow importer, Giuseppe Uddo. They called their new enterprise Progresso Foods. After the company had relocated to Vineland, N.J., the cousins changed their focus from importing Italian ingredients to producing the foods that Italian-Americans had grown accustomed to eating.

Meanwhile, other Italian entrepreneurs were filling niche markets in nearly all food-related areas of the new Italian-American culture. Commercial prosciutto-curing operations, as well as sausage and cheese-making companies, flourished in New York and New Jersey. Small Italian businesses grew into large-scale importers, bringing Parmesan, olive oil, and wine in straw-covered bottles from Italy to eager buyers in the numerous Little Italy communities.

Before long, there was an alimentaria, Italian grocery store, on nearly every block of every street in every Little Italy. For example, in the small industrial city of Middletown, Connecticut, my great-grandparents, Antonio and Sebastiana Amenta from Melilli, Sicily, opened a grocery store in their house. Patronized by fellow Melillese from all parts of town, the shop thrived and served Middletown and surrounding areas for decades.

Despite having come to America from impoverished agricultural areas, where most had not even been able to own the land they had cultivated, the new immigrants were skilled farmers. They were quick to plant a variety of vegetables and herbs in every arable space—from window boxes to back yards, community plots, and even on tenement rooftops. Along with their beloved tomatoes, basil, and chili peppers, they introduced new vegetables like arugula, zucchini, fennel, broccoli, and escarole.

Pioneers of the American wine industry, Italians had found their way to northern California’s Napa and Sonoma valleys by the 1880’s. Genoa-born Andrea Sbarbaro started the Italian Swiss Colony in 1881, and in 1894, Anton Nichelini from Ticino founded what has become the oldest family-owned winery in the United States. In the Sonoma Valley, Samuele Sebastiani began his winery in 1904.

Ironically, the passage of the Volstead Act and the establishment of Prohibition in 1919 actually fostered the production of wine. It is testimony to the strength of wine-drinking immigrant communities that the Volstead Act allowed a head of household to produce up to 200 gallons of wine for home consumption annually.

Having secured a source of California grapes, Cesare Mondavi began shipping the fruit back to his Italian community in Minnesota in 1919. Finding northern California reminiscent of his old home in Italy’s province of Le Marche, he moved his family from Minnesota to Lodi, California, in 1923.

Following the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, Ernesto and Julio Gallo started their commercial operations. A decade later, Cesare Mondavi bought the Charles Krug winery for his children.1

The demise of Prohibition encouraged Italians to open restaurants in their neighborhoods, although the majority of patrons were non-Italians. Much of the appeal of those first eateries was that Italian restaurateurs treated diners like members of their extended families, serving them the same food ordinarily prepared for a Sunday meal at home. Meanwhile, Italians who lived in the neighborhood saw no reason whatsoever to leave their own homes to pay for food they could prepare for themselves.


1 The Mondavi family’s rise from grape shippers and produce wholesalers to their position as the driving force for American wine-making is as gripping a drama as any Italian opera. We recommend The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty by Julia Flynn Siler; Gotham Books, 2007.

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.