A Brief History of Italian Food in America

Janice Therese Mancuso

La cucina Italiana e’ davero popolare nel mondo e sopratutto negli USA. Molte le organizzazioni a difesa e tutela di tale patrimonio culturale, ma non tutti conoscono le origini e le prime apparizioni della cucina Italiana negli USA. E’ ben risaputo che la cucina Italiana arrivo’ in questa parte del mondo principalmente con i primi immigranti Italiani approdati sulle coste Americane; ma quali erano i piatti piu’ popolari di allora? Ce ne parla Janice Therese Mancuso...

Italian food is one of the most popular ethnic foods in America. In fact, it’s so popular that Italian food authorities have become concerned with what they call “Italian sounding” or “fake Italian food products.” According to one study, authentic Italian food -- that’s food imported from Italy -- accounts for only about one-third of Italian food purchased in the United States. The remainder is foods that have Italian names, but are not authentic Italian products.

Authentic Italian food products are available at specialty food stores in the United States --most notably in Italian food markets in cities with large populations of Italian Americans. Italian food producers say that Italy’s high standards, the importance of freshness and the cost and time of exporting have limited authentic Italian food products in the American market. However, the Internet has narrowed the gap, as more Italian products become available online.

Many say the trend toward Italian food started in the late nineteenth century as Italian immigrants began to make their homes in America. The waves of immigrants from Italy continued passing through Ellis Island, traveling further west, yet holding on to their cultural identity through their cooking.

One of the earliest dishes attributed to an Italian, and still extremely popular today, is Chicken Tetrazzini. It was created in the early 1900s in honor of Luisa Tetrazzini, the operatic soprano known as The Florentine Nightingale. The famous muffuletta sandwich of New Orleans, named after the muffuliette rolls baked in Sicily, was created in 1906 for Sicilian workers. The ever popular Philly cheese steak was invented by an Italian, and the specialty fish stew of San Francisco, cioppino, originated from the Italian fish stew ciuppin, made by the Genoese fishermen who settled there.

Soldiers returning from Italy after World War II brought with them their desire for the foods of a grateful but war-torn nation. Enterprising immigrants opened restaurants providing the soldiers with the foods they had developed a craving for and introduced the soldiers’ families to spaghetti and meatballs, sausage and peppers, ravioli, lasagna, manicotti, baked ziti and pizza.

Throughout the 50s and 60s, Italian food was becoming a part of the American diet and delicatessens offered salami, capocollo, mortadella, pepperoni, mozzarella and provolone, while spumone was a popular dessert, and variations of minestrone abounded. During the 70s and 80s, many Italian-inspired regional dishes became popular in America -- Eggplant Parmigiana, Fettuccini Alfredo, Penne alla Vodka, Shrimp Scampi, Chicken Piccata, Chicken Cacciatore, Steak Pizzaiola, Osso Buco, Veal Marsala, Pasta Primavera, Fried Calamari, Saltimbocca, Caponata, Calzone and Stromboli. Grissini, semolina bread, risotto, broccoli rabe, arugula, radicchio, Gorgonzola, Parmigiano Reggiano, ricotta, olive oil, pesto, prosciutto, sun-dried tomatoes, pizzelle, cannoli, zeppole, torrone, gianduja, panettone and espresso were common additions to meals.

The 90s heralded a mass influx of Italian ingredients and foods, with bocconcini, mozzarella di bufala, ricotta salata, fontina, Asiago, Taleggio, Grana Padano, Pecorino Romano, caciocavallo, mascarpone, ciabatta, crostini, bruschetta, focaccia, panzanella, polenta, gnocchi, pancetta, specialty pestos, black and white truffles, balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, dipping oils, pasta -- of all shapes, sizes, and colors, numerous pasta sauces, various types of pizza, cappuccino, flavored syrups, biscotti, tiramisù, granita and gelato.

So far, the twenty-first century has brought more attention to frittata, timballo, panini, insalata Caprese, burrata, arancini, homemade specialty pastas, flavored balsamic vinegars and oils, artisan breads and cheeses and, although not a food, but food related -- the barista.

Of course, many of these foods are not new to us, and most we knew about years before they became popular. When Italians came to America, they adapted their “old country” recipes to the new country, and we’ve grown up with them. These foods have been part of our families’ meals for many years, and slowly America has embraced them. So much so, that Italian food has influenced the way Americans eat and has been assimilated into America’s culture as no other food. The aisles of supermarkets are a testimony to this. Shelves filled with pasta and pasta sauces, and frozen food compartments offering numerous types of pizza and a variety of Italian-inspired meals -- in boxes and bags.

Granted this is not “real” Italian food; this food is Italian American. The only way a diner can taste the authentic cuisines of Italy is to visit Italy. Yet, the popularity of Italian food continues to resonate throughout America, not only in supermarkets, but also in the thousands of Italian restaurants nationwide, and in America’s first Eataly -- an Italian food and wine mega-market that recently opened in New York City.

All this attention is causing the American cook to become more familiar with Italian food. It’s also inspiring home cooks to seek out authentic Italian food products; and Italian food producers are working to bring “real Italian food” to America.

Adapted from Con Amore.

Janice Therese Mancuso is the author of Con Amore, a culinary novel; and founder of Thirty-One Days of Italians, an educational program to promote Italian and Italian American history, culture, and heritage. For more information, visit 31 Italians, www.jtmancuso.com, or email at jtmancuso at earthlink.net.