The Illustrated History of Italian-American Food (2023)

Spaghetti and meatballs. Marinara sauce. Chicken parm. Baked ziti. Garlic bread. Pizza (as we conceive of it). What these foods have in common, beside being universally beloved, is that they are wholly American inventions. Yes, these titans of red-sauce cuisine bear little resemblance to any dish you’d find in Italy.

How did this come to be? We’re familiar with the basics. The late 19th-, early-20th century saw a wave of Italian immigration to North America. In large cities, these people had to adapt to an urban lifestyle, purchasing food instead of growing it, and wrangling with unfamiliar American ingredients. Which set the stage for a dramatic shift in eating habits. What was originally a veggie-heavy, protein-low diet became meatier, saucier, and, as it only could in America, bigger.

Few people know this culinary evolution better than Simone Cinotto, author of The Italian American Table, Soft Soil, Black Grapes, and Making Italian America. Cinottois one of the foremost experts on the Italian-American culinary experience, and also has the benefit of an outsider's perspective—being, well, a real Italian from Italy. He, along with Vincent Cannato, a historian at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, walked us through some of the seminal moments in the formation of Italian-American cuisine. But before diving into the history of spaghetti and meatballs, Cinotto was quick to remind us that “there was absolutely no Italian cuisine” in the regionally fragmented old country. In America, it turns out, Italian food could find its footing in new ways, thanks to unlikely heroes (think Lady and the Tramp) and the pride of second- and -third generation immigrants.

Here is the illustrated history of Italian-American food.

Finding Hope in Bigger Portions

Most Italian immigrants who traveled to America came from the south of Italy. In these poor regions, meat was scarce and diets consisted mainly of vegetable dishes, grains, and little of what we imagine to be quintessential Italian ingredients. (Cinotto says extra-virgin olive oil wasn’t widespread outside coastal areas, and tomatoes were only brought over from the Americas during the age of exploration.) Yet this 19th-century culinary culture bore a new one centered mainly in Little Italy and East Harlem, but also in cities like New Orleans, San Francisco, Boston, and Chicago, with an emphasis on sauce, meat, and colossal portions.

Cheap, plentiful pork, beef, and chicken must have been thrilling to these new Americans, resulting in dishes in which, UMass-Boston historian Vincent J. Cannato says, “a piece of chicken covers the entire plate.” It’s also evident in the baseball-size meatballs that came out of the era, which could only have been invented by someone extremely excited by the prospect of an abundance of meat. Cinotto says that the American surplus of raw materials was particularly meaningful to these food-obsessed people, who came from a place of disenfranchisement and had seen more privileged people in their villages eating well. In America, they were able to dine more like the elite. The roots of Italian-American cuisine, thus, are not of gross American bastardization, but of optimism and hope.

Italian-American Food Goes Mainstream (1920s-1960s)

It doesn’t say much about our nation’s culinary instincts that Americans were initially disgusted by Italian flavors. Cannato says garlic was considered “a negative thing” and that the children of Italian immigrants stood out in the cafeteria when they pulled out sandwiches on hearty Italian bread. But beginning in the ‘20s, attitudes began to change.

Cinotto says that Italian immigration paused during World War I and resumed afterward, reuniting families and resulting in the establishment of “rustic” Italian restaurants that catered mainly to immigrants. A prohibition loophole that allowed families to produce up to 200 gallons of wine a year at home helped change that. Italian winemakers in California shipped grapes to their compatriots in eastern cities, who produced more than their allowance and sold it in Italian restaurants. This, Cinotto says, helped distinguish these establishments from their competitors and brought in a new clientele who “did not look at Italian immigrants’ cultural difference as a problem or dangerous, but as something exotic and European.”

This era also saw the beginnings of domestic Italian food production, including the founding of Chef Boyardee by the Italian immigrant Ettore Boiardi. With entrepreneurs of Italian descent beginning to make it in the food industry, and Americans coming around to the concept of flavor, Italian-American food entered the mainstream. Cinotto points to the ultimate evidence of acceptance: the spaghetti-induced kiss in 1955’s Lady and the Tramp.

The Canonization of Red Sauce

Cannato postulates that the cultural strides made in the ‘60s and ‘70s created a tolerance that led to the celebration of culinary differences. (Cinotto notes, depressingly, that this acceptance also had to with the fact that prejudices were being directed at other, non-European immigrant groups.) But it’s undeniable that during this period Italian-Americans were becoming fully integrated into society.

Third-generation Italian Americans who grew up during this time were louder and prouder about their heritage than previous generations, and their efforts to preserve it became pronounced in the ‘70s and onward. “Food for [third-generation] Italian-Americans was absolutely central in rediscovering roots that were being severed. At the same time, they were interviewing grandmothers they never cared about before,” Cinotto says. Community cookbooks enjoyed a brief publishing craze, further spreading the red sauce mantra, as did the success ofStrega Nona, the beloved children's book of a grandmother who floods her Italian village with pasta from a magic pot.

A Touch of Refinement from the Motherland

The spectre of the late Marcella Hazan loomed large over foodie households of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Her cookbooks were a bible, erasing childhoods of bland ‘50s cuisine and awakening non-Italian-Americans to Italian-inflected cooking habits. If you’ve ever made a Hazan recipe (you’ve probably attempted this one), you’re familiar with the subtle, yet charming, condescension. There’s a lot of, “Well, if you really can’t find a just-picked Italian eggplant at your local market, then make do with…”

Cinotto cites Hazan, and people like Lidia Bastianich, as representative of an influential base of upper-class, not-necessarily-Southern Italian immigrants who arrived in the second half of the 20th century and educated barbaric Americans in the ways of the motherland. Their vision of Italian-American food was authentically Italian, and they helped bring America up to speed with trends in Italy. (Cinotto credits Hazan with introducing balsamic vinegar to America around the same time it was gaining popularity in Europe.) Their efforts resulted in what Cinotto calls “an alignment of tastes” with Italy, as seen in the popularity of Eataly, a spectacle of an Italian market that now has locations in Italy itself. Eataly’s co-owner, orange Croc’d Mario Batali, just cooked the Obamas’ final state dinner, which honored Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi.

The Era of New Nostalgia

“It's an homage, not a parody. And by and large, they're trying to take the best of that cuisine and update it,” Cannato said of Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi, who have famously—and expensively—ushered in a renewed fervor for Italian-American classics with their throwback restaurants Parm, Carbone, and the now-shuttered Torrisi Italian Specialties.

Italian-American cuisine used to be a staple, something Americans in the tri-state area enjoyed regularly but quietly. The best examples are perhaps in the suburbs, where the red-sauce tradition is still going strong (shout out to my favorite, Francesco’s in White Plains). But in New York City, at least, this cuisine is being elevated into a phenomenon, which means lineups, hefty dinner checks, but also respectful reverence.

You may not be able to get into Will Guidara and Daniel Humm’s red-checkered facsimile Mamma Guidara’s, which is sold out through December, but nobody will ever judge you for ordering spaghetti and meatballs over cacio e pepe. Most of us now understand there’s a difference between authentic regional Italian and authentic Italian-American. But we also understand them to be on equal footing. In the end, only taste matters.

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