`How Italian Food Became as American as Apple Pie

Food & Cooking

How Italian Food Became as American as Apple Pie

Apr. 25, 2011
By Laura Rose

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In his new book, How Ital­ian Food Con­quered the World,” John F. Mar­i­ani, food-and-wine cor­re­spon­dent for Esquire mag­a­zine, charts the rise of a cui­sine through its cross-con­ti­nen­tal meta­mor­pho­sis from provin­cial peas­ant dishes to becom­ing the edi­ble ambas­sador of a dias­pora that dom­i­nates both the high- and low-end of din­ing out. Although Mariani’s title indi­cates a global per­spec­tive, the book’s sin­gu­lar focus is Ital­ian food in Amer­ica, and specif­i­cally, how that became Ital­ian-Amer­i­can food, a sep­a­rate species that still rep­re­sents Italy and Ital­ian cul­ture through­out the world.

Amer­ica has a cul­ture and cui­sine shaped in most part by its immi­grants, and the mas­sive wave of 5 mil­lion Ital­ians who arrived between 1880 and 1910 brought with them ideas about food that would com­pletely reshape the Amer­i­can din­ing land­scape. More than 80 per­cent of these immi­grants were from the poor and rural south of Italy, from places like Sicily and Cam­pagna where they knew lit­tle of restau­rants but had a tra­di­tion of sim­ple, hearty fare which they tried to keep up in their adopted coun­try with the pal­try ingre­di­ents that were avail­able to them.

Since 1860, when the idea of restau­rants became pop­u­lar in France, and for 100 years after, French cui­sine defined din­ing out. It was com­pli­cated and time-con­sum­ing, a sophis­ti­cated world of refin­ery that shaped people’s ideas about what din­ing out meant. In this con­text, the small pizza shops and trat­to­rias serv­ing up Ital­ian dishes of a few sim­ple ingre­di­ents were con­sid­ered mere peas­ant food, the food of poor immi­grants.

After World War II, Ital­ian cui­sine began mak­ing inroads on Amer­i­can cui­sine, through prod­ucts like Chef Boyardee’s ubiq­ui­tous canned pas­tas, and through the ris­ing pop­u­lar­ity of Ital­ian restau­rants thanks to Amer­i­can trav­el­ers com­ing back from Italy. For decades though, real Ital­ian ingre­di­ents were still not avail­able in the U.S. Until the 1980’s, for exam­ple, it was impos­si­ble to get extra vir­gin olive oil in Amer­ica.

Then, the Inter­na­tional Olive Oil Coun­cil started spon­sor­ing and pro­mot­ing research about the healthy Mediter­ranean diet.” This coin­cided with the Slow Food move­ment emerg­ing from Turin, empha­siz­ing the Euro­pean style arti­sanal approach to craft­ing food prod­ucts. Finally, olive oil was dis­trib­uted in the U.S. and Ital­ian food became more authen­tic, some­thing that, as Mar­i­ani says, is rec­og­niz­able to Ital­ians them­selves as their own cui­sine.


Now, the regional and micro-regional dis­tinc­tions in Ital­ian cook­ing are well-known to Amer­i­cans and olive oil is avail­able in every super­mar­ket. The idea of sim­ple, authen­tic Ital­ian food, pre­pared with ingre­di­ents of the high­est integrity, has become the new stan­dard of din­ing out in Amer­ica, one that’s so wide­spread, it’s hard to imag­ine that there was a time not so long ago when pop­u­lar mag­a­zines had to explain how to eat a pizza.

Click Here to buy the book from Ama­zon.

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