- Historic Sites
“Everybody Likes Italian Food”
A restaurant critic who’s a food historian and the fortunate recipient of an Italian grandmother’s cooking follows the course of America’s favorite ethnic fare in its rise from spaghetti and a red checked tablecloth to carpaccio and fine bone china
December 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 8
Should the Smithsonian Institution ever wish to display an example of a prototypical Italian-American restaurant, it could do no better than to move Mario’s, lock, stock, and baròlo, from the Bronx to Washington, D.C.
For one thing, Mario’s has an impeccable provenance. It has been serving up Italian food from its site on Arthur Avenue since just after World War I. For another, it looks right. In every detail—the thickly varnished mural of Mount Vesuvius (done by an uncle sixty years ago), the diminutive reproductions of Michelangelo’s David, the photos of the Migliucci grandchildren over the entrance, the mustachioed, tuxedoed waiters serving mussels, pasta, sausage, crisp-shelled cannoli, and ink-black espresso with lemon rind and a shot of anisette—Mario’s evokes every American’s image of what an Italian-American restaurant should look, taste, and smell like.
“My grandmother opened this place as a pizzeria in 1919,” says Mario Migliucci, “but we didn’t really start serving any other food until the 1940s, and then everybody started coming in. We had John Garfield, the Dead End Kids, and all the Yankees—Yogi Berra, he eats two orders of tripe when he comes here. Muhammad Ali, he had a birthday party here. Marion Puzo even mentioned us in The Godfather. But when they made the movie they wanted to use the restaurant to shoot the scene where the son shoots the cop. I said, ‘Hey, this is a family restaurant. We don’t want that kind of image.’”
Mario’s food is very good and not very expensive. Mrs. Migliucci still makes her peppered carrots for customers to nibble on with bread, and Mario, with his son Joseph, still makes pizzas and oversees the dining room with the fervor of someone who’s just had a grand opening.
People who have moved away drive hours to go to Mario’s, not only for the food but for the neighborhood itself.
Italians who moved away from the neighborhood—one of the safest in New York City although surrounded by the worst urban blight—still drive an hour or more from New Jersey or Connecticut to eat at Mario’s, not just because the food is so good but because the place buzzes with something unreproducible outside this four-block market street.
On second thought, without reproducing Arthur Avenue itself, the Smithsonian could never really capture the essence of Mario’s, or, for that matter, of the Italian-American restaurant as Americans have come to know it. Superficially Mario’s thrives on a stereotype Americans have long cherished: the triumph of an immigrant culture comfortably fitted to our idea of the high-spirited, hardworking Italian—the spaghetti benders, pizza makers, garlic eaters. Indeed, in lunch-counter slang garlic has long been called “Italian perfume” and “Bronx vanilla,” while in the South some people still order a plate of lettuce, olives, oregano, capers, anchovies, garlic, and oil by saying, “Gimme a wop salad.”
Establishments like Mario’s are part of an immigrant food culture grown so successful that American supermarkets now stock more Italian-American food items than any other ethnic kind, and Italian-American restaurants by far eclipse all Chinese, Mexican, French, and Spanish ones in number. As I believe Neil Simon has observed, there are two laws in the universe: the Law of Gravity and Everybody Likes Italian Food.
Italian food, like the Italians themselves, was assimilated into American culture slowly, simmering in the melting pot, absorbing other cultures as it was dispersed and dispensed over decades, from the days when Americans regarded going to a “spaghetti joint” as something of an adventure in exotica to today, when some of the most sophisticated restaurants in New York, Washington, Los Angeles, and other cities serve up regional Italian delicacies like risotto with white truffles and squab in a red wine-porcini mushroom sauce at prices unimaginable twenty years ago.
More to the point, the immigrants who came to this country from Italy after the American Civil War would never have heard of, much less tasted, such dishes. But then, they would never have heard of most of the dishes Americans think of as standard Italian-restaurant fare. Menu items like fettucine Alfredo, clams Posillipo, Caesar salad, pasta primavera, spiedini alla romana, shrimp scampi, veal parmigiana, chicken Tetrazzini, even spaghetti and meatballs were unknown to Italian immigrants by such names and were, instead, dishes concocted for American customers through adaptation, corruption, and sometimes sheer self-promotion. They were certainly not what first-generation Italians ate when they arrived on these shores. For one thing, most of them had never set foot in a restaurant back in the old country.