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“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
Luxuries were few but far more abundant than in the old country. Per capita sugar consumption in Italy had long been the lowest in Europe, but in America coffee and sugar fast became dietary staples, and cloyingly sweet candies, cakes, and cookies showed edible evidence of economic progress every time an Italian mother would reward her children with a few biscotti or nougat confections from boxes decorated with religious subjects. Mothers delighted in giving their children milk flavored with coffee and sugar—an idea inconceivable to most Americans but an everyday beverage in cities like Providence, Rhode Island, where “coffee milk” remains one of the most popular comfort foods among the large Italian population.
Turn-of-the-century social workers would report of a family, “Not yet Americanized, still eating Italian food.”
At the same time, these southern Italians were enriching American English with new words— calamari, prosciutto, salami, espresso, cappuccino, zabaglione —often pronounced, and even spelled, according to a regional southern Italian dialect.
“The Neapolitan working class dialect lopped off the final vowel from many words, sometimes transposing it to the front of the word,” explains Tom Maresca, co-author of La Tauola ltaliana. As a result, ricotta was pronounced “ah-ri-GAWT,” manicotti became “ma-ni-GAWT,” scungilli became “ah-skoon-ZHEEL,” pasta e fagioli became “pasta fah-ZOOL,” broccoli di rape became “broak-la-rob,” and pizza was sounded as “ah-PEETZ," and often spelled “Apizz” on signs advertising the item.
Meat was far from being an everyday dish but was available whenever a family could afford it, usually for the Sunday meal. Seafood was reserved, in Roman Catholic tradition, for Friday nights.
Wine was considered beneficial and, diluted with water, was given to children (as in France). Many Italians bought grapes and made their own wine, and throughout Prohibition it was always easy to get a doctor’s prescription to have a glass or two of wine as a medicinal aid. Spirits were regarded as a worthy stimulant to the heart. My grandmother used to tell me how her father, a plasterer who worked on the original Metropolitan Opera House, downed a veal chop and a shot of whiskey every morning “because he needed his strength to work,” while her mother and siblings ate bread and drank coffee milk for breakfast.
Pasta was enjoyed by everyone, sometimes several times a week. “In many streets you will find three or four little shops in one block of tenements with the macaroni drying in the doorways and windows,” observed Robert Chapin in his 1907 study of workingmen’s families in New York City. The sauces were mostly tomato-and vegetable-based, while meat sauce—a northern Italian luxury called alla bolognese (“in the style of the Bolognese”)—was a mark by which Italian women measured their culinary prowess.
“There were no restaurants in our neighborhood,” writes the advertising executive Jerry Delia Femina in his memoir An Italian Grows in Brooklyn. “We didn’t go out to eat. We ate either at our house, or Cousin Ronnie’s, or Uncle Dom’s, or wherever. My grandmother would start making her meat sauce at seven in the morning on Sunday and within five or six hours that smell would be all through the house, covering everything—clothing, furniture, appliances—and then it would go out the front door and into the streets, to mix with the aroma of neighboring meat sauces.”
Macaroni, spaghetti, lasagne (usually spelled “lasagna” in this country), manicotti, and myriad other forms of Italian noodles were fast becoming curiosity dishes with Americans at the turn of the century, and while most cookbooks made a travesty of supposedly Italian recipes, Charles Ranhofer, chef at the famous Delmonico’s restaurant in New York, offered a number of authoritative ones in his 1894 cookbook The Epicurean, including gnocchi (potato-dumpling pasta), polenta (boiled cornmeal), ravioli, risotto (rice cooked with chicken broth), and “Macaroni, Neapolitan Style,” made with a tomato-and-beef-stock sauce.
Few immigrants had ovens fit for making crusty Italian-style loaves of bread, so housewives would take their homemade loaves of dough to a local baker, who would charge a few pennies to bake it for them in large brick ovens. “We’d get it from the baker on Tuesdays,” recalls my grandmother, “then wrap it up in a damp cloth to keep fresh for the rest of the week or use the stale bread for soups or bread crumbs.”