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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
The food was simple, substantial, and, nutritionists now tell us, extremely healthful, based on copious amounts of carbohydrates like pasta and beans, grain products, vegetables, and fruits. Yet at the turn of the century such a diet seemed completely at odds with conventional ideas about good nutrition. Turn-of-the-century social workers in New York would report of a family, “Not yet Americanized, still eating Italian food,” despite the fact that the Italians seemed to thrive on it. But the less ethnic an Italian appeared to be, the more acceptable he was to the American public. In the 1930s Life magazine praised Joe DiMaggio because “he never reeks of garlic, and prefers chicken chow mein to spaghetti.” This was precisely the kind of comment that caused my grandmother to say, “We had beautiful Italian bread, but I wanted soft white bread like the American kids ate.”
But Americans were fast learning to eat Italian foods. From the Italian bakery ovens came the first pizzas, which had been strictly a Neapolitan item back in Italy. At first the pizza had been seasoned with any available herbs, but when the tomato came to Italy in the sixteenth century, the poor delighted in adding this luscious red American import to their daily bread. A reasonably well-founded legend has it that the pizza as we know it in America—with mozzarella, tomatoes, and seasonings —was first made in 1889 by a Neapolitan pizzaiolo named Raffaele Esposito to honor Queen Margherita, then visiting Naples. And to this day a mozzarella-tomato pie is known as pizza Margherita.
In some sense the pizza symbolizes the way Italian food has been modified and promoted in this country into a staple of the American diet. The idea of the pizza, originally poor people’s food from the slums of Naples, traveled with the Neapolitan immigrants, who enlarged its traditional size and sold it as finger food, in contrast with the pizzas served on plates and customarily eaten with knife and fork in Italy.
The first known pizzeria in the United States was G. Lombard! on Spring Street in New York’s Little Italy, which opened in 1905. (Deep-dish Chicago-style pizza, cooked in a black skillet, didn’t come along until 1943, when it was created by Ike Sewell and Ric Riccardo at Pizzeria Uno in Chicago.) Pizza became synonymous with Italian food, especially after returning World War II GIs brought back a hunger for pizzas and other foods they’d first tasted during the liberation of southern Italy and especially Naples. The pizza also fitted in conveniently with the postwar fast-food boom, helped along by Dean Martin’s 1953 hit in which he sang, “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore.” The pizza became an international favorite only after its boom in the United States convinced non-Italians that the dish was the quintessential Italian food, thereby spurring a keen interest in this once-lowly item both in Italy and abroad. Certainly pizzerias in America outnumbered pizzerias in Italy in the 1950s, and they probably still do.
Italian-American cookery represented American bounty —so much food! So much meat! So much coffee!
Pizzerias may have been among the first Italian-American eateries, but even at the turn of the century distinctions were clear as to what constituted a true ristorante. To be merely a pizza maker was to be at the bottom of the culinary and social scale, so pizzeria owners began offering other dishes, including the hero sandwich (also, depending on the region of the United States, called a wedge, a sub, or a grinder), made on a loaf of Italian bread with lots of salami, cheese, and peppers. Many of these pizzerias evolved into full-fledged restaurants whose owners eventually shut down their pizza ovens entirely in a deliberate move away from the low-class image of the pizza maker. (Mario’s in the Bronx still sells some of the best pizzas in America, because its customers would have fits if the Migliuccis stopped entirely, but the pies come out only at dinnertime.)
Most Italian restaurants in the early part of this century were small family operations —trattorie—although there were a number of sprawling places in New York that could serve up thousands of meals each day. Joe’s Restaurant at Fulton and Pierrepont streets in Brooklyn (opened by Joe Balzarini in 1909 and closed fifty years later) took up eight buildings and offered everything from homemade ravioli to hot turkey sandwiches. Barbetta, which opened its doors in 1906 and is still going strong in quarters on West Forty-sixth Street, served deluxe Piedmontese cuisine to Enrico Caruso, Fyodor Chaliapin, Arturo Toscanini, and every musician who ever played the nearby Metropolitan Opera House; Mamma Leone’s and Sardi’s became landmarks known to every tourist visiting Broadway.