- 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
Mamma Leone’s opened as a family restaurant in 1906 in a little room above a wine cellar near the back of the Metropolitan Opera. Its growth from a baroque institution to a gargantuan tourist trap mirrors what happened to some Italian-American restaurants. With its nude statuary, singing waiters, enormous chunks of mozzarella on each table, and red checkered tablecloths, it came to represent Italian dining at its most outrageous—overdone, overcooked, and, after a while, half-baked. Like Mamma Leone’s, most Italian-American restaurants served a diluted form of southern Italian cookery modulated for the American palate, which demanded more meat and less spiciness. So meatballs were added to spaghetti, veal cutlets became a standard item, and steaks and chops appeared on the menu, along with several eponymous dishes named after the towns the cooks came from—clams Posillipo, seafood Golfo di Napoli, and veal Sorrentina—none of them classic Italian dishes but each created to evoke an image of some romantic locale the cooks longed to see again.
New dishes came from many sources but rarely from Italy. Clams casino is more likely to have originated in a Long Island casino kitchen than in the town of Cassino in southern Italy. Italian fishermen in San Francisco adapted a Genovese fish stew called ciuppin into a local specialty called cioppino, while shrimp scampi (shrimp done in white wine and garlic) was actually an adaptation of the Venetian word scampo, a species of prawn not available in the United States.
Caesar salad was actually the invention of one Caesar Cardini, who concocted the dish in 1924 at his restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico, for some visiting movie stars; back in Hollywood they talked about it so much it became a nationally known dish. Fettucine Alfredo—a mixture of egg noodles, butter, and Parmesan cheese—was “created” by a Roman restaurateur named Alfredo di Lellio to restore the appetite of his sick wife. While there was nothing actually new about this combination of ingredients to most Italians, it so enchanted Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford on a honeymoon visit to Rome in 1920 that they gave di Lellio a gold-plated fork and spoon with which to mix the noodles. Within a year the recipe was published in The Rector Cook Book, by the chef of Rector’s restaurant in New York. It took on a new fashionability in the 1950s, when di Lellio courted a later generation of Hollywood stars in Rome who, on returning home, demanded that local Italian-American chefs try their hand at the dish, which they had never heard of. Nevertheless, the chefs were happy to oblige, and, authenticity be damned, they added heavy cream to Alfredo’s original recipe, so that an Alfredo sauce now means a cream-and-cheese sauce. In Italy it means an American customer is in the dining room.
As Italian-American food grew more popular, the culinary link to the past weakened, and second-generation Italian-Americans began eating a modified diet of these new dishes right along with American dishes like sirloin steaks and baked potatoes, reverting back only on feast days to the classic, traditional Italian dishes like baccalà (salted cod), pasta con sarde (pasta with sardines), and caponata (a spicy eggplant dish). A typical Sunday meal at my mother’s house might begin with prosciutto and sweet melon and bread sticks, move on to lasagna (made with tiny meatballs), then to a prime rib with roast potatoes and Yorkshire pudding, to be finished with either a pecan pie or ricotta cheesecake. As a child I drank milk or Coca-Cola at these meals; my father, more often than not, drank beer, with wine reserved for special occasions.
Italian-American cookery represented American bounty in its most delectable form—so much food! So much meat! So much coffee! Such rich desserts! The family meal was the crucible of Italian-American culture; the dinner table, not the living room, was the center of political and social discourse that raged on for hours and into the night, until one or another family member collapsed on the couch. No one would ever think of going to a relative’s house without bringing a box of cookies or a cake, and if two or three or more people suddenly showed up, an Italian wife would simply “stretch” the sauce and make some more spaghetti. Food in Italian-American culture was an expression not only of love but of the deepest maternal instincts—to nurture one’s family, to give them all they needed to grow strong, and, finally, to spoil them unashamedly. Taking food with the family also taught manners and rituals that preserved whatever sense of regional identity was left in second-and third-generation Italian-Americans.