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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
For most Americans New York-style Italian food was the standard everyone else copied. San Francisco had a large number of northern Italian immigrants, but except for cioppino, their culinary influence has been marginal. The rich and varied traditions of Louisiana Creole cookery did, however, have a decided effect on the large numbers of Sicilians who settled in and around New Orleans, so that Italian cooking in that city tends to be much richer, spicier, and more dependent on cream, butter, and seafood than anywhere else in the United States. But by and large the Italian-American menu as we know it developed in New York and is still firmly entrenched today in most cities in this country. Pizza and the hero sandwich have become as American as apple pie (itself an immigrant dish, apple seeds having been brought to this country by the Puritans in 1620).
The first step, though very localized, toward more authentic, regional Italian cookery came at the 1939 New York World’s Fair with the opening of the Italian Pavilion restaurant, which featured a rather refined style of a kind wealthy Italians might enjoy. And one could find regional delicacies in some of New York’s better Italian restaurants. A dining-out guide published that year indicates just how inexpensive Italian restaurants were back then, compared with French or Continental counterparts. A “Veal Chop Parmigiana” with two vegetables at Barbetta went for 60 cents, while at Jack Dempsey’s Restaurant on West Fiftieth Street a lamb steak with baked potatoes would set you back $1.75, and the “splendid French wines” at Le Café Chambord on Third Avenue went for an exorbitant $3.50. (Today, says Barbetta’s owner, Laura Maioglio, the equivalent to that 60-cent meal would run about $29.00.)
By the 1980s Italian food in America had come full circle to resemble its European origins.
Most Americans of the time would have felt ill at ease in an Italian restaurant that did not have the requisite checkered tablecloths, straw-covered bottles with candles in them, and a strolling accordionist—an image touchingly brought into Technicolor focus in Walt Disney’s 1955 animated feature Lady and the Tramp when an Italian restaurateur named, inevitably, Tony and his chef cook up a plate of spaghetti and meatballs and serenade two stray dogs to the tune of “Bella Notte.”
By the 1950s Italian-American food, in all its modifications, elaborations, and excesses, was all but unrecognizable to visitors from Italy. A businessman from Turin might peruse a menu in an Italian restaurant in Chicago and not be able to decipher a single item. What in heaven’s name was turkey Tetrazzini? It is, in fact, a dish of turkey with a cream sauce, served over spaghetti and named after the Italian coloratura soprano Luisa Tetrazzini by some enterprising Italian-American cook in the long tradition of Raffaele Esposito. Spaghetti alla Caruso —with chicken livers—was named after the great tenor.
Yet Italian food was poised for change. A growing number of Americans traveled to Europe, ate dishes they’d never seen before, and returned with far more sophistication than most Italian-American restaurateurs would give them credit for. Also, a new generation of professionally trained restaurant chefs and waiters who had worked the transatlantic cruise ships began opening new, more elegant restaurants that offered dishes never seen before in this country—at prices no one could have believed possible until then. These new restaurants began to feature what they called northern Italian cuisine, and items like sole Florentine, paglia e fieno, and shrimp scampi veered away from the old “red sauce/white sauce” clichés. One of the dishes that took off rapidly in the 1970s was something called fettucine primavera, an odds-and-ends mixture of egg noodles with steamed vegetables, created by Sirio Maccioni of Le Cirque restaurant in New York. Carpaccio (slices of raw beef with a dressing) became far more fashionable in the United States than in Italy, where it originated at Harry’s Bar in Venice in the 1960s, while tiramisu (a dessert of mascarpone cheese, chocolate, and espresso invented at a Roman restaurant) replaced cheesecake as the cliché of the 1980s in Italian restaurants.
By the 1980s Italian food in America had grown to resemble its European origins more than its immigrants’ adaptations, and there was a concomitant boom in small trattorias, wood-burning pizzerias, and stylish regional Italian restaurants selling pasta for twenty dollars a plate and a mixture of sparkling wine and peach juice (the bellini, also from Harry’s Bar) for eight dollars a glass.