December 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 8
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
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.
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.
The key to understanding Italian food culture in the United States is knowing the Italians who brought it here: 80 percent were from south of Rome—the region known as the Mezzogiorno—and particularly from Sicily and Naples. Between 1890 and 1910 about 2,700,000 southern Italians entered the United States; between 1880 and 1920 one out of every six immigrants to this country was a Sicilian.
These were people whose gastronomy was far more influenced by Mediterranean cultures than by European, and, given the poverty of the region, they depended largely on vegetables, grains, and fruits, with very little meat at all in the diet. The tomato, which came to dominate Italian-American cookery, was brought to Italy from Central America only in the sixteenth century and was rarely consumed elsewhere in Europe because, as a member of the deadly nightshade family (Solanaceae), it was thought to be poisonous.
Also, these southern Italians were overwhelmingly agrarian— contadini—yet for the most part they disembarked and settled in the teeming cities of America’s eastern seaboard, with 97 percent of them disgorged through New York’s Ellis Island. By the 1920s there were more Italians living in New York than there were in Florence, Venice, and Genoa combined. Although about half of them eventually returned to Italy, millions stayed to begin a new life, which had very little to do with life back home, where they had tended farms, lived off the land, and, often, slept outside. Chefs and restaurateurs were few and far between among steerage-class travelers.
Having endured centuries of abject poverty (the average immigrant brought $12.67 with him to the United States), the Italians came to America looking not so much for “streets of gold” as for food, money, and a little land.
Those who went west to California—mostly northern Italians—realized their dreams in the Napa, Sonoma, and San Joaquin valleys, where they became major forces in that state’s agricultural eminence, while families with names like Gallo, Sebastiani, Mondavi, and Martini pioneered the California wine industry.
But the poor immigrants who arrived in the Eastern cities found wretched conditions, with cramped tenement quarters, disease, filth, and, always, prejudice. Tenement apartments had little room for food storage, forcing the women to shop the markets daily. Food was expensive in America, though much less so than in Sicily, where up to 85 percent of one’s income went to feed the family, compared with only 50 percent in the United States.
A greater disappointment was not being able to own enough land on which these former contadini might grow their own tomatoes, eggplants, and spices, making them dependent on unfamiliar varieties of store-bought American vegetables and fruits that looked, smelled, and tasted quite different from what they’d been used to. Some tried to keep chickens and goats for slaughter in their yards, which led to New York’s outlawing such activities in 1901.
Southern Italians’ “nostalgia for the food of their homeland paralleled their nostalgia for their patron saints,” says the gastronomic historian Massimo Alberini. “They sent to Italy for cases of macaroni, and they managed to provide reasonable substitutes for missing ingredients.” Mexican chili was used in place of Calabrese peperoncino, mozzarella cheese was made with cow’s milk instead of the traditional buffalo milk, and American grape varieties or zinfandel went into the strong red wines that non-Italians often called “dago red.”
With considerable justification the immigrants mistrusted whatever was not fresh. “The [Italian] believes that the commercial method [of canning] removes all the goodness from food,” noted a 1907 report, Wage Earners’ Budgets in New York, “and a minimum of processes should intervene between harvesting and consumption.”
Those who managed to raise their own produce did so with the idea of re-creating amid urban grimness one of the happier aspects of the life they had recently fled. “My grandfather had a little garden in the back yard of the building in which we all lived in Brooklyn,” recalls Richard Gambino in his 1974 book Blood of My Blood: The Dilemma of the Italian-Americans . “In two senses, it was a distinctly Sicilian garden. First, it was the symbolic fulfillment of every contadino’s dreams to own his own land. Second, what was grown there was a far cry from the typical American garden. In our garden were plum tomatoes, squash, white grapes on an overhead vine, a prolific peach tree, and a fig tree! … Because of the inhospitable climate of New York, every autumn the [fig] tree had to be carefully wrapped in layers of newspaper. These in turn were covered with waterproof linoleum and tarpaulin. The tree was topped with an inverted, galvanized bucket for final protection. But the figs it produced were well worth the trouble. Picked and washed by my own hand, they were as delicious as anything I have eaten since.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
Meanwhile, supermarket managers, prodded by the gourmet boom and an accompanying insistence on authenticity, began stocking their produce stalls with radicchio while their butchers offered rollatine of veal, and the aisles blossomed with more Italian food items than any other ethnic kind, including microwavable pastas, salad dressings, fresh tortellini, and all manner of frozen pizzas. Cold pasta salads—nearly unknown in Italy—are the new replacement for what used to be called macaroni salad. In fact, pasta, in all its shapes, forms, and sizes, has become one of America’s favorite foods. We now eat more of it than ever before—4.2 billion pounds a year, or 17.1 pounds per person—up from 13 pounds just seven years ago. Ironically, much of this new love of Italian food comes from the urgings of nutritionists who have decided that the Mediterranean diet is one of the most healthful in the world—rich in complex carbohydrates, proteins, monounsaturated fats, fruits, vegetables, and lean meat.
The Italians always knew this, from the time they came here hoping to carve out a small part of the American Dream, which promised them their children would have enough to eat—and then more than enough to eat. As the sons and daughters of the first generation enjoyed more and more of the American bounty, their appetite for meats, sweets, liquor, and large portions of everything attended a growing sense of self and a belief that you become what you eat—tall, robust, strong, and healthy, like the Americans. Sometimes you got fat, but that was all right too.
You can still find the old dishes, the peasant dishes, the contadino’s dishes at places like Mario’s on Arthur Avenue. And the pizza there is made the way it’s still made in Naples. And the Migliucci family is always there. Always. All of which makes Mario’s a vital link to an Italian-American heritage that began in hunger and moved to abundance. So that, still today, when you enter an Italian-American’s home, at any hour of the day or night, you’ll be told—not asked—to sit down and eat something. It wasn’t always so in the old country.