Virginia Tech Digital Library and Archives

Culinary History Collection


Current Editor: Cynthia D. Bertelsen

Issue 8 Spring 2005

Now THAT'S ... Italian-American:
Italian-American Cooking Myths and Realities

by Cynthia D. Bertelsen

Typical Italian-American dishes that one will not find on menus in Italy:

Stuffed Shells
Penne Ala Vodka
Spaghetti w/Garlic and Oil
Penne Ala Bolognese
Baked Ziti
Pasta and Broccoli
Pasta Primavera
Macaroni and Cheese
Fettuccine Alfredo
Vegetable Lasagna
Chicken Cutlet Parmigiana
Chicken Francese
Chicken Cacciatore
Italian Rum cake

And the litany of differences continues on, reality blurring with myths and stereotypes. Italian-American cooking differs a great deal from Italian cooking as known in the various regions of Italy.

The food that we in the United States think of as Italian food tends, like all "Italian" food, to be rooted in regionalism. Just as there really is no Italian cooking per se, there is really no Italian-American cooking, but rather recipes derived from the same culinary regionalism that divides Italy to this day.

And so in the beginning...

Mama stands in the tiny kitchen wearing her slightly stained apron, its ties barely reaching around her ample girth: this stereotypical picture of the Italian woman and her relationship to food permeates the media's version of Italian home cooking. Behind the restaurateurs stands Mama, too, her wooden spoon dripping with red sauce and a child clinging to her knees. The men in the family sit at the table in their tank-top T-shirts, the whiteness of the cloth showing off their chest hair, the muscles gained from working long hours in the mines, steel mills, stone quarries, and railroads of America, the Promised Land.

And indeed milk and honey and meat flowed abundantly in comparison to the starvation that drove four-and-a-half million Italians across the ocean, away from Italy, between 1880 and 1924.

In America, in dozens of "Little Italy's," the food of the immigrants stayed the same, and yet not the same, for generations. A new collective memory arose, one in which hunger no longer haunted nightly dreams or gripped stomachs with vise-like pangs.

Italian women–mostly Sicilian–brought the art of Italian food and cooking across the Atlantic and through the doors of Ellis Island - and happily so. Even though the first "Italian" restaurants sprung up catering to the young, lonely, and single Italian men, homesick for Mama and her cooking, even though it was "la cucina di povera."

"La cucina di povera," the cooking of poverty. Why else would so many Italians leave Italy, mostly southern Italy–Sicily, Naples, Puglia, Calabria–where ancient systems of landholding locked out the peasants, condemning them to the edge of starvation? Every American family with Italian roots guards their story of exile, and hunger usually frames that story.

Hunger, in Italy? Oh yes.

Italian traditional cooking became the ideal for the immigrants, but the reality for peasants was chestnuts and corn meal in northern Italy, corn meal and little else in southern Italy. Only the upper classes ate the meals that became associated with tradition in America. Pasta is a relative newcomer to the Italian larder, in spite of its ubiquitous presence these days. Until the beginning of the last century, pasta and read sauces enjoyed widespread popularity and availability only in the area around Naples.

Hunger faded away as Italian-Americans worked in the dangerous jobs that all immigrants took and as they created a cuisine based on fleeting taste memories.

Because the fresh ingredients–basil, tomatoes, cheeses–that are now so abundant in our markets did not exist when the first Italian immigrants stepped off the boats in New York, people made do with dried herbs and inferior canned tomatoes. Most Italian-Americans soon scratched out massive gardens in their backyards, wherever they lived. Canning fresh tomatoes became a yearly ritual for many families and making wine also developed into a standard practice. All year, women created their signature tomato sauces with these home-canned tomatoes and homemade wine.

Leftovers, usually from roasts and other meats, made their way into those sauces, like the Sunday gravy preserved as sacred memory in every family. Meatballs, common in all restaurant spaghetti dishes today, symbolize the new abundance found in America. An abundance that in fact did not exist back home in Italy. Along the way, Neapolitan cooking subsumed a lot of Sicilian cooking, although traces of Sicily still exist, in cannolis and cassatas and capers and olives.

Italian food equals cultural identity for the third and fourth generations of Italian-Americans.

But not in the way that they think they remember. Italian-American cuisine evolved, created by a people on the brink of starvation, searching for respectability in a new land. The Sunday dinner is the one part of Italian-American life that remains relatively intact, but the immigrants started that tradition. In a land where a decent tomato rarely appeared, unless it grew in one's own garden, the super abundance of meat fueled the new way of cooking. Instead of meat three times a year, usually served at festivals or baptisms or weddings or the Christmas Eve "Vigilia" with up to a dozen fish courses, all Church-oriented occasions, meat suddenly appeared in pots as much as three times a day. One sausage in the sauce gave way to many sausages (beef, pork)–all in the same sauce.

The endless search for and appreciation of the Italian food scene links Italian-Americans today to a rather mythical past. Elevating "cucina di povera" to nostalgic reminisces of Italy leaves out the sheer hunger amid a land of terrible beauty. One young man asked his father why he'd left that beautiful place and the old man replied that beauty like that "is not edible."

The food industry began capitalizing on the hungering for Italian cooking in the 1950s, with Chef Boyardee, although as early as 1887 Frenchman Alphonse Biardot canned spaghetti under the Franco-American label. Fresh Italian ingredients abound in most grocery stores across America these days. Cooking magazines devote entire issues to nothing but Italian cuisine, while FoodTV features several cooking programs on Italian cooking.

And of course cookbook publishers deluge seekers of Italian identity with dozens of new books every season. This, in contrast to the women who never wrote down their recipes, is astonishing. Because such a huge market exists for Italian cookbooks and Italian food products, the trend toward greater awareness of Italian cooking continues unabated. The latest catalog of Jessica's Biscuit, a mail-order cookbook vendor, contains easily 20 Italian cookbooks. Online bookseller lists over 1,000 titles related to Italian cooking, including yet-to-be-published Italian-American titles by authors like Rocco Dispirito and Adriana Trigiani.

What are these authors and publishers and food purveyors selling? Food, true, but more than that. family, spirit of place, belonging, identity. In short, abbondanza (abundance).

Books about Italian-American cooking and traditions:

Artusi, Pellegrino. The Art of Eating Well. New York: Random House, 1996.
(The "Bible" of Italian cooking, one of the first compendiums of recipes, first published in 1891.)

Barr, Nancy Verde. We Called It Macaroni: An American Heritage of Southern Italian Cooking. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.
(An account of Italian-American cooking told through the nostalgic version of Italian-American family life.)

Bastianich, Lidia Matticchio. Lidia's Italian-American Kitchen. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.
(A handbook to accompany the PBS series focusing on Italian-American cooking.)

Brewer, Gail Sforza. An Italian Family Reunion Cookbook. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1982.
(Another account of idyllic Italian-American family life told through the lens of cooking.)

Capatti, Alberto and Montanari, Massimo. Italian Cuisine: A Cultural History. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
(A scholarly and detailed account of Italian cooking, focusing more on general trends and not so much on regionalism.)

DeSalvo, Louise. Crazy in the Kitchen: Food, Feuds, and Forgiveness in an Italian American Family. New York: Bloomsbury, 2004.
(A narrative of a dysfunctional Italian-American upbringing, dispelling the myth that food always brings people together in happiness.)

DeSalvo, Louise and Giunta, Edvige, eds. The Milk of Almonds: Italian American Women Writers on Food and Culture. New York: Feminist Press, 2002.
(An edited volume with many contributors, all Italian-American women, writing about gender inequalities as related to food in Italian-American patriarchal culture.)

Granieri, Lori. Italian-American Holiday Traditions: Celebrations and Family Entertainment. New York: Citadel Press, 2002.
(A how-to book to assist in re-creating Italian-American festive days, including saints' feast days, as well as the usual Christmas and Easter fare.)

Mariani, John and Mariani, Galina. The Italian American Cookbook: A Feast of Food from a Great American Cooking Tradition. Boston: Harvard Common Press, 2000.
(A cookbook with lots of interesting pictures and commentary about Italian immigrants and food, as well as recipes for the classics, including "Chicken Francese.")

Orsini, Joseph. Father Orsini's Italian Kitchen. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991.

_____. Italian Family Cooking: Unlocking a Treasury of Recipes and Stories. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.
(Both books by Fr. Orsini, a Catholic priest, extol Italian-American family life and cooking through anecdotes and many recipes.)

Pellegrino, Frank. Rao's Cookbook: Over 100 Years of Italian Home Cooking. New York: Random House, 1998.
(Rao's, a restaurant of only 10 tables, is one of the most sought-after dining experiences in New York City. The recipes included in this book focus on the traditional Italian-American repertoire and are quite easy to prepare. Anecdotes about Italian-American life and Rao's customers, too.)

Rigante, Elodia. Italian Immigrant Cooking. North Dighton, Mass.: World Publications Group, 2003.
(One of the few authentic books on Italian-American cooking, written by a first-generation Italian-American home cook. Wonderful photographs featured on nearly every page.)

Rucker, Alan and Scicolone, Michelle. The Sopranos Family Cookbook, as Compiled by Artie Bucco. New York: Warner Books, 2002.
(A surprisingly good cookbook in spite of the association with the television show.)

Scognamillo, Sal J. Patsy's Cookbook: Classic Italian Recipes from a New York City Landmark Restaurant. New York: Clarkson Potter, 2002.
(Like Rao's, Patsy's is a long-time New York City landmark, serving excellent food. Unlike Rao's, it's easier to get a table! Anecdotes included. Recipes comprehensive and representative of Italian-American culinary traditions.)

Tucci, Joan Tropiano and Scappin, Gianni. Cucina & Famiglia: Two Italian Families Share Their Stories, Recipes, and Traditions. New York: William Morrow, 1999.
(Written by the mother of actor Stanley Tucci of Big Night fame. Illustrated with family photos. Family recipes included.)

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Last modified on: 06/13/06 11:39:43 Kimberli D. Weeks