Italian cuisine is arguably the most popular cuisine in America today, and its popularity keeps on growing.
Without resorting to a lot of dry statistics to back up this statement, let’s just take a peek at the Yellow Pages. While you might find a great number of restaurants featuring French, Chinese, Greek, Mexican, Japanese, German, Thai, Korean, Indian, Russian and other ethnic food, you can’t sling a wet spaghetti noodle without hitting significantly more listings for Italian eateries. Any town with a population of more than.... two is going to at least have a pizza joint of some sort.
So why is Italian food so popular? Well, Italian cuisine is based on two general precepts: freshness and simplicity. The simple techniques make it easy to prepare, thus delighting both restaurant chefs and home cooks alike, and the use of only the finest and freshest ingredients make it good to eat, thus delighting everybody.
Much of the Italian cuisine served up in America’s kitchens, both home and professional, is actually an amalgam of Italian and American food. But more on that topic later.
Let’s hit the dictionary. The word “cuisine” is, of course, a French word that literally means “kitchen.” According to Webster, its application in modern language is “a manner of preparing food: a style of cooking; also: the food prepared.” The word “Italian” goes back to the 14th century and relates to “a native or inhabitant of Italy.”
Of course, one has to realize that there was no political entity called “Italy” in the 14th century. The name “Italia” dates back to Roman times and originally applied only to the Roman province itself. In the centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, “Italia” came into common use as a descriptive term for a broader area. The peninsula that now appears on maps as “Italy” was populated by a collection of diverse and often aggressively disagreeable regions and city-states until the middle of the 19th century when il Risorgimento, or “the Resurgence,” resulted in the unification of Italy as we know it today.
As is to be expected, each of these independent regions – all twenty of them – had their own local culinary customs and cuisines, based upon what was produced or readily available in the area. In the truest sense, there is no “Italian cuisine” on a national level. Regional dishes still rule today in much the same way as they have for the last two millennia or so.
The Etruscans are the first people documented to have occupied the Italian peninsula back in the 8th or 9th century BC (or “BCE,” depending on your level of political correctness). In 2005, the central Italian town of Marzabotto (near Bologna), a town rich in Etruscan history, conducted “A Tavola Con Gli Etruschi Di Marzabotto” (“Dining With The Etruscans Of Marzabotto”) which explored various social aspects of the ancient civilization, focusing on its food resources and dining habits. Based on studies of surviving art and artifacts, the Etruscans, according to an Italian News release, “cultivated barley, spelt, wheat, pulses and figs and produced their own oil and wine. Meat and dairy products came from domesticated sheep and pigs, which were supplemented by wild game and venison. Wealthy Etruscans are thought to have dined lavishly, with roasted or boiled meat served with sauces of cereals, vegetables and spices. The meat, a luxury reserved for the higher classes, was probably accompanied by flat bread, eggs and vegetables, while fruit and sweet pastries would close the meal.” The foods enjoyed by the Etruscans are said to be the basis for modern-day Tuscan cuisine.
Further traces of the development of an Italian cuisine go back to the 4th century BC and the writings of Archestratus, a Greek poet who lived in the Sicilian towns of Gela and Syracuse. This early-day James Beard devoted much of his scrivening to the topic of where to find the best food in the Mediterranean world. In his Hedypatheia ("Life of Luxury"), Archestratus promotes the use of only the freshest, top quality seasonal ingredients. He further advocates that the flavor of dishes, particularly fish dishes, should not be overpowered by heavy use of spices, herbs, and other seasonings. These ideals remain as the cornerstone of Italian cooking today.
By the time the Romans came along with their popular cookbook De re coquinaria ("On the Subject of Cooking"), things had changed. The use of exotic – and expensive – spices in cooking was a reflection of wealth and prominence. More than four hundred recipes promoted the heavy usage of spices and herbs to disguise the natural flavors of foods. This was a trend that was prevalent all over Europe until well into the Middle Ages.
Not only was this over usage of spices a sign of wealth, it was a practical matter, as well. What with medieval food transportation and preservation techniques being what they were, the more spices you heaped on a dish, the less likely you were to taste the rottenness of the food itself.
Many of the advances in what we now call Italian cuisine came about as a result of both trade and conquest. The Italian peninsula was overrun by darn near everybody at one time or another. Etruscans, Greeks, Romans, Saracens, Lombards, Franks, Goths, Vikings, Normans – everybody got in on the party and they all brought elements of their own food cultures with them. Venetian explorer Marco Polo and his legendary Chinese trade adventures notwithstanding, pasta – that iconic staple of Italian cuisine – may actually have been introduced by Arab invaders who called Sicily home in the 9th century.
But trade did play an important role in the development of Italian cuisine. Ports like Venice and Genoa were major stops on the developing spice routes from the Far East and, consequently, exotic new spices like nutmeg, cardamom, and saffron began to appear in Italian kitchens.
By the early years of the Renaissance, the culinary pendulum began to swing back. In the 15th century, a visionary cook, Martino de Rossi or Maestro Martino, ran the kitchen for Ludovico Trevisan, the Cardinal Patriarch of Aquileia. Around 1465, he produced his Libro de Arte Coquinaria (The Art of Cooking.) A modern translation of the book is available through the University of California Press. UCP publication notes state: “Maestro Martino of Como has been called the first celebrity chef, and his extraordinary treatise on Renaissance cookery, The Art of Cooking, is the first known culinary guide to specify ingredients, cooking times and techniques, utensils, and amount. This vibrant document is also essential to understanding the forms of conviviality developed in Central Italy during the Renaissance, as well as their sociopolitical implications….The Art of Cooking, unlike the culinary manuals of the time, is a true gastronomic lexicon, surprisingly like a modern cookbook in identifying the quantity and kinds of ingredients in each dish, the proper procedure for cooking them, and the time required, as well as including many of the secrets of a culinary expert.”
Maestro Martino re-introduced the concept of fresh, locally produced ingredients and simple preparation techniques. (Okay, his recipe for “flying pie,” which incorporates the inclusion of live birds that fly away when the dish is opened may be a little out there, but I’m sure he vigorously advocated using only local birds.) Martino also eschewed the use of excessive amounts of heavy spices, preferring, instead, to enhance natural flavors with fresh herbs.
A few years later, soldier, scholar and papal scribe Bartolomeo Platina included Maestro Martino’s work in his De honesta voluptate et valetudine ("On Honest Pleasure and Good Health.") Platina refined Martino’s writings, focusing them on a regional level and enumerating for perhaps the first time the various specialties produced in the several regions that now comprise Italy.
About a hundred years later, another Bartolomeo took Italian cuisine a step closer to the modern era. Bartolomeo Scappi was the personal chef to Pope Pius V. His five-volume treatise on cooking contained over a thousand recipes which defined the state of Italian cooking at the time. Scappi was a major advocate of simplicity. He fostered a culinary movement that abandoned game animals and exotic meats in favor of more readily available sources, such as cows, pigs, sheep, various domestic birds, and fish. He diverged from traditional cooking methods like boiling and roasting and employed, instead, broiling, grilling, and poaching. His cookbook included not only recipes, but descriptions of kitchen tools and table utensils as well as notes on catering banquets and parties. His work also was among the first to include strange new ingredients from the New World. (No tomatoes just yet.)
Another hundred years and another Bartolomeo, this time Bartolomeo Stefani, produced a cookbook that contained a section on ordinary food and also outlined proper serving techniques and table manners. (Did you know, for instance, that Italians were primarily responsible for the spread of forks?)
Now comes the part that every Italian cook loves – poking holes in French pomposity. Although they hate to admit it, much of the basis of French haute cuisine is rooted in Italian cooking.
The Medicis were an extremely powerful and influential family in the early years of the Renaissance. Rulers of the Republic of Florence, successful merchants, and bankers to most of Europe, the Medici family produced a number of popes and other dominant political figures. They also fostered the arts and sponsored many famous Renaissance artists. Their patronage extended not only to painters and sculptors – you may have heard of that Buonarotti fellow, Michaelango -- but to culinary artists, as well.
In 1533, Katherine de' Medici, daughter of Lorenzo II de' Medici, Duke of Urbino, married the future French King Heinrich (or Henry) II. In what many consider the most important event in the history of gastronomy, she brought her Florentine court chefs with her, and they began practicing their art in the French court. Thus, “Classic French Cuisine” was born – in an Italian kitchen!
This proved to be something of a two-edged sword as the immediate result was a lull in the further development of Italian cuisine as a frantic fervor for the new French cooking swept the Continent. That and two hundred years or so of those pesky Italian Wars, but that’s another story.
It wasn’t until after the unification of Italy that another culinary leap forward occurred. Pellegrino Artusi’s La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangier bene (“Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well”), first published in 1891, became noted as a major culinary work due, in part, to the fact that it was directed to the middle-class home cook rather than to the upper class professional chef, as was the custom at the time. (An English version of this work is available through Amazon.com.) This trend led to a revived focus on natural flavors and quality ingredients in everyday Italian cooking. Nineteenth century improvements in transportation and preservation techniques made regional ingredients, specialties, and tastes accessible across all of Italy and throughout the world.
Nowhere is this more evident than on the North American continent.
Despite political unification and a democratic constitution, everything was not coming up roses in Italy, especially in the southern provinces, where poor economic conditions, coupled with farmed-out soil and epidemics of cholera and malaria, reduced the population to desperate poverty. As a result, a massive exodus began.
America was the land of opportunity. Between 1876 and 1924, more than four and a half million Italians arrived in the United States. Establishing “Little Italys” in major American cities, these immigrants brought their customs – and their food – to their new homes. And this is where the latest division in Italian cuisine occurred.
Italian immigrants soon discovered that many of the ingredients they had back home were not to be found in America. At the same time, there were many more new ingredients available. So, in true versatile, adaptable Italian fashion, immigrant cooks began experimenting and developing new dishes based on what was at hand.
As these immigrants moved around in their new country, their cooking diversified depending upon their location. Much as it had been in the Old Country, the cuisine differed from New York to Philadelphia to Chicago to St. Louis.
At the same time this diversification was going on, Americans were beginning to “discover” the Italian neighborhoods and the wonderful foods that could be found there. The combination of these factors resulted in the creation of a new type of cuisine – Italian-American.
The popularity of this new hybrid cuisine was fortified by an organization that is actually thought to be one of the oldest trade associations in America, the National Macaroni Manufacturers Association, forerunner of the modern National Pasta Association. Founded in 1904, the group's mission was and is to “increase the consumption of pasta.” This influential organization published many so-called “Italian” recipes in the early years of the 20th century, including one for “Italian Spaghetti and Meatballs.” The fact that no such dish ever existed in Italy didn't seem to matter.
Italian-American cuisine became even more firmly established with the 1953 publication of a book entitled “Italian Cooking for the American Kitchen” by Garabaldi Marto Lapolla (Wilfred Funk; 1953; New York). Lapolla was born in Potenza in 1888 and emigrated with his family to New York in 1890. Far from becoming a world-class chef, Lapolla was a teacher in the New York City public school system. He wrote textbooks, novels, short stories, plays, and poetry. His father had owned a bakery and cafe back in the Old Country, so this, apparently, qualified Lapolla to write cookbooks. To be fair, I suppose, his biographer does note his “passion for the culinary arts”. Anyway, recipes from this popular work were widely published in newspapers and magazines to a post-WWII audience hungering for the new cuisine. Unfortunately, as TV chef and culinary celebrity Alton Brown commented in his “American Classics 4” episode of “Good Eats,” “...despite vast popularity, [the book] was about as Italian as Florence.......Henderson!”
So now, broadly speaking, we have three forms of Italian cuisine; Northern Italian, Southern Italian, and Italian-American.
Traditional Northern Italian cuisine is rich in dairy products, with a decidedly Germanic influence. Rice, corn and potatoes are common in the north as are meat-rich dishes comprised of both wild and domestic animals. From the north come the rich Milanese risottos, the polentas, and gnocchi. And, of course, prosciutto and Parmigiano Reggiano both originate in the northern regions.
In Southern Italian cuisine, pasta is king. Often eaten twice a day, it is seldom prepared the same way twice. The poorer soil and rocky terrain of the south does not lend itself well to raising cattle, but lamb, goats and pigs are everywhere. Olive trees thrive in the south, so olive oil is the fat of choice over the butter and lard employed in the north. Warm coastal waters teem with fish and seafood. Fruits and vegetables are also common in Southern Italian dishes. Perhaps the most important vegetable-that-is-really-a-fruit is the pomo d’oro – the “apple of gold. I refer, of course, to the superstar of Southern Italian cuisine, the tomato.
Non-indigenous to the Continent, tomatoes were among the exotic foods brought back to Europe by Cristoforo Columbo, the Genoese explorer shamelessly co-opted by the Spanish under the name Christopher Columbus. But unlike corn, sweet potatoes, bell peppers and other New World comestibles introduced to European palates by the voyages of Columbus, tomatoes were considered ornamentals. Indeed, they were long thought to be poisonous. (Although the French called them pommes d'amour, or “love apples”, and believed them to be aphrodisiacs. But then we are talking about the French.) It wasn’t until the 18th century that tomatoes began to appear in Italian recipes and on Italian tables.
Naples is considered by many to be the culinary center of the Italian south, and it was in Naples that the tomato really caught on. Especially the luscious plum tomato grown in the volcanic soil of Mt. Vesuvius in the neighboring town of San Marzano. And it is from Naples that many Italians emigrated, taking with them the most famous creation made with their favorite condiment. We're talking, of course, about pizza.
The history of pizza being a fascinating and detailed topic of its own, suffice it to say that pizza is the first thing that comes to the American mind when you mention Italian food. Pizza is, of course, an authentic Southern Italian food that can now be found all over Italy and all over the world. It is also, along with the aforementioned spaghetti and meatballs, the staple of Italian-American cuisine.
As noted, Italian-American cuisine blends native Italian dishes with American ingredients and cooking techniques, a fusion that sometimes overshadows its roots. You will not, for example, ever find “deep-dish-Chicago-style” pizza in a real Italian restaurant. Nor will any real Italian pizzeria feature the “kitchen sink on a crust” pies so common in American eateries. Those are strictly Italian-American variations.
Similarly, while you may enjoy stromboli in Italian restaurants in Philadelphia, don’t look for them in a restaurant in Rome. (Unless it’s a ristorante turista.)
Yes, Italians have spaghetti and they have meatballs, but the combination commonly found in cans of Chef Boyardee is a purely Italian-American concoction.
Don’t look for garlic bread in Italy, at least not in the form sold in frozen loaves for American consumption and piled into baskets at Italian-American restaurants. A bruschetta made with fresh garlic and olive oil, yes. Garlic bread made with garlic powder and butter, no.
Italian-American cuisine uses lots of meat, especially beef. Not so in Italy, a country not usually known for its great herds of cattle being driven across the vast open plains by guys who look like Clint Eastwood.
Addressing one of my favorite culinary rants, Alfredo di Lelio spins in his grave every time another “Italian” restaurant chain perverts his simple, authentic butter and cheese dish into still another “Alfredo sauce” creation of questionable parentage. And, speaking of sauces, if you have the occasion to visit real Italian restaurants, you’ll quickly learn that “sauce” and “red” are not intransigently, incontrovertibly, and indelibly married to one another as they are in typical Italian-American establishments.
Fortunately, thanks to that ever-swinging culinary pendulum, Americans can now discover authentic Italian cuisine without having to travel to Italy, if they know where to look and what to look for. Visiting restaurants operated by Chef Mario Batali will get you a lot closer to Italy than opening cans inspired by Chef Ettore Boiardi. You’ll do better opening cookbooks authored by Lidia Bastianich than you will opening packages sold by Mama Celeste. And just because something sounds Italian – like the chain restaurant that touts its piatto di pollo – doesn’t make it Italian. (Piatto di pollo, by the way, means “plate of chicken”.)
Think about the old adage “just because a cat has kittens in the oven don’t make ‘em biscuits” the next time you see “autentico” attached to a restaurant or food product whose name ends in a vowel. Always remember, la prova è nel budino (“the proof is in the pudding.”}(Actually, that proverb started out as “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”, but that’s another article entirely.)
Remember, too, che mangia bene mangia Italiano (“who eats well eats Italian”).
Culinaria Italy, Claudia Piras and Eugenio Medagliani, 2000.
The Concise Gastronomy of Italy; Anna Del Conte, 2004
Food Network; Good Eats; S13E4P2, American Classics 4: Spaghetti with Meat Sauce