t’s ironic. Had it not been for the discovery of the New World, Italian cuisine would be without key representatives, including tomato sauce, eggplant — and other nightshades like bell peppers — and coffee. Among the most beloved and imitated global cuisines is also among the newest. It owes many characteristics to foodstuffs now typically grown on the Italian Peninsula, though many hardly entered the kitchen before the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria returned home from their late 15th-century transatlantic adventure.
Cut to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. About four million Italians immigrated to the United States from 1880 to 1920. Most came from the poor south, where a bad economy and corrupt politics had generated centuries of impoverishment. The hopeful immigrants carried rich cultural baggage and a regional Italian culinary tradition that would help forge new dishes both immigrants and Americans would later come to consider as staples. This was the genesis of Italian-American cuisine.
Many immigrants came from Sicily, Calabria, Campania, Abruzzi, Molise, with a smaller number from northern villages. Large numbers settled in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, Boston and San Francisco, cities that would give birth to a cuisine which fused old school Italian priorities with ingredients native to the “new” lands.
Here is a look at some of the most representative Italo-American dishes, and the original Italian recipes that inspired them.
Spaghetti and Meatballs
Some say early 20th-century Italian immigrants fresh off Ellis Island were the first to mix meatballs with spaghetti, a rare combination in today’s Italy. Still, this classic Italian-American dish has an Old World pedigree. Tomato sauce and meatballs figure in many Italian regional recipes. Usually, though, the meatballs are far smaller than those in typical Italian-American recipes and closer to the pork-meat marbles included in Abruzzo spaghetti dishes (among the regions where the dish is still made). A similar recipe with meat contained in the sauce is Pasta con le braciole, slices of meat rolled up with carrots, celery and cured meats. The combination (also called involtini) is sealed with a toothpick and cooked in the tomato sauce that is used to dress the pasta.
American immigrants had to make do with ingredients they could find and afford. They spent significantly less for food than they did in Italy. The comforting presence of large meatballs became a symbolic representation of the quality (and quantity) of available beef — in Italy, good beef had been reserved for nobility and churchmen. As income levels grew, Italian nonnas began adding more meat, and in much larger portions. Indulgent immigrants transformed their polpettine into fist-size balls. The additional meat came at the expense of breadcrumbs. By the mid-20th century no Italian restaurant could do without spaghetti and meatballs.
Mac and Cheese
Over the years Mac & Cheese has attained hallowed status as a comfort food. Little else is more satisfying than a plate of piping hot elbow macaroni or manicotti loosely glued together by creamy Cheddar cheese sauce and covered with a crusty layer of baked cheese and buttered breadcrumbs.
Records show that Thomas Jefferson encountered macaroni in northern Italy during a 1793 trip. He wrote detailed notes on the extrusion process and later imported both macaroni and Parmesan cheese for use at his Monticello villa. In 1802, Jefferson, by then president, served “a pie called macaroni” at a state dinner. It may be thanks to Jefferson that the pasta and cheese casserole has since been associated with the United States.
In Italy, baked pasta with cheese and-or béchamel is known as Timballo di maccheroni or simply Pasta al forno. It differs from lasagna and it is just as popular as its American counterpart. The one all Italian mothers serve isn’t ready-made. They often lace the cheesy pasta with a few strips of ham and dust it with lots of grated Parmesan and a dash of nutmeg. If it’s spring, they might add a handful of peas.
In U.S.-style Chicken or Veal Parmesan, the meat is drenched in tomato sauce, melted cheese and often served with pasta, as well as a delightful sandwich filling. It derives from a classic Emilia-Romagna recipe known as Cotoletta alla Parmigiana. Elsewhere in Europe, it’s called fried breaded chicken or veal suprême — or schnitzel.
The American twist on this northern Italian classic was probably inspired by Parmigiana di melanzane, eggplant parmesan, a dish with Neapolitan and Sicilian roots that scholars suggest first appeared on Italian tables in the second half of the 18th century. Parma has no claim on this dish. The only recipe component tied to the northern Po river valley territory is the grated Parmesan, a key element in the preparation. The remaining ingredients (tomatoes and eggplant) are pure southern Italian.
The later substituting of veal and chicken for eggplant was probably yet another reflection of more affluent times. Within decades of its introduction, the dish became yet another informal Italo-American staple.
In 1787, the traveling Jefferson presciently saw the future. “Italy is a field where the inhabitants of the [American] Southern states may see much to copy in agriculture,” he wrote home. It would take 200 years, but once the copying began, there was no stopping it.