History of Italian Food in the United States
Italians in America
Would it surprise you to know that at one point in the 20th century, going to an Italian restaurant in a city’s “Little Italy” was a special excursion?
According to John F. Mariani, Esquire’s food and travel correspondent, “Going to Little Italy became a city diversion, like going to Chinatown. Visitors accustomed to American apple pie, German strudel, and Jewish babka could go to an Italian café to sip dark espresso coffee with a lemon peel on the saucer and nibble on sugar-dusted, ricotta-stuffed cannoli and anise-flavored cookies with names like biscotti, baci di dama, and brutti ma buoni.”
Truly, the United States is a melting pot, with cuisines introduced from immigrants worldwide. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a significant number of Italian immigrants came to the United States in search of jobs and a better life. With them, they brought culinary traditions from many different regions of Italy.
As Italian immigrants dispersed across the United States, their traditional culinary customs transformed into regional Italian dishes.
Italian Cuisine by Region
Lidia Bastianich, renowned Italian-American chef, has spoken and written extensively on Italian influences in different regions of the United States. Because early Italian immigrants were unable to get their hands on high-quality olive oil and other ingredients crucial to fine Italian cooking, they got creative by building off traditional recipes with available ingredients. Here, we explore famous regional dishes with a clear influence from Italian cuisine.
In New York City, what could be more obvious an Italian influence than pizza? The New York slice is famous world-wide. But beyond the pie, Italian cuisine has evolved significantly in NYC. As a gateway for many Italian immigrants, some of the earliest Italian restaurants opened in NYC, such as Bamonte’s in 1900 and Ferdinando’s Focacceria. These were Neapolitan and Sicilian restaurants, with many tomato-based dishes.
In nearby Philadelphia, you’ll find the Philly cheesesteak, which can be traced back to Italian brothers Pat and Harry Olivieri. These two culinary masterminds decided to put grilled beef and melted cheese on an Italian roll and there you have it! Another Philadelphia favorite is the hoagie, which also has Italian roots. The hoagie’s history can be traced back to the Hog Island shipyard during WWII, when sliced meats, cheeses, and lettuce were layered onto Italian bread and topped with tomatoes, onions, and savory oils and sauces.
Southern cooking showcases a diverse range of cuisines from its colorful history. Perhaps the most famous Italian influence on a Southern dish is the muffuletta of New Orleans, Louisiana. The muffuletta originated from Italian immigrants in New Orleans, building a hearty sandwich on a round Sicilian sesame bread. The traditional muffuletta consists of layers of meats (mortadella, salami, ham, etc.), cheese (mozzarella, provolone), and olive salad (chopped up olives, celery, cauliflower, and carrot – aka giardiniera), seasoned with oregano and garlic, and slathered with olive oil before being sliced in half. The muffuletta is usually served cold, but may be warmed to melt the cheeses.
Italian Americans made a mark far and wide throughout the Midwest, from Chicago to Cleveland to St. Louis. In Chicago, you’ll find dishes such as Italian beef, Chicago-style deep dish pizza, and chicken Vesuvio. Chicken Vesuvio is a specialty of Chicago, made of bone-in chicken and wedges of potato, celery, and carrot, sautéed with garlic, oregano, white wine, and olive oil. It is rumored that the Vesuvio Restaurant invented the dish in the 1930s.
In Cleveland, there are many famous Italian bakeries that offer the Cassata cake. Cassata cake is a traditional sweet from Sicily, and is a sponge cake combined with liqueur, ricotta cheese, candied peel, and a filling similar to cannoli crème. Of course, Cleveland is also the historic home of Hector Boiardi – aka Chef Boyardee! Nearby in Columbus, the famous Marzetti Italian Restaurant was opened in 1896 and was the originator of the beef-and-pasta casserole.
In St. Louis, you’ll find two Italian-influenced dishes: toasted ravioli, which is breaded and fried, and the St. Louis-style pizza, made with a thin, crisp crust.
While there are many different Italian influences throughout West Coast, perhaps the most famous is Cioppino, a fish stew that originated by Italian Americans in San Francisco. This is fish stew that hearkens back to the various regional fish stews of different areas of Italy, incorporating whatever fresh catches of the day were available.
And Italian Cuisine in Salt Lake City!
As with all cuisine and food culture, Italian food has evolved and transformed into many delicious incarnations, depending on the region. For the finest Italian cuisine in Salt Lake City, come visit us a Cucina Toscana!