Italian American Cuisine

This blog entry was submitted by Jennifer Gray, who studied abroad in Italy.
Featured photo by Davide Ragusa on Unsplash

“Author’s Note: I have always been passionate about culinology and the varying cultural culinary techniques our wonderful world has to offer. Italy has been one of the most influential and important countries for American cuisine as we know it, and naturally, it was a perfect fit for me to study abroad in. I wrote this piece in homage to all that I have learned about the wonderful and vibrant cuisine here in central Italia.

Italian cuisine has undeniably played an integral role in the development of modern American cuisine; from spaghetti and meatballs, gelato, garlic bread, to mozzarella, Italian food is present in almost every staple American kitchen. However, we must ask ourselves: are these items truly Italian? During this presentation, we will examine the vast differences between Italian-American and true Italian cuisine.

During the late 1800’s to early 1900’s, the United States experienced a heavy influx of immigrants from Italy. Mainly originating from Southern Italy and Sicily, this vast migration was mostly fueled by the extreme poverty present in those regions. Many Italian immigrants were excited by the plentiful and relatively cheap meat markets and produce. Thus, the new 19th-century experimental American-Italian cuisine was born. This new age Italian-American cuisine boasted colossal portions of meat and produce, and was born out of a place of optimism and hope rather than American disenfranchisement.

Many different factors have influenced the evolution of Italian-American food. Many staple foods in the United States originated with the immigration of Italians and the recipes they brought with them. These American staples include pizza, spaghetti and meatballs, garlic bread, and more. The ingredients greatly impacted this cuisine available to Italian immigrants. They found themselves needing to adjust their traditional recipes based on the price and accessibility of foods. Vegetables such as eggplant and zucchini were not as readily available, however, meats and dairy products were plentiful. Italians who owned restaurants in the United States found that they could sell more by catering to the tastes of Americans. This meant adding more meats and cheeses to their recipes. Another factor influencing Italian-American food was the treatment and care of the ingredients used in the meals. In Italy, there is a large focus on freshness and good quality ingredients. On the contrary, in the United States, the emphasis is placed more heavily on marketability and large-scale production of products. The differing values held by these cultures and the sacrificing of quality of ingredients by American manufacturers is evident in the “Italian” inventions such as today’s Chef Boyardee and Olive Garden.

One incredibly important and defining aspect of Italian culture is wine. Italian wine was first introduced to the Americas in the late 1700’s, competing with French wines for the American market at the time. Italian wine truly made its foothold in the American market with the Westward migration during the 1870’s to 1920’s. Many new Italian immigrants, particularly farmers and grape growers, were drawn to California because of the gold rush and its vast amounts of arable land. Sadly, from 1920 to 1933, prohibition halted nearly almost all of the wine production in the United States. However, due to a loophole in the law, a select few Italian wine producers were able to produce red wine for religious purposes, which kept many Italian-American vineyards and wineries in operation during this time. Wine flowed semi-freely throughout the community, and many Italian restaurants served wine under the table. Americans started to develop a taste for Italian style red wines, particularly taking interest in Tuscan flavor profiles. Italian wine growers mainly use the California Barbera grape, which has a rich blackberry, red plum, and licorice taste with soft tannins. Today, there are many important Italian-American wine tycoons that have shaped the American wine industry as we know it, and we would not have the rich flavor profiles and diversity in wine if it were not for the Italian-American wine pioneers.

Another important factor for both Italian and Italian-American cuisines is olive oil. In recent times, this has become a controversial and melancholic topic. Sadly, the rate of Olive oil production and marketing heavily controlled by ‘Agro Mafia.’ These scandals are currently threatening areas in Central and Southern Italy; namely Perugia, Campania, and Umbria. In 2015, undercover operation “Mamma Mia” by the Italian police discovered thousands of tons of low-quality olive oil were flooding Italian, American, and Japanese markets. These low-quality oils primarily came from Syria, Morocco, Greece, Spain, Turkey, and Tunisia. All products had been marked as Italian produced extra virgin olive oil. Another factor impacting the EVOO market is Xylella fastidiosa, a gram-negative bacterium that attacks many plants, including the olive tree. In the past two years, EVOO prices have risen by an estimated 20%.

Other major differences can be seen as well. Perhaps the most beloved Italian-American dish, spaghetti, and meatballs. This dish while found in every Italian restaurant in America, is almost unheard of in Italy. While meatballs can be found by themselves as maybe an antipasto, in Italy they would rarely be served with a pasta dish. On top of that pasta dishes with red sauce or tomato sauce are also uncommon in Italy. So where did the dish come from? The dish came from poor Italian immigrants who were trying to make a satisfying main course dish while using the cheaper cuts of meat. They would roll the pork and beef into a small ball. If they needed the meat to go a little farther they would even add pieces of bread to make them both more filling and larger.

Chef Boyardee is a classic Italian-American brand that children all over the United States have grown up eating or watching ads for on the television. Although it is evident that this is not authentic Italian food, the origin of this brand has direct ties to the Immigration of Italians to the United States in the early twentieth century. The name and face of the company Italian chef Hector Boyardee was born Ettore Boiardi from Piacenza. He became a successful chef at a young age and moved to New York in 1914 at age 16. He started working in Kitchens and eventually opened his own restaurant called Il Giardino d’Italia. This restaurant became very successful and was infamous for its amazing spaghetti sauce. The patrons wanted to purchase the sauce so that they could make their own pasta at home. Boiardi opened a small production facility next to his restaurant and began packaging the sauce along with dried pasta and cheeses so that people could buy the kit and recreate the pasta at home. In 1928 the Chef Boiardi Food Company was founded. Soon after, he changed the name to Hector Boyardee to better market his products to Americans. The pasta kit became very popular during the depression as they were quick and inexpensive meal options. The original company owned by Ettore Boiardi cared a great deal about using high-quality fresh ingredients. However, the project eventually became too big for him, so he sold the company to American Home Products while still maintaining some influence over the products. Boiardi died in 1985 but his brand did not. The products have changed over the decades along with the ownership and today we find ourselves with Chef Boyardee products such as canned lasagna and “Big Beefaroni.”

Perhaps one of the most defining features of true Italian cuisine is the incredible freshness of the ingredients. Italian cuisine tends to use fresh, local ingredients. Unlike American-Italian cuisine, which tends to use a conglomeration of very salty, fattening ingredients that blend together, Italian cuisine strives to highlight the integrity and individuality of very few yet prominent ingredients. Each region of Italy specializes in certain ingredients as well, and although there are a few uniform staples in many Italian kitchens, much of Italian cuisine depends on the region you eat in!

However, the most unifying factor is undeniably the respect and reverence Italians have for their ingredients. While Americans are obsessed with efficiency, speed, and accuracy, Italians are obsessed with quality, love, and integrity. This can be seen in the Slow Food Movement, founded by Carlo Petrini in 1986 in Bra, Italy. This now global foundation was first created to protest the opening of a McDonald’s near Roma’s Spanish Steps. This movement encourages the eating of local, sustainable ingredients in cuisine honoring local heritage. Meals take significantly more time to prepare and are eaten in the same fashion as well. This method of eating honors the ingredients and the people who created and/or grew them.”

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