Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Evolution of Italian Cuisine in the American Psyche

John Mariani is a journalist and author of over 10 books on food, wine and gastronomy. The Philadelphia Enquirer called him “the most influential food-wine critic in the popular press.” He has been nominated three times for a James Beard Journalism Award. On March 24, 2010, NYU’s Casa Italiana hosted his presentation of The History of Italian Cuisine in New York City.

Joining Mariani in the discussion was Tony May, owner of SD26 Restaurant & Wine Bar in NYC and Chairman of Gruppo Ristoratori Italiani. Prior to SD26, May owned one of Manhattan’s most celebrated restaurants, San Domenico’s, and before that, Il Palio.

Mariani began his presentation in Italy’s distant past, summarizing its culinary development from Pre-Roman times through the Middle Ages, the revelations of Christoper Columbus to the Great Migration from Italy to America. One of the highlights was the work of Pelligrino Artusi who published a cookbook, L’Arte di Mangiar Bene (The Art of Eating Well), in Italy in 1891. According to Mariani, this was a book whose time had come. Italy had a literate middle class for the first time in its history and Artusi’s book was written for them. Written in Tuscan Italian, it sold 283,000 copies by 1910 and its popularity had a tremendous effect on not only the development of Italian kitchens but also on the Italian language.

Any conversation of Italian American cuisine has to include pizza and spaghetti, and Mariani did not disappoint. The Pizza Margarita we all know and love was named for Italy’s 19th century, very popular queen. The dominance of tomato, basil and mozzarella was in homage to the Italian flag. Pizza was unknown outside of Naples until America’s first pizzeria, Lombardi’s, opened on Spring Street in NYC in 1910. As an indication of Neapolitan pizza’s continuing influence, in November 2009 the European Union protected it with its Traditional Specialty Guarantee (TSG) label.

Spaghetti was known in Italy as macaroni in the 13th century and as vermicelli in the 14th. The word ‘spaghetti’ wasn’t used until 1837. But the real question surrounding spaghetti is, why did Italian Americans invent spaghetti and meatballs? Even today, our relatives in Italy disavow any contribution to this ubiquitous American dish. Sometimes they just shrug their shoulders, and other times are almost horrified at the idea. Mariani provided the best explanation I’ve heard so far about the creation and popularity of a big bowl of steaming spaghetti topped with meatballs the size of tennis balls. According to Mariani, a side dish of small rounds of meat, known as polpetta, was known in Southern Italy. However, Italian immigrants left behind a country that could barely feed them anything, much less meat, with any regularity. After experiencing the relative abundance of America, these same immigrants infused their kitchens with the symbolism of their new lives. They took polpetta and made them much larger and placed them atop the steaming platter of spaghetti as if to say, ‘meat is so plentiful in America we can have as much as we want, with whatever we want.’

The importance of Italians in America’s food industry continued to grow, from shops to restaurants, wine and canning factories. When Delmonico’s Restaurant opened its doors in New York in 1837, it was the first restaurant in the world outside of Paris. Just take a moment and think about that. We take this kind of dining experience so much for granted, but there was a time when the thought of being seated at a table, presented with a menu and being served exactly what you ordered was a very strange idea. Italians were on the leading edge.

Mariani believes that 3 major events advanced the American palette regarding Italian food: 1) modern access to authentic Italian ingredients in restaurants and so many boutique and grocery stores; 2) cultural cues such as the popularity of Italian fashion and the eating habits of its icons as well as popular films depicting Italian characters’ emphasis on cooking and eating (The Godfather, Big Night); 3) the recognition of the health benefits of the Mediterranean Diet.

Tony May joined the discussion by emphazing that authentic Italian cuisine is based on products; the better the quality of ingredients, the better the product. Like Mariani, he credited the invention of the jet plane with allowing American chefs to access genuine Italian ingredients in a way never known before. Services like FedEx and DHL rush prized constituents from the hills of Parma or the Bay of Naples to American tables. Although he believes “we still have a long way to go”, he credited food journalists with pushing American taste forward, beyond garlic and tomato sauce (not there’s anything wrong with that!).

To learn about future events at NYU's Casa Italiana, click here.

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