Italian immigrants took pride in feeding their families sumptuously.
Enlarge Image Credit: Bettmann / CorbisAt my family's home in the Bronx, we ate slices of fresh, milky mozzarella with seeded bread from the Italian bakery down the block, macaroni shells stuffed with Polly-O ricotta, lasagne with little meatballs between the layers, baked rigatoni, eggplant parmigiana, chicken cacciatore, beef braciola. We drank chianti that came in a straw-covered flask and espresso from a drip pot, with a sliver of lemon peel. This was the 1950s and '60s, and though Mom was always cooking for our family and friends, Dad knew his way around the kitchen, too. He took to the stove on weekends, concentrating on a single dish: lobster fra diavolo, because my mother hated handling live lobsters.
We thought we were eating authentic Italian food, because the dishes were the same ones all the other Italian families we knew cooked and ate. But in reality, our cuisine was an American invention: an amalgam of hearty, rustic dishes brought here, primarily by southern Italian immigrants (my grandparents came from Abruzzo and Campania), then adapted and embellished upon in American kitchens. By the time I started writing about food in the mid 1970s, this homegrown cuisine had fallen out of favor as northern Italian—inspired dishes, deemed (sometimes erroneously) lighter and more authentic, became all the rage. I can't say that I didn't welcome the new trend of delicate fresh egg pasta, or celebrate the fact that grilled branzino had replaced shrimp scampi on so many Italian menus. But I will never deny my love for a supersize plate of spaghetti with homemade meatballs, or an eggplant parmesan hero, with its ample breading and sauce and molten mozzarella. There's a beauty and succor to Italian-American food, and it's for a good reason that so many chefs have been returning to those classics recently, preparing them with a newfound zeal and sense of respect.
The story of the rise and fall and rise again of Italian-American food is a fascinating one; it's an American story, its plot interwoven with the entrepreneurial drive, embrace of pop culture, proliferation of convenience foods, and creativity of home cooks that has informed our country's culinary spirit. It began authentically enough, with Italian immigrants who were skilled at making the very most from the very least. The abbondanza for which Italian-American cooking is known stems from the fact that these immigrant cooks, most of whom came from dire poverty, took pride in being able to feed family and friends sumptuously on the kinds of foods they couldn't afford back home. Ingredients like mozzarella and ricotta were no longer used as accents, or as meals in themselves: They were added to dishes with abandon. My father's lobster fra diavolo, which was likely inspired by tomato-based seafood stews made with small spiny or inexpensive rock lobster in Italy, was another example: When it was popularized in the 1950s in Italian-American restaurants, it became a lavish dish—far bigger in size and flavor than its predecessors—of fat New England lobsters cooked in a fiery tomato sauce. Another ingredient considered an extravagance in southern Italian cooking, veal, could be found on early Italian-American menus in myriad forms: alla parmigiana (breaded and covered with sauce and cheese), alla marsala (doused with fortified wine), and as massive one-pound veal chops, often stuffed with mozzarella and prosciutto, then smothered with tomato sauce.
Foods from the homeland became springboards for invention in the States. Take pizza, which evolved from its simple Neapolitan roots into styles unlike anything found in Italy (see Any Way You Slice It), with more cheese, more sauce, and more toppings. Or, tomato sauce, for that matter: When my wife and I first traveled across Italy, on our honeymoon in 1977, we saw neither marinara (that quickly cooked sauce of just tomatoes, garlic, and oil) or the long-simmered "Sunday sauce," stocked with all kinds of meats, which most families I knew while growing up served on Sunday. Of course, tomato sauce exists in Italy; the irony is that tomatoes were brought to Italy from the Americas in the 16th century and considered poisonous by all but southerners, who found them a delicious addition to their meager diet and discovered that they flourished in their sunny clime. Which explains why when more than 4 million Italians, a vast majority of them from the south, immigrated to America between 1890 and 1910, they brought tomatoes, and tomato sauce, with them. Every cook had a version, and it became the food on which immigrant mothers staked their eminence within their neighborhoods. Growing up, we would no more insult a friend's sauce than we would his mother or grandmother. The sauce was sacred.