Monday, March 19, 2018

Italian-American food is not Italian food

Most of what is called Italian food here comes from the immigrants from southern Italy and Sicily who arrived from 1880 to 1924. They made up about 80% of all Italian immigrants. Interestingly, about half of the dishes that would become Italian staples in America originated in Naples. ...

Italian food in America is largely based on the foods the immigrants had eaten during religious holidays and other celebrations – in and around Naples and elsewhere – much less on what they ate daily. That was often a dreary array of vegetable soups, greens, beans and poor-quality bread. In Italy, they seldom ate pasta, as it was too expensive. They rarely ate meat. They only ate seafood if they lived near the coast.

But, with American wages, commercially made pasta and meat were easily affordable and became regular parts of their diet. Like nearly all immigrants before and afterwards, the Italians quickly grew to include American beef-steak and the crisp, German-born lager beer.

They ate far better than they had in Italy. But, many of the ingredients were not available or not as good quality, so these immigrants had to adapt. Vegetables became less important over the years, reflecting trends in the broader American landscape. ...

Food today in Italy is similar, but is something else.  The often significant differences between Italian and Italian-American cooking can be described as harmony versus abundance. Italian-American cooking uses far more garlic, more sauce, much more cheese and meat. Fewer vegetables are used. The food is also “more cooked,” like the popular baked pasta dishes here such as baked ziti and manicotti. Pasta is an entrĂ©e, which is almost never seen in Italy; it is typically the first course (after the antipasti that is). Fewer seasonal and fresh ingredients are used here. The long-cooked and copious tomato sauces, along with the large amount of cheese, help to mask this fact.


Garlic, you see, is not quite the staple of Italian cuisine Americans think it is. Depending on who you speak to, onions are a controversial ingredient too – and don’t even think of ever combining the two in a single dish. ...

“Fettuccine alfredo are not a thing in Italy,” Silvestris continues as calmly as possible. ...

In Italy, the dish is most similar to what Italians call pasta burro e parmiggiano (pasta with butter and parmesan cheese). Italians eat this, but at home, and would never dream of ordering it in a restaurant, says Simona Palmisano, 37, a Roman native and tour guide who recently settled in New York.

Palmisano explains that in Italy, this way of making pasta is often referred to as pasta del cornuto – which translates as “cuckold’s pasta”, because making it betrays an absence of time or care put into the simple meal, with the consequential assumption that a wife’s [romantic] attention must be elsewhere.

The even more popular way of serving pasta alfredo in the US – with chicken – is beyond imaginable.

It is not just poultry and pasta that are not allowed to mix – meat and pasta very rarely make it on to the same plate. Pasta is one course (primo) and meat is another, fully separate course (secondo).

“Except for in one particular region of the south [of Italy], where they put very small meatballs in their tomato sauce, we would never put meatballs in pasta. Who has ever heard of spaghetti meatballs?!” Silvestris exclaims. ...

You finish cooking pasta in its sauce after you have drained it from the boiled water; you never dollop the one on top of the other.
--Rose Hackman, The Guardian, on culture clash