Although Italian food is considered an ethnic cuisine in America, it has been adapted by mainstream American foodways ever since Italians began crossing the ocean in droves. It’s now an inseparable part of American cuisine. However, the Italian food that many Americans think of as “Italian food” is different in many ways from the Italian food eaten in Italy. Dishes such as pizza, pasta, and lasagna are staggeringly popular and have become part of American mainstream cuisine, despite the fact that they have evolved into entirely different dishes than their Italian counterparts.
Many of the dishes that we consider distinctly American food today were in fact brought over or created by Italians. Dishes known and loved in America today such as the muffuletta sandwich of New Orleans and even the Philly cheese steak were invented by Italians. However, dishes that share a name or have similar ingredients and are considered distinctly Italian in America are sometimes nothing like what is commonly eaten in Italy. Pasta and pizza especially are two dishes that have been eaten for centuries in Italy, and although they have come to be known and loved in America, they mean different things on different sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
The history of Italian-American cuisine is clearly intertwined with the waves of Italian immigrants coming to the United States, which began in the late 19th century and continued into the 20th century. Italians came to the United States to seek better economic opportunities and to escape poverty, political turmoil, and over population in their home country.
When Italian immigrants arrived in the United States, they brought with them their culinary traditions and regional recipes from various parts of Italy. However, due to factors such as the limited availability of ingredients, adaptation to local tastes, and the need to use what was accessible, Italian immigrants had to modify their traditional recipes and techniques to fit their new surroundings. This led to the emergence of what is now known as Italian-American cuisine.
A Combination of Ingredients
Italian-American cuisine was a fusion of traditional Italian recipes and local American ingredients. Italian immigrants adapted their dishes based on what was available and affordable in their new surroundings.
Bigger Means Better
The U.S. was blessed with plentiful pork and poultry and an abundance of beef, so inventive Italians stuck them in pasta. More veal than these immigrants had ever seen roamed the land freely. So they stuck them in a parmigiana. The list goes on.
Looking back, we might be tempted to see this as a bastardization of traditional regional recipes. In reality, though, this was an expression of optimism, and of being able to eat a rich carnivorous diet, just as they had seen the wealthy in their home villages eat.
Over time, Italian-American cuisine gained popularity beyond the Italian community, becoming part of the mainstream American culinary landscape. Italian-American dishes like spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna, and chicken Parmesan became household favorites nationwide.
Today, Italian-American cuisine continues to evolve and adapt. While many traditional recipes and techniques are still cherished and passed down through generations, newer generations of Italian-Americans have also incorporated their own innovations and variations, creating a vibrant and diverse culinary tradition that reflects both Italian and American influences.
Beloved Italian-American Foods Not Found in Italy
Baked Ziti is a popular Italian-American dish that is not commonly found in Italy. It is a casserole-style pasta that typically consists of ziti pasta, tomato sauce, cheese (usually a combination of ricotta, mozzarella, and Parmesan), and added ingredients like meat or vegetables.
While there are similar dishes in Italian cuisine such as pasta forno or pasta au gratin, the specific combination of ingredients and the name “baked ziti” is not commonly found in Italy. Baked ziti is considered one of the premier Italian-American creations that emerged from adapting traditional Italian recipes to American tastes and ingredients.
Spaghetti & Meatballs
Only in the Italian regions of Campania and Abruzzio is there any record of this supposedly classic combination. And even here, the meatballs (polpette) are barely big enough to be called balls. An Italian would serve the two separately: the meatball as a main and the pasta with another sauce as a primo (first course).
Yet, this hasn’t stopped spaghetti and meatballs from becoming a quintessential staple of Italian-American food (a protagonist of the Lady and the Tramp kiss scene and the go-to dish of Clemenza when cooking for the Corleone family in The Godfather).
But, there’s another more obvious reason that big burly meatballs accompany American plates of pasta: the United States had (and still has) an abundance of beef.
Pepperoni pizza cannot be ordered in Italy. Well, let us rephrase. You can order a pepperoni pizza in Italy, but you won’t be brought a pie covered in salami circles. Instead, you’d be served slices topped with bell peppers. Legend has it that when Italians immigrated to America the word “pepperoni” got lost in translation and started meaning “meat” instead of “veggies.”
First of all, if you want meat on your pizza in Italy, you’ll only find pizzas with thinly sliced prosciutto or lean Tuscan sausage. Secondly, Italian pizza has less cheese, less sauce, and a thinner crust.
Chicken Parmesan, despite the very Italian name, is as American as the hot dog. There’s no authentic Italian recipe for combining pasta with chicken, and the two are always served as separate courses.
In fact, up until recent rises in poultry production, chicken meat was rarely eaten in Italy. During the first wave of immigration, the average Italian ate less than two pounds of poultry per year.
Thus, many Italian immigrants had little experience with poultry when they touched down in America, so culinary traditions were adapted to the available ingredients. As a result, eggplant Parmesan (a classic Italian dish) inspired chicken Parmesan, and nobody looked back.
An ongoing debate surrounds this delicious salad. However, one thing is for sure: it isn’t Italian. Most culinary historians credit Caesar Cardini with the authentic version. Caesar and his brother Alessandro moved from Milan to San Diego after World War I and decided to open a restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico. This signature Parmesan and crouton-based salad became very fashionable among Hollywood celebrities, and somehow it developed a reputation for being an authentic Italian dish.
Garlic bread is a popular staple in Italian-American cuisine, often served as an appetizer or accompaniment to pasta dishes or soups. While it is not a traditional Italian dish, it has become widely associated with Italian-American restaurants and households.
Garlic bread typically consists of sliced bread, often a baguette or Italian bread loaf, which is spread with a mixture of butter, minced garlic and sometimes cheese or parsley. The bread is then baked or toasted until the butter melts and the bread becomes crisp and golden.
The origins of garlic bread in Italian-American cuisine are not precisely known, but it is believed to have emerged as an adaptation of the traditional Italian bruschetta. Bruschetta is a dish where slices of bread are toasted or grilled and then topped with ingredients like garlic, tomatoes, and olive oil. However, adding butter (and the specific garlic bread preparation as it is known today) is more associated with Italian-American culinary traditions.
Rainbow cookies (also called Tricolor Cookies) are definitely not Italian. However, they were invented by Italians who migrated to New York back in the day and wanted to think of their motherland often, even when eating.
That’s why they invented Rainbow cookies, which can be found in Little Italy in NYC, for the feast of San Gennaro, a saint celebrated in Naples.
Tangy Italian vinaigrette is made from oil, vinegar, herbs, spices, sugar, and more. In Italy, people don’t use Italian dressing. To tell you the truth, Italians don’t even know the concept of a pre-mixed dressing that you buy in a store.
Normally, Italians dress salad with olive oil, vinegar or lemon juice, salt, and sometimes balsamic vinegar. The salad is usually dressed at the table.
There, of course, is a meat sauce called ragu alla Bolognese. The discrepancies between the Italian version and the version made in the U.S. is the pasta shape and the addition of cream.
What is known in some parts of the world as “Spag Bol” doesn’t exist in Italy because there it’s served with tagliatelle rather than spaghetti. The mayor of Bologna even started a campaign to dispel the myth of Spaghetti Bolognese.
Pasta alla marinara (“mariner’s style” pasta) does exist in Italy, but it’s usually prepared with shellfish or olives, sometimes both. In the United States, “marinara” refers to the simple, tomato-based, red sauce that is ubiquitous to Italian-American cooking and slathered on everything from pasta to meat.
Lobster Fra Diavolo
A dish so good it should be Italian, we agree. But the dish that combines tomato sauce with lobster, hot peppers, and pasta is American and only American. Perhaps the Italians can learn something about this mouthwatering combo?
In Italian-American households, eating a red sauce or “gravy” loaded with various kinds of meat and sausage is a beloved Sunday tradition. The recipe derives from Neapolitan ragu, but you won’t find Sunday gravy in Naples. Or anything with “gravy” in it for that matter.
In Italy, the simple yet delectable dish made by tossing hot egg noodles with softened butter and copious amounts of parmigiano until it’s creamy and smooth has its roots as far back as the Renaissance. However, it was popularized by Alfredo Di Lelio in his restaurant in Rome at the beginning of the 20th century.
One of the fundamental comfort foods of Italian cuisine, pasta in bianco can also be made with olive oil and is often served to finicky eaters, young and old.
Fettuccine Alfredo in the U.S. is a much heavier and more elaborate offspring of this humble dish (still popular in Italy). It is made with heavy cream, garlic, and sometimes extra ingredients like chicken or shrimp.
Italian-American cuisine has evolved through fusion and innovation. It blends Italian flavors and techniques with American ingredients and influences, resulting in such well known dishes as Sunday gravy, Spaghetti Bolognese, and Chicken Parmesan.
At Frankie Bones we merge the new with the traditional so as to create the best in innovative, delicious, gourmet, Italian dining and much, much more.