As American As Spaghetti Pie

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Celebrate National Italian Food Day on Feb. 13

Spaghetti and meatballs

It’s hard to imagine, but Italian food was once thought of as oddly esoteric—a strange “foreign” food eaten only by a small group of immigrants in the slums of New York City. Fast forward to today, and it’s even harder to imagine a week where one doesn’t eat something at least vaguely Italian. But how did Italian food become so popular? In celebration of National Italian Food Day on Feb. 13, let’s find out.

For anyone born into an Italian family, pasta, red sauce, parmesan and the rest are as familiar as grandma wringing her hands together because she’s convinced you aren’t eating enough. It’s the stuff of Sunday dinner; almost always starting before 2 p.m. and usually involving some shape of pasta (for me, cavatelli, or “gavadeels”) and a dented pot of sauce filled with meatballs, sausage or, if you’re lucky, bracciole. Then there was the meat and potatoes dish, maybe a roast chicken, some string beans or broccoli rabe with oil and garlic. There might even be chicken parmesan, especially if your cousin Anthony was coming over because that’s the only thing the kid ate. And don’t forget about a half-dozen loaves of bread always within reach and a salad (eaten at the end of the meal). Wine, fruit and nuts aid digestion, before finishing off with coffee and cake. See you next Sunday.

Chicken parmigiana with salad.

That’s A Spicy History!

America wasn’t always like this. Before Italian immigrants began flowing in during the late 19th century, the dominant immigrant influx in America was of German origin. Instead of pasta, there was spaetzle; instead of meatballs, there was (German) sausage; and instead of sauce, there was mustard. And it was all consumed with great fervor in cavernous beer halls. But then the Italians came, and between the 19th century and the 1920s, 4 million former citizens of the boot-shaped country came ashore.

The waves of Italian immigrants passed through Ellis Island, some stopping in New York, and others heading west, all the while clutching their cultural identity through their cooking traditions. They went to New Orleans, where Sicilian workers piled meat on muffuliette rolls from their native region, inventing the Louisiana staple, a muffuletta sandwich. They stopped in Philadelphia, where a son of Italian immigrants put steak and cheese on an Italian roll, creating the Philly cheese steak. They made it out west to San Francisco, where Genoese fisherman adapted their Italian fish stew known as ciuppin into the San Francisco specialty cioppino, and where a chef invented Chicken Tetrazzini in the early 1900s in honor of an operatic soprano.

Italian food was further popularized by soldiers returning home after World War II. They brought back with them the irreparable craving for the foods they ate overseas and were met with enterprising immigrants who opened restaurants to satisfy that craving. And before America knew what happened, spaghetti, meatballs, sausage and peppers, lasagna, ravioli, and what we call pizza, was everywhere.

Mozzarella and tomato caprese salad

Lotsa Pasta-bilities

With modern day came the availability of a far greater array of Italian ingredients. Suddenly, the once-rare components of an Italian meal—Mozzarella di Bufala, Pecorino Romano, gnocchi, pancetta, black and white truffles, real extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, pasta of all shapes and sizes—was all available at both specialty stores and at a growing number of run-of-the-mill supermarkets. Television food personalities, both with Italian-sounding last names and not-so-Italian sounding names, became famous by teaching home cooks how to master the all-day Sunday Sauce.

And, perhaps most influential to the saturation of the cuisine, local pizzerias sprung up in nearly every strip mall, particularly in New York and on Long Island. These mom-and-pop pizza joints pulled more than pies from the oven, as they developed a flair for dishes like chicken marsala, Francese and, of course, parmesan. Unfortunately, they also convinced the public that anything sold with a side of marinara sauce could ostensibly be called “Italian.” But, all is forgiven, as mozzarella sticks, fried calamari and fried zucchini are too good to let anyone stay mad for too long.

Infinito

Thanks to the Internet, anyone with a computer and an Amazon account can order food products directly from Italy for their own feast. And to make it truly authentic, you need only set aside about six hours on a Sunday for dinner.

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